Falling in "rookie love" is a dicey proposition.
When it works, it's an unparalleled fantasy thrill. But the irrepressible gleam of new names and statistical possibilities blinds us to a hard roto truth: Most fantasy rookies fail to meet expectations. Each season invariably brings us only one to two NBA freshmen who live up to their ADP (average draft position).
The real value is found in Year 2.
Rookie hype has evaporated. The young upside -- a player's fantasy potential -- is still there. But our expectations can be formed on Year 1's results. Fantasywise? Sophomores are a far safer market for your draft resources.
Best yet, there's value to be mined. Because rookie busts are a bummer. They create what I call "post-rookie depression."
But post-rookie depression yields sophomore opportunity.
Come next draft season, the hype machine moves on to incoming rookies. Last season's rookie bust becomes just another undervalued veteran. Any player who disappoints in Year 1 can prove a breakout candidate for Year 2. Fantasy history is littered with instances of rookie busts who put it all together the following season.
To offer a poorly crafted analogy, sophomores are the pre-owned vehicles of Fantasyland. You can still get some of that new-car feeling, but at a far better value ... plus, you have an idea of what you're getting.
Better yet, 2017-18 produced one of the deepest rookie benches in fantasy history. The class overflowed with rookies who flashed upside for long stretches. Come Year 2, those stretches of productivity will arrive with more consistency.
Let's rank some sophomores!
1. Ben Simmons, PG/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
Guess how many NBA 3-pointers Simmons made in 2017-18? Hint: the same number I made. Zero. And Simmons was equally underwhelming from the free throw line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts. As advertised, Simmons' outside shot arrived as a work in progress.
Thankfully, little of that matters. You're not rostering Simmons to be the next Bill Sharman. You're rostering Simmons because he is a position-defying, multi-category-stuffing freak of statistical nature.
(Plus last season, Simmons skirted his lack of a jumper by taking 46 percent of his shots from inside of three feet. His canny shot selection inflated his true shooting percentage to a respectable 55.7.)
Year 2, Simmons will be a top-20 player. He's going to average close to a triple-double. He'll generate close to 2 steals and a block per tilt. His free throw percentage will improve. His shooting range will expand ... because the laws of physics dictate it has to.
If you get Simmons after the early second round? You get a steal.
2. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Utah Jazz
In 2017-18, Mitchell was the rarest of fantasy commodities: a rookie who came out of nowhere to deliver top-50 value. He's a case study in the opportunity created when a team loses a high-value free agent; losing Gordon Hayward became Utah's gain.
Mitchell defied the myth (and it is a myth) of the rookie wall. He started strong and finished stronger, averaging 22.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.2 3-pointers, 4.2 assists, and 1.5 steals for the month of April. Entering Year 2, you can bank on an entire season of that level of production.
You'll have to pay through the nose for his services. But he should come off your board around pick No. 20.
Collins is the definition of a Year 2 sleeper. He's the reason why it's important to pay attention to rebuilding teams. Atlanta might not drip with postseason possibility, but production is production. Somebody has to get numbers, so why not Collins?
At first glance, Collins' Year 1 stat line doesn't pop off the page: 10.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, and 1.1 BPG. But that was just Year 1. He has the 4 all to himself this season (again, rebuilds beget opportunity). Some 32-35 minutes per night is within reach.
Collins closed 2017-18 strong. He displayed enough statistical upside to allow for projected upgrades in 2018-19. You'll get 13-15 points, 8-10 rebounds and 1-1.5 blocks per game. That spells mid-round value.
Collins has definite room to grow at the stripe. His 2017-18 71.5 FT percentage wasn't bad for a big, but his paltry 2.5 attempts per game means he has a higher points-per-game ceiling than his rookie season advertised.
Plus Collins has a secret sauce: 3-point shooting. He ran hot and cold from deep last season, but he is capable of averaging close to a 3-pointer per game.
Put it all together and you have a solid sixth-rounder with fifth-round upside.
(Speaking strictly from a fantasy perspective ... you just don't get a lot of NBA rookies where "parenting" is a red flag a la LaVar Ball last season. To be fair, my son sports the same red flag in his flag football league. I'll leave it at this: When the other team is coached by an Affleck, go ahead and mark it -- Affleck's team is going to get all the calls.)
In a way, Ball is a poor man's Ben Simmons. He has near triple-double capability. Put him down for 10-12 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game. He's elite in the steals category, and chips in more than half a block per game. Projected against other point guards, that puts him up near John Wall as one of the best shot-blocking PGs in fantasy.
