Is it a streak...or a trend?
The first month of the NBA fantasy season is all about noise. Overreaction. Hot takes. One big game is pronounced the new normal. A cold shooting week leads to a player bemoaned as a season-long bust.
We're dealing with a small sample size. An eighth of the schedule. That's just about the tipping point.
We can start to detect if a player is just having a good/bad week, or a good/bad season.
Our goal: filter out the noise. Process and view early statistical returns with a season-long perspective.
We are looking for indicators. Indicators of true, lasting change in player valuation. Areas where preseason projections are proving to be incorrect.
Figure out what we (the experts) were wrong, and pounce.
Start with which players are getting more opportunities than anticipated. The top of the funnel: minutes. Rotations. Roles. Who's getting more playing time than Fantasyland anticipated?
Now we get granular. We can talk possession.
Who's driving the offense? Who is ball movement flowing through? Who's finishing plays? Getting more possessions. Touches.
If a player can vacuum up a disproportionately large amount of his team's possessions while maintaining an acceptable level of efficiency, he becomes a fantasy star.
To understand which players are getting an imbalanced amount of opportunities, I look at two stats: Usage Rate and Player Touches.
This week, let's focus on the former.
Usage Rate (USG%) uses a formula to determine percentage of ownership. What percentage of plays belongs to each player.
The Usage formula employs four indicators of ownership of possession: field goal attempts, free throw attempts, turnovers and minutes played. It computes what a player is accruing in those four areas relative to his team's total output.
Think of it this way: in an ideal, balanced, magnanimous basketball universe, all players would have a Usage Rate of 20.0%. The five players on the court would each own one fifth of the possessions.
But life isn't fair. Neither is NBA ball movement. (Just ask Kevin Knox.)
When a player's Usage Rate climbs north of 25.0%, it's a sign that he is due to register a big fantasy impact. When the Usage Rate starts pushing over 30.0%, that player is getting superstar-level opportunity.
It also can mean that a player averaging fewer minutes can still operate at a high fantasy level. It's why players like Joel Embiid can dominate while getting comparatively less playing time. Or how a bench player like Lou Williams can contribute in a sixth man role.
The GOAT Usage campaign: 2016-17 Westbrook. That year, he posted a historically gargantuan 41.7 Usage Rate. Last season, Harden came close to breaking Westbrook's record with a 41.0 Usage Rate. (Now, they're on the same roster. My left brain is aching to register how that pairing will shake out over the course of an entire season.)
If you look at who currently leads the NBA in Usage, you'll scan a lot of obvious names. Harden (39.4%). Antetokoumpo (33.4%). LeBron (29.9%). Kyrie (33.5%). Kawhi (35.7%).
Harden dominates the league at 39.4%. Still double the amount of the average expected rate of Usage. Conclusion: Westbrook's presence isn't cutting into Harden's role.
Kawhi is second at 35.7%. That will regress with the return of Paul George. But it also says that even with load management, Kawhi will have a crack at top-10 fantasy production, if he stays in the 65-70 game range.
Now, let's look for unexpected shifts in value. Look past the biggest names. Search for surprises. Disruptors. The names we didn't expect.
Who's making the jump? Let's review.
In my preseason ADP overrated/underrated column, I highlighted Young as a proven riser that was being overlooked by Fantasyland. My evidence: Young demonstrated over the final month of 2018-19 that he could sustain a demonstrable boost in possession and True Shooting Percentage.
Point guards have an inside edge on Usage Rate. In most offenses, possession begins at the one. The key for elite fantasy PGs: are they finishing enough possessions on their own? Elite fantasy PGs self-assign certain outcomes to themselves.
Young has cemented his leap from rising point guard to fantasy superstar. It's reflected in his Usage Rate. And going back to last season, it's really taken only about 30 games for the leap to lock in. Don't forget, halfway into 2018-19, he was shooting way below replacement value. Young was the afterthought in the Doncic trade.
What's driving the leap? The natural NBA maturation process of a young star. But from a statistical point of view, look at Young's acceleration in offensive efficiency.
When a player increases ownership of possession, a slight drop-off in efficiency is expected. But in Young's case, as a rising NBA superstar, he's putting it all together. He's increasing volume and efficiency. Last season, his True Shooting Percentage was a below-average 53.8%. So far this campaign, it's at an All-Star-worthy 60.6%. Another sign of Young's offensive domination: he's getting to line 7.3 times a game, up 2.2 attempts from last season.
In the same ADP column, I warned you not to overrate Doncic. And I'm hating myself for writing it. I'm talking "DaVinci Code"-level self-flagellation.
