Too early to drop Jabari Smith Jr.?


To the NBA rookie class of 2022: sorry. History says this will not work out. At least not in fantasy.

In Fantasyland, there is no riskier investment of fantasy draft capital than a celebrated rookie. Rookies are the siren song of fantasy basketball. Beckoning you with a heady mix of newness, buzz and hype… not to mention the clout a manager accrues on draft night.

History and data prove that a majority of rookies buzzed-up enough to hit the fantasy radar seldom provide managers with a return on their investment. I get it. It’s fun to be excited about the new and the unknown. But all the factors that build hype — draft comps to HOF legends, the baseball cap, the Adam Silver embrace, the empty Summer League box-score stats, and breathless PR-managed preseason reports — are precisely why most fantasy rookies go bust.

At the close of any NBA season, the top 100 of our final Player Rater rankings will be lucky to include three rookies. Four top-100 rookies is a great rookie season. But here’s the rub; half of those rookies will be either endgame picks or waiver wire additions.

Don’t let the class of 2021 fool you. 2021 is Bigfoot. A myth. Spotted in the hazy middle distance by someone on a camping trip once every 20 years.

I’ll argue six 2021 rookies finished top-100. That nine 2021 rookies finished the season draft-worthy (top-130): Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, Evan Mobley, Franz Wagner, Davion Mitchell, Jalen Green, Josh Giddey and Herbert Jones.

The 2020 class is closer to the norm, closing with Anthony Edwards clearly presenting as our fantasy ROY. Two names tied for second (LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton). Two names tied for third (Saddiq Bey, Jae’Sean Tate.)

For 2022-23 we have already minted our impact rookie: Paolo Banchero. Banchero arrived in Orlando with heavy-duty skills and polished court presence. As I mentioned last week, a young player’s free throw attempts per game is a good yardstick of feel for the game. One month in, and Banchero is already averaging 8.3 FTA per game.

Another critical indicator of Banchero’s skyrocketing fantasy value: his usage rate. Right at the tipping point for usage rate (30.0), it labels a player as having an All-Star-level role on his team. 30.0 usage rates for rookie point guards are heady enough. Getting there this early as a power forward portends something special.

Jaden Ivey is demonstrating another key rookie fantasy indicator: diversification. He is adjusting to an adapted role to play alongside Cunningham in Detroit. Even though Ivey is a point guard, he’s playing with a lower usage rate than expected. But Ivey is showing star quality in the diversity of his game. The proof is in the box scores. Ivey is scoring, hitting 3s and delivering assists at a steady, dependable clip.

But the 0.5 blocks per game impress me even more. Any PG, rookie or not, averaging over 0.5 BPG is bringing it in fantasy. But his rebounding is the stat that advertises Ivey as a star on the rise. This is a 6-foot-4 rookie point guard who has already put up two double-doubles, including Monday night’s all-you-can-eat line of 15 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, two 3-pointers, two steals and three blocks.

But can a rookie repeat that?

Don’t be fooled by per-game averages when assessing a rookie’s true value. When assessing how any player performs against their ADP? Do not use per-game stats. Use total stats. Because total stats represent what a player actually delivered versus their ADP across an 82-game campaign. (In 2020, Ball played 51 games. Haliburton played 58. Edwards played 72.)

Rookies’ propensity for injury comes with the territory. It takes a season for the mind and body to adjust to a marathon 82-game grind. Injury risk is just one factor contributing to rookies’ lack of night-in and night-out reliability.

In 2022, we’ve already lost a prime fantasy ROY candidate for the season to injury. Oklahoma City’s Chet Holmgren suffered a Lisfrac injury defending LeBron James in a pro-am game. (Lisfranc injuries used to be scary and career-threatening regardless of sport. These days, it’s a far less-frightening proposition. Holmgren should be good-to-go in 2023.)

Which underscores: being a hyped NBA rookie is a lot. High lottery picks have to deal with the pressure of being labeled the savior of a struggling franchise. Navigating the NBA ecosystem. Managing wealth. Teams with longstanding issues end up with a plurality of ping-pong balls, so the most coveted rookie tends to land with franchises in flux. Which means rotations and roles are in flux.

Bennedict Mathurin is an excellent example of a rookie dealing with a lot of franchise-driven flux. Nearly half of Indiana’s starting lineup is floated in trade rumors daily. Mathurin seemed guaranteed a starting role at one point this summer. Instead, he started coming in off the bench. Being looked to as instant offense can be empowering for a rookie. Mathurin’s high usage rate, points per game, and solid efficiency prove this.

But the franchise and rotational flux will lead to him posting clunkers like Wednesday night’s 8-point dud vs. the Pelicans. Still, if some of these rumored deals go down, Mathurin is in for a dynamite second half.

Again: repetition is the secret key to rookie fantasy success. How many games in a row can a player count on his role not shifting? How many games in a row can he replicate his production?

Repetition leads to the next rookie stage: rookie growth. This is why sometimes the most productive fantasy rookies surface later in the season, at the point where struggling teams let the kids drive to see what they’ve got. More than anything, a steady diet of 28-33 MPG drives rookie fantasy production.

So if/when Mathurin hits an extended rookie slump, look at him as an excellent buy-low candidate.

As of this writing, Jabari Smith Jr.’s fantasy stock is tanking. He’s getting dropped left and right as he learns to adjust and iron out his mini-slumps. But this is the No. 3 overall pick this past June. He is playing on a team that’s engineered for his long-term development. Smith is getting dropped due to being overhyped. But the role and repetition remain solid. Smith will start putting it together at some not-too-distant point.

Josh Giddey is a prime example of how overhype conceals a rookie’s actual fantasy upside. The hype has nothing to do with the situation and repetition. Giddey was my most-rostered player last season because he was a rookie with professional experience on a low-wattage, small-market team that guaranteed him minutes at a position that mandates a high usage rate. Giddey was hypeless. I knew this because Giddey’s draft comps were all over the place.

Unless we’re in a keeper league, all we care about is Year One. All those Kevin Durant comps that attached to Brandon Ingram in 2016? It did not compel me to draft him. But in 2019, after he was shipped to the Pelicans? I knew that was when those comps would start to look more prescient… so I pounced.

Out of all the scouting reports I read on Keegan Murray, the comp that intrigued me most was Al Horford. Because Horford is the fantasy poster child for dependability and reliability. A Horford comp tells me veteran savvy, a player capable of figuring it out and making giant developmental leaps.

Right now, Murray is struggling. He’s put up four bad box scores to balance out the four “look at me” box scores that opened the season. Sacramento is not historically known for its lack of dysfunction. But something tells me Murray will prove the rookie exception and not succumb to my rookie rules.



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