Generally, rookies are not drafted until the mid to late rounds in fantasy basketball. Yes, every once in a while, there’s an overrated player who sneaks into the 3rd round, but most seasons the best player doesn’t go until the fourth or fifth round as soon as possible. And so it is again this season.
This presents a prime opportunity for the aspiring fantasy manager who dedicates the early rounds to building the foundation of their team while keeping a specific rookie or two in mind for the mid and late rounds. Find the right rookies and this could be a winning formula.
But who are the newbies this season? Who are the other sleeper first-year players to watch out for as the season progresses?
Paulo Banchero, PF, Orlando Magic
Banchero was the top pick overall and played in the Summer League. His size, skill and athleticism allow him to score at will and control the offense from the frontcourt. He has NBA size and will be relied upon to produce what he can for a desperate Magic team.
Projected Line: 20 PPG (46 FG%, 34 3P%, 74 FT%), 8 RPG, 3.5 APG, 1.3 3PG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG
Keegan Murray, PF, Sacramento Kings
Murray has the best chance to challenge Bansereau for the lead in this class. With strong 3-point shooting range and a quick first step off the dribble, he’s a combo forward who plays the most power forward in the NBA. Murray showed this summer that he can score 20 points on a nightly basis if given the chance. The main question is whether he can get enough shots to do so on a team that features De’Aaron Fox, Tomantas Sabonis and Harrison Barnes.
Projected Line: 18 PPG (49 FG%, 38 3%, 75 FT%), 7 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.7 3PG, 1.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG
Jabari Smith Jr., PF, Houston Rockets
Smith is the best spot-up shooter from downtown in this draft class, and he has the length and defensive timing to develop into one of the best defenders. Smith should be the Rockets’ starting power forward, and on offense he’ll play off-ball as a 3-point shooter or an athletic finisher around the rim. Smith is a strong on-ball defender in the post and has the speed to transition into guards and disrupt the pick-and-roll. That defensive style should produce some stats, but not the amount of blocks he gets as a pure rim protector.
Projected Stats: 14 PPG (43 FG%, 39 3P%, 80 FT%), 6.5 RPG, 2.0 3PG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 BPG, 0.7 SPG
Jaden Ivey, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons
Ivy is considered the best guard in this new class. He’s slated to start next to Kate Cunningham at shooting guard this season, and he and his teammates have the quickness and leaping ability to explode as a creator off the dribble. Ivey has been adept at running the pick-and-roll/pop game as a ball-handler this summer. With Cunningham being a combo guard, the two could share the floor general/scorer role for the Pistons. Ivey has good potential as a scorer and distributor, a streaky 3-point shot he seems to be working on and quick enough hands to contribute steals as well.
Projected Stats: 16 PPG (45 FG%, 36 3P%, 75 FT%), 4.5 RPG, 4.0 APG, 1.7 3PG, 1.1 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Benedict Mathurin, SF, Indiana Pacers
Mathurin looked like a pro in summer league and could be called up from day one on a rebuilding Pacers team. It’s unclear if veterans like Buddy Hield or Myles Turner will be on the team once the season begins, but Mathurin joins Tyrese Halliburton, Chris Duarte and Jalen Smith as potential building blocks for Indiana in the future. The chemistry between Mathurin and Duarte was one of the highlights of the Pacers summer league team. Mathurin has great size and explosiveness for a wing with a strong 3-point shot. He doesn’t make much of the dribble, so he has to rely on his teammates to set him up around the rim for open jumpers or finishes.
Projected Stats: 14 PPG (44 FG%, 37 3P%, 80 FT%), 4.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.8 3PG, 0.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG
Other newcomers should keep an eye out
Taree Eason, SF, Houston Rockets
Eason has been able to be one of the Rockets’ most productive players this summer while playing alongside Jabari Smith Jr. and Josh Christopher. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds and was an additional contributor in steals, 3-pointers and blocks. He’s one of the older rookies in this class at 21, so he could contribute immediately if called upon. The Rockets are one of the youngest teams in the league, with four players currently 22 or younger and 33-year-old Eric Gordon. It looks like both Eason and Ja’Sean Tate will get a chance to start at small forward before the end of the season, and Eason could play on the fantasy radar if he gets the call.
