Fantasy basketball: Lauri Markkanen among most improved

One thing I'm annually thankful for when spending Thanksgiving back east? That frosty November chill one receives whilst dashing outside to harvest the local paper of record. (Today's: The Washington Post. Tomorrow's: The Bucks County Courier Times.)

Come Thanksgiving week, I would take a shallop across the bay to acquire a tactile newspaper.

Something about the smell of newsprint, combined with my cold weather-triggered asthma, fires my youthful appetite for what awaits within the back page of a tactile sports section. For therein lies the lagniappe every local paper provides: its generous bounty of NBA box scores.

But with wicked-heartfelt apologies to Dr. Naismith, we play fantasy basketball in a post peach-basket age. An age where voicing a day-old stat emblazons a manager with a scarlet G...for "geriatric."

In this new world, with a few keystrokes, the web may gather an automated cornucopia of any and all necessary statistics. From minutes played to usage rate, collated, condensed, and pressed -- like apples from the orchard -- into any configuration we require.

(You get it. I love Thanksgiving. I'll stop now.)

So why do box scores retain such allure? Speaking for myself, three goals:

1. to imprint a Cliff's Notes on the story of every game
2. the dopamine burst I get when I see players defying and surpassing hot-take expectations
3. signs that a player is beginning to add a new stat to his fantasy portfolio

It's one of my favorite aspects of the waiver-wire hunt; being first to see faint signs a player is permanently adding an extra steal, 3-pointer, etc. to his per-game averages. Circumstances in the NBA undergo constant change.

Any single move in a news cycle's cascade of trades, injuries, coaching changes, rotational tweaks, and new systems could give a player a chance to show something new in his toolbelt.

It starts with an extra block. A steal. A couple of additional assists. A few bonus trips to the free throw line. Soon... said player starts to provide that extra production regularly. That added stat becomes a trend.

Then in time, it becomes an expectation. The higher slot on the Player Rater stabilizes. Said player's elevated fantasy reputation ossifies into a new normal.

For this writer, my box-score panning for added stats inspires a slate of internal phrases. Last night offered one "where the ___ did that come from?": Oshae Brisett's garbage-time-inspired 18 points and 4 3-pointers. Also, A.J. Griffin's second "I see you" line this month; 17 points, 3 3-pointers and 3 steals. (Meaning in deep leagues, Griffin's line also yielded a "BWARRGGGGH! Is Griffin still available?")

With the 2022-23 season feeling more and more like a transitional campaign, this season's box scores percolate with myriad new normals. Let's take a look at two recent box scores by two players with the potential to produce new normals.

Royce O'Neale, SF/PF, Brooklyn Nets

The box score: Nov. 20 vs. Memphis Grizzlies -- 12 points, five rebounds, eight assists, four 3s, one block.

A consummate deep-league glue guy, O'Neale averaged over 30 MPG in Utah over the past couple of seasons. In 2021-22, the surefire playing time helped O'Neale average 1.5 3s, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.1 steals, despite his single-digit usage rate.

There's been moments where O'Neale flashed expanded fantasy potential. But in Utah's seemingly star-crossed dynamic, nothing ever locked into a trend, or an added stat. But three recent developments are radically upgrading O'Neale's in-game upside: 1) Danny Ainge's summertime demolition of Utah's roster, which landed O'Neale in Brooklyn 2) Jacque Vaughn's in-season promotion to head coach, and Vaughn's demotion of Ben Simmons 3) Kevin Durant's nodding about he and O'Neale's chemistry.

Struggling, inconsistent, underperforming teams all look for The Lever. Something to pull that will stabilize performances, generate consistency, and provide momentum. The Nets already pulled the classic Lever, replacing Steve Nash with the intrepid Jacque Vaughn.

Now, Vaughn is known in some circles for his plus-10-year NBA career. But in my neck of the woods, Vaughn is best regarded for his legendary generalship of Pasadena's John Muir High School Mustangs.

And Vaughn, evidencing the in-game savvy, adroit strategic acumen, lightning-fast analytic grasp, and sky-high emotional intelligence famous amongst all John Muir High School alumni, immediately recognized his Lever: O'Neale as the facilitator.

(Author's note: Did I just attempt to butter up my son's guidance counselor? It's Thanksgiving. Leave me alone.)

This young Nets season has yet to yield many pleasant surprises. But O'Neale as point-forward is certainly a happy development. Over the three previous seasons in Utah, O'Neale posted an identical assist-per-game average: 2.5 APG. So far for this season, O'Neale is averaging 4.6 APG. Over this last week: 6.7 APG.

Over his past two games? O'Neale dished a combined 19 dimes. The first of those games was a triple-double: 11 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists.

Lauri Markkanen, SF/PF, Utah Jazz

The box score: Nov. 19 vs. Portland Trail Blazers -- 23 points, 10 rebounds, three 3s, one steal.

To date, my favorite roto success story of this season is Markkanen, the player replacing O'Neale in the Jazz' Aingified lineup. (I've been watching Mr. Ainge since my earliest days of following the NBA. And this roster is scrappy, combustible Peak Ainge.)

Markkanen's my favorite because he topples conventional wisdom; that he was doomed to his Bulls rep of oft-injured, one-trick stretch four. Not many noticed the changes afoot during Markkanen's (again, injury-shortened) 2021-22 campaign. In Cleveland, Markkanen began to log time at small forward. Jarret Allen's injury opened up more playing time, and Markkanen began to elevate in his new role.

Still, Markkanen's low ADP belies a lack of faith in his potential on the Jazz. This was just the byproduct of his creaky Chicago rep. This is a case of, over a couple of moves, a young player with high upside and checkered injury history, elevating into his ideal role, aligned with an optimized roster.

Markkanen's doing a little more of everything across the board. But he's quietly ladling on two added stats... to be honest, they're more like "reclaimed stats."

Markkanen cracked the 60.0 TS% barrier one other season in his career when he posted a 61.9 TS% in 2020-21. But as of this writing, Markkanen is going Steph Curry all over his career 57.5 TS% with a gaudy 64.2 TS%.

And after a three-year decline in rebounds per game? Markkanen's resurrected his early-career mojo off the glass. Regardless of his other stats, any SF chipping in 8.5 RPG is worth rostering. But as the lagniappe to a copious feast including 22.4 PPG, 2.1 3PG, 0.9 BPG, and the aforementioned 64.2 TS%?

Only a fantasy glutton would lack the gratitude to hoist their flagon to the harvest moon and offer Markkanen a toast of autumnal thanks.