By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Normally, at this point in the week, we would be running through another edition of NBA Observations. However, with the league on a collective pause until Thursday night, we’ll use this opportunity to zoom out and take a look at the players whose breakouts have come to define the 2021-22 fantasy basketball season.
The names below vary in terms of experience and status, but they’ve each vastly outperformed expectations, as well as their preseason ADP figures. Some breakouts we probably should’ve seen coming, while others may have been virtually impossible for managers to predict.
Before we reveal our top fantasy disappointments on Wednesday, here’s a look at the 10 biggest surprises of the season at the All-Star break:
Current rank refers to total value in 8-category roto leagues.
Desmond Bane, Grizzlies
Yahoo ADP: 132.8
Current rank: 25th
The 30th overall pick in 2020 crept his way onto the fantasy radar last season thanks to hitting 1.7 threes per game at a 43.2 percent clip. But Bane only averaged 22.3 minutes per game, and he didn’t provide a whole lot outside of the three-point production. With Dillon Brooks looking like a true breakout, Kyle Anderson coming off of a resurgent year and the addition of lottery pick Ziaire Williams, there was reason to believe Bane would remain in a fairly limited role. Most fantasy managers agreed with that line of thinking, as Bane was selected in only 19 percent of Yahoo leagues.
Instead, Taylor Jenkins installed Bane as a starter from Day 1, and he’s gone on to average 17.9 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.9 threes with an outstanding 46/42/91 shooting line. Consistency has quickly become Bane’s hallmark trait. He’s scored in double figures in 48 of 56 appearances and only missed four games thus far. He’s also drilled at least three three-pointers 32 times — something he did on just 17 occasions in 68 appearances as a rookie.
While it’s true that Brooks missing significant time with multiple injuries has played to Bane’s favor, there’s little reason to believe his production will decline in any significant way once Brooks is back (likely sometime in early March). His scoring could take a slight dip, but as long as he remains a hyper-efficient shooter who adds value on defense, Bane will remain perhaps the year’s best value pick.
Josh Giddey, Thunder
Yahoo ADP: 119.4
Current rank: 71st
Here’s what I wrote about Giddey just a few days after the 2021 NBA Draft: For an 18-year-old in need of seasoning at the NBA level, Giddey is in an excellent spot to develop. But for the immediate future, he may have difficulty gaining relevance in most fantasy leagues.
Given that Giddey now ranks as a top-75 player, I can’t say I feel great about that statement, but it speaks to just how surprising his rapid rise has been — at least in my eyes. To be fair to Giddey, it was clear early on that his size, vision and playmaking would translate immediately to the NBA. But coming out of the draft, that was far from a guarantee, and he went through some decidedly rough patches in October and November before truly coming into his own. Through his first 30 games, Giddey shot just 38.8 percent from the field and 65.1 percent at the line.
However, in the 23 games since the calendar flipped to 2022, the No. 6 overall pick is posting 14.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 0.9 steals and 1.3 threes while shooting 45.3 percent from the floor and 77.1 percent at the line. All of that is good for 39th in total value (8-cat) during that span. He’s still struggling from deep (29.0% 3Pt), but he entered the break on a relatively hot streak, hitting at least one three in five straight games.
More notably, Giddey notched a triple-double in each of his final three pre-All-Star contests, highlighted by a 28-point, 12-assist, 10-rebound effort in a win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. The eventual return (at least we hope) of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could sap some of Giddey’s usage, but he’s already shown more than enough to vault him into the upper-tier of the loaded 2021 rookie class when it comes to long-term fantasy value.
Yahoo ADP: 139.7
Current rank: 69th
Coming out of the break with averages of 16.9 points, 4.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.4 threes, it’s easy to forget that just a few months ago the prevailing belief was that Shake Milton would have the first crack at replacing Ben Simmons in the starting five. But with Milton injured to begin the regular season, Maxey got the nod on Opening Night (20 points, seven rebounds, five assists) and never looked back.
