Fantasy basketball: Which of the big-name rookies should you trade now?

Scottie Barnes has surpassed even the loftiest of expectations as a rookie. Cole Burston/Getty Images

"The right thing to do is to continue to play." - Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner

Welcome to sports, December 2021.

I'll take it.

Eighteen months ago, sports was me betting my daughter which Amazon package would arrive next.

Last night, I watched my Washington Football Team lose a nationally-televised game with significant playoff implications... at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday. We started a practice squad QB. He wasn't even from our practice squad.

I knew QB4 would play gallantly. But I knew QB4 would ultimately get sacked during a late-fourth quarter, fourth-down, doom-sealing sequence. And I knew that sack would ensure WFT would fail to cover by half a point.

(At 3:58 p.m. PST, every synapse in my formerly gambling-addled mind was screaming, "The Current Mrs. Cregan has had a platinum year! Not a white gold year... a platinum year! You can upgrade what's in that little blue box hidden inside your amp with the Eagles and the over! Go home, Cregan... your bookie misses you!")

Finally, I knew that I'd have to withstand two hours of my least favorite TV show ever: high-definition cutaways of happy, smiling citizens of Chester, toasting my holiday misfortune while hopefully logging onto Lyft.


I am all in, Commissioner Silver. Boosted and breakfast-tea bullish for Monday, January 3, 2022, approximately 9 p.m. PST.

What's that? What's happening around 9 p.m. in Pasadena on 1/3/22?

Only the real beginning of the fantasy basketball regular season.

It'll be the end of the fantasy football playoffs. (Maybe I'll be counting some money then. I picked up Rashaad Penny and Amon-Ra St. Brown weeks ago! Don't worry, the Current Mrs. Cregan's birthday is on January 24th.)

That is the moment when many bifurcated fantasy managers will take a long second look at their hoops squads and decide to start tinkering.

Take it from someone Tom Brady's age, but with way better hair: 1/3/22 will commence the vital stretch of your fantasy basketball campaign. Have a plan for taking advantage of the one thing we can be sure of: chaos.

Do you shoot for the moon and look to the skies for upside? Do you batten down the hatches and scan the seas for consistency?

Upside vs. Consistency. That is the 1/3/22 question.

It comes down to your investment approach. Do you like to win by reaching for gargantuan highs? Or do you stay a step ahead by rocking steady?

For a case study, I refer you to the rookie class. As in "every rookie class since they added the 3-point line."

Remember the 2020-21 season? At about the same juncture? LaMelo Ball was a mortal lock for fantasy (and real-life) Rookie of the Year.

By 3/1/21 (remember, the season started on Christmas) Ball had effectively lapped his freshman competition.

He'd played in 34 games, second-best for all rookies, just behind Anthony Edwards' 35 games. Ball was averaging a well-diversified 15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 6.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG, and 2.0 3PG. He was locked in.

Then Ball fractured his wrist and missed six weeks. He ended up only playing 51 games for the season. But Ball still won Rookie of the Year... in reality.

But in fantasy, Ball barely placed second in my ROY race. I ranked Ball just ahead of Tyrese Haliburton, whose superior efficiency from the field (47.2 FG%) and line (85.7 FT%) pushed him into a virtual tie for second.

And BTW, did I ever trade Ball before he broke his wrist?

Heck, yes. Because on 3/1/21, I believed that 30-game-in LaMelo Ball was locked in. Ball was having a great season. But given the conditions, I didn't believe Ball had another rookie gear. His next leap would arrive around Halloween.

And while I don't believe in the Rookie Wall... I ardently believe in Rookie Volatility. Which made Ball a sell-high.

Who was the fantasy 20-21 ROY? Easy: Anthony Edwards. Edwards was the runaway fantasy ROY -- in Points and Roto -- thanks to his 72 games played. And his consistency.

Fantasy respects the aggregate. So Edwards' 72 games of 19.3 PPG, 2.4 3PG, and not much else beat 51 games of Ball's multi-categorical goodness.

The 2020-21 rookie class was a pleasant surprise. This 2021-22 class is hitting 2003-04 levels of hype.

The freshman class of 2003-04? A case study in rookie Upside vs. Consistency. 2003-04 is canon. It's the pantheon class. We laud it for producing LeBron, Carmelo, Wade and Bosh. But no one remembers who posted the third-best rookie season of that class: Kirk Hinrich. Hinrich lapped Wade and Bosh. He gave Carmelo a run for runner-up fantasy ROY. Hinrich was durable. He played 16 more games than Wade. But Hinrich also possessed the most underrated of all rookie dynamics: consistency. Hinrich locked in early, and sensing when a rookie is locked in is a valuable fantasy attribute.

