Fantasy basketball sophomore rankings: Is Ja Morant or Zion Williamson on top?

Ja Morant is the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year, but is Zion Williamson actually the better fantasy sophomore in 2020-21? Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Getting ready for the NBA preseason ... in December. It's an odd feeling.

It feels like the draft was yesterday. That the Finals were just ... the day before yesterday.

After needing so long to cap off the 2019-20 season, just like that -- last year's rookies are young veterans; our new sophomore class.

But in the back of my mind, I've been asking myself: Is the rapid resumption of NBA basketball negatively impacting Year 2 players' short-term development?

Professional athletes function within their own unique rhythm. Their own cadence. But going into 2020-21, NBA players are being asked to hurry it up.

Will this season's sophomore class end up producing like quasi-rookies (translation: will they disappoint)? Or conversely, is there is a 2020-21 scenario where youth might be served?

We're in for an extended session of sustained Popovichian cosplay. As in: coaches league-wide are about to start doling out all kinds of load management.

Veterans will be forced into early, extra rest. But sophomore veterans won't need that extra rest. For them, it could represent an opportunity.

In a truncated regular season schedule that's really going to feel like a preamble for the playoffs, what's going to prevent lottery teams from using 20-25 games to develop their youth? (Intriguing for fantasy, since RPGuilding teams also happen to be the franchises stocking hyper-skilled sophomores with the highest upside.)

This is all my way of opening up our discussion of my top 10 fantasy sophomores.

10. Rui Hachimura, SF/PF, Washington Wizards

Hachimura logged heavy minutes down the stretch in August. Delivered consistent scoring (13.3 PPG in August).

But sadly, for this Wizards fan, he didn't do enough in any other categories (6.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.3 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 0.8 3PG) to do more than barely crack ESPN's preseason top 120.

Hachimura is a tweener, and it really shows on defense. Fantasy-wise, that lack of identity shows up in his box scores.

He had this annoying tendency to produce in only one secondary category every individual game.

One game? He'd give you a steal or two. The next game? He'd hit a couple 3s. Once every few games? He'd actually block a shot. (Hachimura is a good passer, so his assist rate clocks in a little higher than replacement-player production per his position.)

Oh, and as I write this, my long-suffering Wizards brain is processing the newly minted John Wall-Russell Westbrook deal.

With Westbrook eating up miles and miles of Wizard possessions, it's hard to see Hachimura improving on last season's numbers...outside of posting more consistency in his supporting stats.

And there won't be more available minutes; the Wizards drafted a nice prospect at SF in Deni Avdija, who's upside will be impossible to keep on the bench.

If you're Hachimura this season, you're tracking sideways.

9. Darius Garland, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

I'll say this for Garland: I like his long-term prospects more than Collin Sexton's.

I don't know if Garland has the ceiling you expect from a top-five pick, but he's already flashing diverse, multi-categorical production. Expanded minutes, a steady role, and some refinement of his shot selection could work wonders.

At first glance, Garland's rookie field goal percentage was a disappointing 40.1%, but in Garland's case, that anemic percentage is masking hidden upside. Because Garland was one of the rare young guards whose 3-point percentage (35.5 3FG%) nearly bested his overall field goal percentage, which tells me that Garland probably just needs to iron out his shot section.

Take a look at Basketball Reference, and sure enough, there it is: He was bad from 3-10 feet, and unwatchable on deep 2s. I hate using this comp, and don't read too much into it. But it's a little like what Damian Lillard had to overcome early in his career.

Darius Garland will never, ever be Damian Lillard. And Sexton drives me batty. His box scores are too myopic to believe.

But Garland's got something. He's only 20. We'll have to see how the situation with Kevin Porter Jr. shakes out, but Garland is a nice endgame flier in deep leagues.

8. RJ Barrett, SG/SF, New York Knicks

I could make a case for Barrett being a little higher on this list.

The upside is there, both in terms of role (he's a lock for 30-plus MPG) and because he's got nowhere to go but up in efficiency (47.9 TS% last season).

There are positive indicators. He closed out 2019-20 strongly, averaging 17.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG and 1.4 3PG after All-Star weekend. The Knicks quietly had a reasonably rational offseason.

Consistent minutes, a more settled locker room, and posting second-year improvements in efficiency is a nice Year 2 forecast to have. Obi Toppin will eat up some touches, but Barrett goes into the season with a clearly defined situation.

Result: Barrett will stack up some nice secondary stats off sheer volume and push 3.0-3.5 blocks+steals+3s per game. But if he boosts his TS% to 50.0%, he could hit 17.0 points per game. If the TS% rises close to 55.0%, he'll average 20.0 PPG.