For the Sixers and fantasy managers alike, the emergence of Maxey has been a godsend. Despite being a much different player, he filled the vacant Simmons role seamlessly and quickly proved to be a perfect third banana next to Joel Embiid and Tobias Harris. The arrival of James Harden will almost certainly cut into Maxey’s fantasy value down the stretch, but with 70 percent of the season in the rear-view, Maxey has already provided a monster ROI for managers who took a late-round flier (he was only selected in 50% of leagues) or grabbed him from the waiver wire after Week 1.
Kevin Love, Cavaliers
Yahoo ADP: 133.9
Current rank: 80th
Coming into the season, I could not have been more out on Love. To say he was on my do-not-draft list would have been an understatement*. After losing significant time to injuries in each of the last five seasons — including playing just 25 games in 2020-21 — there was little reason to get excited about a 33-year-old big man on a bloated contract who was clearly unhappy with his situation.
The Cavs bringing in Lauri Markkanen and drafting Evan Mobley seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for Love, but once Cleveland made it clear that he would not be traded, the veteran had little choice but to accept a reduced role off the bench. Surprisingly, Love embraced his new gig, averaging 11.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.9 threes (38.6% 3Pt) over his first 20 games. He kicked his production up a notch in December, reeling off a 14-game stretch in which he posted 19.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 4.0 made threes (47.9% 3Pt).
On a per-game basis, Love still ranks outside the top-100, but his ability to (finally) stay healthy has also provided a major boost to his fantasy value. Save for an eight-game absence in November, Love has played in every game, and he’s well on pace to eclipse the 60-game mark for the first time since 2015-16.
*Full disclosure: I reluctantly picked him up off waivers three weeks into the season.
Scottie Barnes, Raptors
Yahoo ADP: 128.6
Current rank: 80th
Like Giddey, Barnes entered the season with plenty of question marks, but he rapidly proved to be a wise investment for those who snagged him with a late-round pick. The No. 4 overall pick scored in double figures in eight straight games to begin his career, averaging 17.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.6 steals/blocks during that stretch.
Barnes’ numbers have waned a bit since Pascal Siakam returned, but he’s remained an every-night high-minute starter who impacts nearly every stat category. In a rookie class loaded with talent, there’s a case to be made that Barnes has the highest fantasy upside long-term.
Dejounte Murray, Spurs
Yahoo ADP: 51.0
Current rank: 8th
After DeMar DeRozan (more on him shortly) landed in Chicago, Murray became a popular breakout candidate, but even his biggest supporters didn’t envision a top-10 fantasy season. That’s exactly where the first-time All-Star finds himself coming out of the break after an outstanding all-around first half in which he missed only seven games (five due to COVID-19) and averaged 19.9 points, 9.3 assists, 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.3 threes — all career-bests.
While he still has room to grow as a shooter, Murray has developed into a nightly triple-double threat. His 11 triple-doubles on the season trail only Nikola Jokic’s 15 for the NBA lead. And as the season progresses, Murray has only continued to improve. Since the start of February, he’s up to 21.4 points, 12.8 assists, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 steals (!!) and 1.5 threes with a 46/36/76 shooting line. Given what he provides on defense and the glass, Murray is on course for one of the most well-rounded fantasy seasons by a guard in recent memory.
DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
Yahoo ADP: 54.0
Current rank: 11th
Coming into the season, expectations weren’t exactly low for DeRozan — who finished between 25th and 41st in total value in five of the last six seasons — but they were certainly tempered. And rightfully so, given that the 32-year-old went from being the unquestioned No. 1 option in San Antonio to a part of a much deeper and much more talented roster in Chicago. Even with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic clamoring for touches — and playing quite well — DeRozan has clearly emerged as the Bulls’ go-to guy, and he’s on pace for easily the best season of his career.
