By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Fantasy football may be in full swing, but don’t look now because the start of the NBA season is just over a month away. That means it’s time to begin preparing for fantasy basketball drafts, which will begin tipping off in earnest over the next several weeks.
Part of the evaluation process for any fantasy player is deciding which newcomers to target. While most rookies are not worth targeting in the first three-to-four rounds in most re-draft leagues, plenty of first-year players have top-100 – and even top-50 – potential. Last season alone saw Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, Cade Cunningham and Franz Wagner finish inside the top 100, while Jalen Green, Josh Giddey, Alperen Sengun and Herbert Jones were among the other rookies who provided value.
Keep in mind that rookies tend to be high-turnover players, so on the whole they tend to have lower values in nine-category formats. Cunningham, for instance, would’ve finished much higher had he not ranked in the top 10 in turnovers per game, as well as TOV percentage.
With Barnes, Mobley, Cunningham and Green all looking like potential stars, the 2022 NBA Draft class has big shoes to fill. Unfortunately, the player who would’ve been the top fantasy target in the class – Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren – suffered a Lisfranc injury in August and is expected to miss the entire 2022-23 season. In dynasty leagues, Holmgren remains a highly regarded prospect with future first-round upside, but in re-draft formats, he can be ignored.
Even with Holmgren out of the mix, the 2022 class is still packed with plenty of intrigue. The No. 1 overall pick, Paolo Banchero, will likely be the first rookie off the board in most leagues, while Jabari Smith Jr., Keegan Murray, Jaden Ivey, Bennedict Mathurin and several others will also be worth targeting.
Let’s take a closer look at what fantasy managers should expect from this year’s top rookies:
Paolo Banchero, Magic
Leading up to the draft, the prevailing belief was Banchero would go No. 3 to the Rockets, but the Magic played their cards close to the vest and ultimately grabbed the Duke standout with the top pick. Orlando’s roster is fairly stocked with talent as far as teams picking No. 1 overall go, so Banchero will have competition for touches in the form of Wagner, Cole Anthony, Jalen Suggs, Markelle Fultz and Wendell Carter. But he’s easily the highest-upside player on the roster, so Orlando should give him every opportunity to operate as a primary playmaker.
Right away, Banchero should be an impact scorer and rebounder, and he’s a well-above-average distributor for his size and position. Defensively, he didn’t rack up overly impressive counting stats at Duke, so that area of his game could lag behind a bit. Banchero was also a relatively poor free-throw shooter in college (72.9% FT), so the hope is that improves as he develops. Regardless, Banchero is clearly the top fantasy rookie at this point with an early Yahoo ADP of 71.0 as of Wednesday.
Jabari Smith Jr., Rockets
In general, it feels like Smith has lost some steam over the last couple of months. That can be mostly attributed to a lackluster showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he shot just 38 percent from the field and was not overly assertive. But Smith fared well as a rebounder in Vegas and racked up 3.0 combined steals/blocks per game.
On a Rockets roster that features Green, Kevin Porter Jr., Eric Gordon (for now, at least) and Sengun, Smith won’t be asked to be a featured scorer. Long-term, he may be better served as a complementary piece, as much of his value comes in his willingness to do the little things on both ends.
Fantasy-wise, Smith has top-100 upside in 2022-23, but his ceiling will ultimately be determined by whether he can supplement his scoring, rebounding and 3-point shooting (42.0% 3PT at Auburn last season) with adequate defensive numbers (2.1 combined steals/blocks per game last season).
Keegan Murray, Kings
Unlike Smith, Murray was on the short list of rookies who definitively boosted their stock at Summer League. Murray topped 20 points in all four of his appearances, lending credence to the notion he’ll be able to hit the ground running in the NBA after a dominant sophomore year at Iowa.
Murray is currently the second rookie off the board in most drafts (Yahoo ADP: 96.8), but fantasy managers can often get him outside the top 100. While Murray doesn’t have sky-high upside in Year 1, he should have a high floor and could be this year’s version of Wagner. We know for sure Murray will be behind De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis in the offensive pecking order, but it will be interesting to see how much he’s able to push Harrison Barnes and Kevin Huerter for touches.
