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Fantasy Basketball: Early Season Whoa’s and Woes

As some unheralded players are bursting onto the scene eliciting “whoa’s” from fans and fantasy basketball managers, others are failing to launch. Are these early season woes permanent, and can the breakout players on the other end of the spectrum keep their pace?

Fantasy owners are often quick to change course after the first sign of roster turmoil. That being said, some players deserve a long leash, while others, it may be time to offload. On the other end of the spectrum, players soaring up position ranks early on may be punching above their weight, and strong candidates to sell high.

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Fantasy Basketball Woes

Damian Lillard, PG – Portland Trail Blazers

On a positive note, Damian Lillard is dishing out a career-high eight assists through his first four contests. That’s where the positive affirmation ends. Dame is shooting 33% from the field and is averaging only 1.5 threes a game, and under 20 PPG for the first time in nearly a decade.

There doesn’t seem to be a universe where one of the greatest shooters of all time doesn’t get his stroke back.  The only potential cause for concern is the uncertainty of the Blazers roster. If they drop down the Western Conference ranks, Dame could see himself shipped out and assume a whole new role. Regardless, fantasy managers should chalk this up as an aberration and hold on to the newly minted top 75 NBA player of the last 75 years.

Devin Booker, SG/SF – Phoenix Suns

Devin Booker was almost unanimously, across all leagues, drafted higher than computer composites and experts had him slated. Unfortunately, like last year Booker isn’t hitting enough threes, 2 a game, to make up for the lack of statistics across the board. 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal a contest to go along with 21.5 PPG is fine, but just that, fine. In fact, in a fairly loaded SG/PG position group he only ranks around 25th across multiple platforms and formats.

Of course, he is likely to build on his PPG average, but beyond that, he doesn’t seem to be growing into a playmaker, and his defensive stats are stagnant. He was often drafted as a late-second, early third-round guy, and while it’s undoubted that he is an elite NBA player, he just may not be that in fantasy. There is likely very good value to be had for players who will do more, across more categories.

Kyle Lowry, PG – Miami Heat

Projected as a fringe top 50 fantasy prospect, on a personal level that never made any sense to me. In a Heat backcourt that already includes Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, and a hungry Tyler Herro, Kyle Lowry’s path to fantasy success seemed doomed from the start.

The former Raptor is averaging 7.7 points, 7.7 assists, and under a steal a game while shooting 29% in just under 30 minutes a night. Lowry is flat getting outplayed by Herro off the bench, and things could become even worse with Victor Oladipo likely ready to return in the coming weeks. If you drafted Lowry in the 5th or 6th round, I’m sorry, there is a scenario where he may not be rosterable come December. That is of course a worst-case scenario, his assist numbers will always be useful even if his minutes are cut, but the likelihood of a major fantasy turnaround seems unlikely.

Deandre Ayton, C – Phoenix Suns

Deandre Ayton seemed to be a common op 40 fantasy prospect to begin the season, and right now he’s just fighting to become a top 20 fantasy center. The Phoenix big man made headlines when the Suns were pretty adamant he wasn’t a max contract player this off-season, and the Phoenix front-office may be right.

The fourth-year Arizona product is averaging 13 points, 11 rebounds, and nearly a steal and block per game, through the struggling Suns’ first 4 games. It’s clear by watching Phoenix that he’s yet to become any level of focal point on offense, Booker, Chris Paul, and even Mikal Bridges all see more tailored offensive sets. In a league where more and more centers are hitting threes, and blocking shots, he’s not averaging a single three or block per game.

Unfortunately, Ayton may not have much trade value at this point. He will always be a great rebounder, and fantasy owners can find solace in that. It may be best to wait it out, and see if Ayton can improve his value.

James Harden, PG/SG – Brooklyn Nets

Watching James Harden this year has been like staring down a slow-motion trainwreck. His flailing turnovers, shooting issues, and defensive ineptitude have all hit a peak. From a fantasy perspective, the NBA’s new rule on “hunting” for fouls has held the career 8.7 FTA player to 3 per game so far.

Harden should turn his scoring around, currently at 16.6 PPG, and his assist numbers will always be elite. But what made Harden a top 5 fantasy player was his high volume high percentage free-throw shooting, and with this rule change that may be a thing of the past.

More Fantasy Basketball Goodness: Waiver Wire | Weekly Schedule Preview | Fantasy Basketball Stock Report | NBA DFS Picks

Fantasy Basketball Whoa’s!

