Identifying Rookies Who Provide Value in Fantasy Basketball
In the NBA, rookies aren't usually thrown straight into the fire. And it's because of this lack of workload that they are rarely top fantasy hoops assets.
It's a very stark contrast from the NFL and fantasy football these days, where a slew of rookie running backs go in the early rounds. It's not every year we get LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade returning value inside the top 100 (according to Basketball Monster) like they did as rookies. However, the 2017-18 season was an exception -- if you'd like to call it that.
Last year, rookies Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball and John Collins all returned top-100 value on per-game basis, with Simmons and Mitchell leading the way as fifth-round values. Tatum and Markkanen played to sixth round values, while Ball ended the year 78th and Collins 92nd. And while Ball -- due to injury-related absences -- would fall out of the top 100 based on totals, teammate Kyle Kuzma replaces him as an eighth-round value. Simmons, Mitchell and Tatum -- all of whom played 79 or more games -- see their value jump into the third, fourth and fourth rounds, respectively.
But here's the thing: every player but Ball exceeded their average draft position (ADP) in standard nine-category leagues on Yahoo. At the top, Simmons, with an ADP of 52, finished 51st in per-game value and 27th in total value. He performed two rounds better than his average spot in preseason drafts. The five other players out-performed their ADPs by at least 39 spots, and Mitchell did so by 99. Even Jarrett Allen got in on the action, ranking 131st in total value despite an ADP of 147.
So the question is whether or not this is part of a larger trend? Is there anything actionable for us to take away from the success -- or lack thereof -- of previous rookies in fantasy hoops? What about anything to use for your fantasy draft this year?
As I've already alluded to, we're going to referencing Basketball Monster's values -- both overall and by category -- quite frequently here. In case you're unfamiliar, these values are z-scores where 0.00 is league average. A specific category (threes, field goal percentage, etc.) value of 3.00 or higher is very good and -3.00 or lower is very bad.
In looking at data from the 2003-04 to 2017-18 seasons (the years for which we have data for), exactly 15 rookies (we're including Simmons and Joel Embiid) have returned a positive overall per-game value. Basically, all but one of those players returned the equivalent of first-to-fifth round value. Kirk Hinrich's 2003 season (0.01) was the only one to fall outside the top five rounds, as he finished as a sixth-round asset.
Here's a full year-by-year list.
From LeBron James to Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and Anthony Davis, there are some top-notch, generational talents in that list. But what should stick out is that over the last three seasons we've gotten five of those performances. The aforementioned Simmons (0.06) and Mitchell (0.02) were the guys to reach that mark in 2017-18, Embiid did it in 2017, and Karl-Anthony Towns (0.47) and Kristaps Porzingis (0.10) did so in 2015-16. Towns is the only player not named Stephen Curry to return first-round value on a per-game basis.
If you're looking for a rookie to give you value in the top five rounds, there are some things to take away from this group. First and foremost, each and every one of them was selected in the lottery portion of their respective NBA drafts. Mitchell was the player who lasted the longest on draft night, going 13th in 2017, while the remaining 14 were top-10 selections.
As far as the makeup of the players goes, all but James and Porzingis attended (some forced to via NBA rules) college, and 5 of those 13 came from big blue powerhouses Kentucky (2), Kansas (2) and Duke (1). Somewhat surprisingly, only four were at least 21 years old, and the average age is just over 20 years old thanks in part to six players being 19 or younger at the time they were drafted into the league.
Furthermore, when we turn to the stats -- and more importantly the fantasy values -- over demographics, simple correlation tells us that the success of these rookies is most influenced by plus values in rebounding (r = 0.419), field goal percentage (0.334) and, to a lesser extent, free throw percentage (0.280). On the flip side, three-pointers (-0.153) and assists (-0.046) are the most negatively correlated values, meaning they tend to drag down overall value in a player's rookie season. Usage rate, turnovers per game and minutes per game are also negatively correlated, albeit slightly.
