Fantasy basketball: Ranking the rookies

Memphis PG Ja Morant is one of the rookies expected to make an instant impact. Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Prodigies don't often follow a linear path to success. Last season, NBA fans and pundits were curious about whether the Mavericks' Luka Doncic could adapt to the athleticism and grind of the NBA in transitioning from Real Madrid at just 19. His response was joining LeBron James and Russell Westbrook as the only players to average at least 21.0 PPG, 7.8 RPG and 6.0 APG. Doncic is now understandably a second-round fixture in ESPN live drafts ahead of the 2019-20 campaign.

The list goes on. Trae Young tallied 653 dimes in his debut season with the Hawks. That sounds like a lot because it is, as only Westbrook delivered more last season. Young also made more 3-pointers than Jamal Murray and Kyle Korver. There is a strong argument that Young's current ADP (average draft position) of 33 offers some room for profit given how valuable his outlier passing and shooting production could prove.

All Mitchell Robinson did as a second-round gem for the Knicks was finish fourth in the NBA in total blocks despite finishing 207th in minutes played. Robinson doesn't meet the possessions threshold to qualify on the official all-time leaderboard, but his 10% block rate (percentage of 2-point field goals he rejected while on the floor) last year would rank fourth in league history, with all of the higher single-season rates claimed by Manute Bol.

In all, we saw five rookies from last season finish in the top 100 on ESPN's Player Rater, a simple standard deviation model that values both statistical diversity and dominant specialization. This season's draft class is undoubtedly talented but likely not as loaded with ready-made elite statistical forces. This doesn't mean there won't be high-impact rookies -- because there will be -- but maybe this class will require more research and patience from fantasy gamers.

With an eye on projecting redraft value for the new campaign and some hope to unearth the next Robinson or Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, let's discuss the top fantasy rookies heading into the 2019-20 season.

1. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Here is the full list of NCAA basketball players since the 1992-93 season to have averaged at least 22.0 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.1 SPG, and 1.8 BPG in a single collegiate campaign: Zion.

ESPN NBA writer and statistical projections guru Kevin Pelton wrote last summer that it has become "clear that usage rate in particular varies unpredictably from NCAA to NBA. So too do a player's free throw attempts and turnover rate, as well as his 3-point percentage -- which makes sense given the change in distance. Block rate, assist rate and offensive rebound rate stand out as translating particularly cleanly from college to pro."

This premise that defensive, distribution and rebounding rates translate relatively cleanly from college to the NBA is a helpful refrain for discussing the rest of this class. This is especially true given some of the defensive-minded prospects drafted in the first round this past June but applies perfectly to Williamson's potential to become a fantasy force from the first tip. Williamson's rare blend of block percentage (5.8%) and steal percentage (3.9%) was matched only by the Sixers' Matisse Thybulle among college players who were drafted.

With a clear path to gobs of minutes and thus rebounding, scoring and defensive opportunities as the centerpiece of the retooled Pelicans, Williamson might even live up to this already demanding draft price. Ranked 22nd in points leagues, 34th in head-to-head categories formats, and 35th overall in our roto ranks, it's not surprising to see Williamson going 21st overall on average in ESPN live drafts. Of players going after Williamson in ESPN drafts, I'd rather invest in the likes of proven vets such as Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler and Devin Booker. That said, I can envision very viable outcomes that end with Williamson's defensive rates proving elite for fantasy purposes right away, helping at least validate the cost in drafts.

2. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

From Pelton's data and even from the capable transition we saw from Doncic and Young as lead initiators last season, we know there is real potential for elite amateur assist rates to translate into real NBA production right away. With this in mind, only Michigan State's Cassius Winston claimed a stronger projected assist rate among NBA prospects than Morant from Pelton's wins above replacement (WARP) assessment of eligible players. An elite playmaker on the collegiate stage, Morant led college basketball in total points scored and finished ninth in player efficiency rating, while calmly producing absurd per-100 possession rates of 37.3 PPG, 15.3 APG and 8.7 RPG.

The gap between Williamson and his peers in this class is fairly massive in regard to fantasy stock heading into the new season; Morant, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft this summer, was going 73rd overall in ESPN live drafts as of this writing. There is some real risk that Morant tanks your fantasy team's shooting percentage or turnover rate in roto or category leagues, but he also might average a Trae-like assist clip off the bat. An atypically high block percentage for a point guard (2.3%) is also encouraging for Morant's statistical profile.

Memphis won't be very good this season, but the team is young and loaded with talent and will almost surely afford Morant the bevy of touches and creation opportunities that helped Young excel in Atlanta last season. After diving deeper into his profile, I've come away believing you can profit (especially in points leagues) by taking Morant at his current draft price.

3. RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

I'll start this one off by asserting that Barrett will have a difficult time paying off his average draft price of 70th overall in ESPN leagues. Last season, Knicks rookie Kevin Knox struggled badly with scoring efficiency and defensive acuity on a thin roster, but Barrett is a more refined scoring force given his proclivity to get to the line at Duke. Barrett also brings solid playmaking skills to the court, as his borderline elite (for a wing) assist percentage (23.5%) in college confirms. A paltry steal rate at Duke isn't a great sign for his ability to develop into a diverse statistical performer, however.

The Knicks' odd hoarding of power forwards in free agency could curb some of Barrett's rebounding opportunities, but he's due for a robust usage rate on a team starved for creation from the wing. Pelton projects Barrett to have the highest usage rate as an NBA rookie of any underclassman considered in ESPN's top 100 prospects this past spring.

4. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Likely the first surprise on this list, I might have had Clarke even a spot higher if not for having both Jaren Jackson Jr. -- another stellar prospect from last season -- and Jonas Valanciunas entrenched in the Grizzlies' frontcourt. Even as the third big for Memphis, Clarke, one of the older prospects in this class, is ready to produce right away.

