After an offseason rife with drama and big transactions, it's easy to forget what a gifted and deep rookie class we have entering the NBA this fall. This incoming class appears particularly appetizing for statistical purposes using a long view, although it might take time for many of these prospects to materialize into fantasy stars. As John Cregan effectively noted in last year's rookie breakdown, we rarely see rookie NBA players produce strong fantasy results -- as efficiency often escapes the professional freshman. Even some of the most gifted stars of today produced merely midround returns in their initial foray as fantasy investments.
There are, however, some notable exceptions who call out as sirens to fantasy managers. Atypical and outlier performances such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis a few seasons ago fuel the notion that we can reap major windfalls from rookies. Joel Embiid was on his way to another unicorn campaign last year, but injuries felled the fantasy fun far too early. It was another reminder of how rare it is for a rookie to sustain statistical success in his first NBA marathon.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't inspect and invest in this class for our fantasy drafts this season, but we should be cognizant and wary of paying a premium for what are likely optimum expectations and projections in most cases. With a fantasy lens applied to this eclectic and electric crew of new NBA talents, let's survey the potential stars, busts, values and sleepers from the 2017 crop of rookies.
The top options
It might seem like ages ago, but as recently the 2014-15 season, the Mavs were third in points per game and fifth in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions). However, just last season, Dallas was downtrodden on offense and in last place in points per game by a sizable margin. The potential solution to such woes can be found in Smith, a player with the aptitude to become the steal of the draft.
With comparisons to Steve Francis, as an exciting and explosive guard prospect, Smith must prove somewhat historic to return profits as a fantasy option -- only nine players in league history have averaged as much as 12 PPG, 6 APG and 0.5 3PG as rookies -- the latest being Michael Carter-Williams in 2013-14.
We shouldn't make too much of what often proves to be inflated Summer League results, but it was impressive to see Smith average 17.3 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, and 2.2 SPG in the exhibition expose. Rick Carlisle has talked about upping the team's pace with Smith as the leader of the offense. Like MCW, Smith could shine as a rookie, even if he's not particularly efficient in the process, thanks to what should be rich opportunity and usage rates.
I'm already on record in deeming Ball a potential bust, but I also believe he could realistically become the most valuable rookie from a fantasy perspective. That's just it, there is a wide outcome spectrum for these first professional seasons. Ball topped ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton's WARP rankings, and despite some statistical proximity to Kyrie Irving as a prospect, Pelton noted that "Ball's best comparison is probably Jason Kidd."
Similarly to Ben Simmons, Ball will run the show in a space-and-pace scheme. My primary hesitation with Ball meeting his cost is simply hype, as his high profile is already leading to him going in the top 50 in average draft position, ahead of Al Horford, Jrue Holiday and Nikola Vucevic, among other proven producers.
That all having been said, it's possible Ball becomes just the seventh rookie in league history to average at least 8.0 PPG and 8.0 APG.
3. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Considering that Simmons reportedly is nearing seven feet, we simply haven't much precedent to reference for gigantic and gifted distributors. Leveraging his limited sample at LSU, Simmons is the only Division I player since 1993-94 with at least 150 assists and 380 rebounds in a single season.
The 76ers have finished between first and seventh in the league in pace during coach Brett Brown's four-year run. Plus, Brown has afforded a bevy of different point guard candidates heavy usage profiles over the years, as players like Tony Wroten finished in the top 10 in usage rate and both Carter-Williams and Wroten finished ahead of Russell Westbrook in drives per game one season.
The Lakers' Ball has the edge in potential for assist production, but I'd argue Simmons gets the nod for rebounds, scoring and defensive upside. A year ahead of the pack in physical preparation, Simmons could emerge as a sleeper in points leagues (thanks to his skills on the glass) if he slips in redraft formats this fall.
4. Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Opportunity, and not talent -- he became just the second freshman NCAA player since 2009 to post at least a 30 percent usage rate, 30 percent assist rate and 55 percent true shooting clip -- is the main issue in trusting Fultz.
If Simmons is to fulfill a ball-dominant distribution role, it limits the do-everything play-making Fultz flashed at Washington. If J.J. Redick and Robert Covington are to be relied on as the key catch-and-shoot and off-screen threats in South Philly, then Fultz is unlikely to fulfill his scoring and shooting potential this season. The aptitude is undeniable, thus there is still some room for profit if Fultz slips past the eighth round of your draft.
Minutes are the coin of the realm in fantasy basketball. It's not too complex of an equation to consider that minutes equal opportunities to produce. As a centerpiece investment in the Suns' future frontcourt, Jackson should see plenty of floor time for a Suns team tilting towards the "tank" word in a stacked conference.
One of the most translatable skills from the NCAA level to the NBA is steal rate, per Pelton, so it's encouraging to note Jackson averaged 1.7 SPG (and additionally impressive to note he netted 1.1 BPG) in his lone season for Kansas.
The shooting results could prove ugly, but in an up-tempo scheme and with rare defensive promise, Jackson could become the premier rookie fantasy force by sheer volume of opportunities.
A true candidate to turn in the best fantasy campaign of this class despite going relatively unnoticed behind a heap of hype-driven lottery talents, Collins could simply feast on minutes and rebounding opportunities akin to Jackson's perch atop the depth chart in Phoenix.
If this were a dynasty list, Tatum would likely compete with Smith Jr. for third behind Fultz and Ball for the long-term upside of this class, but given a likely limited role on a deep and talented Boston roster, immediate expectations should prove tempered.
Using Jaylen Brown's modest usage and exposure rates from last season as the template for Tatum, a usage rate around 20 percent and around 20 minutes doesn't foster much fantasy fun.
Even if we offer a 25 percent inflation on Brown's role last season, there isn't enough offensive appeal for Tatum, a player best known for isolation/hero ball, a trait the team has in spades with Irving and Gordon Hayward in the mix.
Fox's fantasy prospects took a sizable ding with the team signing George Hill to a sizable free-agent pact this summer.
Once again, steal rate is a translatable skill, so there is some appeal to the fact Fox averaged 1.5 swipes per game at Kentucky. I think of Elfrid Payton's rookie season as an appropriate parallel for Fox's first foray; the Magic guard averaged nearly 9 PPG, 6.5 APG and 1.7 SPG for Orlando three years ago.
I can imagine some strong surges if Hill misses any time, but question if Fox's situation and skill set supports steady season-long value.
A hot hand in the Summer League suggests some surprising offensive upside for Mitchell, but I believe his impact as a rookie is likely to come as a specialist in steals. An elite collegiate steal rate (2.1 per game last season at Louisville) projects well into the pros, but a complementary cog on a conservative offense limits the ceiling for this versatile combo guard.
Potentially buried behind a bevy of wings who claim real overlap for his expected role with guys like Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Terrence Ross in the mix for Orlando, Isaac might not see the floor enough to allow his enticing blend of blocks and stretch shooting skills to emerge.
Sleepers and values
Even after a few hours as a YouTube scout, I can admit I have no idea what to expect from Frank Ntilikina in his first foray into NBA action. With the Knicks potentially going Hinkie-style this season, there is at least some potential for the French guard to net heavy minutes on one of the worst point guard depth charts in the league.
It's possible to have scoffed at the value the Bulls netted for Jimmy Butler and yet still admire the unique upside Lauri Markkanen presents as a rare stretch big with shooting guard skills from beyond.