By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
In fantasy basketball, the general rule is to refrain from over-investing in rookies.
Last season, for instance, only two first-year players — Ja Morant and Kendrick Nunn — ranked inside the top 120 in eight-category total value. Both players (Morant in particular) proved valuable for fantasy managers, but those who took fliers on RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Darius Garland, or Rui Hachimura were not so handsomely rewarded.
In fairness, certain players have been able to buck that trend. Karl-Anthony Towns was a revelation as a rookie, putting up 18.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.7 blocks en route to a top-20 finish in per-game value. The fact that he played all 82 games pushed him inside the top 10 in total value. Similarly, Ben Simmons was a strong fantasy commodity right away, cruising to a top-30 finish in per-game value — though he did miss his true rookie year while recovering from injury.
Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, and Jaren Jackson are among the other recent exceptions, but on the whole, buying in on multiple rookies tends to be a fickle investment. For every Donovan Mitchell there’s a Josh Jackson, and for every Trae Young there’s a Markelle Fultz (OK, maybe that’s an extreme example).
With all of that said, my goal is not to dissuade you from investing in any rookies this season. There’s reason to believe LaMelo Ball, James Wiseman, Obi Toppin, and Tyrese Haliburton — whom I, myself, took late in an NFBKC draft this week — each has some upside. But it’s important to evaluate each situation individually and determine the point in your draft at which the risk becomes worth the reward.
Unlike a year ago, the 2020 NBA rookie class is a fairly straightforward one when it comes to evaluating fantasy value. Last season, the hype around players like Morant and especially Zion Williamson sent fantasy managers into a frenzy. While those who reached for Williamson early were ultimately burned, it was at least easy to understand why so many managers were eager to be the one to get their hands on the No. 1 overall pick.
This time around, fantasy players won’t have to worry about spending a third or fourth-round pick on a rookie who’s logged only a smattering of preseason minutes. According to Yahoo ADP data, the most coveted rookie is LaMelo Ball (94.2), who’s typically still available around the end of the eighth round. James Wiseman (99.6) is close behind, while Obi Toppin (128.4) and Anthony Edwards (129.2) are a couple rounds back.
At those points in the draft, taking a flier on a rookie is a completely fine strategy, but managers should still closely evaluate each situation and be prepared to cut bait if and when the time comes.
Here’s a closer look at the notable rookies from the 2020 class:
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
While he slipped to No. 3 on draft night, there’s a reason Ball is the rookie with the highest ADP. Through two preseason games, it’s clear that his passing is for real, and his impressive rebounding numbers overseas look like they’ll translate. Long term, Ball has the potential to be one of the best passers and volume assists producers in the NBA.
In the short term, though, Ball is unlikely to be an efficient scorer as a rookie. And he’ll likely post a high turnover rate that could prove problematic for managers in nine-category formats. The other barrier, at least for right now, is that Ball will probably begin the season in a bench role behind Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier. The Hornets’ roster isn’t exactly a model of depth, however, so even if he spends most of the year as the sixth man, that should still result in a sizable workload.
James Wiseman, Golden State Warriors
Given that Wiseman is yet to play in the preseason, he makes for a difficult evaluation. Even a moderately impressive exhibition showing could boost his ADP, but without that opportunity, fantasy managers have been relatively cautious. Upside-wise, Wiseman has a chance to be the best fantasy rookie in the class. He’s an incredible athlete with all-world measurables who walks into a unique but appealing fantasy situation in Golden State.
The problem is we haven’t seen him play in a sanctioned game — college or NBA — since last winter. No one is suggesting Wiseman’s skills have diminished over that time, but it’s much easier to invest in a player who you’ve seen play basketball within the last 365 days. With that in mind, Wiseman does carry some risk, but he’s the rookie I’d be willing to take a stab at slightly ahead of his ADP. If can hit the ground running, Wiseman could be a strong field goal percentage, rebounds, and blocks producer for a team that’s counting on him to contribute right away.
