Fantasy basketball – Ranking the rookies

While the 2019 NBA draft class was headlined by identifiable stars in Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, the 2020 NBA draft was defined by its lack of clarity at the top. Such talent parity makes appraising this class’s fantasy value a more difficult and nuanced process.

As confirmation that professional freshmen can make monumental statistical contributions, Williamson finished an abbreviated, but brilliant, rookie effort last season tied for seventh in the NBA in points per game from touches in the paint and among the most efficient volume scorers in the league. Morant, meanwhile, finished his epic Rookie of the Year campaign eighth in total assists — just ahead of Chris Paul — and finished 59th overall on the Player Rater, highest among last year’s rookies.

It wasn’t just this top tandem aiding fantasy rosters last season, as Morant’s teammate Brandon Clarke, Miami’s undrafted gem Kendrick Nunn and sharpshooter Tyler Herro, and second-rounder Eric Paschall all delivered influential statistical seasons. Which is to say, even as Williamson and Morant were somewhat easy to identify as immediate impact contributors, every draft class produces a diverse collection of helpful options.

This year’s draft class is undoubtedly talented, but likely not as loaded with ready-made elite statistical forces. This doesn’t mean there won’t be high-impact rookies — because there will be — but maybe this class will require more research and patience from fantasy gamers.

It’s important to note that these rankings reflect value for redraft leagues for the upcoming season and aren’t tailored for the longer vision demanded in dynasty formats, which means immediate opportunity is weighted to a higher degree.

1. Obi Toppin, New York Knicks

The Knicks spent a portion of this offseason cleaning up a patchwork collection of frontcourt veterans, clearing some room for Toppin to earn significant opportunities right away in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation. ESPN’s Andre’ Snellings’ savvy appraisal of this class through a long-term lens notes Toppin’s historic scoring efficiency at Dayton, a feat that should aid him in sticking on the floor as a rookie.

Given Toppin’s potential to extend his shot beyond the arc, and his strong collegiate steal and offensive rebounding rates, it’s worth noting that ESPN’s resident NBA statistical projections guru Kevin Pelton wrote in 2018 that it has become “clear that usage rate in particular varies unpredictably from NCAA to NBA. So too do a player’s free throw attempts and turnover rate, as well as his 3-point percentage — which makes sense given the change in distance. Block rate, assist rate and offensive rebound rate stand out as translating particularly cleanly from college to pro.”

In essence, Toppin can immediately provide solid scoring and defensive rates if Thibodeau — who is famous for affording his key rotation members heavy minutes — trusts him right away. I’d likely shift Toppin down in a dynasty context, given he’s one of the older prospects of the class and, thus, closer to a finished product, but there’s a good bit to like about his value this season. After all, he’s the top-ranked rookie heading into the campaign in our rotisserie ranks.

2. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets

Per Pelton, Ball’s performance in his lone season in the Australian NBL saw him rated as the fourth-best player in the league at age 18. While his ugly shooting rates are a real concern, his assist and rebounding rates are atypically strong. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Ball is the best fantasy contributor in this class, based solely on his ability to deliver dimes, rebounds and steals despite a glaring lack of scoring efficiency.

There is potentially some meaningful traffic for Ball on Charlotte’s roster, given the presence of combo guards Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, and even Gordon Hayward‘s high-usage game, but as Pelton noted about Ball in his statistical appraisal of this year’s class, “the gap between his consensus projection and anyone else’s is larger than the difference between No. 2 and No. 9 in the rankings.”

3. Killian Hayes, Detroit Pistons

A big French southpaw with real play-making chops, Hayes (like Toppin) enters an NBA rotation ready to afford him plenty of opportunities right away. There is some risk in his profile, given some sluggish 3-point shooting results from his time in the Pro A League, the top-tier men’s professional basketball league in France, but his strong assist and steal rates could translate immediately to the NBA floor.

As with most rookie point guards, the turnover rate could be ugly, but on a Detroit roster that doesn’t have many proven guards, and with Hayes set to initiate the Pistons’ pick-and-roll actions, he could deliver some strong lines even when his shot isn’t falling.

4. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings

Projected by Pelton as the class’s second-best statistical prospect behind Ball, Haliburton claims stellar steal and block rates, which we recognize translate well to the NBA level. As one of the better shooters in the class — and placed in an ideal situation playing off the ball next to a dynamic creator in De’Aaron Fox — Haliburton has a very real shot to finish as the top rookie on the Player Rater this season, thanks to his ability to prove helpful across several categories without the common costly pitfalls of a rookie guard.

