By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The NBA All-Star break officially came to a close Wednesday, as play resumed following a five-day hiatus. With 68 days to finish up a condensed regular season, it will be a sprint to the finish for both the league’s 30 teams as well as fantasy managers.
In this unique season, the All-Star Break marked almost the exact midway point for most of the league. That means there’s still plenty of time for fantasy managers to tweak their rosters and move up (or down) the standings.
As we look toward what lies ahead over the next two months, here are 10 predictions for the remainder of the fantasy basketball season.
Jusuf Nurkic redeems himself
Easily one of the season’s biggest disappointments thus far, Nurkic got off to an agonizingly slow start before fracturing his wrist back on Jan. 14. It’s unclear when, exactly, the big man will return to action, but he’s set to be evaluated this week and if all goes well could be back within the next week or two.
In his 12 appearances, Nurkic ranked outside the top-140 in per-game value. That’s more than 100 spots below his Yahoo ADP (37). He’s missed enough time that his season will end up being a disappointment no matter what, but Nurkic will have roughly 30-35 games to recoup as much fantasy value as possible. It’s hard to look at his early numbers and feel overly confident, but it’s worth noting that Nurkic had his best game of the season — 18pts, 12reb, 2stl, 3blk — in his final appearance before the injury. The big man is just seven months removed from averaging 16.7 points, 11.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.4 blocks in 14 games in the Orlando bubble.
Blake Griffin remains a non-factor
Allow me to preface this by saying I’ve always been a pro-Blake guy. But at this point, the name Blake Griffin carries infinitely more weight than his on-court presence. I’m willing to entertain the notion that going from the bleakest roster in the league to the most talented could reinvigorate the veteran, but the concerns with Griffin have never been about his mindset or motivation.
A series of lower-body injuries have sapped his athleticism and limited him to just 38 games since the start of last season. While he’ll no longer be tasked with functioning as an offensive hub, playing alongside three future-Hall-of-Famers won’t do anything to help his soon-to-be 32-year-old knees. I fully expect Griffin to have some moments when he looks like the Blake of old — and there will be nights when he emerges as a DFS gem — but he’s simply too unreliable, from a medical standpoint, to warrant a valuable roster spot over the second half of the season.
LaMelo Ball finishes the season ranked inside the top 15
The Rookie of the Year favorite hit the ground running in January and hasn’t looked back. For the season, Ball ranks 22nd in total value (8-cat), and over the last month, he jumps all the way up to 12th overall. The eventual return of Devonte’ Graham could lead to some difficult decisions for coach James Borrego, but Ball has clearly earned his minutes (33.9 MPG since entering the starting five), and nothing he’s doing feels all that unsustainable. His three-point efficiency could be due for some regression, but over his final 15 games before the break, Ball posted averages of 20.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.9 steals, while holding a 46-45-85 shooting line.
Zion Williamson averages 30 points per game the rest of the way
While the Pelicans continue to be impossible to read, Williamson has been extremely consistent over the last month-plus. In his final 12 games before the break, he averaged 29.3 points per game, adding 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists while getting to the line nearly 10 times per game. During that span, he never dipped below 23 points in any game.
He’s also leaving fewer points on the board at the line, hitting 73 percent of his free throws after getting off to a rough start. A fully unleashed Williamson is the most efficient and unstoppable paint scorer in the league, and while Brandon Ingram may technically be the Pels’ No. 1 option, Williamson continues to gradually work his way toward capturing that title.
Bonus prediction: Williamson has his first career 40-point game before the end of March.
Jarrett Allen finishes as a more valuable fantasy player than John Collins and DeAndre Ayton
Even before the trade to Cleveland, Allen was on pace to smash his preseason ADP (107), and the increased opportunity with the Cavs has only accelerated his rise. Over his last 11 games before the break, Allen posted 17.6 points, 12.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.6 blocks with nine double-doubles. In eight-category leagues, he currently ranks 40th overall — six spots ahead of Ayton (46) and two behind Collins (38).