7. Cameron Johnson, SG/SF, Phoenix Suns

While Hachimura and Barrett both have a pathway to more playing time, Johnson's role is murkier -- yet, I'm putting Johnson ahead of them. Why?

Two reasons: He's already a reliable 3-point shooter, and he supplies steady, diversified secondary production.

Factor in his wide-ranging upside, and you have a great sleeper. A low-risk, medium-reward, up-and-comer who would look good on any 12-team-leaguer's bench.

Johnson's diversified statistical portfolio means he won't need big minutes to help fantasy teams. The secondary stats give him an elevated floor to build on. Even with Jae Crowder vacuuming up frontcourt minutes -- and Mikal Bridges is already there providing competition -- Johnson's floor is 3.5-4.0 3s+blocks+steals per game.

6. Tyler Herro, SG, Miami Heat

Herro is the 2021 edition of a lesser-known, not-feared-enough fantasy archetype: the playoff-goggles player. Nothing artificially boosts a player's draft valuation like playoff heroics. And Herro's high-wattage playoff rampage was bound to drive up his valuation.

And then factor in this: If you take away a rebound per game, maybe half a 3-pointer, Herro becomes the 2021 edition of another lesser-known, not-feared-enough fantasy type: the empty-points player.

Herro is right on that line between being multi-categorically productive and myopically one-dimensional (just another 3-point specialist).

Plus, Herro is the first player on this list who is playing on a team with serious, deep playoff expectations. And on a team with expectations, the arrival of a battle-tested vet at your position like Avery Bradley is not a positive development for Herro's playing time.

But still, we all saw the upside in that 37-point tantrum he threw down against Boston. Top-75 production is possible. Just don't overpay for the privilege of finding out if he can get there.

5. PJ Washington, PF, Charlotte Hornets

Finally. The first sophomore I'd put in the top 100.

Washington is sort of a more actualized version of Hachimura. He's a tweener in size, but he's strong enough and agile enough to defend multiple positions effectively. He can play the four and has the potential to hold down the fort Draymond-style as a small-ball center.

Washington started strong last season but then ran into a common issue for ahead-of-schedule rookies: He became a victim of his own success. Meaning: His role expanded, and his efficiency dropped. It's a common issue for many rookies (as opposed to the mythical, non-existent "rookie wall.").

Fantasy-wise, I'm lighting a candle in the hopes James Borrego goes small with impunity. A lineup of Washington, Miles Bridges at PF, Gordon Hayward at SF, Terry Rozier at SG and LaMelo Ball/Devonte' Graham at PG would provide a positively juiced statistical dynamic.

Washington has plenty of room to grow. Even with his second-half efficiency slide, Washington notched a decent replacement-level TS% (54.7%) for the season. But he posted an anemic 64.7 FT%. A little uptick there, along with the expected boost all the Hornets will get from LaMelo's already-elite court vision? Cooking with gas.

Pencil in Washington at the 5, and it opens up all kinds of expanded fantasy possibilities.

4. Coby White, PG, Chicago Bulls

Since we were talking Wizards earlier, I'm gonna throw out another overly dramatic comp:

White's early ascension? His strong finish? The explosive "look at me" run of box scores back in February/March? It all reminded me an awful lot of what a certain Agent Zero threw down to close out his rookie campaign back in 2002.

I see a lot of early Gilbert Arenas in Coby White.

The scoring ability. The audacity. The fearlessness. The complete and utter lack of hesitation to rise up for the shot anytime, anywhere.

The comparison first hit me back in late February watching a Wizards-Bulls game. White immolated Washington's highly combustible defense to the tune of 33 points and 5 3s. He was 6-of-7 from the line. Added six rebounds, two steals and a block.

But what really cemented the comp was White's total inattention to distributing the basketball. In the middle of posting his career game, he gave up on moving the ball. In the end, White dished out only two assists.

Early Arenas also had a tendency to forget he was a point guard for long, long stretches. (Heck, so did Prime Arenas.)

Another similarity: the shooting streakiness from the field. And like early Arenas (and Garland), White's 3-point percentage (35.4%) nearly outpaced his overall field goal percentage (39.4%).

The key going into this season: Can Billy Donovan coax a little more floor generalship out of White? It's okay if White is a combo guard running the point. He just can't regress into playing shooting guard. Bring out that combo guard duality, and then Donovan can start White with a clear heart.

C'mon, coach -- buy the ticket, take the ride.

3. Michael Porter Jr., SF/PF, Denver Nuggets

Jerami Grant is a Piston now. So, the decks are clear. For Porter, 30-plus minutes per game is just sitting there.

In a limited sample size, we got a hint of what 30 minutes of Michael Porter Jr. will get you. The ceiling: 20 PPG, 10 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG, 2.0 3PG, 60.0 TS%.

