Midway through Week 21, Nick Whalen checks in on the teams and players making waves in the world of fantasy basketball.
After losing to the Suns for the second time this season, the Milwaukee Bucks head into Thursday's game against the Pacers riding their first losing streak of the season. Milwaukee fell to Utah on Saturday without Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon, but the Bucks were back at full strength in Phoenix, with Bledsoe just hours removed from inking a four-year, $70 million extension.
Milwaukee shot just 12-of-42 from beyond the arc, with Bledsoe, Nikola Mirotic and Khris Middleton combining to go 4-of-23. Middleton had his worst game of the season, finishing with only six points on 1-of-13 shooting. He's now 9 of his last 37 from the field over the last two games, tanking his field goal percentage to an unsightly 37.2 percent since the All-Star break.
Monday also marked the Bucks debut for Pau Gasol, who came off the bench and tallied two rebounds and an assist in five minutes of action. That'll likely be close to the usual routine for Gasol, who still has some gas in the tank but won't be asked to do much more than provide insurance behind Brook Lopez. The Bucks have plenty of smaller, spacier options at the five when Lopez is off the floor, but Gasol could prove valuable in short spurts matching up against Aron Baynes/Daniel Theis/Marc Gasol types in the postseason.
Speaking of big men, Deandre Ayton's halfcourt defense was a major factor in Phoenix pulling the upset Monday. Ayton had one of his better overall games of the season, finishing with 19 points, 12 rebounds, two assists and three blocks, while registering a 101 defensive rating against a top-five offense in 34 minutes. As ESPN's Mike Schmitz conveniently illustrated, Ayton was able to stay home on ball fakes and consistently challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim, while providing ample resistance when switched onto smaller guards and wings.
One of Deandre Ayton's best defensive games of the season against Milwaukee tonight. Made it tough on Giannis around the rim, looked really agile guarding the perimeter, made some fairly instinctual rotations, recovered nicely for blocks. 3 BLK + 12 REB for the #1 pick. pic.twitter.com/vxZRtWgrzc- Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) March 5, 2019
While the Suns are careening toward another lost season, Ayton is on pace to join Blake Griffin and Karl-Anthony Towns as the only rookies since 2000 to average 16 and 10.
Joel Embiid will miss his sixth consecutive game Tuesday night against Orlando, but he was back on the practice court Monday morning and is expected to be back within the next few games. Embiid's return could come as soon as Wednesday's game in Chicago, though Philly may opt to wait until what could be a more meaningful game Friday in Houston.
With Boban Marjanovic also out indefinitely, the Sixers will continue to lean on Jonah Bolden, Mike Scott and Amir Johnson at center – a trio that's mostly held its ground in tough matchups against the Thunder and Warriors. Bolden has drawn the last two starts, averaging 13.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 1.0 block and 2.5 made threes in 21.0 minutes per game. Johnson isn't a fantasy concern at this point in his career, but Scott may have some appeal as a DFS flyer after he went for 22 points, including 6-of-9 from three, on Saturday.
The Raptors' starting center spot has been a rotating door all season, with first-year coach Nick Nurse opting to base his decision on matchups. Prior to an injury, and subsequent trade, it was Jonas Valanciunas splitting time with Serge Ibaka, though the latter emerged as the more favorable option. With Marc Gasol now in the mix, it's been Ibaka who's taken a backseat of late.
Ibaka has started only two of the Raptors' five games since the All-Star break, and he's topped 24 minutes in just one of those contests. He's down to 22.2 minutes per game in that span – a far cry from the more than 30 minutes he averaged from Jan. 1 through Feb. 13. Ibaka's field goal percentage (41% FG) has also plummeted since the break, and he's tallied just one assist, two blocks and no steals over his last four contests.
Meanwhile, Gasol has thrived in an expanded role over the last two games, putting up 19 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in Friday's win over Portland, and following up with 13 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocks Sunday in Detroit. Gasol played 32 and 38 minutes in the two games, respectively.
In accordance with Nurse's plan, Gasol's three starts since the break have all come against teams – Orlando, Portland, Detroit – with something resembling a traditional center. The pendulum could swing back toward Ibaka on certain nights, though the fact that Gasol's minutes have crept into the high-30s while Ibaka's have remained in the mid-to-low-20s isn't overly encouraging. Ibaka may be the better matchup against Clint Capela on Tuesday – and perhaps the perpetually questionable Anthony Davis on Friday – but after that, Toronto's schedule is loaded with more traditional center matchups, at least on paper, for the remainder of March.
I've written a lot about Trae Young lately, but he warrants another mention after ripping off back-to-back 36-point efforts, followed by a career-high 49 points in Friday's four-overtime marathon against Chicago. Over his last five games, Young is averaging 30.6 points and 9.4 assists, and includes a game in which he was ejected after only 18 minutes. Young has vaulted into the top-30 in Yahoo leagues over the last two weeks, but he continues to be plagued by a high turnover rate, accounting for 19 in the last three games alone.
Still, Young's mid-season turnaround, reversing the trend of rookies starting fast and eventually tailing off, has been remarkable to watch. Over his last 25 games, Young has been good for 22.7 points, 8.6 assists and 4.2 rebounds with impressive, 44/38/85 shooting splits.
Steve Clifford implied on Sirius XM NBA Radio on Tuesday that Markelle Fultz likely won't see the floor for the Magic this season. "He's still actually rehabbing his shoulder, and he's not even able to really do much on the floor yet," Clifford said. "It's a pretty significant shoulder injury, and I would say he's starting to do a little bit, but it would be very difficult for him to get back this year."
This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone who's followed the Fultz saga over the last year, though it all but erases any lingering dash of hope that we'd to get see even a minuscule sample of how Fultz looks in a new environment. At the end of the day, though, with the Magic in the thick of a playoff race, attempting to win games and simultaneously integrate a player who forgot how to shoot a basketball never made a whole lot of sense. Here's to hoping Orlando can convince Fultz to lace 'em up in Vegas in July.
Brad Beal has been the top overall player in Yahoo leagues over the last two weeks by way of 32.6 points, 6.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 steals/blocks and 3.2 made threes on 53.2 percent shooting. Since the start of December, Beal is averaging 27.9 points, 6.1 assists, 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals on 48/36/85 shooting splits. He's scored fewer than 20 points just three times in his last 41 games, and only once since the calendar flipped to 2019. For the season, he ranks 14th in per-game fantasy production, but he jumps into the top-10 in cumulative value.
With Washington's cap sheet hamstrung by Ian Mahinmi ($16M in 2019-20) and John Wall, the Wizards are limited in what they can add around Beal next season. And with Wall all but guaranteed to miss most, if not all, of 2019-20, Beal should enter next fall on the short list of worthy first-round picks.