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Fantasy basketball: Major changes at the top of draft make this the most interesting season in years

The storylines this season are almost endless.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is on a career path rivaling the best players in NBA history, including both “His Airness” as well as “King James,” yet somehow no one seems to realize it. I’ve been predicting and noting his progress for years, but the majority of the basketball world still makes cases against him even being the best player of the current generation. It’s uncanny. He’s like the Keyser Söze of NBA superstars.

So, there’s that.

But cast your net wider. The list goes on…

Where does Ben Simmons play this season? How about Damian Lillard? Can Chris Paul and the Suns do it again? Does playoffs Donovan Mitchell ever show up in the regular season? Can the Heat or Celtics get back to the top? Might Zion Williamson dunk an actual person through the rim this season?

That’s still just scratching the surface.

Look at the Lakers, who won an NBA championship literally less than a year ago, and have somehow assembled the NBA version of “The Expendables.” They seemingly have every NBA action hero of the previous generation on one squad on a team that at least one analyst has pegged to potentially win 70 games.

The Nets put together a superteam last season that health derailed but are the universal favorites to come out of the East this season and face the Lakers in a potential series with so many storylines the NBA world might implode under the weight.

Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and future MVP Luka Doncic are battling for about a hundred crowns. Who’s the best Euro in the NBA (assuming you don’t count Antetokounmpo, “the Greek Freak,” in that category)? Which will average a triple-double first? Did either have the swag to pull off the European corn rows look that young Kristaps Porzingis rocked? Just so many questions.

And Doncic is also facing challenges from “the Ice Trae,” Trae Young. They were traded for each other on Draft Night in 2019, to universal acclaim that the Mavericks got the better of the deal. Yet, it was Young’s Hawks that made the Conference Finals first, while Doncic’s Mavs were watching from home. What’s cooler than being cool? Ice cold!

But these are just big things happening around the NBA. What about fantasy?

Here are the big storylines I’m seeing in fantasy hoops this season:

Fresh faces in the Rounds 1 and 2

The first two rounds of the draft this season are like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”: They’ve gotten flipped, turned upside down. In fact, they will have very little resemblance to the first two rounds as recently as a couple seasons ago — heck, you could even say as recently as last year! Between age, superteams, injuries and young players making the leap, the top of this season’s fantasy basketball drafts will feel like an entirely undiscovered country. Don’t believe me? Let’s explore.

Here’s a sneak peak at the top of the first points-based rankings of the season, based on the initial player projections, and the questions that result:

The Top 10

Nikola Jokic
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Luka Doncic
James Harden
Karl-Anthony Towns
Bradley Beal
Damian Lillard
Paul George
Stephen Curry
Jayson Tatum

Where are LeBron James and Kevin Durant? James and Durant have been staples in the first round of fantasy drafts, when healthy, for well over a decade. They’ve been the most typical answers to the question, “Who’s the best player in the NBA?” since the 2020 Hall of Fame Class (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and Duncan Robinson) aged out and retired. Heck, if you posed that question on most sports shows today, the conversation would still circle largely around James and Durant. But neither are fantasy first rounders?

Nope. Not this season. Because for them, their goals and team outlooks are sufficiently divorced from regular season production that their impact won’t necessarily translate to consistent fantasy production. Both are key members of a super team, with multiple former MVP/All NBA teammates that make them more likely to win a ring, but less likely to put up huge numbers. Plus, they’re almost a combined 70 years old with 30 years of NBA experience. They also missed a combined 74 games to injury last season and have a high likelihood to be load managed this season. Put it all together, and we’re looking at the first fantasy hoops first round with neither since 2005.

Beal and “PG13” ahead of “Chef Curry”? Curry is coming off arguably the best statistical season of his career, where he led the NBA in scoring while notching more than five assists, rebounds and 3-pointers each per game. Absolutely monstrous. Only, this season he and the Warriors are expected to get Klay Thompson back, with Andrew Wiggins now on the roster also giving close to 20 PPG. Add in the other talented pieces they’ve assembled, and the Warriors are thinking they might be ready to take another run at a championship this season. But they don’t anticipate Curry having to do everything for them offensively the way he did last season. He still projects as a fantasy hoops first rounder, but closer to the bottom of the round than the top.

Meanwhile, both Beal and George are looking at a season without their most dominant teammate from last season. The Wizards traded Russell Westbrook to the Lakers, while the Clippers have lost Kawhi Leonard to a knee injury. Both squads have some decent ancillary talent around their stars but, make no mistake, Beal and George are the stars on their teams to start the season.

Beal is coming off two seasons in which he’s averaged more than 30 points and five assists, with almost five boards and three treys while playing a large number of games next to one of the highest usage players in the NBA.

Meanwhile, the last time George was “the man,” coincidentally while playing next to Westbrook himself, he averaged 28 points, more than eight boards, four assists and almost four treys all while leading the NBA in steals. Both Beal and George have a realistic shot to outperform those previous high-water marks, earning them slots firmly in the middle of the first round of fantasy hoops drafts.

Then there’s Tatum, who has been flirting with becoming the “next big thing” for a couple seasons now, and has finally made the leap into a first round player. Last season, he battled COVID-19 early in the season and was self-admittedly struggling physically for months. Still, he finished off the season with an 18-game stretch averaging 30 points with more than eight boards, four assists and three treys per game, including games of 60 points, 53 points and 10 boards, and 44 points and 10 boards.

He followed that by averaging over 30 points with a similarly impressive stat line in the playoffs. On top of that, the Celtics traded high-usage lead guard Kemba Walker to concentrate their production more firmly into Tatum’s and Jaylen Brown’s hands. Tatum’s arrived, and is ready to be the clear franchise player on fantasy basketball squads.