At the break, DeRozan leads the NBA in total points (1,547) and made field goals (566), while ranking sixth in minutes (1,960), third in made free throws (381) and third in free-throw attempts (440). Outside shooting remains a blind spot (34 3PM in 55 games), but DeRozan has 94 more two-point makes than the next-highest player (Giannis Antetokounmpo). The entire season has essentially been one long heater for DeRozan, but he entered the break particularly hot, scoring at least 30 points in his final eight games. Dating back to Jan. 19 (16 games), DeRozan is averaging a ridiculous 34.3 points, 6.0 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.0 steal on 58.4 percent shooting (88.2% FT).
Miles Bridges, Hornets
Yahoo ADP: 87.9
Current rank: 16th
As is the case with most players on this list, staying healthy has been a major component of Bridges’ breakout campaign. But that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s taken a monster leap from Year 3 to Year 4, emerging as a borderline-All-Star for one of the league’s up-and-coming teams and leading the league in minutes. Not bad for a player who was coming off the board nearly a full round later than Robert Covington and Kevin Porter Jr.
Bridges’ three-point shooting has tailed off considerably after a hot start, but that’s really the only nit to pick when it comes to his stat profile. Despite launching a career-high 5.9 three-point attempts per game, Bridges is still shooting 48.1 percent from the field, and he’s providing managers with 1.8 makes per game. With Gordon Hayward out indefinitely, it should be smooth sailing for Bridges coming out of the All-Star break.
Gary Trent Jr., Raptors
Yahoo ADP: 129.2
Current rank: 49th
When the Raptors signed Trent to a three-year, $54 million deal back in August, it was clear the organization was ready to commit to him as the long-term starter at shooting guard next to Fred VanVleet. Collectively, fantasy managers were a bit slower to catch on, as Trent was often an 11th- or 12-round pick, going completely undrafted in 30 percent of Yahoo leagues.
A season ago, Trent proved himself as a solid points/threes specialist, but that was about it. He added very little value in rebounds or assists, and his high three-point volume tanked his field goal percentage (40.8% FG in 2020-21). This season, he’s gotten even better from beyond the arc (career-high 3.2 3PM/G) while keeping his field goal percentage (43.0%) in respectable territory. He’s also flashed a higher ceiling as a scorer, reaching 30 points eight times in 48 appearances — something he did only twice in 58 games a year ago.
Most importantly, though, Trent has become a much better steals producer, racking up 1.9 per game — good for third in the league behind only Dejounte Murray and Chris Paul. He joins Donovan Mitchell, VanVleet and Anthony Edwards as the only players in the NBA to average at least 1.5 steals and 3.0 threes per game.
Franz Wagner, Magic
Yahoo ADP: 131.3
Current rank: 42nd
Initially, I was hesitant to include another rookie, mostly because we don’t really have a baseline with which to judge first-year players. But after checking into the ADP figures, it wouldn’t have felt right to keep Wagner off the list. At the break, the Michigan product is beating his ADP by nearly 90 spots, thanks in large part to an incredibly consistent first 60 games — especially by rookie standards.
Wagner hasn’t gone back-to-back games without scoring in double figures since the first week of November, and he currently holds a 47/36/85 shooting line to go with 15.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 0.9 steals per game. The fact that he hasn’t missed a single game is a major influence in Wagner’s ranking — he plummets to 98th overall in per-game value — but durability is a massive asset when it comes to fantasy, so staying healthy and avoiding COVID-19 shouldn’t necessarily be held against Wagner.
Honorable mention: Darius Garland (ADP: 70.5; Rank: 29th); Mo Bamba (ADP: 109.7; Rank: 68th); Cole Anthony (ADP: 125.9; Rank: 78th); Kyle Kuzma (ADP: 123.3; Rank: 46th); Herbert Jones (ADP: N/A; Rank: 53rd); Bobby Portis (ADP: 134.4; Rank: 55th)