If nothing else, Murray should produce a well-rounded stat profile highlighted by efficient 3-point shooting. In college, he posted 3.2 blocks/steals per game, but it’s unclear to what degree that will transfer to the next level.
Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers
Mathurin is currently going outside the top 140 in Yahoo drafts, which is understandable. Rookie guards, in particular, often have a difficult time returning major value right away. But if Mathurin is able to shoot a decent percentage and take care of the ball, he’ll be in an excellent position to excel from the jump.
The Pacers trading Malcolm Brogdon to Boston over the summer essentially cements Mathurin as the starting shooting guard next to Tyrese Haliburton. If Indiana were to move Buddy Hield at some point, that would further boost Mathurin’s value. For now, though, he’s firmly my No. 4 rookie in the 2022 class. In terms of his stat profile, fantasy managers should expect contributions in points, threes (2.2 3PM/G last season at Arizona) and rebounds with lower-end assists and steals. At the end of the day, the biggest mark in Mathurin’s favor is he projects to play a ton of minutes for a rebuilding team.
Jaden Ivey, Pistons
The Pistons were thrilled Ivey was available with the No. 5 overall pick. Pairing the Purdue star with Cunningham gives Detroit its high-upside backcourt of the future. There’s a lot to like about Ivey in the long term. He’s a top-tier athlete at his position and was one of the best downhill guards in the country last season. Ivey also made tangible progress as an outside shooter, draining nearly 36 percent of his attempts after struggling from deep as a freshman.
With all of that said, I’m not fully convinced Ivey (132.1 ADP) will be a startable fantasy asset as a rookie. As noted above with Mathurin, it’s difficult for rookie guards – especially shooting guards – to return top-100 value early on. Playing alongside Cunningham, Ivey likely won’t generate a ton of assists – he averaged only 3.1 per game as the No. 1 option for Purdue – and he was never a high-steals player in college.
If he can maintain decent percentages, Ivey has some upside, but I’m more interested in his potential in dynasty/keeper formats. I’ve previously compared Ivey to players like Fox and Green, who had good rookie seasons but were much better in real life than in fantasy.
Jalen Duren, Pistons
Physically, Duren is one of the most impressive players in the class. And while he has immense long-term upside as a FG%/rebounds/blocks contributor, he faces a crowded depth chart in Detroit. At some point, the Pistons will likely give Duren a chance, but as of now, he’ll have to contend with Isaiah Stewart, Nerlens Noel, Kelly Olynyk and Marvin Bagley III for minutes.
Mark Williams, Hornets
Coming into the draft, the Hornets’ obvious need was at center, and they addressed it by adding one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball. Williams is listed at 7-1, but he looks even bigger than that and moves well for his size.
The case for him to be fantasy-relevant as a rookie lies almost entirely in his shot-blocking potential. He swatted 2.8 shots in just 23.6 minutes per game as a sophomore at Duke. If Williams can earn some minutes in a center group that still includes Mason Plumlee, as well as Nick Richards, he’ll be worth monitoring.
Tari Eason, Rockets
Keep an eye on the No. 17 overall pick out of LSU. He’s not entering the league with nearly as much fanfare as most of the other names on this list, but Eason could very well find himself seeing regular minutes for the rebuilding Rockets – especially if Houston finds a taker for Gordon. In five Summer League appearances, Eason posted 17.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.4 threes per game.
Walker Kessler, Jazz
The case for Kessler is similar to that of Eason: it’s all about opportunity. After dealing both Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, the Jazz likely aren’t done making moves, but as the roster currently stands, Kessler could end up opening the year as Utah’s starting center. On paper, it’s between Kessler and former Kansas standout Udoka Azubuike, who’s appeared in only 32 NBA games over the last two seasons.
Keep an eye on the Jazz over the next several weeks. If they don’t add another big man before the start of the season, Kessler is absolutely worth a later-round pick. As a sophomore at Auburn last season, he posted 4.8 blocks (plus 8.1 rebounds and 1.1 steals) in only 25.6 minutes per game.