Like Simmons, Ball can't shoot free throws (45.1 FT percentage). But unlike Simmons, Ball has displayed competence from downtown, albeit in short bursts. He is capable of hitting 33-35 percent of his 3s. And since half of his field goal attempts are 3s, it means he'll chip in 1.5-2.0 3s per game.
Watch Ball's shooting. There's upside to mine here. When it comes to the LeBron James question, it means Ball will pass less and shoot more. Since James will occupy a lot of defensive attention, Ball will get lots of open looks. It'll be on him to start converting at a higher rate.
Ball has a high ceiling; there are a lot of question marks here. I rank Ball just behind Collins for second-year value.
If you're a Celtics fan, coming off Tatum's boffo playoff performance (18.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 3PG), this is a wicked-low sophomore ranking.
So I'll start with the good news: Tatum sports rare SF/PF eligibility. Tatum arrived with a polished outside shot (43.4 3-point percentage, 82.6 FT percentage, 58.6 TS percentage). He was durable, playing 80 games. He gained momentum as the season progressed (see: his playoff line).
Here's the bad news: Kyrie Irving and Hayward are back, which means diminished touches for the other ambulatory Celtics. At best, Tatum maintains his 19.5 percent usage rate. I look for only a 10 percent increase in his volume statistics over last season's averages. A line of 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 3s per game feels about right.
In the end, I'd look to draft Collins, Ball and Tatum in the sixth round. But Tatum's draft stock is sure to be overinflated due to his playoff performance and Celtics exceptionalism. (Which inflates draft stock just as much as Lakers exceptionalism.)
I like Smith. But he was overhyped as a rookie, and is overhyped as a Year 2 player. I've seen fourth-round projections for Smith (on some very reputable sites). But I say Smith falls short of that valuation. If you're lacking in efficiency and overrated in volume, it's a recipe for ADP disappointment.
You're looking for a point guard to stake you to a strong position in assists. But for all the hype, Smith will struggle to crack 6 dimes a game in 2018-19. You're also looking for a point guard to chip in 3s. Smith was subpar in his 3-point shooting last season, hitting only 31.3 percent of his attempts. His true shooting percentage was well below 50 percent (47.3) -- a true warning sign for a point guard with a fourth-round ADP.
Smith rebounds well for a point guard (projected 4-5 rebounds per game) but is only average in the steals department (he'll be lucky to crack 1.0 steals per game).
There's a lot of mid-round value at the point guard position this year. I won't take him before pick 60.
Pundits decry Markkanen's lack of defensive intensity. Thankfully, few leagues offer "defensive intensity" as a category.
No. We like Markkanen because we like stretch 4s. We like power forwards who chip in elite 3-point production. And unlike a lot of his rangy 7-foot brethren, Markkanen at least offers a replacement-level rebounding rate (7.5 per game in 2017-18). He's not going to block many shots ... but Markkanen is going to average close to a double-double in 2018-19.
One sticking point: Jabari Parker will siphon away some touches. Another sticking point: Markkanen proved less than durable, missing 10-plus games with back trouble during his rookie season.
Still, you can't go wrong with Markkanen at the beginning of the seventh round.
8. Kyle Kuzma, SF/PF, Los Angeles Lakers
Kuzma is getting LeBron'd to the bench. I still like Kuzma as the rare sixth man with fantasy value. But I sense managers will reach for his services.
At best, look for a repeat of Kuzma's 2017-18 line: 16.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 3-pointers per game. He's a fine upside pick in the later rounds, but James and Brandon Ingram are in his way.
Now here's a sexy late-round lottery ticket. After an injury-dented freshman campaign, Isaac is slated to start at small forward alongside Aaron Gordon in Year 2.
You're not drafting Isaac for his scoring. Any offense he chips in will be found money. That being said, he is capable of averaging a 3-pointer per game. He's also a decent free throw shooter (76.0 FT percentage).
You take a flier on Isaac because of the defense. He's capable of averaging more than 4 steals-plus-blocks per game. Any endgame pick capable of adding 2 steals, 2 blocks and a 3-pointer per game is worth a look.
10. Markelle Fultz, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Fultz is nothing but value. Nothing but upside.
And nothing but question marks.
Will he be healthy enough to play 70-80 games? Will he average more than 25 minutes per game? How are his shooting mechanics? Can he be more of a distributor? How will he mesh with Simmons? Will he get every opportunity to justify his No. 1 pick pedigree?
My advice: Regard this as Fultz' rookie season. Just pretend last season never happened. Just remember, most rookies don't live up their ADP ... and most rookies are brought along slowly.
If you draft Fultz, don't do it until the endgame.