Meaning: Porter is just a starting nod and a couple of statistical tweaks away from the top 40. Merely turning up his minutes (and volume) on his rookie numbers nearly gets you there.

So, what's not to like? Porter comes two hyper-saturated red flags; warning signs managers should easily recognize.

Red flag No. 1: injury history. Porter is only an NBA sophomore in spirit. He missed his entire rookie season with a back injury. He has a long, checkered medical past that goes back to high school. Is this a Blake Griffin situation? Will Porter become known as another talented, athletic big, who plays too forcefully to stay on the court?

Red flag No. 2: defensive effort. Porter is not renowned for his lockdown defensive intensity -- which can be semi-acceptable on young, developing teams, as long as you're bringing it on offense.

But in the recent Western Conference Finals? Denver was one Anthony Davis game-winner away from throwing a genuine, 6-to-7 game scare into the eventual champs.

The Nuggets' scrappy youthful-underdog phase? Over. Done. Denver aims to present as a top-three team in the Western Conference from the jump. (Depending on how Portland comes out the gate. Top four at worst.)

Stakes are high. A failure to tighten up his Toreador-inspired defensive approach could relegate Porter to sixth-man status.

Poor health and poorer D cloud Porter's ability to play out a full season as a full-time starter. But if you're like me, and you remember that mile-high four-game run Porter posted back in August (29.3 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 3.5 3PG, 1.3 SPG, 1.0 BPG), and Porter lasts until Round 7 in your draft, grabbing all that ceiling is gonna be tough to ignore.

2. Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans

I probably could have marshaled enough analytical and rhetorical force to nudge Zion into a tie for No. 1.

But then I'd be doing you a disservice. Because you need to be warned.

Zion bears all the statistical red flags of the most dangerous of all fantasy types: the generational-human-highlight-reel-that-presents-better-in-reality-than-in-fantasy player.

He's looking more and more like Blake Griffin: a player dealing with overgrown hype and sky-high statistical expectations -- who falls short in his box scores. The expectations and fantasy production don't match up.

As rookies, both early-career Griffin and Zion present statistical areas of weakness in multiple directions.

In terms of efficiency: weak free throw percentage. Zion hit only 64% of his free throws as a rookie. That's a big problem. Because to post top-30 production? For Zion's actual value to match the valuation? Williamson absolutely needs to do better from the line. Like 80% good from the line.

Because as a rookie, Zion didn't fortify his scoring with elite 3-point production; his meager 0.7 3PG was a big problem.

Then on top of the offensive shortcoming, Williamson also failed to develop strong sources of production within the defensive categories. Which was disappointing because there was a strong defensive history within his college numbers.

At Duke, Zion posted solid counting-stats on defense (2.1 steals, 1.8 blocks). But that history went MIA in Williamson's rookie season. Williamson labored to even keep his blocks+steals rate above a meager 1.0 per game.

As a rookie, even when pegging his value off per-game stats, Williamson barely cracked the top 100 players in fantasy basketball. As of this writing, his ADP is 22.

Meaning: Based off the only hard stats we have, Williamson is being overdraft by 60-70 spots. Even factoring in some generous Year 2 improvement (more 3s, blocks and steals, plus better FT%)? Williamson only cracks the top 40.

So even after all that improvement, he still projects as a slight draft bust. The fantasy does not meet the reality.

Zion comes with more attendant buzz than any other sophomore since LeBron. He's so exciting to watch. But like with Griffin, it might take several seasons for his actual value to be reflected in a more realistic ADP.

1. Ja Morant, PG, Memphis Grizzlies

Morant is currently at a sky-high 28 ADP. But he has a much better chance of paying off that valuation that Williamson.

Morant has the same transcendent superstar potential as Williamson. But he doesn't have to fight through nearly as much hype. As a rookie, Morant lived up to his expectations when it came to scoring (18.1 PPG), assists (7.3 APG) and rebounds (3.9 RPG).

He also managed to meet replacement-player level production in terms of shooting efficiency. His 47.7 FG%, 33.6 3FG and 77.6 FT% combined to post a perfectly acceptable 55.6 TS%. As a sophomore, to get closer to top-30 value, he needs just a modest boost in 3-point percentage and increased volume in 3-point and free throw attempts.

Just like with Williamson, Morant has all kinds of room to grow in the defensive counting stats. Morant failed to crack 1.0 steals as a rookie (0.9 SPG). To meet his elite valuation, Morant ultimately needs to effectively double his rookie steal rate.

In the end, Morant edges out Williamson for the No. 1 slot for a very simple reason: Morant has a much, much higher chance of actually justifying his high ADP.