Explanation: I was worried about the shooting. From the field (42.6% in 2018-19), but especially at the line (71.3 FT% in 2018-19). Doncic doesn't do much in blocks + steals. I always worry when a historically inefficient first-round player lacks plus defensive metrics. And unlike Young, Doncic hadn't provided any late-season evidence he was could take the leap in offensive efficiency to match his rate of possession.
Last season, Doncic posted a 54.5 TS%. This season, Doncic's at a stratospheric 61.6%. But the efficiency only tells part of the story. Doncic has accelerated his across-the-board production to a megastar clip (28.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 9.1 assists). On paper, he's 2016 Westbrook, but with a better outside shot.
Peak LeBron James is probably the best comp here. An elite small forward essentially playing point guard while also generating his own offense. You're packing top-shelf production from two positions (SF/PG) into one portfolio. Just look at the touches per game. Doncic leads the NBA in touches at 103.1. To put that into perspective, LeBron is second at 98.7.
Here's another player from my ADP underrated column. Back then, I maintained Russell was more than equal to taking on some "Klay Thompson cosplay." That was before Curry went down. Now, that preseason warning reads as quaint. Because this has all the earmarks of a Doncic-esque fantasy explosion.
Don't be hornswoggled by Russell's good-not-great seasonal averages. Look at his past five games. Russell's past-5 Usage Rate: 38.3%. His TS%: 61.4%. The fantasy numbers: 33.2 points, 3.8 3s, 7.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 2.6 steals + blocks.
Russell is what happens when a very good player is the last man standing on a hobbled once-great offense. The system malfunctions and sputters, but one player is still functioning. Result: hero ball par excellence. An everlasting and permanent green light. Russell's on the attack every single possession. The evidence: he's up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game after averaging just 2.5 last season.
Remember those draft night LeBron comps? Think hard. Like back-to-2014 hard.
Once upon a time, Wiggins was a No. 1 overall pick saddled with the dreaded "next LeBron" pricetag. It turns out those predictions might have been somewhat correct. Wiggins just needed to mature at a crock pot rate.
The twist: Wiggins regressed over the past two seasons. KAT and Butler pushed him to the margins. There are high Usage Rates in Wiggins' portfolio. His Usage in 2016-17 was a star-level 27.5%.
But back then, it was empty Usage. Empty points, paired with middling efficiency. Wiggins' career high in PER was 2016-17's barely-average 16.62. This season, his PER already at 22.47 and rising.
Wiggins just posted the best back-to-back of his career. 63 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists, seven 3s, three steals and two blocks. This isn't a mirage. Wiggins is gaining statistical momentum on a nightly basis. Wiggins could always score, but there was no categorical support. Suddenly, the switch has flipped. He's doing it all.
Brogdon is feeling his oats in Indiana. A case study in how a max contract and new team can amplify Usage. Brogdon is producing like a fantasy star. Currently top-10 on the Player Rater.
He's a unique fantasy story. He's flipped the typical script. The efficiency was already there. With Brogdon, Fantasyland was waiting for the Usage to catch up.
Over the first 10 games, Brogdon is playing like one of the steals of the 2019-20 season. He's shown a fantasy star's capacity to shrug off the occasional off night.
The looming question: what happens when Oladipo comes back? Brogdon is known for unselfish play. Will Brogdon regress to his Bucks persona?
It says here Brogdon stays in the Player Rater top 20. Brogdon can blend with Oladipo and remain highly productive.
Here's a budding Trae Young comp. The Usage is already there. Now the rest of the stats just have to catch up.
There's going to be rookie inconsistency. Some nights, it's all already clicking. Case in point: last night's tilt against the Hornets. 23 points, 11 assists, a three and a steal. The previous game: just nine points and 3 assists.
Morant's logging top-80 production just two weeks into his fantasy career. To me, he's ahead of the rookie curve. His minutes (just 27.5 MPG) are first in line to climb. As the minutes ramp up, the rough patches will begin to smooth out. It's not hard to see Morant breaking out after All-Star Weekend.
Warning: the 34.9% is a mirage. Rose's early season Usage is overinflated. He was overused when Blake Griffin was on the shelf. Result: big numbers (the 31 points he threw down on the Sixers on 10/26), then the inevitable pulled right hamstring.
Rose's minutes will be managed and restricted. But his high Usage does show that Rose is capable of producing in limited minutes. The Usage will drop, but still will be elite. Even at 25 MPG -- even off the bench -- Rose can contribute in 10-team leagues.