And of the nine players for which we have college stats and fantasy values (going back to 2009; also via Basketball Monster), blocks (0.396) and field goal percentage (0.263) are most positively associated with first-year fantasy value, while steals (-0.351) are accompanied by -- oddly enough -- points (-0.154), assists (-0.140) and threes (-0.139) on the negative end. Possibly the most interesting thing to note is that minutes per game correlate at -0.358 and overall per-game value at 0.083. So it makes sense that fantasy value per 36 correlates at a nice 0.473. In other words, playing time doesn't mean as much as sheer production.
Now, these values seem to reflect characteristics we could expect from this set of players. It includes five true big men along with versatile forwards like James, Mitchell and Andre Iguodala. But with that being said, what happens when we expand our view to all rookies to return value in draftable range?
For our purposes, draftable range is up to pick 156 based off of a standard 12-team, 13-round fantasy hoops draft. After accounting for players who did not play in their rookie seasons and then filtering out those who fall outside draftable range, we get a sample-size of just 78 relevant rookie seasons (again, including the "debut" seasons from Embiid and Simmons). That's out of 897(!) potential players dating back to 2003, when we first get access fantasy value data from Basketball Monster.
In other words, that's 5.2 per season over the past 15 years. Again, though, we got a total of eight -- including Simmons -- from last year's impressive class alone. There were also six in 2015, bookending an irrelevant 2016 class, at least for fantasy hoops.
At a bird's eye view, eight players emerged from second-round draft selections, with Mario Chalmers (-0.05) returning the best value as the 75th-ranked player in 2008-09. Inversely, 70 went in the first round, and 53 of those (75.7%) were lottery picks; 47 went top-10, 31 top-5 and 11 with the top overall pick in their respective draft classes. Of the number-ones, only three posted fantasy performances outside the top-10 rounds, while five proved worthy of picks in the top five rounds, including Towns' 12th overall rank in 2015-16.
In looking at year-one fantasy value, youth has actually had a negative correlation (-0.225), meaning the younger a player is, the better their fantasy production has generally been. Efficiency and usage have been telling, as well, with win shares per 48 (0.519) and usage rate (0.249) carrying positive relationships with these players. The same goes for the per-game volume of minutes (0.521), points (0.581) and field goal attempts (0.486). And -- not so surprisingly -- point value (0.577) has correlated in the most positive way, followed by rebounds (0.341), steals (0.316) and assists (0.307). Turnovers (-0.442) are the biggest value killer, speaking to the youth and inexperience of these rookies.
Those numbers are all integrated into that first-year value, but they do help to show the breakdown and confirm some things we have believed for some time. What about college stats and fantasy values, though? How does being a statsheet-stuffer in college, or just being a valuable fantasy commodity there, translate to first-year fantasy numbers?
Unfortunately, our subset shrinks to 44 due to the data being restricted to the 2009 to 2017 college basketball seasons. Here are the correlation coefficients for those players' final collegiate seasons to their first NBA seasons.
As you can see, once again 36-minute value is more telling than both per-game value and totals. For me, that means that sometimes production and talent aren't rewarded with the minutes that by themselves would show the player's true potential production. And that's backed up by the slight negative values for games and minutes per game.
On the categorical level, free throw percentage, points, blocks and even three point percentage have been the biggest factors. The turnover value doesn't tell us much, but from college to NBA, that category correlates at 0.455. In similar fashion, point value from college to the NBA correlate at a level (0.325) that makes a lot of sense. But maybe beyond the obvious level, it appears that above-average collegiate shooters are valuable NBA shooters in fantasy, too. On top of collegiate three-point value correlating with first-year three-point value at 0.832, free throw percentage also correlates highly at 0.726. Blocks also have a very high correlation at 0.822. More often than not, those who provide shot-blocking value as prospects are going to do the same -- at least to some extent -- as soon as they get to the league.
Based on these trends, which players should you be targeting in drafts this year, and which ones should you be tempering expectations for this season?
