Typically, rookies aren’t drafted until the middle to late rounds in fantasy basketball. Yes, every now and then, there’s a hyped up player who sneaks into round three, but most seasons the top rookie won’t go until the fourth or fifth round at the earliest. And that’s the case again this season.
This presents a major opportunity for the savvy fantasy manager, who dedicates the early rounds to setting up the foundation of their team while having a certain rookie or two in mind for the middle and late rounds. Find the right rookies, and this can be a winning formula.
But who are the rookies to have this season? And who are other sleeper first-year players to keep an eye on as the season progresses?
Paolo Banchero, PF, Orlando Magic
Banchero was the top overall pick and played like it in Summer League. His size, skill and athleticism allow him to score at will and control the offense off the dribble from the frontcourt. He has NBA size and will be relied upon to produce as much as he can for a desperate Magic squad.
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 to challenge Banchero for leading scorer in this class. He is a combo forward that projects to play more power forward in the NBA, with strong 3-point shooting range and a quick first step off the dribble. Murray showed this summer that he is capable of scoring 20 points on a nightly basis if given the opportunity. The main question is whether he can get a sufficient volume of shots to do so, on a team featuring 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 spot-up shooter from downtown in this draft class, and he has the length and defensive timing to develop into one of the better defenders as well. Smith is in line to be the Rockets’ starting power forward out of the gate, and on offense he’ll play off-ball as a 3-point marksman or athletic finisher around the rim. Smith is a strong on-ball defender in the post, and has the quickness to switch onto guards and disrupt the pick and roll. That defensive style should generate some stats, but not the amount of blocks he’d 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 guard in this rookie class. He is slotted to start at shooting guard next to Cade Cunningham this season and has explosive quickness and leaping ability as a creator off the dribble for himself and his teammates. Ivey was adept at running the pick-and-roll/pop game as the ball handler this summer before getting injured. Since Cunningham is also a combo guard, the two could share the floor general/scorer role for the Pistons. Ivey has good potential as a scorer and distributor, with a streaky 3-point shot that he seems to be working on and quick enough hands to contribute in steals 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
Benedict Mathurin, SF, Indiana Pacers
Mathurin looked like a pro in Summer League and could be called upon from Day 1 on a rebuilding Pacers team. It isn’t clear whether veterans like Buddy Hield or Myles Turner will remain on the team once the season starts, but Mathurin joins Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte and Jalen Smith as potential building blocks for Indiana in the future. The chemistry between Mathurin and Duarte was one of the highlights of the Pacers’ summer league squad. Mathurin has great size and explosiveness for a wing with a strong 3-point shot. He doesn’t do much creating off the dribble, so he’ll have to rely upon his teammates to set him up for open jumpers or finishes around the rim.
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 keep an eye on
Tari Eason, SF, Houston Rockets
Eason managed to be one of the most productive players on the Rockets 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 plus contributor in steals, 3-pointers and blocks. He’s one of the older rookies in this class at 21 years old, so if called upon he could contribute right away. The Rockets are one of the younger teams in the league, currently starting four players aged 22 or younger…and 33 year old Eric Gordon. It seems like Eason and Jae’Sean Tate could both have the opportunity to start at small forward before the season is out, and if Eason gets the call he could play his way onto the fantasy radar.
Walker Kessler, C, Utah Jazz
Kessler has a realistic opportunity to start for the rebuilding Jazz this season. Although he’s technically behind recently traded-for center Kelly Olynyk on the depth chart, Kessler is a 21-year-old first round rookie that the Jazz traded for as part of their deal for Rudy Gobert. He is an elite shot-blocker that generated 4.6 BPG for the Auburn Tigers last season, and his per-40 minute stats were an eye-popping 17.9 PP40, 12.6 RP40 and 7.1 BP40. He’s never shown that he can play major minutes, and still has to earn minutes in the Jazz rotation, but if he starts he’s a potential sleeper as a defensive role player in category leagues.
Shaedon Sharpe, SG, Portland Trail Blazers:
Sharpe was one of the highest upside rookies in this class, but also has quite a bit of developing to do since he didn’t play in college. Sharpe also got injured almost immediately in his Summer League debut, so he didn’t even get to 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 frontline, it’s unlikely that Sharpe gets big minutes or opportunities to start the season. But, if the Trail Blazers have a season like last, where they go into offseason mode early, it is possible that they could want to see what they have in Sharpe in the later 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, shot-blocking big men to come out of this draft and the Hornets have a need for that. Plus, having 21 year old LaMelo Ball as the centerpiece of the team gives the Hornets a youthful slant, and if Williams can develop a rapport with Ball it could boost his chances to earn heavier minutes as the season goes along.
Jalen Williams, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
While all eyes were on number two overall pick Chet Holmgren, Williams was another lottery pick for the Thunder. And, on their perennially rebuilding team, Williams has the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation. Williams is a marksman on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, so if he earns 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 All-American First Team 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 did not appear able to keep up with even the speed in Las Vegas…which does not bode well for his chances to quickly acclimate to the NBA. With that said, the Wizards lack talented depth in the backcourt, and Davis has the opportunity to play himself into the rotation. If he can prove that what I saw in Vegas was a fluke, and he’s instead able to translate his All-American potential to the next level.
Dyson Daniels, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans
Daniels is a combo guard with great size, and he played in the NBA G-League last season so he already has professional experience. He is expected to play some point guard in the pros, and once he develops he could fit well next to 6-3 combo guard CJ McCollum. But, the Pelicans have serious postseason aspirations this season, with an impressive starting five and former starters like Devonte’ Graham and Larry Nance coming off the bench. Barring injury, it’s unlikely he gets enough runs for fantasy consideration.
Jalen Duren, C, Detroit Pistons
Duren is the youngest member of this draft class, but he has grown man size with the upside to eventually develop into a dominant two-way center. He had stretches during the Summer League where he’d dunk on multiple possessions in a short period, and his ability to finish around the rim is probably ready to go now. The rest of his game isn’t, though. The Pistons are a young team, but they played well to finish last season and will want to utilize their vets to help establish a winning culture. Duren seems more like a developmental player for this season, but I’m still keeping my eye out in case they decide the best way for him to develop is alongside their other youthful centerpieces.
Malaki Branham, G/F, and Jeremy Sochan, SF/PF, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are in the midst of a rebuild after trading away their best players since the start of last season. They retain Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl, and young guard Devin Vassell is expected to get a larger role this season. But, the door is clearly open for their rookies, Branham and Sochan, to start getting minutes before the season is out. Branham is a 3-and-D type, while Sochan is a defender with a notably weak jumper. Neither are likely to put up big numbers, but if either/both end up starting, that’d be enough for them to be worth keeping an eye on.