The consensus top-24 in fantasy are generally playing to expectation — aside from LaMelo Ball’s unfortunate injury luck and James Harden’s untimely foot ailment. But the same can’t be said for players outside the first two rounds. Here, I’ll opine some of the biggest surprises of the fantasy basketball season a quarter of the way through.
PG/SG, Oklahoma City Thunder
Current per-game ranking: 3
The biggest surprise seven weeks into the season is the play of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He’s playing at a Kia MVP level, and even though he won’t win the award, Most Improved Player is warranted. His ascension reminds me of Ja Morant last season, where he made a gigantic leap from a good player to a superstar overnight.
But there’s one significant difference — Morant never stood atop the fantasy mantle as the No. 1 player in per-game value.
Many (including this author) excluded Gilgeous-Alexander from their draft plans not because of OKC’s tank potential but because he sustained a Grade 2 MCL sprain right before training camp. That same injury kept him on the sidelines for all of the preseason, so entering the season, owners were skittish about investing in a player with a laundry list of injuries early in his career. And it’s not like the draft world didn’t know about this injury. His ADP was 46.7 in the preseason after finishing 37th in per-game value a year ago.
Had he not been injured, he would’ve been a surefire third-rounder this offseason. But, those who patiently waited for him to fall into the fourth and sometimes fifth rounds got the value pick of the year.
Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging 31.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.1 3PM, 1.7 steals and 1.2 blocks per game with 51/34/92 shooting splits. He is the quintessential fantasy player who contributes in every category. And, per Stathead, he’s on pace to be the third player in NBA history to record at least 30 points, four rebounds, six assists, 1.5 blocks and one steal in a season — joining LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.
SF/PF, Utah Jazz
Current per-game ranking: 30
Lauri Markkanen still needed to prove himself in many ways because he struggled with injuries in his first four seasons in the league. But everything changed when he was traded to the Jazz in the deal for Donovan Mitchell. In just a few preseason games, it was clear he had the green light and was going to be one of the focal points of the Jazz rebuild.
However, he’s exceeding my expectations. Markkanen is shooting a career-best 53.1% while averaging the most points (22.2), 3-pointers made (2.5) and offensive rebounds (2.3) per game of his career. He has nine double-doubles and has dropped 30 or more points in five games this year.
His efficiency gives him an edge over other forwards in fantasy. Plus, he is on pace to be one of seven players in NBA history to average at least 22 points, eight rebounds and two three-pointers made while shooting over 50% from the field in a season, per Stathead.
Markkanen’s offensive package has really come together, and he’s only 25 years old. He’s playing at an All-Star level and, similar to SGA, is one of the leading candidates for Kia Most Improved Player this year. Shockingly, his ADP was 91.8 in the offseason, as he’s currently providing third-round value for fantasy managers. If you can manage it, do what you can to acquire “The Finnisher” in fantasy.
PG/SG, Miami Heat
Current per-game rank: 62
Can you take a wild guess who the only player on the Miami Heat to play in every game this season is?
That’s right, the 36-year-old former champion and All-Star, Kyle Lowry.
In my first column with Yahoo, I proclaimed Lowry would not be a top 100 player this season, citing his dubious track record of availability the past three seasons (he missed 59 games over that span).
Welp, that looks to be an early L, because North Philly’s finest is currently providing sixth-round value in fantasy basketball.
Lowry’s been accumulating plenty of counting stats for fantasy managers, averaging 14.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 6.1 apg and 2.4 3-pointers per game with 1.1 spg in 36.3 minutes per game.
Lowry’s preseason ADP fluctuated from 98.5 to 104.5 right before the season started. I had him at 112 in my rankings, so kudos to the fantasy managers who scooped him at a considerable discount relative to his present value.
Lowry was outside my top 100 because his production last season was indicative of a player in decline — at least from an offensive standpoint. And it’s carried over into this season. He’s shooting 39% from the field and averaging the fewest assists per game in over a decade. Now, it’s plausible that the Heat’s injuries are lowering his assist rate (he leads the team with 13.4 potential assists per game).
His play has been a pleasant surprise, and now it’s time to cash in. He’s an excellent piece to include in a two-for-one deal.
PG/SG, Charlotte Hornets
Current per-game rank: 180
Some of you probably got a good laugh when I placed Terry Rozier on my original preseason sleepers list. But in my defense, it was all about his value relative to his ADP. He finished 30th in per-game value last season and 39th the year prior. Seeing him go in the fourth and even fifth rounds of drafts this season after proving to be third-round value the previous two seasons was unconscionable.
To my surprise, “Scary Terry” is back. The counting stats are there (20.5 ppg, 4.7 rpg and 5.6 apg), but the efficiency is not. He’s attempting 20.8 shots per game and converting on 38% of them. His 3-point percentage is the worst since his rookie season (30.1%) and he’s shooting under 80% from the foul line for the first time in four seasons (79.4%).
With all the injuries mounting in Charlotte, Rozier has been carrying the highest usage rate of his career (27.8%). But with little help on offense, he’s forcing the issue — taking bad shots and turning the ball over 2.8 times per game which is rare for the combo guard. Even his advanced stats — like True-Shooting Percentage, BPM and VORP — are below average or among the worst of his career.
Again, at least the counting stats are helpful for fantasy managers, but I’d be concerned about how this season is trending for the Hornets. Fantasy managers anxiously await Rozier’s return to the lineup, and hopefully, he’ll be bringing back some of that efficiency that propelled him into third-round status a year ago.
PF/C, Orlando Magic
Current per-game rank: 49
Bol Bol checks just about every box for a modern NBA player. He’s tall and athletic with a nice handle. Bol stretches the floor, rebounds well and can guard multiple positions on defense. And he’s a legacy.
So what’s missing? Opportunity.
Unfortunately for Bol, he was buried on a deep Denver Nuggets depth chart for three seasons, playing sparingly. When he signed with Orlando in the offseason, he joined a crowded frontcourt (that included prized rookie Paolo Banchero). Magic coach Jamahl Mosley deserves praise, though, for finding a way to get Bol in the rotation (an opportunity that came primarily due to others’ injuries).
It may not have amounted to many wins, but Bol has emerged as one of the best late-round draft fliers or waiver pickups over a month into the young season.
Being in the top 50 is easily one of the biggest surprises thus far considering Bol was ranked outside of the top 200 before the season. That said, this may be the time to sell high on him. Cole Anthony, Terrence Ross, Jalen Suggs, Wendell Carter Jr. and Banchero have all been hurt at various points in the season — allowing Bol to stick with the starting unit longer than expected.
In 16 games as a starter, Bol is averaging 14.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.0 3PM and 1.8 bpg in 30.2 mpg. In a reserve role, he’s averaging 9.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 0.2 apg, 0.4 3PM and 2.6 bpg in 17.2 mpg.
Thus, Bol’s fantasy appeal hinges on his ability to get significant minutes. With Anthony and Markelle Fultz returning to the lineup this week, the clock is ticking on Bol’s status with the starting unit. It’s only a matter of time before he becomes just a blocking specialist, so try to get some value for his services while he’s still outperforming his fantasy expectations.
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Dan Titus left the aerospace and defense industry in 2020 to cover fantasy basketball. He’s been playing fantasy sports since 2001. Previously, he was a draft and in-season fantasy basketball expert at FantasyPros for three years. Prior to joining Yahoo Sports, he was a producer, writer, and fantasy basketball podcast host at The Action Network. When he’s not betting or setting his lineups, he’s strategizing how to win your next fantasy basketball championship.