NBA

Fantasy basketball: Why opportunity exists for players on lottery-bound teams

After another NBA offseason rife with roster overhauls, it’s important to recognize the most valuable vacancies in fantasy basketball. Massive changes in rosters and rotations create new roles. Fantasy managers are tasked with gauging the impact of such shifts.

Having sifted through all the major transactions through the lens of the league’s tracking data, this piece focuses on identifying some of the most important and underrated opportunities for statistical success this season. A key lesson might just be to not ignore lottery-bound rosters.

Surge in San Antonio?

When All-Star playmaker Dejounte Murray left San Antonio for Atlanta, the majority of fantasy analysis understandably focused on how he will mesh with fellow ball-dominant guard Trae Young. On the team level, pundits are curious where this all-in move takes the Hawks in a crowded conference.

There is far less curiosity about the Spurs and what appears to be a transparent pursuit of lottery success. But what about all that offensive usage and the defensive duties Murray leaves in his wake?

Only Nikola Jokic, James Harden, and Luka Doncic averaged more than the 87.5 touches per game Murray did for the Spurs last season. Devin Vassell is a strong sleeper candidate and is going right around the 100th pick according to our live ESPN draft trends.

No single player will consume or consolidate Murray’s high-usage role, but Vassell is a strong candidate to see a surge in touches and shots given the sheer volume of possessions vacated in Murray’s departure. In the relatively sizable sample (400 minutes) with Murray and Derrick White off the floor last season, Vassell slashed for 17.1 points, 2.8 3-pointers, 5.9 boards, 3.7 assists, and 2.4 combined blocks and steals. Such shooting and stock rates signal fantasy upside.

Another player bound to benefit from Murray’s absence is point guard Tre Jones. Only six players topped Murray’s 61.8 passes made per game last season and only Chris Paul and Harden averaged more potential assists.

In an era with so many ball-dominant lead creators, finding sleepers for assists can be difficult. Jones, for his part, averaged 7.5 assists in 11 starts for San Antonio last season and posted 8.5 dimes per 36 minutes in over 800 minutes without Murray and White on the floor. There is no shortage of available passes and potential dimes for Jones in San Antonio, a player that has been drafted well past the 100th pick so far this fall.

Upside in Utah

Opportunity is knocking on Collin Sexton‘s door. Even as he’s going right around the 72nd pick on average in drafts, Sexton might become a statistical superstar in Salt Lake City this season.

Last season, Donovan Mitchell had 15.2 drives per game and averaged 10.6 points per game via drives, which ranked 12th and sixth in the NBA respectively. Mitchell also dished the ball a good bit, finishing the season ranked second in potential assists on the Jazz (10.1), just shy of Mike Conley for the team lead.

Sexton meanwhile, thrived as an efficient lead scorer and secondary creator with Cleveland. In 2020-21, his most recent full season prior to last year’s knee injury, Sexton was 19th in usage rate, which is an estimate of how many team plays an individual consumes (assists, turnovers, field goals or free throws). Even while playing with Darius Garland that season, Sexton averaged 24.3 PPG and finished with a true shooting clip several points ahead of Mitchell..

Mitchell, meanwhile, ranked at least sixth in the league in usage rate the past two seasons. Which is to say, Mitchell 32.2% of possessions when on the floor just ahead of the likes of LeBron James, Devin Booker, and Jayson Tatum.

Sexton could command a very similar role to Mitchell, one has midround league-winner written all over it.

One of the most actionable tracking stats for fantasy purposes is rebounding chances, which captures the closest player to the ball at any point in time between when the ball has crossed below the rim to when it is fully rebounded. Rudy Gobert led the NBA by a wide margin with 24.3 rebounding chances per game last season,

Walker Kessler and Udoka Azubuike will compete for meaningful minutes at center for Utah this season and while Azubuike appears likely to start early on, Kessler is the one who could deliver a special fantasy outcome. The rookie out of Auburn is the reigning Naismith Defensive Player of the Year after posting an historic block rate in his sophomore season.

Kevin Pelton’s prospect projections have Kessler sixth in his class, grading out as a special shot-blocker and ultra-efficient interior scorer. Sounds a bit like a certain French center. You can likely land Kessler with the last pick of your draft this year.

With Bojan Bogdanovic in Detroit, Lauri Markkanen could feast on touches, rebounding chances, and outside shots for Utah. Last season, Bogdanovic was 16th in the league in catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game (min. 30 games). Even on these lottery-bound rosters, real value exits. You can likely land Markkanen deep into drafts as his ADP sits around 104th overall

Heliocentric Haliburton?

Tyrese Haliburton is being drafted just after the 40th pick on average this season, but has all the opportunity rates and potential of a top-25 selection. This is not an attempt to directly compare Doncic with Haliburton, but it’s notable for his potential. Rick Carlisle led the Mavericks to their best offensive rating of all-time in 2020. Which is to say, Carlisle is capable of curating a really efficient offense with Haliburton as the lead creator, even if the team isn’t contending.

Haliburton enters his third season with what could be an incredibly valuable role. Malcolm Brogdon, who was dealt to Boston in the offseason, finished fourth in the NBA with 18.3 drives per game last season. He finished 14th in the league with 57.9 passes per game for the Pacers. Only Paul, Harden, Murray, Young, and Doncic averaged more potential assists than Haliburton’s 15.6 last season.

Haliburton currently has the third-shortest odds (+550) to lead the league in assists this season, just behind Paul and Harden this season. We will see if Haliburton can up his scoring to a difference-making level, but the runway has been cleared for him to post incredible offensive numbers. If you land centers or forwards early in drafts, walking away with a Sexton and Haliburton backcourt could be a rewarding strategy.

The Pacers might not have a real plan to replace Domantas Sabonis‘ post play, but it’s worth mentioning that the All-Star big ranked ninth in the league in post-ups per game last season with Indiana. Between Isaiah Jackson and Jalen Smith, someone will see an uptick in work. Smith, to his credit, averaged 19.6 points, 11.1 boards, and 2.1 3-pointers, and, most valuably, 1.5 blocks per 36 minutes with Indiana in 22 games last season. Like Kessler, Smith is essentially free in drafts.


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