Typically, rookies aren’t drafted until mid to late fantasy basketball rounds. Yes, once in a while there’s an excited player who sneaks into the third round, but most seasons the best rookie won’t go until the fourth or fifth round at the earliest. And it’s still the case this season.
This presents a major opportunity for the savvy fantasy manager, who dedicates the early rounds to building his team’s foundation while having a rookie or two in mind for the middle and late rounds. Find the right recruits, and that can be a winning formula.
But who are the rookies to have this season? And who are the other dormant first-year players to watch as the season progresses?
Paolo Banchero, PF, Orlando Magic
Banchero was the first overall pick and played like him in the Summer League. His size, skill and athleticism allow him to score at will and control the attack by dribbling from the frontcourt. He’s the size of the NBA and will be counted on to produce as much as 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 of challenging Banchero for the top scorer in this class. He’s a combo forward who plans to play more power in the NBA, with solid 3-point shooting range and a quick first step off the dribble. Murray showed this summer that he is capable of scoring 20 points every night if given the chance. The main question is whether he can get enough shot volume to do so, in a team made up of De’Aaron Fox, Domantas 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 arguably the best downtown spot-up shooter in this draft class, and he has the length and defensive timing to become one of the best defensemen as well. Smith is on track to be the Rockets’ starting tackle, and on offense he’ll play off the ball as a 3-point sniper or athletic finisher around the rim. Smith is a solid defender on the ball in the post and has the quickness to pass to guards and disrupt the pick and roll. This defensive style should generate stats, but not the amount of blocks it would get 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
Ivey is considered the best goaltender in this rookie class. He is expected to start shooting alongside Cade Cunningham this season and has explosive speed and jumping ability as a dribble maker for himself and his teammates. Ivey was adept at running the pick-and-roll/pop game as a ballhandler this summer before getting injured. Since Cunningham is also a combo guard, the two could share the general/ground scorer role for the Pistons. Ivey has good potential as a goalscorer and distributor, with a 3-point shot he seems to be working on and hands that are quick enough to help with interceptions 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
Bennedict Mathurin, SF, Indiana Pacers
Mathurin looked like a Summer League pro 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 stay on the team once the season begins, but Mathurin joins Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte and Jalen Smith as potential building blocks for Indiana at the start. ‘coming. the chemistry between Mathurin and Duarte was one of the strengths of the Pacers’ summer league team. Mathurin has size and explosiveness for a wing with a powerful 3-point shot. He doesn’t create much from the dribble, so he’ll have to rely on his teammates to set him up for open jumps or finishes around the edge.
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 rookies to watch
Tari Eason, San Francisco, Houston Rockets
Eason managed 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 a positive contributor in steals, 3-pointers and blocks. He is one of the oldest recruits in this class at 21, so if called up he could contribute straight away. The Rockets are one of the youngest teams in the league, currently with four players aged 22 or younger…and Eric Gordon, 33. It looks like Eason and Jae’Sean Tate could both get the opportunity to start at small forward before the end of the season, and if Eason gets the call, he could make his way onto the fantasy radar.
Walker Kessler, C, Utah Jazz
Kessler has a realistic opportunity to begin rebuilding the Jazz this season. Although he’s technically behind recently traded center Kelly Olynyk on the depth chart, Kessler is a 21-year-old first-round rookie the Jazz traded as part of their deal with Rudy Gobert. He’s a sniper blocker who generated 4.6 BPG for the Auburn Tigers last season, and his stats per 40 minutes were an impressive 17.9 PP40, 12.6 RP40 and 7.1 BP40. He’s never shown he can play major minutes and has yet to earn minutes in the Jazz rotation, but if he starts he’s a potential sleeper as a defensive role player in the category leagues.
Shaedon Sharpe, SG, Portland Trail Blazers:
Sharpe was one of the most bullish rookies in this class, but he also has quite a bit of development to do since he didn’t play in college. Sharpe was also injured almost immediately on his Summer League debut, so he couldn’t even compete with the pros this summer. With Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons in the backcourt and veterans like Jeramie Grant and Jusuf Nurkic on the front line, Sharpe is unlikely to get any big minutes or an opportunity to start the season. But, if the Trail Blazers have a season like last, where they go into offseason mode early, they might want to see what they have at Sharpe in the latter part of the season.
Mark Williams, C, Charlotte Hornets
Williams has a legitimate opportunity to compete with Mason Plumlee for the starting center job at some point this season. He’s one of the best defensive big men and shot blockers to come out of this draft and the Hornets need him. Plus, having 21-year-old LaMelo Ball as the centerpiece of the team gives the Hornets a youthful touch, and if Williams can develop a relationship with Ball, it could boost his chances of earning heavier minutes down the road. season.
Jalen Williams, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
With all eyes on second overall pick Chet Holmgren, Williams was another lottery pick for the Thunder. And, in their ever-rebuilding squad, Williams has the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation. Williams is a sniper on catching and 3-point shooting, so if he earns any minutes, he could be worth long-term consideration in category 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 didn’t seem able to keep up with even the speed in Las Vegas…which doesn’t bode well for his chances of acclimatizing to the NBA quickly. That said, the Wizards lack talented depth in the backcourt, and Davis has the ability to play himself in the rotation. If he can prove what I saw in Vegas was a fluke, and instead he’s capable of translating his All-American potential to the next level.
Dyson Daniels, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans
Daniels is a tall combo guard, and he played in the NBA G-League last season, so he already has some professional experience. He’s expected to play a point guard in the pros, and once he develops, he could fit in well alongside 6-3 combo guard CJ McCollum. But, the Pelicans have serious playoff aspirations this season, with an impressive starting five and former starters like Devonte’ Graham and Larry Nance coming off the bench. Barring injury, he’s unlikely to get enough runs for fantasy consideration.
Jalen Duren, C, Detroit Pistons
Duren is the youngest member of this draft class, but he grew in man size with the advantage to eventually become a dominant two-way center. He had stretches during Summer League where he dunked on multiple possessions in a short amount of time, and his ability to finish around the edge is probably ready to go now. The rest of his game is not, however. The Pistons are a young team, but they played well to finish last season and will want to use their vets to help establish a winning culture. Duren looks more like a development player for this season, but I’m still keeping an eye out in case they decide the best way for him to develop is alongside their other youthful showpieces.
Malaki Branham, G/F, and Jeremy Sochan, SF/PF, San Antonio Spurs
Spurs are in the midst of rebuilding after swapping their best players since the start of last season. They retain Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl, and young guard Devin Vassell is expected to play 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 particularly weak jumper. Neither are likely to put up big numbers, but if one/both does end up starting, that would be enough for them to be worth watching.