Jonas Valanciunas, C – New Orleans Pelicans

In fantasy circles, Jonas Valanciunas has always been a Per-36 “what if”? He has always been one of the most efficient scoring and rebounding big men in the game, but rarely registered even 30 minutes a night. Well, that’s changed, Valanciunas is averaging 17 points, 15 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, and 0.8 steals across 34 minutes through the Pelicans’ first 5 games.

The Lithuanian is currently a top 5 center, and likely won’t slow his torrid pace too much until Zion Williamson returns. That Zion return could get incrementally pushed over time as most expect the Pelicans to fall further and further from the Western Conference playoff picture. The story on Valanciunas has always been minutes, when he gets them, he performs and with the Zion questions likely to linger into 2022, there is no need to offer him up any time soon.

Miles Bridges, SF/PF – Charlotte Hornets

The NBA’s current number 11 ranked scorer, Miles Bridges, of course, is what we all expected. Bridges has been on a tear to start the season averaging 26 points, 8 boards, and 3 threes a contest.

It’s without question Bridges has benefited from Terry Rozier working his way back from injury, and P.J. Washington currently being sidelined with a sprained knee. Even once Charlotte’s rotation is fully healthy Bridges could very well continue to outplay his fantasy projections, but likely not to the tune of 26 a game. This may be the time to sell on the 6’6 wing, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for wanting to ride this wave and hope for the best.

Dejounte Murray, PG/SG – San Antonio Spurs

Dejounte Murray wasn’t without his hype leading into the season, the fifth-year guard was a projected top 25-35 fantasy prospect across all formats. All he’s done through five games is vault himself into the top 20. Murray is averaging 16.8 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 2 steals, and for the first time in his career, one whole three-pointer made.

Dejounte like the aforementioned Valanciunas had been a per-36 “what if” as well, until last year where he finally averaged over 30 minutes per game and was a top 40 fantasy player. His improved shooting stroke, and continued growth as an all-around player, coupled with his usage (35 minutes per game thus far) could mean he ends this season in the top 20, if not the top 15. The Spurs may not be a playoff team but that doesn’t mean Murray can’t lead your fantasy squad on a playoff run, he should be on your no-trade list.

Mo Bamba, C – Orlando Magic

Mo Bamba is off to the best start of his career, across the board. Though it’s early, the fourth-year big man is averaging career highs in every major stat category. Through four games his average scoreline has been completely stuffed, 13.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1.6 blocks, 1 steal, and 1.8 threes.

The Magic depth chart, much like last year is littered with injuries, and upon the return of Chuma Okeke, front-court minutes between him and Wendell Carter Jr may be harder to come by. The Magic have also invested in Carter Jr with a new contract, and expect the return of franchise cornerstone, Jonathan Isaac before 2022. If Bamba receives 25+ minutes a night he can continue this, but given the circumstances surrounding their frontcourt depth returning, I don’t see that happening. This may be a good moment to offer up the big man for pieces that project better future usage.

CJ McCollum, PG/SG – Portland Trail Blazers

With the faltering start of his backcourt compatriot Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum has picked up the slack. Through four games CJ is jacking up 10.5 threes per, and connecting on 5 of them. He has also been a terror on defense lodging 2 steals, and 1.5 blocks a contest, and overall McCollum is the number 1 ranked shooting guard in fantasy.

It seems unlikely he’ll keep up the torrid pace defensively but with Gary Trent Jr gone, and Norman Powell out CJ should see an uptick in scoring and usage. CJ has always averaged around a sneaky half block per game his whole career, so to see him build on that this year wouldn’t be shocking. If fantasy owners can get a top 25 player for McCollum straight up, then they should. That being said, don’t sell for anything less, McCollum could just be raring up for the best fantasy year of his career.

Evan Mobley, C – Cleveland Cavaliers

Evan Mobley’s stat line is nearly identical to that of Mo Bama’s, minus the threes. At 13.6 ppg, 8.6 reb, 2 blks, and 1.2 stls Mobley is outplaying every fantasy manager’s projections. Why Mobley may be a better prospect than Bamba this year, is that he’s starting in a front-court that is fully healthy. Even when the rookie out of USC was listed as a starter on the Cavs initial depth chart, you would have been hard-pressed to find a single fantasy expert predicting his current 33 minutes a night.

Cleveland is off to a somewhat surprising 3-2 start and much of it is to do with the defensive relationship between Mobley and Jarrett Allen. So while Lauri Markkanen and Kevin Love off the bench are better pure offensive threats Mobley’s athleticism, and drive altering and shot-blocking ability should keep his usage high. The Cavs have already held 3 of their 5 opponents under 100 points, and that success bodes well for the Cavs rookie to be a huge part of their game-plan moving forward.

Follow author Michael Tomlinson on Twitter at PDX_Michael

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