Player Rater: Rookie breakdown
One of the more surprising stories of the early part of this season has been the strong play of rookies. This is not something I saw coming, given all the talk over the past couple of years that this rookie class was supposed to be historically weak.
Coincidentally, this season seemed to be the first time in recent memory that it didn't feel like rookies were getting drafted too high in fantasy drafts. Well, it turns out our prudence was way off base. By my count, there are currently nine rookies who are already contributors in fantasy leagues, with a few more on the fringe of relevance and a few more sure to become contributors as the season progresses. What follows is a look at the nine best fantasy rookies at the current moment and what we can expect from them as the season wears on, taking into account their current ranking on the Player Rater (based on per-game stats).
Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves (26): He has answered the questions about whether he could be a viable NBA player, but it's worth noting that his shooting percentages are quickly coming back down to earth. He's at 40 percent from the floor and 36 percent on 3-pointers over his past five games, and those numbers are significantly lower than his numbers for the season. What makes him special, obviously, are his assists and steals. He's seventh in the NBA in assist rate, ahead of guys like Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul, and he's in the top 10 in both steals and steals per minute. Those numbers aren't going anywhere, so while he might fall a bit from his current ranking, he's likely still going to be a top-50 player, severely outperforming his average draft position.
Kyrie Irving, PG, Cavaliers (28): I thought drafting Kyrie Irving in the top 75 was a mistake coming into this season, given the history of rookies in fantasy leagues. But I clearly missed the boat on this one. After a rough first few games, Irving is averaging 19.0 points, 5.0 assists, and 3.4 rebounds in 10 games in January. He's also shooting 52 percent from the floor and 87 percent from the line during that stretch. He's not really contributing much in steals and is making only 1.0 3-pointer per game, which are usually key categories for point guards in fantasy, but Irving has been great without being great in those categories. Plus, I think he'll get better in steals and 3-pointers as the season goes on, making it very possible he maintains his current top-30 status.
Iman Shumpert, PG, Knicks (65): After a strong performance on opening day against the Celtics, Shumpert missed four games due to injury. But when he came back, he just kept rolling. There are some obvious warts -- for one thing, he's a terrible shooter, yet he continues to jack up plenty of shots -- but he's getting plenty of minutes, which is giving him a chance to rack up a ton of steals (2.3 per game, good for third in the league) while collecting 3.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game as well. Unfortunately for Shumpert and fantasy owners, when Baron Davis returns to the lineup, those minutes are going to go way, way down. The short-term value remains high, especially if you need steals, but Shumpert is not someone you can rely on for the full season.
Brandon Knight, PG/SG, Pistons (90): Knight is the sort of guard who is tailor-made for fantasy basketball, and his primary assets is his ability to knock down 3s. He's in the top 20 in 3-pointers per game at 1.8, and his 3-point percentage is stellar, especially for a rookie, at 41.7 percent. Also, he has averaged 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.0 steals over his 10 January games, and while those numbers don't jump off the stat sheet, it's enough to give him value in fantasy leagues. That value isn't going anywhere. He's not going to be a star, at least not this season, but if he can boost his assists and steals even a little, he's going to be on the fringe of the top 50 at some point.
MarShon Brooks, SG, Nets (92): He's carving out more and more of a role as the season progresses, so let's just focus on his past five games as a sign of what's to come. His numbers over that period: 15.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.8 3s per game, with 48 percent shooting from the floor. It's taking him 35.6 minutes per game to get those numbers, so there might not be a ton of room for them to improve, but it's clear that Brooks already is an efficient scorer and a pretty good all-around contributor. Most amazing to me is that he already has the sixth-best PER among shooting guards; he's ahead of guys like Jason Terry, Joe Johnson and Ray Allen. Again, I'm not expecting much, if any, improvement from him, but considering he was available on the waiver wire to start the season, he has indeed been impressive.
Markieff Morris, PF, Suns (112): Playing just 22.2 minutes per game, Morris is already an across-the-board contributor. His only negative category on the Player Rater is assists, which is a pretty standard occurrence for power forwards. On the other hand, his numbers over the past five games, in nearly the same minutes, are not good, as his shooting percentages have plummeted. Overall though, he has the potential to be a pretty good rebounder, a marginal contributor in the defense stats and an efficient scorer who makes 3s while shooting a good percentage from the floor. The fact that his ranking is where it is despite him being inconsistent is a good sign. Even if his ranking falls in the short term, I'm expecting it to rise by the end of the season, and he could be a pretty good guy to hang on to in a keeper league.
Kemba Walker, PG, Bobcats (129): With Corey Maggette out, the Bobcats have been going really small, playing Walker alongside D.J. Augustin in the starting lineup. Maggette is out for a few weeks, so we should get a chance to see Walker play a ton of minutes for an extended stretch, and that stretch will determine whether he can keep getting big minutes down the road. For now, though, Walker is a player you should own (which is good, because it seems like owners are keeping him on their fantasy rosters whether he's worth owning or not). In the three games he has started, he's averaging 17.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.7 steals and 2.0 3s per game. Those numbers clearly represent some kind of ceiling, but considering he seemed like one of the only rookies who might have been overvalued coming into the season, it's an encouraging sign.
Chandler Parsons, SF, Rockets (139): At 6-foot-9, Parsons has good size for a small forward, and he seems to be making the most of it. In the seven games since he was inserted into the starting lineup, he has averaged 6.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 0.9 blocks per game. He's chipping in only 8.6 points per game over that stretch, but it's clear the Rockets see something in him, and his PER of 16.63 would seem to point to the fact that what he's doing so far is no fluke. If he can maintain those numbers, he might sneak into the top 100, but unless he develops a 3-point stroke, there's limited upside. Still, for a rookie, he's someone worth keeping an eye on, especially in deeper leagues.
Kawhi Leonard, PF, Spurs (153): Since Manu Ginobili succumbed to injury, the Spurs have scrambled to put together coherent lineups, and Leonard, a jack of all trades, has carved out a significant role. Interestingly, he's listed at power forward, small forward and shooting guard in various places, and that attests to his versatility. Over the past five games, he has averaged 13.0 points on 53 percent shooting to go along with 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals, and those are the areas in which he's currently contributing in fantasy leagues. Long-term, my question is whether he can develop a 3-point stroke. The Spurs seem to magically turn players into elite long-range marksmen (look at Richard Jefferson's 44 percent shooting from long range last season), and with all the talk coming out of the draft about Leonard's improving stroke, I was hoping to see him knock down more 3s this season. Recently, though, he has obliged, averaging 1.0 made 3s per game on 45.5 percent shooting over that same five-game stretch. If making 3s is a permanent addition to his game, he's going to be extremely valuable in fantasy soon.
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