Midway through Week 12, Nick Whalen checks in on the first-year players impacting the fantasy basketball landscape.
Deandre Ayton, Suns
Luka Doncic has rightfully emerged as the prohibitive Rookie of the Year favorite, but Ayton has picked up steam over the last few weeks. The No. 1 overall pick is already among the league's best offensive centers, averaging 17.0 points on nearly 61 percent shooting for the season. He leads all qualified rookies in true shooting and is adding 10.9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 combined blocks/steals per game.
The defensive numbers are relatively disappointing for a big man with his skill set, but on the whole, Ayton has lived up to his billing. Over his last nine games, Ayton is putting up 21.8 points and 13.7 rebounds per contest, and he's coming off of back-to-back double-doubles versus the top two teams in the Western Conference. Against Denver on Dec. 29, Ayton had his best game as a pro, finishing with 33 points (16-20 FG), 14 rebounds and four steals in 39 minutes.
If there's a knock on Ayton outside of the inconsistent defensive numbers, though, it's that he's getting to the free throw line fewer than three times per game. He's converting at a decent clip (76.5% FT), but he ranks seventh among rookies in free throws per game – despite playing the second-most minutes – and 17th in free throw rate (min. 300 minutes). Nonetheless, Ayton has been a top-20 player in Yahoo leagues over the last month.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
It almost feels like we should stop treating Doncic like a rookie. Over the past month, Doncic has clearly asserted himself as the Mavs' No. 1 offensive option, and he's reaching a level of consistency rarely seen from first-year players – especially 19-year-olds. Over the last 15 games, Doncic has bumped his production up to 21.1 points, 6.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.1 steals, while hitting 36.5 percent of his three-point attempts.
He's getting to the line 8.3 times per game during that span, though the fact that he's hitting only 74 percent of his attempts – as well as 42.7 percent of his field goal, overall – has mitigated his value in percentage-based leagues. Still, Doncic has progressed at a faster rate than even most of his biggest supporters could have expected, and midway through Week 12 he leads all rookies in per-game scoring, made threes, and VORP, while ranking second in assists and third in rebounds and steals.
Jaren Jackson, Grizzlies
While he hasn't been as consistent, Jackson actually ranks ahead of Doncic in Yahoo leagues since Dec. 1. He's coming off of a complete dud on New Year's Eve, when he picked up five fouls in 13 minutes and finished with just four points and two rebounds. But that game aside, Jackson has mostly eliminated the fouling issues that plagued him for much of November.
While Jackson finished December with only one 20-point effort, it was one to remember. In a win over the Lakers on Dec. 23, Jackson put up 27 points, including the game-sealing pull-up three over LeBron James late in the fourth quarter. That effort capped a strong three-game stretch during which Jackson averaged 18.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 2.0 blocks in 28.0 minutes per game.
Mikal Bridges, Suns
Like Jackson, Bridges is coming off of an underwhelming effort – six points, three rebounds, three assists Monday vs. Golden State – but it ranks as his worst fantasy effort in nearly a month. The Villanova product had begun to emerge before the Trevor Ariza trade, but he's solidified his place as a high-minute wing in the wake of the deal. Bridges has played at least 30 minutes in every game since Dec. 15, and he's averaging 9.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.8 made threes since the start of December.
After a slow start, Bridges remains outside the top 130 in Yahoo leagues for the season, but he's been a top-75 player over the last month and a top-45 player over the last two weeks.
Rodions Kurucs, Nets
The 40th overall pick vaulted into the starting lineup following an injury to Allen Crabbe and quickly forced his way onto the fantasy radar, as well. Over a seven-game stretch from Dec. 14-26, Kurucs compiled averages of 12.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals/blocks while shooting 53.3 percent from the floor, 90 percent from the line and 40 percent from three. The 20-year-old topped out with 24 points in a win over Indiana and followed up with back-to-back double-doubles in victories over Phoenix and Charlotte.
Kurucs has come crashing back down to earth over the past two games, but he should continue to be a viable option in deeper formats until Crabbe, who hasn't played since Dec. 12, is back in the mix.
Kevin Knox, Knicks
After Sunday's 18-point effort in Denver, Knox has reached double-figures in 11 straight games. While he's nearing 20 points per game in that span, Knox has remained on the outskirts of fantasy relevance, due in large part to marginal contributions in virtually every category outside of scoring and rebounding. Knox hasn't handed out more than three assists in a game in nearly a month, and he's yet to record more than two blocks or steals in any game this season.
Mo Bamba, Magic
Bamba hasn't been roster-able in most leagues this season and ranks well outside the top-200 in Yahoo leagues. That's mostly a byproduct of a limited workload (16.7 MPG) that doesn't look to be increasing anytime soon. Nik Vucevic is off to the best start of his career, and as long as the playoff-starved Magic hang around the race for the eighth seed – as of Wednesday they're a half-game back of Detroit – it's tough to imagine management parting with Vucevic, even with his contract set to expire this summer.
Bamba remains an intriguing dynasty league asset, however, and he's shown flashes when given ample opportunity. The Texas product hauled in 12 boards in 18 minutes Monday night in Charlotte and had seven points, eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks in his lone start in place of Vucevic back on Dec. 19.
Quick HitsMarvin Bagley, Kings
Bagley was trending in the right direction before going down with a knee injury on Dec. 14. He's missed nine games since and is expected to remain out for at least four more games.
Kevin Huerter, Hawks
Huerter has literally been hit or miss since stepping into a larger role at the end of November, but he played a career-high 40 minutes on New Year's Eve and finished with 22 points, including six made threes. The Maryland product should be considered a single-category specialist for now, but he's already proven capable of providing better counting stat contributions than the average three-point specialist. Huerter should continue to see big minutes over the next week or two with Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince banged up.
Jalen Brunson, Mavericks
The reigning Naismith Award winner had a nice three-week run while Dennis Smith was injured but he's since returned to a reduced role and can be ignored in most formats. Brunson picked up three straight DNP-CDs before seeing 10 minutes off the bench in Monday's blowout loss to Oklahoma City.
Collin Sexton, Cavaliers
Sexton continues to look like a capable scorer for his age (19), but as is the case with most rookie point guards, consistency and efficiency have been harder to come by. Sexton ranks fourth among rookies in scoring on the season, but he's struggling to finish at the rim and hasn't been as much of a factor on the defensive end as expected. On a more positive note, Sexton's two highest assist totals of the season have come within the last three games, and he's earned his way to the free throw line 16 times in that span.
Trae Young, Hawks
After a historically bad stretch from mid-November to mid-December, Young has quietly worked his way back onto the fantasy radar, ranking just outside the top-110 over the last two weeks. He's averaging 16.1 points and 8.3 assists, while shooting 50 percent from three over his last eight games. While that's almost double his season-long three-point percentage, Young's volume is down considerably, as he's taken two or fewer threes in four of his last eight games.
That could be viewed as an indication that he's improved his shot selection. But a massive part of Young's projected fantasy value is tied to his high-volume outside shooting. He's already proven to be a valuable source of assists, as well, though Young will need to be the fearless three-point marksman he was at Oklahoma to maximize his value at the pro level.