Special to Yahoo Sports
Midway through Week 6, we’ve reached almost the exact quarter mark of the 2020-21 NBA season. While the effects of COVID-19 have skewed things for some teams, we have a large enough sample from which to draw some real conclusions.
When it comes to the 2020 rookie class, the results have mostly mirrored how we viewed the class coming into the season: Raw, deep, with good-not-great talent, and completely unpredictable. At the quarter mark, six rookies are averaging double-figures in scoring, but Anthony Edwards leads the pack at just 13.0 points per game. Only one rookie, Cleveland’s Isaac Okoro, is playing more than 28 minutes per game. The top three picks — Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, and LaMelo Ball — have each had their moments, but if we re-did the draft tomorrow, there wouldn’t be an obvious number one choice, and the entire lottery would vary widely based on individual preference.
Fantasy-wise, this has not been an overly productive class so far. Only two players — Tyrese Haliburton and Ball — rank inside the top-100 in eight-category roto leagues, while only one more (Xavier Tillman) is inside the top-150. Relative to expectations, this shouldn’t come as a major surprise, especially given the volatility of several high-lottery picks like Wiseman, Okoro, Patrick Williams, Deni Avdija, and Killian Hayes. In many ways, it mirrors the 2019 class, which produced only a handful of consistently fantasy-relevant rookies (Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Kendrick Nunn) in Year 1.
While the 2020 class may not be setting the fantasy world on fire just yet, it remains an intriguing collection of players who will help shape the league over the next decade. With five weeks down, let’s take a look at the five best fantasy rookies so far:
1) Tyrese Haliburton, Kings
Haliburton’s slide on draft night didn’t make much sense at the time, and it continues to look worse and worse with each passing week. While Ball has had higher highs and more buzz-worthy moments, Haliburton has been the league’s most consistently productive rookie through the first quarter of the season.
In 15 games, Haliburton is averaging 11.1 points, 5.0 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals, and 0.7 blocks, while shooting 48.5 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three. He’s also north of 80 percent at the line, and he leads all qualified rookie guards in true shooting (61.9 percent). As was the case at Iowa State, Haliburton’s all-around contributions are what make him so valuable. He doesn’t project as elite in any one area, but he’s good — to very good — in almost all categories.
In the Kings’ win over the Knicks last Wednesday, Haliburton popped for 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, four blocks, two steals, and two three-pointers. No other rookie in the class is capable of a line like that right now.
2) LaMelo Ball, Hornets
Ball is the current Rookie of the Year betting favorite, and he’s the only other rookie in the same stratosphere as Haliburton, from a fantasy standpoint. Ball ranks 83rd overall in eight-category leagues, thanks in large part to his above-average steals (1.3 SPG) and assists (5.8 APG) contributions, in addition to elite rebounding (5.9 RPG) by rookie point guard standards. Ball’s efficiency has fallen off a bit of late, but he’s still keeping his turnovers in check. His field goal percentage is probably the biggest concern (40.3% FG), but it was widely expected that he’d struggle in that area early on.
He’s also been up-and-down from beyond the arc (30.8% 3PT) and at the free-throw line (70.3% FT), but the good news is Ball hasn’t suffered from the same confidence issues that continue to plague his older brother. Long-term, Ball’s potential is as high as any prospect’s in the draft, and managers should feel better about his fantasy ceiling — as well as his floor — than they did around draft time.
3) Xavier Tillman, Grizzlies
We knew this would be an unpredictable draft class, but Tillman ranking as the third-best fantasy rookie (per game value) so far is still a major surprise. Of course, opportunity is everything in fantasy, and the Michigan State product has taken full advantage of Jaren Jackson’s slow recovery from offseason surgery. Due to COVID-19 postponements, Tillman hasn’t played since Jan. 18, but over his eight-game sample, he’s posted 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and 0.5 blocks, while hitting 56.1 percent of his field goals. Over his last three games, those numbers jump to 13.0 points, 5.0 boards, 2.0 assists, and 2.7 steals. When Jackson and Jonas Valanciunas (COVID protocols) return, Tillman (136th in eight-category leagues) could return to irrelevance, but he’ll be a name to monitor long-term and in dynasty leagues.
4) James Wiseman, Warriors
Finally, we get to Wiseman. Early in the season, Wiseman looked like a top-100 player, as he averaged 11.4 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks with a smattering of threes over the Warriors’ first seven games. But he hit a rut early in January, often battling foul trouble and rarely seeing more than 25 minutes per game. Despite being benched for Kevon Looney earlier in the week, Wiseman appears to have emerged from that slump, posting 17.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks over his last five appearances.
In Wednesday’s win over Minnesota, Wiseman went for a career-high 25 points, including three three-pointers, in just 24 minutes of action. Over that five-game stretch, he’s worked his way to the line 29 times — the same number as his first 13 games combined. For the season, Wiseman ranks 175th overall in eight-category leagues, due in part to his struggles converting those free throw attempts (62.1% FT).
5) Deni Avdija, Wizards
Like Tillman, it’s been a while since we’ve seen Avdija due to a slew of postponements, as well as Avdija’s ongoing stay in the league’s health and safety protocols. Through 11 appearances, he’s only averaging 7.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.0 steals, but he’s maintained strong percentages (45.2% FG; 45.7% 3PT) while contributing 1.5 three-pointers per game.
More than anything, it illustrates just how low the bar is set to be a top-five fantasy rookie right now. Avdija has only two double-digit scoring games, but both were glimpses of what made him a lottery pick. In a win over Minnesota on Jan. 1, Avdija posted 11 points, seven rebounds, three assists, three steals, and three three-pointers. On Jan. 9 against Miami, he went for a career-high 20 points, draining five threes and adding five boards, five assists, and two steals.