We've moved into awards season in fantasy basketball. Next week will be all about handing out the imaginary hardware.
But for now, let's imagine it's sometime close to Halloween, 2019. (I'll be dressing as Carl from the movie "Up," because at this point ... all I need to do is find a bow tie.) It's the height of draft season. All of your preseason prep has come down to a couple of high-octane hours. It's just you, your laptop, some caffeination and a spreadsheet.
I'm telling you this now so you can remember it later: Remember your red flags.
After all, drafting successfully means identifying players with untapped or unrecognized upside. But correspondingly, it's about avoiding players with underlying issues.
We are greeted with the prospect of rostering a big name ... and we forget to kick the numerical tires. And we end up over-drafting a player who is concealing a statistical issue that's going to come back to haunt us.
Let's walk on the dark side of season-ending awards. Instead of an All-NBA team, let's look at my Red Flag All-Stars.
These are young players with considerable upside. Players who under-performed compared to their respective average draft positions (ADPs) this season. Players who are going to go in the early rounds of your next draft.
All are players who could end up going a couple of rounds higher than they should ... unless they repair certain dings in their statistical portfolios.
I'm obsessed with Simmons ... his triple-double potential ... the 2-plus steals+blocks ... the rare positional qualification of PG/PF.
On the surface, Simmons has all of the qualifications to be a top-10 fantasy pick ... maybe even top-five. But Simmons' lack of an outside shot is liable to keep him out of the top 30.
Until he irons out his shooting stroke to work beyond any distance beyond 0-3 feet? Simmons has hit his fantasy ceiling.
According to Basketball Reference, Simmons has a 71.3 FG% from 0-3 feet. He takes 57.0 percent of his shots from that distance. But his percentage drops like a rock every few feet he moves from the basket, culminating in his 0.00 3FG%.
Other star fantasy PGs notch 3-5 Player Rater points in 3-pointers alone. Simmons (0-of-17 from downtown in his career) adds zero Player Rater points in 3-pointers.
If he were even just replacement-level in 3s, Simmons would be a top-15 fantasy player.
Then there are the free throws.
When you extrapolate Simmons' anemic 60.0 FT% across his 5.6 attempts per game, the results are devastating to Simmons' fantasy bottom line. He's one of the bottom-five free throw shooters in fantasy. If Simmons were just a replacement level free throw shooter, he'd be top-10 fantasy producer on that boost alone.
And Simmons' volume-based numbers don't have much more room to grow. His usage rate is already a healthy 21.3 percent. Playing 34.4 MPG in the NBA's second-most stacked starting five (behind Golden State), it's hard to envision Simmons upping his usage rate and adding much more to his 17.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.8 assists.
Going into this fall's drafts, Simmons' draft stock will hinge on the expansion of his shooting range. That obviously was the hope going into this season (based on his ADP of 13) ... and Simmons made only nominal improvements in field goal and free throw efficiency. The result: he under-performed his ADP by two full rounds.
Whiffing that hard on a late-first/early-second round pick reduces the margin of error for the rest of your draft to zero.
Shooting guard: Luka Doncic
Player Rater: 66
Doncic offers a similar fantasy dynamic to Simmons. The star hype. The (likely) Rookie of the Year award. The unique positional qualification (SG/PF). The gaudy out-of-position per-game volume: 21.2 points, 2.3 3-pointers, 7.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.5 steals+blocks.
Unfortunately, the similarities don't end there. Doncic is also a sub-par producer in the percentage categories. His 54.4 true shooting percentage is even lower than Simmons'. When you conflate field goal and free throw performance, Doncic is hurting his manager's bottom line at a depth that's very similar to Simmons.
To be fair, there's one major difference: Doncic is already averaging an elite 2.3 3-pointers per game. And the fantasy fix is clear: Doncic just needs to up his 32.6 3FG% into the upper thirties. The volume of attempts is already there. Doncic's shot selection is solid. He is already very good at avoiding inefficient deep jumpers. Only four percent of Doncic's 2-point attempts came from deeper than 16 feet.
At 71.1 FT%, Doncic is not far from at least hitting the league average in free throw percentage. If he can get to replacement level averages in field goal and free throw production, that would be enough to lift him into the Player Rater top 30.
But Doncic is going to very hyped heading into this fall's drafts. Thanks to his high scoring average (and like ROY award), he could surge as high as the late second round. But he's going to stall out somewhere in the third-to-fourth round on the Player Rater if he doesn't become an elite 3-point shooter.
Doncic's usage rate is a stratospheric 30.6 percent. He's already elite when it comes to rate of possession. Add in a possible high incoming draft pick (their pick is top-five protected), and (probably) Kristaps Porzingis ... and Doncic's usage doesn't have a lot of room to grow. He's going to have to make an improvement in efficiency to justify anything more than a third- or fourth-round draft pick.
I'm optimistic when it comes to Doncic's ability to make the needed jump. He's posted stretches this season when he's been very hot from downtown, and more serviceable at the line.
Hopefully, Doncic plays in the summer league (he didn't play last year due to heavy EuroLeague usage) and gives fantasy managers an idea as to how his shooting has improved heading into draft season.
(Also, if you're in a turnover league, downgrade both Simmons and Doncic by a round.)
Small forward: Jayson Tatum
Player Rater: 44
Living in Los Angeles, I listen to a lot of Lakers talk radio (ESPN 710, naturally). So, I get to ingest a lot of one-sided debate over why the Pelicans would be wiser to trade Anthony Davis for a package built around Brandon Ingram than a package built around Tatum.