While the eventual returns of Larry Nance Jr. and Kevin Love could crowd the Cavs’ frontcourt, developing Allen should remain a priority. Meanwhile, Collins has been the subject of trade rumors, while Ayton seems to have stagnated — particularly as a scorer — in Year 3. All three will likely finish within the same range, but coming out of the break, I like Allen’s upside and consistency more than the two players with preseason ADPs inside the top 25.
Ja Morant is a top-50 player the rest of the way
Morant simply hasn’t looked the same since returning from an ankle injury in mid-January. Over his first 19 games back, he shot just 42.7 percent from the field, including a horrific 20.0 percent from three on 3.4 attempts per game. His scoring, assists, and steals averages remained solid, but Morant was clearly struggling to find confidence as a shooter, at one point finishing with less than 20 points in nine consecutive games.
Just before the break, however, Morant went for 35 points in back-to-back games, taking 43 shots, 16 threes, and 25 free throws in 72 total minutes. While it’s only a two-game sample, Morant looked much more like his ultra-aggressive self. Through the first half, Morant ranked 86th in per-game value, but as he moves further away from the ankle injury, I like his chances to play at a level closer to his Yahoo ADP (30).
Joe Harris makes a run at the all-time 3PT% record
Coming out of the break, Harris is leading the league at 50.6 percent from three. He’ll have his work cut out for him, but Kyle Korver’s NBA-record 53.6 percent mark, which has stood since 2009-10, will be within reach. Harris has been remarkably consistent throughout the first half, but he closed on a hot streak, hitting 55 percent of his looks over his final seven games. With Kevin Durant set to return to the fold within the next week or two, Harris should be served up even more wide-open looks going forward.
Nikola Jokic goes wire-to-wire as the top-ranked fantasy player
Jokic came out firing with 29 points, 15 rebounds, 14 assists, and two blocks on opening night and hasn’t looked back. He’s been the top-ranked fantasy player in eight- and nine-category leagues for the entirety of the first half, and he’s played in all 36 of Denver’s games. In nine-cat leagues, the gap between Jokic and the No. 2-ranked player, Stephen Curry, is roughly the same as the gap between Curry and the No. 12-ranked player, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
There’s a chance Jokic could be due for some regression as a three-point shooter (41.8% 3PT, up from 31.4% last season), but outside of that there’s no reason to believe the big man will slow down anytime soon.
Two rookies finish inside the top-30 in total value
LaMelo Ball (22nd in 8-cat) is already on course for one of the best rookie fantasy seasons in recent memory, so this will likely come down to how well Tyrese Haliburton plays over the next 68 days. The Iowa State product has been overshadowed by Ball, but he’s putting together a well-rounded, hyper-efficient season, averaging 13.2 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 2.4 threes, 1.4 steals, and 0.6 blocks, while holding a 49-43-83 shooting line.
For a first-year player, Haliburton’s lack of a true weakness is impressive. Some have been waiting for his outside shooting to normalize, but it simply hasn’t happened. In fact, he shot the three better in February (45%) than he did in December and January (41.7%).
At this point, the biggest question is whether he’ll be able to hold up for 72 games after a calf injury kept him out of the final four contests before the break. If Haliburton can stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe he can’t push for mid-third-round value.
The Celtics unleash Robert Williams
Given how the Celtics have handled Williams so far, we need to be careful with how we define “unleash.” In this instance, it may only mean he averages 25 minutes per game, but based on his per-minute numbers, that would be enough to significantly boost his fantasy value. Despite averaging just 16.1 minutes per game thus far, Williams is a borderline top-100 fantasy player, thanks in large part to his outsized block and steal rates, field goal percentage, and volume rebounding.
Sure, Williams still has moments when it looks like he’s never played basketball in his life, but those instances are becoming less frequent as he gains more experience. With Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson on the roster, there’s only so much Brad Stevens can do, but Boston is in desperate need of any sort of spark, and Williams is the guy who could provide it. In the eight games in which he’s played at least 20 minutes this season, Williams is averaging 10.3 points (79.5% FG), 9.5 boards, 2.1 assists, 2.5 blocks, and 1.5 steals.