If we can assess a rookie a third of the way into the season and see he's been hitting the same level of volume and percentages since November? We can determine whether it's time to sell high.

Hinrich locked in during November 2003. His November averages of 11.9 PPG, 6.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, and 1.8 3PG virtually matched his final averages of 12.0 PPG, 6.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 1.9 3PG.

Hinrich only shot 38.6% from the field that season. But he hit 39.0% of his 3s. Hinrich's 3-point percentage in November, 2003: 40.0%. December, 2003: 37.0%.

Low variance. Locked in.

Carmelo was a little better that season. LeBron was way better. But the hype factor for both players was unreal. So they demanded a high investment of draft capital or in-season trade value.

Hinrich was endgame. A waiver wire play. Hinrich easily provided the best rookie ROI, which made him my 2003-04 ROY.

What you need to do is look at the class of 2021-22 and assess: is this player locked in? And if he is, does he have enough hype to warrant selling high? And what if you've got a little Riverboat Ron in you? What if you shun consistency in the name of upside?

Then identify who you think is furthest away from locking it in. Who might be hiding a higher gear. Who might be at a low point. Then see if you can buy low.

Consistency doesn't always win out. Some seasons, a hyped rookie just gets better and better and he runs away with ROY. There will always be occasional rookie slumps... what I call "Rookie Divots." Those Divots are just buy-low windows.

My vote for the fantasy GOAT rookie class: 2018-19. Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Deandre Ayton, Collin Sexton, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mo Bamba, Mitchell Robinson, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., and the Bridges brothers.

The class of 2018-19 offered two heavily-hyped rookies that generated high-upside ROI: Young and Doncic. And Doncic cranked out some heavy Rookie Divots.

12/3/18 was the low point. The biggest Divot. Doncic shot 2-of-13 on 11/30/18, then missed his next game with a hip strain.

12/3/18 was the best day to buy low on Luka Doncic. The second-best day? 12/10/18. Doncic went 2-of-11 in 25 minutes against the Magic. That night, Doncic's anemic 7 points meant he'd failed to post double-digits in two out of three games.

If you bought low on Doncic then? You got back a big bag of upside.

So what about this class? Here are my top 3 rookies.

Scottie Barnes, SF/PF, Toronto Raptors

VERDICT: Locked in.

Barnes' past-5 averages reads like an end-of-season snapshot: 38 MPG, 18.0 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.2 3PG, 51.5 FG%, 73.7 FT%. What are the biggest tells that Barnes is at peak production?

The ramped up 3-point production (he's up a half a 3 over his season average.) And the 38.0 minutes per game.

Barnes is playing efficiently. He's consistent. He's nurtured his 3-point shot. His Usage is high. And he can't play more than 38 minutes a night.

Locked. In. The question is: is the hype high enough to warrant selling high? The only way to find out is to field some offers.

Cade Cunningham, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons

VERDICT: Not Locked In.

In terms of per-game rookie production, Cunningham is already in a dead heat with Barnes. And that's after an injury-dented slow start.

Cunningham is as inconsistent as they come. His 38.3 FG% depicts shooting nights that present as glorified mood swings. When his 3 is falling? Cunningham looks like the surefire ROY. When it isn't, he looks like a bust.

Given the injuries and late start, Cunningham oozes "I have another gear." His game-to-game shooting variance has to iron out. Has to. And in my opinion, Cunningham's hype factor is down due to his late debut. Supporting stat: he's still unrostered in about 10% of ESPN leagues.

Evan Mobley, PF/C, Cleveland Cavaliers

VERDICT: Not Even Close To Locked In, But He's Left A Trail of Breadcrumbs

In little 5-game bursts, Mobley's given us a peek at his peak. Exhibit A: Mobley's line from 11/5 to 11/13: 19.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.0 SPG, 2.0 BPG, 58.2 FG%, 42.9 3PT%, 82.4 FT%.

That, dear readers, is a stretch Tim Duncan.

I'm sorry. I can't help it. Since the first week of November, whenever I see Mobley play, the phrase "Stretch Duncan" flashes in my mind with a Burning-Man intensity.

I'm suffused in Mobley hype. I can't escape it. I don't want to. If you're in one of the leagues I roster Mobley and reading this? I've gotten your offers. Rejected them on sight.

I'm not trading Evan Mobley. No way, no how. Evan Mobley and I are in this for the duration.

Because Evan Mobley is gonna have a platinum year.


(P.S. This is me leveraging my platform to sell high. Make me an offer!)