At the beginning of the season, such talk would have sounded like Lakers exceptionalism run amok. But Ingram substantially closed the perceived gap between the two players after the trade deadline. Ingram took the leap on offense that Tatum managers hoped for, averaging more than 20 points per game before being sat due to his (now surgically repaired) thrombosis.
Tatum has also taken one big leap in his fantasy development. Unfortunately for mangers, it came during the 2018 playoffs. That bump did not fully translate into Tatum's 2018-19 regular-season numbers.
Tatum's volume of shot attempts (13.2 FGA) and usage rate (22.0 percent) both increased, but not to the levels he hit during last season's playoffs (13.7 FGA, 23.3 percent).
The big red flag: Tatum's efficiency actually regressed in his second season. His true shooting percentage dropped from 58.6 percent to 54.8 percent. Most alarming was Tatum's drop in 3-point efficiency, sinking from 43.4 3FG% to 37.6 3FG%. Tatum's overall PER also dropped to a replacement level 15.1 ... not the kind of progression expected out of a top-40 fantasy sophomore.
Tatum has shown flashes of future fantasy stardom. But he's not an elite producer on defense (1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks) or on the boards (6.1 RPG), so Tatum's going to have to make the leap on offense.
Here's where we head into choppier waters: Is Tatum's fantasy value getting kneecapped by his role in Boston? The Celtics posted a 10th-ranked offensive rating (112.2) and were only 17th in pace (99.6). Kyrie Irving understandably was the alpha dog on offense this season. But Tatum emerged only as a nominal second option on a deep roster where seven players averaged more than 25.0 MPG.
Like with Ingram, it's important to remember Tatum's relative youth: he's only in his age-20 season. There's plenty of time for Tatum to mature into fantasy stardom. Neither the Celtics (or especially the Lakers) want to duplicate the D'Angelo Russell situation, dealing a very young player when he was on the cusp of a breakout.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the Celtics this offseason. If Irving stays, there's a good chance Tatum is dealt for Davis. If Irving leaves, there's a good chance the Celtics commit to building around Tatum. Either outcome (first option on the Pelicans or Celtics) augurs well for Tatum's fantasy prospects heading into 2019-20. But he's going to have to become a more efficient player (pushing his PER towards 20.0) to make the jump to top-30 fantasy producer.
The good news: We're seeing Tatum's fantasy floor. If Tatum just makes incremental improvements, he'll still land in the top 40. But if Tatum explodes again in the playoffs, it will inflate his fantasy draft stock. And we've already seen that won't necessarily translate into regular-season production.
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Player Rater: 5
Paul George just passed Antetokoumpo last night on the Player Rater, knocking Antetokoumpo down to fifth.
Being fifth overall off of a 1.5 ADP may not seem like a disappointment. Antetokounmpo's season has been incredible if you're in a points league ... but in the end, he simply hasn't justified that top overall ADP.
The dropoff in Player Rater value from a No. 1 overall pick to a No. 5 pick is the same as the drop from No. 5 to No. 30.
Part of this disparity is on Harden: He's simply so far ahead of the rest of the pack that he's reset the expectations for a No. 1 pick. But that's what No. 1 picks are supposed to do. And even if Antetokounmpo reaches close to peak production in 2019-20, it probably won't be enough to push Harden.
Like the other young players on this list, Antetokounmpo's ceiling is (relatively) limited by shooting inconsistency. He has attempted a career-high 2.7 3s per game this season ... and is hitting only 0.7 of them (for a 24.6 3FG%). Antetokounmpo has offset that by hitting 63.9 percent of his 2-point attempts to push his true shooting percentage to 64.1 percent (good for 10th overall).
Antetokounmpo is a more productive version of what I call the "Russell Westbrook conundrum" -- a player whose eminently watchable style of play and volume-based dynamics overinflate his fantasy reality. (This isn't meant to lump Antetokoumpo in with Westbrook of today, but the Westbrook of a couple of seasons ago ... when his triple-doubles effectively masked Westbrook's deficiencies to the peril of fantasy managers everywhere).
Antetokounmpo is part of a clear cluster of players (George, Davis, Towns, Durant) duking it out for No. 2 behind Harden. The good news: of all of these players, Antetokounmpo has the most room for statistical growth.
The PER (30.51) is second overall. The Usage (32.2 percent) is eighth. But despite the high amounts of efficiency and volume, there is a path for Antetokounmpo to push his fantasy production even higher. If Antetokounmpo can manage 80 percent from the line and 35 percent from downtown ... he'll establish himself as the clear No. 2 overall pick.
And in the Age of Harden, that's good enough.
Center: Andre Drummond
Player Rater: 25
I'm happy for Drummond. Ecstatic that he's gone from being the worst free throw shooter in the history of fantasy to merely top 10. He's made huge strides at the line (59.0 FT% this season). But Drummond has also marked his progression with subtle overall improvements that make him a clear top-25 player.
Over the past month, we've seen what is probably peak Drummond: 17.9 PPG, 17.2 RPG, 2.4 (underrated) APG, 1.8 SPG, 1.6 BPG, 64.8 FT% and a 57.4 TS%. That's near top-12 production. Put it down here (from an early Drummond skeptic): an Andre Drummond that shoots 65.0 percent at the line is a borderline first-round pick.
The question is: Can Drummond sustain that statistical pace for an entire season? It's a big bet to make in the second round, especially when that bet is based solely on free throw performance. Is the upside worth a late-first/early-second rounder? Or will Drummond stay merely a top-25 player?
Those kinds of geeky questions, dear reader, are what makes fantasy basketball so utterly fantastic.