Fantasy Basketball: Which NBA rookies can you trust in lineups for the stretch run?
By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
With the NBA set to emerge from the All-Star break on Thursday, the league is officially entering the stretch run. The same is true for fantasy basketball managers who may be glancing at the schedule and realizing they only have a handful of weeks to make a final charge.
While the 2022 NBA rookie class hasn’t necessarily produced any first-year fantasy stars, several players have emerged as useful options. As the season goes on, that list has continued to grow, and we may be able to add a few more names as rotations shuffle after the All-Star break and trade deadline.
As we’ve done a few times this season, we’ll take a look at each of the fantasy-relevant rookies, starting with the biggest names and working our way down to some players to keep in mind as the fantasy postseason inches closer.
The established names
Paolo Banchero, Magic
By now, the book is out on Banchero, and not much has changed since his hot start to the season. The No. 1 pick hasn’t missed a game since November and remains the heavy favorite to take home Rookie of the Year, with Bennedict Mathurin feeling like the only other true contender. Efficiency-wise, Banchero tailed off a bit before the break, shooting just 38.5 percent from the field and a ghastly 23.9 percent from three over his last 20 games. While the extended shooting slump is a concern, Banchero has maintained his strong counting-stat production (17.6 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.0 SPG).
Overall, this will go down as a successful rookie season that portends future stardom, but it’s worth noting that Banchero hasn’t been an overly effective fantasy option — particularly in 9-cat, roto formats. The bankable points/rebounds/assists are nice, but his percentages and turnovers (2.7 TOV) drag down his overall value.
Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers
Mathurin and Banchero have been the two most consistent and highest-achieving rookies since mid-October, but like Banchero, Mathurin fell into a prolonged shooting slump before the break. Over his last 20 games, Mathurin is shooting just 26.8 percent from three, though he’s managed to maintain a decent overall field goal percentage (44.0% FG). At this point in his career, Mathurin is tracking as a player who’s more effective in real life than in fantasy, though that could change if he’s able to develop as a playmaker and/or offer more on the defensive end (0.7 steals/blocks per game).
Jabari Smith, Rockets
Other than the fact that he’s missed only three games, Smith is yet to look the part of a typical top-three pick. He hasn’t been a disaster by any means — and the basketball situation in Houston is probably the worst in the league — but Smith simply hasn’t had many flashes of brilliance. Through 55 appearances, the Auburn product has just one 25-point game, and he’s reached the 20-point mark only five times in his last 40 contests. It’s not all about scoring, of course, but thus far Smith has looked much more like a role player than a future No. 2 or even No. 3 option.
Keegan Murray, Kings
Like Smith, Murray has had his moments, but for the most part, he’s been plagued by season-long inconsistency. Offensively, Murray’s highs have been higher than Smith’s, and he’s been a much better shooter, but he’s been equally prone to disappearances. Before the All-Star break, Murray scored six or fewer points in five of his final eight games, despite averaging more than 28 minutes per contest in that span.
However, in the middle of that stretch, he popped for a 30-point night — highlighted by eight three-pointers — in a win over Houston on Feb. 6. At this juncture, it feels as though Murray has met expectations but certainly not exceeded them. With that said, fantasy managers can’t complain about his 41.5 percent shooting on 6.0 three-point attempts per game.
Jaden Ivey, Pistons
Those who watched Ivey at Purdue and evaluated him ahead of the 2022 NBA Draft would tell you he’s having close to the exact rookie year you’d expect. As is the case with most first-year guards, efficiency and turnovers have been an issue, but Ivey also has plenty of moments that remind you why he was a top-five pick.
In terms of scoring and counting stats, Ivey has been extremely consistent. He’s scored in double figures in 20 straight games, averaging 15.5 points, 5.5 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 threes (36.1% 3PT) in that span. The defensive numbers have lagged (1.0 combined steals/blocks), as has his free-throw shooting (71.3% FT), but it’s nonetheless encouraging that he’s working his way to the line nearly 5.0 times per game.
Coming out of the break, Ivey leads all rookies in total assists while ranking among the top five in made threes, made free throws, points, steals and minutes.
Walker Kessler, Jazz: The big man is currently the No. 1 fantasy rookie, and that’s unlikely to change down the stretch. Staying healthy, plus the relative scarcity of blocks, play a big part in Kessler's ranking inside the top 60 in 9-cat value, but the Auburn product will easily go down as one of this season’s biggest fantasy steals. Since taking over as a full-time starter back on Jan. 10 (17 games), Kessler is averaging 11.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.5 blocks while shooting 69.7 percent from the floor. Free throw shooting (54.4% FT on the season) is a glaring negative, though Kessler only takes 2.0 per game.
Jalen Williams, Thunder: We can quibble about where Williams would go in a re-draft, but there’s no debate he’s been a more valuable fantasy option than most of the names discussed above. A top-85 player in 9-cat total value, Williams is a terror on defense who brings an incredibly balanced stat profile for a first-year player. Since Jan. 1, Williams is up to 13.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.7 blocks and 1.1 threes per game with 50/38/77 shooting splits.
Jalen Duren, Pistons: As managers in weekly lineup leagues know all too well, Duren has been wildly inconsistent, but his good nights are good enough to justify holding him in a bench spot. Here are Duren’s final six games before the break:
1 point, 6 rebounds, 1 block
7 points, 14 rebounds, 0 blocks
14 points, 9 rebounds, 0 blocks
30 points, 17 rebounds, 4 blocks
6 points, 4 rebounds, 0 blocks
2 points, 8 rebounds, 0 blocks
With Marvin Bagley coming back from injury and James Wiseman entering the mix, it’s unclear how the Pistons will handle the center rotation down the stretch. Be sure to monitor Duren’s workload closely over the next couple of weeks.
Mark Williams, Hornets: Fantasy managers’ collective wish came true at the deadline when the Hornets shipped Mason Plumlee to the Clippers, clearing the way for Williams to take over at center. That’s exactly what happened before the break, as Williams made four straight starts and saw 30-plus minutes in three of those. During that stretch, he posted 11.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 0.8 steals — hopefully a sign of what’s to come over Charlotte’s final 22 games.
Other names to monitor down the stretch
Shaedon Sharpe, Trail Blazers: Could be set for a larger role with Anfernee Simons out indefinitely and the Blazers moving on from Gary Payton II and Josh Hart.
Jeremy Sochan, Spurs: Should continue to see close to 30 minutes per night as the Spurs tank their way to the end of the season.
Malaki Branham, Spurs: If Tre Jones misses time down the stretch, Branham could be a useful streamer after averaging 18.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.4 threes over the final eight games before the break.
Ochai Agbaji, Jazz: Hasn’t shown much fantasy upside yet but will likely see a jump in minutes with Malik Beasley and Mike Conley out of the picture.
Tari Eason, Rockets: Still has some appeal, but the Rockets have been hesitant to turn him loose.