If you’ve played fantasy football, you know how hazardous banking solely on preseason play and narratives can prove. We can reference Ja’Marr Chase‘s training camp struggles as a recent and telling example.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t glean meaningful and actionable information from the NBA’s exhibition season, rather we’ll want to apply a more discerning lens to the small sample of preseason competition. I believe preseason production can inform and influence fantasy basketball value, it just requires sifting through some of the noise.
With an eye on preseason outcomes that could translate into the regular season, let’s discuss some key fantasy-centric takeaways from the 2021 preseason.
The 3-point wave is still cresting
In 2014-15, just one NBA team — the Houston Rockets — averaged at least 30 3-point attempts per game. The following season the Golden State Warriors joined them in this spacing-centric club. By 2018-19, 19 teams were lofting at least 30 per game from deep.
How about this preseason? All 30 NBA teams are averaging at least 30 attempts per game from deep. Cleveland’s 30.3 3-point attempts per game this preseason ranks last and yet that 2014-15 Houston team established a new NBA record by averaging 32.7.
From a fantasy perspective, the demand on having high-volume shooters rostered will only increase. The floor for 3-point production is rising each season in this pace-and-space era, but thankfully there will also be more shooting specialists to consider than ever before.
Speaking of the space race, the Golden Warriors just might have unearthed another shooting savant. With 23.3 PPG through four appearances, Jordan Poole is second only to Boston’s Jaylen Brown in scoring in the preseason and only Brown and Sacramento’s Buddy Hield have lofted more 3-pointers than the 10 per game Poole has launched.
Poole is also sixth in usage rate in the preseason, even as he shared the court often with Stephen Curry, who ranks second in this metric that measures what percentage of team possessions an individual consumes.
What about Klay Thompson, you might be thinking? ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reported on “The Jump” back in August that the Warriors are tentatively targeting the team’s Christmas day contest against the Phoenix Suns as a potential return date. It’s unclear just how Thompson’s timeline will play out, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the debut was actually in 2022.
With this in mind, there is a real opportunity for Poole to thrive in a critical starting role until Thompson is back. Given his efficient scoring pattern and the team’s lack of rotational and guard depth, it’s entirely conceivable for Poole to maintain sizable statistical impact once the ailing Splash Brother is back in business.
Poole averaged 21.7 PPG and 3.6 APG in seven starts for the team last season, suggesting this recent scoring surge isn’t an outlier. You can land Poole late in drafts, as his average draft position is currently 49th among shooting guards and 136th overall.
Last season saw Chris Boucher emerge as a fantasy gem thanks to becoming just the third NBA player to ever average at least 1.9 blocks and 1.5 3PG.
Next up in the breakout department could be OG Anunoby, who appears to have added a new level of shot creation to his game over the summer. If Anunoby were simply hot from the field this preseason — he’s making an unsustainable 54.2% of his 3-pointers — it could be dangerous to put much stock in the fact he ranks 10th in preseason scoring and leads the Raptors in usage rate.
While Anunoby has been particularly hot from the floor across four preseason appearances, it’s the type of shots he taking and making that pique my interest. Anunoby is creating his own shots via pull-up jumpers and sinking them at an above-average rate. He attempted fewer than two pull-up shots per game last season, while he’s averaged five this preseason.
For years, the Raptors relied on Kyle Lowry to create shots for others, with Anunoby often available as a catch-and-shoot valve, but the fact that the wing’s usage rate and pull-up volume are spiking tells me there could be a meaningful shift in offensive performance this season.
Sticking with Toronto, rookie Scottie Barnes is already being tasked with replacing some of the distribution duties left in Lowry’s wake. The Raptors’ top pick in 2021 is 13th in assists per game this preseason (5.6 APG) while averaging 2.4 combined steals and blocks. As I posited in a breakdown of the top fantasy rookies this season, Barnes’ atypically strong passing skills and loud defensive metrics could surface immediately.
While reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball is rightfully an emergent star in the league, it might just be older bro Lonzo Ball who delivers the most fantasy value in the family this season. While the younger Ball is going off the board 21st overall in ESPN drafts, Lonzo goes 46th and is already thriving on this new-look Chicago roster.
Through three games with the Bulls this month, Ball sits third in the preseason in steals per game and seventh in blocks. Last season, Ball joined Jrue Holiday, Ben Simmons, Draymond Green as the only players to post an assist percentage of at least 25% to go with a steal rate of at least 2.3% (which is an estimate of the percentage of opponent possessions that end with a steal by the player while he was on the floor) and block rate of 1.7%.
Ball’s startling leap in shooting success since leaving the Lakers appears entirely real given the shot volume in New Orleans, buoyed by the fact he’s made over half of his 3-pointers this preseason. I’m not sure the Bulls are going to be quite as dominant as a team as they’ve shown in the preseason, but I’m confident Ball enjoys a career season on both sides of the floor.
Bamba’s block party
While Mo Bamba might never become the player the Orlando Magic had hoped when they selected him in the lottery several years ago, he’s flashed some fun statistical prowess this preseason. The former Texas standout leads the league with 3.75 blocks per game this preseason and is even enjoying success as a floor spacer by hitting 45% of his 3-point attempts through four appearances.
With Jonathan Isaac without a defined timeline for return from injury and the team’s real need for rim protection whenever Wendell Carter Jr. or Isaac aren’t on the floor, Bamba could become a viable swat specialist this season. It’s not just box score chasing with Bamba’s recent block binge, as his activity and awareness in rim protection look markedly better on film.
Found in the final round of drafts and likely already floating in free agency in leagues that have drafted, Bamba could make his case as fantasy basketball’s next Chris Boucher — a player who can provide real fantasy impact even amid limited minutes thanks to such a unique 3-and-D profile.
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