Typically, rookies don’t get drafted until the mid to late rounds in fantasy basketball. Yes, every now and then a pimped player sneaks into the third round, but most seasons the top rookie won’t advance to the fourth or fifth round at the earliest. And that’s the case again this season.
This presents a great opportunity for the accomplished fantasy manager who dedicates the early rounds to building the foundation of his team while keeping an eye on a certain novice or two for the mid and late rounds. Find the right beginners and that can be a winning formula.
But who are the rookies this season? And who are other first-year sleepers to keep an eye on as the season progresses?
Paolo Banchero, PF, Orlando Magic
Banchero was the top pick overall and played that way in the Summer League. His size, skill and athleticism allow him to score at will and control offense by dribbling from the frontcourt. He’s NBA-sized and can be counted on to produce as much as he can for a desperate Magic roster.
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 as the top scorer in this class. He’s a combo forward looking to power forward in the NBA with a strong 3-point shot range and a quick first step from dribbling. Murray has shown this summer that he is capable of scoring 20 points every night given the opportunity. The main question is whether he can get enough shots in a team with 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 inner-city spot-up shooter in this draft class, and he has the length and defensive timing to make himself one of the better defenders as well. Smith is slated to be the Rockets’ starting force, and on offense he’ll play around the rim as a 3-point shooter or athletic finisher. A strong defender at the post, Smith has the speed to switch to guards and disrupt the pick and roll. This defensive style should generate some 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 guard in this rookie class. Slated to start alongside Cade Cunningham as shooting guard this season, he possesses explosive speed and bounce as the creator of dribbling for himself and his teammates. Ivey was adept at running the pick-and-roll/pop game as a ball handler that 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 fast hands to contribute to 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
Bennedict Mathurin, SF, Indiana Pacers
Looking like a pro in the Summer League, Mathurin could be used on a newly formed Pacers team from day one. It’s not clear if veterans like Buddy Hield or Myles Turner will remain with the team after the season starts, but Mathurin joins Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte and Jalen Smith as potential future building blocks for Indiana. The chemistry between Mathurin and Duarte was one of the highlights of the Pacers’ summer league roster. Mathurin has great size and explosiveness for a wing with a powerful 3-point shot. He doesn’t do much to create from dribbling, so he has to rely on his teammates to set him up for open vaults or finishing on 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 beginners to watch out for
Tari Eason, SF, Houston Rockets
Eason has managed to be one of the most productive players with 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 contributed positively on steals, 3-pointers and blocks. He’s one of the older rookies in this class at 21, so he could make an immediate contribution if needed. The Rockets are one of the younger teams in the league, currently starting with four players aged 22 and under… and 33-year-old Eric Gordon. It looks like Eason and Jae’Sean Tate could both have a chance to start at small forward before the end of the season, and if Eason gets the call, he could put himself on the fantasy radar.
Walker Kessler, C, Utah Jazz
Kessler has a realistic shot at starting for Reconstruction Jazz this season. Though technically behind recently traded center Kelly Olynyk on the depth chart, Kessler is a 21-year-old first-round rookie that the Jazz traded for Rudy Gobert as part of their deal. He’s an elite shot blocker who generated 4.6 BPG for the Auburn Tigers last season and his stats per 40 minutes were a staggering 17.9 PP40, 12.6 RP40 and 7.1 BP40. He’s never shown he can play big minutes and still needs to earn minutes on the jazz rotation, but if he does start he’s a potential sleeper as a defensive role player in category leagues.
Shaedon Sharpe, SG, Portland Trailblazer:
Sharpe was one of the best rookies in this class but still has a lot to develop since he didn’t play in college. Sharpe was also injured almost immediately on his Summer League debut, preventing him from even playing the pros this summer. With Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons in backcourt and veterans like Jeramie Grant and Jusuf Nurkic up front, Sharpe is unlikely to get any big minutes or opportunities to start the season. But when the Trail Blazers have a season like the last one where they go into offseason mode early, it’s possible they’ll want to see what they have in Sharpe later in the season.
Mark Williams, C, Charlotte Hornets
Williams has a legitimate opportunity to compete with Mason Plumlee for the start center job sometime this season. He’s one of the best defensive, shot-blocking big men to come out of this draft, and the Hornets need that. Plus, having 21-year-old LaMelo Ball as the heart of the team brings a youthful edge to the Hornets, and as Williams develops a relationship with Ball can, it could increase his chances of earning heavier minutes as the season progresses.
Jalen Williams, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
While all eyes were on number two overall Chet Holmgren, Williams was another lottery pick for the Thunder. And on her ever-rebuilding team, Williams has an opportunity to earn a place in the rotation. Williams is a shooter in the catch-and-shoot 3-point game. So if he earns minutes, he could be considered long-term in category leagues as a 3-point roleplayer.
Johnny Davis, G, Washington Wizards
Davis was a consensus-building 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 couldn’t seem to even match the pace in Las Vegas…which doesn’t bode well for his chances of quickly acclimating to the NBA. That said, the Wizards lack talented depth in backcourt and Davis has an opportunity to play his way into the rotation. If he can prove that what I saw in Vegas was a fluke and instead he’s able to translate his All-American potential to the next level.
Dyson Daniels, PG/SG, New Orleans Pelicans
A tall stature combo guard, Daniels played in the NBA G-League last season, so he already has professional experience. He’s expected to play a point guard in the pros, and once he develops he could fit well alongside 6-3 combo guard CJ McCollum. But the Pelicans have serious post-season ambitions this season, with an impressive starting XI and former starters like Devonte’s Graham and Larry Nance coming off the bench. Injuries aside, he’s unlikely to get enough run to consider fantasies.
Jalen Duren, C, Detroit Pistons
Duren is the youngest member of this draft class, but he’s grown man-size with the topside to eventually develop into a dominant two-way center. He’s had stretches during Summer League where he’s dipped on multiple possessions in a short space of time, and his ability to finish around the rim is likely ready to go now. However, the rest of his game is not. The Pistons are a young team, but they played well last season and will want to use their vets to build a winning culture. Duren appears to be more of a developmental player for this season, but I’m still keeping an eye out in case they decide he’s best at developing alongside their other youthful centerpieces.
Malaki Branham, G/F, and Jeremy Sochan, SF/PF, San Antonio Spurs
Spurs are in the midst of a rebuild after selling their best players since the start of last season. They keep Keldon Johnson and Jakob Poeltl, and young guard Devin Vassell is expected to get a bigger role this season. But the door is clearly open for their rookies Branham and Sochan to get minutes before the end of the season. Branham is a 3-and-D type while Sochan is a defender with a remarkably weak knight. Neither is likely to come up with big numbers, but if either/both start at the end, that would be enough to make it worth keeping an eye on.