There is impact to be found among this year’s rookie class, and while Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves) and D’Angelo Russell (Lakers) have, as expected, been the top two kiddies off the board in most Fantasy Basketball drafts, the preseason has opened the eyes of others to the first-year potential of the likes of Stanley Johnson (Pistons) and Bobby Portis (Bulls).
Don’t get too giddy, though; there’s not one rookie that will emerge as a full-blown Fantasy Basketball beast. Even Anthony-Towns, Russell and Nuggets PG whiz Emmanuel Mudiay have faults that should temper the expectations of those who may become enamored with a preseason stat line the night before their draft. This can lead to excessive reaching at least two or three picks for a rookie just because a local beat writer haphazardly tweets “(Fill in name of rookie) reminds me a lot of a young (Fill in name of current NBA All-Star or former great).”
At the end of the day, there is an Elite Eight that can become solid contributors to a Fantasy Basketball team, while a handful of others can offer reasonable production at some point in the season. Keep in mind that this is for one-year leagues rather than keeper/dynasty formats, so rookies like Kelly Oubre (Wizards), Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Nets) and Kevon Looney (Warriors) won’t make this list.
On with the rankings….
- Karl-Anthony Towns, PF/C, Timberwolves: For now, he’ll have to fight with Gorgi Dieng and Nikola Pekovic, but don’t expect that fight to last for long. Towns has dealt with the typical issues for a rookie big man (fouls and less than stellar accuracy from the field), yet has shown what is capable of becoming (13 points and 10 boards vs. a Bulls team deep with talented low post threats and an 18-point, five-rebound, two blocked shots effort vs. the Thunder). What also makes Towns appealing is that he’s the anti-DeAndre Jordan in that he can shoot free throws without making you wince in pain. By midseason, we expect Towns to be established as Minnesota’s second option behind reigning rookie of the year Andrew Wiggins, and if PG Ricky Rubio can stay healthy (one can pray, right?), he and Towns could set up a frozen tundra headquarters of Lob City. Towns should be good for at least 13 points, eight rebounds and nearly two blocks per game, and his FG and FT percentages will be acceptable for his owners. He’ll hit the draft radar around the 45-50 range, which would make him a sound pick in the middle of the fourth round.
- Stanley Johnson, SF, Pistons: He came to the D with a body ready-made to play in the NBA and wasted no time in justifying why he was the eighth overall selection. Johnson debuted with a 26-point, three-assist, four-rebound outing versus the Pacers and averaged 14.2 points and 6.3 rebounds in his next four games. Detroit’s original plan to have Johnson come off the bench behind free agent acquisition Marcus Morris is about as useless as hoping the Lions can make the playoffs, as he has made a strong case to make the opening night lineup. His Fantasy draft stock puts him in range to be a solid mid-round choice, as Johnson will be a good source for threes, steals and blocks. At the very least, he’ll begin the season as the sixth man, but we think he’ll put Morris on the bench in short fashion. If he starts, Johnson looks like a 12-point, five-rebound performer whose scoring numbers could climb once he develops a consistent outside shot.
- D’Angelo Russell, PG, Lakers: The name. The look. The potential game. Yeah, Russell is well-suited to play ball in LA and is the heir apparent to Kobe Bryant when it comes to billboard space. His preseason numbers have been shaky at best, but the 11-assist outing against Maccabi on October 11 was the first true flash of what Russell is capable of doing. How well he fares is entirely on his shoulders, for while the Lakers are willing to grant him the opportunity to learn on the job as the starting point, Russell could also easily find himself scraping for minutes behind Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams. He’ll also see some time at shooting guard once Bryant gets injured (like you aren’t thinking that won’t happen). Come for the assists and steals, but Russell’s scoring and FG percentage will dampen his production. At this point, he’s worth the risk as the middle rounds come to an end.
- Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Nuggets: Denver has lacked a franchise anchor since Carmelo Anthony burned off to NYC. Enter Mudiay, the seventh overall pick whose upside may be exceeded only by Towns among this year’s rookie class. Fast doesn’t begin to describe him, which makes him a good fit in the Nuggets’ up tempo offense. While he will attack the rim with reckless abandon, his shooting numbers could be downright unnerving. Mudiay is shooting just above 40 percent in the preseason, and for a player who can frequently reach the free-throw line, he hovers just under 60 percent (although, to his credit, he has shot 78 percent from the line in his last five preseason games). With only the aging Jameer Nelson behind him, Mudiay will get his share of minutes. We project him as an 11-13 points per game scorer with 7-9 assists, along with enough steals to make him a factor in that category. If he’s still there late in the middle rounds, he’s worth the play.
- Jahlil Okafor, C, 76ers: His biggest contribution this season could benefit Nerlens Noel owners, who’ll be thrilled to have Noel at power forward, where his scoring, rebounds and blocked shot totals could get a nice hike. Still, there’s a lot to like about Okafor, whose old school-like presence down low should result in a host of dunks and put-backs. The rebounds will also be there, but Okafor shouldn’t be counted on as a reliable shot blocker. And, oh….that FT percentage. Okafor shot just 51 percent at Duke last year, and while his preseason work (88 percent. Yes, really) is encouraging, his potential owners should brace for nights that will put Okafor on par with Rockets big man Clint Capela for worst FT in the Association honors. For all his negatives, Okafor brings enough to the table to make him the second rookie big off the board, most likely in the middle rounds.
- Kristaps Porzingis, F, Knicks: Stop if you’ve heard this before: there’s a European big man with good ball handling skills and a promising offensive game. Let the Dirk Nowitzki comparisons begin! This time around, our latest Nowitzki wannabe actually has the game to eventually put some meat behind those comparisons, but Porzingis’ preseason has been hampered by a quad injury that has limited him to just three games. Straight up, the kid can bomb it from long range and for a player that stands 7’3”, he can handle the rock, yet there are questions as to whether Porzingis currently has the frame to handle the grind of an NBA season, along with how effective he can be on the boards or blocking shots. You can make a great case for him as the second rookie taken in keeper/dynasty leagues, but for this year, Porzingis is a just a late-round flier.
- Justise Winslow, SF, Heat: Let’s be honest, the Heat is filled with injury-plagued players, and while Winslow may not merit a draft pick in most leagues, he’s certainly a free agent to keep an eye on. At some point, Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng will miss time, which will open the door to Winslow, who hit his own lottery of sorts when he fell to the Heat with the tenth pick. His offensive game is still raw, but Winslow can score enough while being very active on the defensive end with steals and rebounds. It’s not a stretch to envision Winslow in the starting lineup by year’s end.
- Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kings: Offensively challenged be damned, Cauley-Stein will be a Fantasy factor for his rebounding and blocked shots. The seven-footer is logging considerable minutes in the preseason, and with just journeyman Kosta Koufos in front of him, Cauley-Stein should crack the starting lineup before the All-Star break. He may not average more than eight points per game, but he should be good for about eight boards and a couple of blocks a night, making him a good end game selection if your team is in need in those categories.
Other Rookies to Consider
Bobby Portis, F, Bulls: He’s had a jaw-dropping preseason, but with the Bulls’ frontcourt jammed with bodies, Portis will have to bide his time before making a contribution this season.
Mario Hezonja, F, Magic: Like Portis, his upside is tremendous, yet his path to the starting lineup faces a roadblock in the form of Tobias Harris. He’s worth considering if he opens the season as the sixth man.
Justin Anderson, F, Mavericks: Dallas lacks athleticism at forward, and Anderson can also offer solid defense. He could see more minutes if Chandler Parsons goes down again.
Myles Turner, C, Pacers: If his knees hold up, Turner will be a good source of rebounds and blocks. He could be in the starting lineup by the All-Star Break and is a better fit than the departed Roy Hibbert.
Nikola Jokic, C, Nuggets: He could see considerable minutes early, as Jusef Nurkic will miss the first month of the season recovering from patella surgery.
Frank Kaminsky, F/C, Hornets: His scoring upside is considerable if he gets the minutes. Rebounding has been a pleasant surprise this preseason.