Sticking with the theme of defensive rates translating well to the pro ranks, Clarke averaged 3.3 BPG and 1.2 SPG at Gonzaga. Another positive indicator for his immediate fantasy utility is Clarke's stellar 13.9% offensive rebounding clip. Clarke is the type of player who could emerge as a top-100 fantasy option thanks almost exclusively to his work on the glass and on defense.

5. Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

With just 139 minutes of collegiate action for Vanderbilt before a knee injury cut his season short, we're working with a minuscule sample. That said, there are some indicators in this sample that suggest he's an advanced scoring and shooting threat off the dribble, including a stellar .657% true shooting rate (measure of shooting efficiency from all three levels) despite also netting a 28% usage rate. What I'm trying to say is that even while the sample is tiny, Garland made tough shots as the key playmaker while consuming a high volume of the team's possessions.

Young initiators often struggle with efficiency, but it's possible Garland is the caliber of shooter to help offset precedent. I'd have Garland third overall if not for the presence of Collin Sexton in Cleveland as the Cavs seek to build their Trail Blazers-like tandem of combo guards. Even with the overlap with Sexton, it's likely Cleveland finds him plenty of opportunities to produce from the perimeter.

6. Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Early last fall, White emerged as one of my favorite prospects of the class. A funky, herky-jerky handle combined with advanced shooting footwork could see White eventually challenge Morant as the top point guard from the class. He's not nearly the athlete Morant is, so White's path to fantasy relevance will be his ability to create offense off the dribble, namely via step-back shooting. The Bulls still have Kris Dunn on the roster and invested in combo guard Tomas Satoransky, so White's role could be light early on.

7. Jarrett Culver, Minnesota Timberwolves

If Minnesota moves on from Jeff Teague or if he faces an injury absence, it's quite possible the team could empower Culver with more creation duties (respectable rate of 3.7 APG as a sophomore at Texas Tech). It could take time for Culver to emerge as a worthy starting option in fantasy leagues given his jack-of-all-trades, master of none appeal, yet his blend of opportunity and versatility as a guard and wing could pay off for patient managers -- especially since there isn't a ton of traffic on his way to a starting role in Minnesota.

8. De'Andre Hunter, Atlanta Hawks

In researching Hunter's transition to the pros, I've concluded that he might, at least initially, be a better real prospect than fantasy contributor. Hunter's collegiate steal and block rates are quite low relative to some of his peers on this list. It's nice that Hunter sank 41.9% of his collegiate 3-point attempts at Virginia and was uniquely clutch in helping secure a national title, but with modest assist, rebounding and free throw rates, there isn't much to love about his statistical potential on either side of the ball.

Savvy team defense and league-average 3-point shooting could make Hunter a sound pick for the Hawks and yet somewhat overrated for fantasy purposes this season given that he's going as the fourth rookie overall at 92nd in ESPN drafts.

9. Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans Pelicans

From a talent perspective, this is too low for Alexander-Walker, who happens to be Shai's cousin. This smooth combo guard possibly had the best tape of anyone in the summer league outside of Clarke. The holdup in hyping him as a top fantasy option as a professional freshman is the sheer depth of veteran talent New Orleans claims at the wing and in the backcourt.

With Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, E'Twaun Moore and Jrue Holiday all likely ahead of this rookie for meaningful minutes, it would probably require a trade or injury to unlock immediate value. Given his smooth shooting (38.3% at Virginia Tech), capable playmaking skills (4.0 APG as a sophomore) and larcenous defense (1.9 SPG as a sophomore), Alexander-Walker is a solid sleeper if opportunities emerge this season.

10. Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

Having gone from making only 19.2% of his 3-pointers as a sophomore at Gonzaga to 41.7% of such shots in his junior campaign speaks to the variance and volatility small shooting samples can produce, as Pelton noted earlier. It's not entirely clear what skills will translate right away for Hachimura in the NBA given he's got the size of a power forward but the defensive and rebounding rates of a wing.

This modern NBA likely won't discriminate positional placement as long as the rookie brings the same level of chaos and energy he did to the floor in college. He's not really an ace in any one category, so Hachimura's main selling point as a fantasy prospect is the potential for an atypically big role on both sides of the floor as part of a talent-poor Wizards roster.

Honorable mention

  • Not having Tyler Herro make the cut might seem controversial given his impressive summer league production, but I don't envision him having much utility for fantasy managers past some nice shooting and scoring outings. Herro has some playmaking to his game, but there are several layers of high-usage veterans ahead of him in Miami.

  • It's possible I'm far too low on Cam Reddish heading into his first season, but given his shooting struggles at Duke and the fact that he wasn't able to do a ton this summer due to a core muscle injury and procedure, I can live with the fade. It will be compelling to see if Reddish can surpass Hunter in fantasy value as early as this year.

  • I was really high on Grant Williams as a prospect and think the path to cracking Boston's rotation is scalable given that the team lost Al Horford and Marcus Morris and he was best known for his defense and playmaking out of the post at Tennessee.

  • Goga Bitadze is a new member of the Pacers' frontcourt logjam, but if the team moves one of Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis, there is potential for him to ascend quickly.

  • Matisse Thybulle posted absurd, Robert Covington-like steal and block rates in college but will struggle to get meaningful minutes on a contender in South Philly.

  • Cam Johnson isn't on a contender in Phoenix, but he will likely be a one-trick specialist in a league filled with shooters. The Suns also have several wings for Johnson to contend with for minutes and shots.

  • I'm very intrigued in dynasty formats by Sekou Doumbouya, but he's likely several seasons from his arrival as a fantasy force in Motown.