5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves

A uniquely gifted athlete with unprecedented vertical and lateral explosion, the hope for the Wolves and fantasy investors is that Edwards’ poor shooting rates form the floor at Georgia during his freshman campaign will improve with NBA spacing and less defensive scrutiny. The offensive engine for the Bulldogs, Edwards enters Minnesota angling to be the team’s third or fourth scoring option, a role that should still come with heavy minutes and plenty of touches. You might not get much more than scoring this season, but the opportunity rates should prove bountiful for the top pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

6. James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors

An incredibly small sample from his three-game stint with Memphis makes it difficult to truly assess Wiseman’s statistical profile, leaving us to scour his high school and tournament numbers for intel. This said, we do know that Wiseman has incredible size and length paired with dominant rim-protection rates at each level he’s played.

The ceiling for Wiseman mirrors that of a prime Hassan Whiteside, yet it could take years to realize this potential. Traffic for opportunities with Marquese Chriss, Kevon Looney, and Draymond Green (each capable of playing center for Golden State this season) is another concern, but given the Warriors’ investment in Wiseman, it remains possible he vaults into a major role as early as this season.

7. Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls

The last collegiate freshman besides Williams to post a steal percentage of at least 2.5% and a block rate of at least 5.6% while playing heavy minutes was Zion at Duke, which provides evidence this dynamic defensive wing could provide helpful fantasy production at two of the scarcer categories in fantasy hoops.

Weak rebounding rates and modest offensive responsibilities at Florida State creates some mystery as to what Williams might offer as an NBA forward this season, especially since his work on the glass could preclude much run as a power forward. Then again, Chicago’s new regime was atypically high on Williams, signaling potential for him to vault past Otto Porter Jr. in the rotation sooner than later.

8. Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs

One of the best 3-and-D prospects of the class, Vassell knocked down 43% of his 3-pointers in his two years at Florida State, and like his collegiate teammate above, he enters with some of the stronger steal and block rates among wing prospects. The holdup is where Vassell ended up: a San Antonio team that rarely unleashes rookies with big roles.

9. Aaron Nesmith, Boston Celtics

The departure of Hayward to the Hornets opens up minutes for Nesmith at the wing for this Vanderbilt product, who is arguably the best shooter in this class. Nesmith shot an astonishing 52% on 115 3-point attempts during a truncated sophomore season, suggesting that he can be a shooting specialist for fantasy rosters as early as this season.

10. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers

Strong free throw efficiency suggests that Maxey’s sluggish rates from 3-point range at Kentucky could correct in the pros. The real selling point for Maxey this season is the potential for him to serve as a key creator and transition force off the bench for a Philly roster that desperately needed an infusion of quality dribble playmakers.

Honorable mentions (in no specific order)

  • Home to two of the best rookies of last season’s freshman class, Memphis might have found another gem in Desmond Bane, who is atypically young for a four-year prospect and an excellent shooter with atypically high assist potential.

  • Philly’s Isaiah Joe gives Nesmith competition as the best shooter from this draft. With absurd shooting volume at Arkansas, Joe is a proven heat-check option for a 76ers roster that could really use his spacing on the second unit. There might not be much more than shooting in Joe’s profile, but it’s possible he helps as a specialist this season.

  • Sticking with floor-spacers, Detroit’s Saddiq Bey is an established shooting force with real veteran savvy. It’s also worth noting we’ve seen a procession of Villanova players provide immediate real and fantasy value the past several seasons.

  • Onyeka Okongwu joins a crowded frontcourt in Atlanta, but his long-term prospects are intriguing, given Okongwu has the fifth-best block projection among players in ESPN’s top-100 prospects for the 2020 class, along with uncommonly strong steal production for a post player.

  • The Isaac Okoro pick was a bit of a head-scratcher for Cleveland, as he was a low-usage option at the collegiate level without a very high offensive ceiling, based on projections. This said, I might be overlooking the sheer value of his defensive dynamism and the rich opportunity rates awaiting him with Cleveland, a team willing to afford him heavy minutes right away.

  • Deni Avdija will compete with Rui Hachimura for meaningful opportunities in Washington, curbing enthusiasm for his statistical value this season.

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