The next 10

Kevin Durant
Nikola Vucevic
Zion Williamson
De’Aaron Fox
Joel Embiid
LeBron James
Trae Young
Fred VanVleet
Donovan Mitchell
Domantas Sabonis

What about AD, Westbrook and others?

While we finally get to Durant and James in Round 2 this season, James’ two most decorated teammates are absent. What gives? After all, Westbrook has averaged a triple-double in four of the last five seasons and Anthony Davis is a perennial top-5 fantasy hoops prospect.

Problem is, now that all three are on the same squad, it eats into everyone’s numbers. Westbrook just can’t operate at anywhere near his usual usage levels on this Lakers squad next to James.

Davis could still produce an excellent stat line even with James and Westbrook capping his points and rebounds, especially if the lowered offensive pressure allows him to focus on defense and his blocks/steals go up. But he missed 36 games last season and has missed double-digit games in seven of his nine NBA seasons. The limited opportunities mixed with the injury risk push him out of the first two rounds for the first time since his rookie season.

Zion and Ja enter Year 3

Zion Williamson took a leap up the projections this season, in part because he’s entering that magical third season when the game seems to have fully slowed down and a player can just ball out. Ja Morant is also entering Year 3, and he too is projected to move up the rankings, currently 44th. Both the Pelicans and the Grizzlies have made offseason moves to make each player more of an offensive focal point, and both Williamson and Morant show every sign of being ready to take on that added responsibility and lift their production to a higher level.

Appreciating Vucevic and Sabonis

Vucevic and Sabonis are both NBA All Stars, but neither are household names just yet. Still, both have proven themselves worthy of picks in the first two rounds of fantasy basketball drafts and should be overlooked no more. Vucevic was traded from the Magic to the Bulls last season, but on both teams he averaged at least 21.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.3 3-pointers. And he did so while making more than 50% of his 2-pointers, 80% of his free throws and about 40% of his 3-pointers.

Sabonis, meanwhile, was the best center-source of assists East of MVP Jokic last season, passing like his old man on his way to 6.7 assists per game to go with 20.3 PPG, 12.0 RPG and a career-best 1.2 SPG and 0.8 3PG. Sabonis is only 25 years old, is still getting better and could be poised for yet another career season.

A new Raptor in charge

The Raptors typically have at least one player represented in the first two rounds of fantasy drafts. For years it was Kyle Lowry. DeMar DeRozan sometimes got consideration. Leonard blew through Toronto like a superstar whirlwind. And last season, it was Pascal Siakam coming off the board early.

But this season? Fred VanVleet has arrived. Lowry has taken his talents to South Beach, Siakam is dealing with injury and VanVleet is the unquestioned alpha creator in the backcourt. He’s looking at more than 20 points, conceivably seven or eight assists, a handful of boards, high-volume 3-pointers and almost two steals — numbers worthy of FVV being a second-rounder.

A pair of aces

Fox and Young have zoomed to the top rounds of fantasy drafts with a mix of aggressive scoring and playmaking, though they do it entirely differently.

Fox, 23, is greased lightning on the court, impossible for opponents to keep out the paint. And once he gets there, he can finish over, around or through defenders at absurd percentages more appropriate to giants like James or Antetokounmpo than a point guard. He also has the court vision to take full advantage of the defenses he collapses, creating easy shots for his teammates.

In addition to his volume points and assists, Fox separates himself with almost 1.5 steals a night and he’s developing a 3-pointer to the tune of 1.8 3PG per game last season. And speaking of treys…

“The Ice Trae” takes and makes more 35-foot 3-pointers than anyone in the NBA. His shooting range is absurd, and according to Second Spectrum he also uses the most on-ball picks in the league as well. Put it together, and he forces opposing teams to deform their defenses outward to slow him down.

In the last two seasons, he’s averaged more than 27 points, almost 10 assists, four boards, three treys and a steal per game. He just led the Hawks to the Conference Finals last season, with playoffs numbers that were even better than those regular season marks. At 22, his best is yet to come, which is scary.

Playoffs Mitchell?

Speaking of young superstars showing out in the playoffs, Mitchell has made a habit of drinking his “Like Mike” potion in the postseason. In the last two playoffs, the Jazz two-guard has averaged a whopping 33.9 PPG, 5.2 AAPG, 4.5 RPG, 4.9 3PG and 1.1 SPG while shooting 48.0 FG% and 88.1 FT%. If he ever did this in the regular season, he’d be in the conversation for the top overall pick in fantasy hoops leagues.

During the regular season thus far, he’s been content to be “merely” a fantasy star, with similar numbers but about seven fewer points and 1.5 fewer treys per game. He’s clearly got MVP-level production within him and is one of the few projected second rounders that’s actually a sleeper to dramatically over-produce his draft slot.

Final thoughts: the next wave is impressive

The first two rounds of fantasy hoops drafts shaped up to be different than anything we’ve seen in years. And it doesn’t stop there. Edged out of the top-20 rankings and knocking on the door are other newcomers like Julius Randle, LaMelo Ball, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dejounte Murray and Michael Porter Jr.

We’re on the cusp of an entirely new generation of NBA superstars, which makes this an incredibly exciting time to play fantasy hoops. Everything is fresh. The names are new. The games are young and effervescent. What’s not to love?

If you’ve never played fantasy hoops before, this is your year. And if you’ve played for years, this is set to be the most fun season you’ve ever had. Let’s enjoy this together!

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