Walker Kessler, C, Utah Jazz
Kesler has a realistic chance to rebuild the Jazz this season. Although he’s technically behind recently traded center Kelly Olynyk on the depth chart, Kessler is the 21-year-old first-round rookie the Jazz traded as part of the deal for Rudy Gobert. He was an elite shot-blocker who averaged 4.6 ppg for the Auburn Tigers last season, and his 40-minute stats were 17.9 ppg, 12.6 rpg and 7.1 ppg. He’s never shown he can play major minutes and should still earn minutes in the Jazz rotation, but if he starts, he could be a sleeper defensive role player in category leagues.
Shaydon Sharp, SG, Portland Trail Blazers:
Sharp was one of the rookies with the highest upside in this class, but he’s still developing quite a bit since he hasn’t played in college. Sharp got injured right away in his Summer League debut, so he hasn’t been able to compete in the pros this summer. With Damian Lillard and Anfernie Simmons in the backcourt and veterans like Jeremy Grant and Jusuf Nurkic leading the way, it’s unlikely that Sharpe will get big minutes or a chance to start the season. But if the Trail Blazers have a season like they have in the past, if they go into early season mode, we might want to see them stay sharp later in the season.
Mark Williams, C, Charlotte Hornets
Williams has a legitimate chance to compete with Mason Plumlee for the starting center job at some point this season. He’s one of the best defensive, shot-blocking big men to come out of this draft and the Hornets need that. Also, having the 21-year-old LaMelo on the ball as the centerpiece of the team gives the Hornets a youthful edge, and if Williams can develop a rapport with the ball, it should increase his chances of getting more minutes as the season goes on.
Jalen Williams, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
While all eyes were on second-round pick Chet Holmgren, Williams was another lottery pick for the Thunder. Also, on their perennially rebuilding team, Williams has a chance to earn a spot in the rotation. Williams is a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer, so if he earns minutes, he could be a long-term consideration in type leagues as a 3-point role player.
Johnny Davis, G, Washington Wizards
Davis was a consensus first-team All-American last season with college averages of 19.7 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 2.1 APG and 1.2 SPG in 34.2 MPG. But, he had a disastrous summer league in which he couldn’t even keep pace in Las Vegas. That doesn’t bode well for his chances of acclimating quickly to the NBA. With that, the Wizards lack depth in the backcourt, giving Davis a chance to play in the rotation. If he can prove that what I saw in Vegas was a fluke, he can instead translate his all-American potential to the next level.
Tyson Daniels, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans
Daniels is a huge combo guard, and he played in the NBA G-League last season, so he already has professional experience. He’s expected to play some point guard in the pros, and as he develops he’ll fit in nicely next to 6-3 combo guard CJ McCollum. But the Pelicans have serious postseason aspirations this season, with an impressive starting five and former starters like Devonte’ Graham and Larry Nance coming off the bench. Barring injury, it’s unlikely he’ll get enough run in fantasy.
Jalen Duran, C, Detroit Pistons
Duran is the youngest member of this draft class, but he developed man-size upside and eventually became a two-way center. He had a stretch during summer league, where he sank multiple possessions in a short period of time, and his ability to finish around the rim is now ready to go. However, the rest of his game was not. The Pistons are a young team, but they played well to finish last season and will look to use their cattle to help establish a winning culture. Duran looks like a developmental contender for this season, but I’m still keeping my eyes out in case they decide the best way to develop him alongside other young center pieces.
Malachi Branham, G/F, and Jeremy Sochan, SF/BF, San Antonio Spurs
After trading away their best players since the start of last season, the Spurs are in a rebuilding position. They retained Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl, and young guard Devin Vassell is expected to have a bigger role this season. But the door is clearly open for their rookies Branham and Sochan to start getting minutes before the end of the season. Branham is a 3-and-D type, while Sochan is a defender with a weak jumper. Neither is likely to put up big numbers, but if one/both start and finish, they’ll be worth keeping an eye on.