Obi Toppin, New York Knicks
Toppin enters the NBA with considerable momentum after a dominant season at Dayton. Evaluators rightfully questioned his age and defensive ability, but neither of those are major concerns from a fantasy perspective. In fact, Toppin coming into the league at age 22 might be a benefit in terms of his physical readiness. Thus far, he’s had one good preseason game (11 points, seven rebounds, one assist, one block in 20 minutes) and one bad one (four points on 1-of-9 FG, four rebounds in 24 minutes), but the concern is that he’s come off the bench in both exhibitions. It’s difficult to gauge how the rotation will look when the games begin to count, but if Toppin is stuck behind Julius Randle for much of the year, he’ll likely be a borderline-rostered player, at best.
Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves
The No.1 pick in any draft is always going to have some appeal, but Edwards is a stay-away for me this season. In the long-term, Edwards could very well grow into a productive player, or even a star. But he enters the league with a shaky resume, by No. 1 pick standards, and joins a Timberwolves roster already overflowing with guards. As a ball-stopping, score-first player, Edwards’ fantasy value would be relatively limited, even if he were guaranteed to step into a 30-minute-per-night role.
Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers
Despite going fifth overall, Okoro was mostly written off as a first-year fantasy contributor, but through two preseason games, he’s worked his way into the late-round discussion. In his debut against Indiana, Okoro finished with 18 points, 16 of which came in the fourth quarter, to go with three steals and a 4-of-4 night at the free-throw line. Two nights later, he followed up with 15 points, working his way to the line 10 times in 28 minutes and adding four assists and three boards. It could simply be a preseason mirage, but Okoro looks further along than anticipated. If he can shoot the three even semi-reliably, he’ll have a chance to earn a starting spot.
Killian Hayes, Detroit Pistons
As a starter from Day 1, Hayes should be on the fantasy radar, but he’s unlikely to be this year’s Ja Morant. Hayes struggled in his debut, committing seven turnovers and finishing with just five points and three assists in a loss to the Knicks. He looked a little better in Sunday’s rematch, but it will likely be a developmental year for the 19-year-old. Hayes could end up putting up decent counting stats, but efficiency will likely be a significant problem.
Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
Considering the franchise we’re dealing with, it’s tough to be optimistic about any rookie who ends up in Sacramento. But the Kings may have ended up with the steal of the draft in Haliburton. After a shaky debut last Friday, Haliburton settled in on Sunday against Portland, finishing with 11 points, seven assists, six rebounds, a steal, and a block in 30 minutes. That’s exactly the kind of all-around potential Haliburton flashed during his two years at Iowa State.
He’ll likely begin the season in a bench role, but Haliburton should have plenty of opportunities considering he can play both guard spots for a team with very little backcourt depth. Long-term, Haliburton’s fantasy upside is as high as any player from the 2020 rookie class.
Deni Avdija, Wizards: He had an efficient preseason debut (15 points, 6-6 FG), and Scott Brooks implied this week that Avdija has a good chance to open the season as the starting small forward. Avdija is an above-average playmaker for his size, but he’ll likely be mostly a points and threes contributor as a rookie.
Cole Anthony, Magic: I’m already on the record that Anthony is my dark horse Rookie of the Year pick. He’s in an incredibly fantasy-friendly situation for a No. 15 pick and could open the season as Orlando’s first guard off the bench.
Devin Vassell, Spurs: Historically, San Antonio favors veterans over young players, but the Spurs aren’t typically picking in the lottery. Vassell is a work in progress, but the early returns have been positive. Through two preseason games, Vassell has totaled 23 points, three three-pointers, 10 rebounds, three assists, seven steals, and a block.
Aaron Nesmith, Celtics: By no means should Nesmith be drafted, but he’s a name to monitor after the Celtics lost some depth this offseason. A prolific shooter at the college level, Nesmith could eventually become a high-level source of threes.