Fantasy basketball: Breaking down the top rookie and fantasy MVP candidates

Fantasy managers who drafted Julius Randle struck gold this season. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

To paraphrase Lloyd Bridges: I picked a helluva year to quit rotisserie.

This was the season I turned away from the balance and efficiency of roto. Embraced the fast, easy charms of points.

And narrowing my focus to points did simplify my analysis during this historically challenging season. (Whether "simpler" means" better"? That is in the eye of the beholder.)

But here we are. In the home stretch. On the precipice of finality. That means it's awards season.

But I'm not handing out any imaginary hardware just yet. Because if you're in a points league, the races for the two big prizes are coming right down to the wire.

Here are my finalists.


My selection process for fantasy ROY requires asking one straightforward question: "over the course of the full season, which freshman delivered the best overall fantasy production?" And because we're talking points leagues here? Answering that question becomes easy.

No. I don't go by per-game value for ROY. Because while I don't believe in the Rookie Wall ... I believe rookie seasons deliver pronounced statistical peaks and valleys.

This is why with rookie value, it's essential to identify which rookie delivered the most outstanding aggregate value. As opposed to who had the most buzz coming in. Or who had a couple of flashy peaks. Or an en fuego final month.

Or huge first half and injury-checkered second half. Like, say, LaMelo Ball.

In my odd little world, rules are rules. And as of this writing, Ball's injury means he is on the outside looking in. Just a hair behind.

3) Jae'Sean Tate, SF, Houston Rockets

The fact Tate's under-the-radar, Iron Man-esque season has been halted in the home stretch by COVID-19 protocols? It's 2020-21 in a nutshell.

There's nothing flashy about Tate's stat line: 11.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.5 blocks, 1.3 steals, 0.8 3s. I can count on one hand the number of times Tate scored 20 or more points. He spent most of the season as a standard-league streamer.

But he's been healthy, productive, and consistent. Tate's evidenced solid, steady growth throughout a challenging year. That's all you can ask for out of any fantasy rookie.

2) Anthony Edwards, SG/SF, Minnesota Timberwolves

All of the nice things I just wrote about Tate? Cut, paste, and then change to ALL CAPS.

Here's a little Cliff's Notes trick I use to assess rookie value: pre-and-post-All-Star Weekend splits.

Pre-All-Star Weekend: 27.2 minutes, 14.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.3 blocks, 0.7 steals, 1.8 3s, 38.2 FG%, 80.7 FT%, 32.4 3PT%

Post-All-Star Weekend: (clears throat) 34.7 minutes, 22.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 blocks, 1.5 steals, 2.7 3s, 42.2 FG%, 76.0 FT%, 33.4 3PT%

And yes: the drop in free throw percentage is why I bumped Edwards down to second place.

Just kidding. Still aggregate value, and nothing but. But I predict Edwards' late box score binge will push him past.

1) Tyrese Haliburton, PG/SG, Sacramento Kings

It appears Halliburton has joined the ranks of the recently shut down. Which is too bad. Because I don't get a lot of excitement around the garage at present. And the fantasy endgame duel between Edwards and Haliburton was my kind of exciting.

Silver lining: Haliburton's knee injury won't require surgery. Question for next season: how can Haliburton build on his strong rookie season behind De'Aaron Fox?


My qualifications for MVP have gotten a little more complex.

It's always driven me nuts just to pick the player that had the best season. What's the fun in that? So I used to qualify the award as the player who most outperformed his ADP.

Because In the end, final fantasy value isn't just about pure production. It's about weighing aggregate production against how much draft capital you expended for the player.

In one of my other lives, I make a lot of commercials. And I'll tell ya: getting more bang for your buck is the essence of value.

But just sticking to that one qualification resulted in my engraving some left-fieldish names on my imaginary trophies. For instance: this season's MVP race would be down to Kyle Anderson, T.J. McConnell and Kelly Olynyk.

No disrespect, but there wouldn't be a lotta eyeballs on that award ceremony. And if you just watched the Oscars, you'll understand how maybe overthinking things a little too much can lead to some odd presentational results.

So I re-examined my process. And I realized that an MVP should be a player that required a high amount of draft capital.

Not top-10 capital. That would be boring. That would only lead to mega-obvious names. So I settled on top-30 capital. And my criteria for fantasy MVP now stands as: "the top-30 ADP player who most outperformed his ADP."

We have another nail-biter.

3) Julius Randle, PF/C, New York Knicks

The Thibofication of Randle's fantasy value is complete. For all the preseason hemming and overanalyzing of the Thibodeau-Knicks marriage, one pattern seemed to get a little lost: Thibs installs his system, picks his favorites, and plays said favorites into the ground.

(Just ask Derrick Rose. He's right over there.)

Last season's Randle brought the volume. But his efficiency took a hit. It wasn't because Randle was suddenly on the downside of his career. It was because of the situation. The system.

So they bring in Thibodeaux. He looks at the roster and decides who is going to get his 35-39 MPG. He sees Randle is going to be one of his guys. As a matter of fact? The guy.

But this isn't just a matter of amplifying minutes and restoring strategic sanity. It's a matter of realizing should run your offense ... and not caring that the answer is your 6'8" PF/C.

Randle flashed assists upside at low-level before: in 2016-17, he averaged 3.6 dimes in just 29 MPG. But he jumped up a couple notches in 2020-21, going from 3.1 to 5.9 APG. His assist ratio leaped from 12.8 to 19.5, while his turnover ratio decreased. That's hard to do. And that proves Randle's secret weapon was never fully deployed until Thibodeau walked in the door.

Add in the fact that ESPN's new scoring system rightly prioritizes assists ... and you have a perfect fantasy storm in Julius Randle.

1) TIE Rudy Gobert, C, Utah Jazz and Russell Westbrook, PG Washington Wizards

This is a dead heat. And a teaser. Because I'm going to save my Gobert vs. Westbrook analysis for my final column of the season. This race will come down to the final game, and I don't want to spoil any imaginary suspense.

In myriad ways, the final competition for the award personifies the unique statistical dynamics within the 2020-21 fantasy campaign. And it sets up a very interesting debate on the fantasy merits of volume versus efficiency.