This Year's Candidates
According to FantasyPros' consensus ADP data, here are the nine players being drafted in the top 156 picks in 2018 fantasy drafts.
|Marvin Bagley III||SAC||PF||126||77||83||95.3|
|Wendell Carter, Jr.||CHI||C||92||89||119||100.0|
|Jaren Jackson, Jr.||MEM||PF||94||126||123||114.3|
We all know that Phoenix Suns top overall pick Deandre Ayton is going to be a beast. He's already showing off his talents, averaging a double-double (18.2 points, 10.0 rebounds) and two blocks through five preseason games. And as a result, his ADP has inched closer to the top-40 over the last week. His college production backs it up, too, as the big man averaged 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. His per-36 fantasy value (0.36) ranked sixth in the nation, while his point (1.53), rebound (1.84) and block (1.10) values ranked 11th, 13th and 26th, respectively. But more importantly, his field goal percentage value (2.39) -- which ranked fifth nationally -- will surely play a vital role in his first-year success.
Luka Doncic and Trae Young are the only other locks for big-time volume inside the top 75 picks in most leagues. Doncic, the international phenom, comes without any college values, but his numbers would've provided second-round value, and a look at his preseason numbers on Basketball Monster tell us what we can expect. In three games, the 19-year-old is averaging 14.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.0 threes, 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steals. He's contributing across the board with positive values in six of nine categories. His biggest negatives have been free throw percentage (-1.55) and turnovers (-2.36). It is preseason, but his overall value (-0.04) would have made him a sixth-round performer a year ago. His ADP might be slightly inflated as he might not reach top-60 value, but he should be a key contributor, especially for those punting turnovers.
As for Young, he was the top fantasy player in college a year ago. His 0.94 Basketball Monster value came in spite of a -5.30 turnover value, as he contributed elite values in points (4.10), assists (4.49), threes (3.04) and free throw percentage (2.94). His value was still first per 36 minutes, so volume wasn't everything. Either way, we see how points, threes and free throw percentage translate. His projected workload is only icing on the cake for a guy who has already flashed some fantasy value (0.02, fifth round) in four preseason matchups.
Of the six remaining "draftables," big men Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Mohamed Bamba profile as the better first-year fantasy assets. Taken over 36 minutes, Jackson averaged 18.0 points, 9.6 rebounds and 5.0 blocks last season, helping him to the third-best value (0.47). His 3.93 value in blocks ranked second and should carry over well in "The Grindhouse" in Memphis so long as he's given decent minutes and can avoid foul trouble. And plus values in threes (0.08) and free throw percentage (0.59) help for a player at his position.
Carter (0.28) and Bamba (0.21) follow suit, ranking in the top 20 collegiate players by per-36 value. While Carter provided value in blocks (1.80), rebounds (1.74) and field goal percentage (1.26), Bamba finished the year third in block value (3.37) with 4.4 swats per 36. He also returned 1.87 in rebounds and 0.89 in field goal percentage. Free throws (-1.21) are not a plus for him, but his preseason has been promising. In three games, he averaged 10.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 20.0 minutes, returning big block value (1.15) and hitting 63.2% of his field goals. If the Orlando Magic opt to move Nikola Vucevic or just roll with their young guys at some point, Bamba could be a top-60 value by season's end.
Of the seven other players to crack FantasyPro's consensus list, Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges (160.0) is the closest to draftable, and he's been rising in recent weeks. He could see a lot of playing time as a versatile defender. He's returned the equivalent of seventh-round value (-0.07) in the preseason (seventh among all rookies), with 0.70 in threes and 1.21 in turnovers. He was 15th and 27th in per-game and per-36 value, respectively, in his last year at Michigan State.
As far as the rest of the fringe guys go, I'd prefer taking a shot at the New York Knicks' Mitchell Robinson over guys like Michael Porter Jr. (whose back injury could keep him out all year), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (lack of scoring) and Harry Giles (a loaded Sacramento frontcourt).
Given what we know, Robinson's per-36 numbers (10.9 points, 12.2 rebounds and 4.1 blocks) in preseason should provide fantasy value when called upon. His block value (1.50) is already nice, and his overall -0.47 is held down by free throws (-3.77), for which he went 0-for-4 in a small sample. Robinson opted to forego school after a complicated transfer/non-transfer saga, but the second-round pick was a talented prospect, and the Knicks could eventually give him extended run over Enes Kanter if it turns out to be a lost season without the injured Kristaps Porzingis.