Fantasy basketball – Mobley, Cunningham, Barnes and an NBA rookie class to be thankful for

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How over the river and through the woods am I for this season’s rookie class?

I just turned down Deandre Ayton for Evan Mobley. Straight up. Not only was my response an instant “no,” but I felt a pang of indignation at being lowballed.

Said pang is surfacing just 15 games into Mobley’s career.

At the dawn of every draft season, I warn readers not to fall into Rookie Love.

Rookie Love, defined: irrational hype-driven anxiety and ardor that drives managers to waste a mid-round pick on someone whose NBA resume consists of putting on a hat on draft night, one Summer League and a few preseason games.

Oh, I’ve been there. Rookie Love sweeps you up with hype. Hope. Then the honeymoon period; that halcyon inaugural draft season where every lottery pick’s fantasy career seems to lack any semblance of a ceiling.

At that juncture? A fourth or fifth-round pick for a highly anticipated rookie smacks of a steal.

But then Halloween arrives. The games start to count. Veterans expose flaws. That missing ceiling is exposed.

And finally… the check arrives.

You examine the chasm between ADP and Player Rater ranking. Find out you’ve overpaid by three or four rounds… all for a single burst of draft-night dopamine.

My customary advice: during your draft, look to acquire rookies as endgame fliers. Nothing more. Once the season begins? Have at it. Rookies make the best in-season waiver wire additions.

The sudden leaps a rookie can take in their season-one development are unrivaled regarding waiver-wire impact. That undefined ceiling, the sheer unknown surrounding a rookie’s upside, is a singular fantasy dynamic… but one best explored on the wire.

(Unless you’re in a keeper league. If you’re in a salary cap keeper league, rookies are a different ballgame. In that format, overpaying a little for one rookie makes good longterm sense.)

Oh and by the way — everything you just read does not apply to the 2021-22 season!

This rookie class is an exception. It is exceptional. Uniquely productive for five reasons Fantasyland can be thankful for:

1. Accurate Valuation: At the close of draft season, there wasn’t a single rookie sporting an overinflated ADP.

2. Impact Minutes/Usage: Nine rookies are already averaging over 25.0 MPG. Of those nine rookies, seven have Usage Rates over 19.0. Seven rookies already getting so many touches this early points toward a significant rookie-class second half.

3. Multipositional Eligibility: Because rookies often need half a season to define their role and position, many enter the season with eligibility at more than one position. All four of this season’s top rookies to date qualify at more than one position. That kind of versatility is a huge hidden strength for any fantasy team.

4. Actual Sleeper: For most rookies, the adjective “sleeper” is an oxymoron. The hype that typically comes with each incoming freshman class inflates draft season stock to the point where actual “sleeper” status is an impossibility.

But this class has 10-15 names that could end up as standard-size streamers or better by All-Star Weekend. And there will be two or three names that come out of near-nowhere over the final couple weeks of the campaign and offer reliable impact production.

5. The Rookie Wall: Be thankful for The Rookie Wall. Thankful it doesn’t exist. It’s a myth. A tall tale. A ghost story.

How am I so sure? Because when the pandemic forced you and everyone you know to figure out how to entertain yourselves home alone? I required zero instruction. This latch key kid has been perfecting space-station living since fifth grade.

Every season, I make sure to spend some 2 a.m. bandwith tracking patterns in NBA rookie production. It’s been 15 years. And the Rookie Wall has yet to reveal itself.

The Rookie Wall? Humbug. It’s more of a Rookie Divot. A statistical stumble. A pocket-sized slump that tends to arrive around All-Star Weekend.

I’ll let those more intelligent than I tell you why. But inevitably, most impact fantasy rookies recover or even expand their value down the stretch.

But as winners, we can be thankful many managers still believe in the Rookie Wall myth. Enough to render most rookies undervalued as the season progresses.

So rejoice, fellow fantasy Pilgrims. Our freshman cornucopia doth overfloweth. So overfloweth that it doesn’t seem blasphemous to whisper the scarlet number: “2003.”

The class of 2003 — LeBron, Wade, Carmelo, Bosh, Diaw, Korver, Howard, West — remains the all-time rookie standard. But 2021, via sheer depth, could end up giving that class a run for its proverbial money.


I went into this thinking I’d highlight the five rookies I’m most thankful for. (It was hard to get it down to five… it’s more beneficial to think of this as the players I’m most thankful for as of this writing.)

Evan Mobley, PF/C, Cleveland Cavaliers

14.6 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.5 3PG, 1.5 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 49.4 FG%, 77.1 FT%

After Mobley’s tremendous first month, the comps are raining down fast and furious: Garnett, Duncan, Bosh.

One sign Mobley is destined for elite status? None of the comps entirely do that month one justice. Mobley’s presence, his style of play, his demeanor… are all already his own.

The main reason I wasn’t tempted by Ayton-Mobley? I think we’ve seen Ayton’s ceiling at this point. And Ayton retains top-25 fantasy potential. But Mobley… Mobley is a future top-10 pick.

Cade Cunningham, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons

14.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.9 3PG, 0.5 BPG, 1.4 SPG, 35.0 FG%, 90.9 FT%

Thankfully, I don’t have to buy low on Cunningham, because I rostered Cunningham in most of my drafts.

I prioritized Cunningham for two reasons: he supported my free-throw strategy, and the delay of his debut deflated his ADP to an agreeable level.

And despite his late debut, Cunningham’s only required a few games to get the majority of his stat line up to my expectations. All Cunningham has to do is iron out that shot a little. Get that FG% into the mid-40s? As dynamic as Mobley’s been, Cunningham could still beat him out for Rookie of the Year… in fantasy and reality.

Josh Giddey, PG/SG, Oklahoma City Thunder

10.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 0.9 3PG, 1.1 SPG, 0.6 BPG, 39.7 FG%, 63.6 FT%

I’m thankful most competing managers didn’t see what’s developing in Oklahoma City: a factory for undervalued, off-road fantasy production.

No one expects much out of OKC this season. It’s a developmental year. Some of the player names take a moment to recognize. The rotation is difficult to pigeonhole. But here’s the thing about rebuilds: the stats still count.

Giddey is another of my most-rostered players. He made for an ideal endgame pick, and is returning ninth-to-tenth-round production.

And Giddey is more than a placeholder. He has real long-term fantasy upside. One way to tell? Giddey doesn’t have to score in double figures to deliver for his managers. (And those nights where Giddey can’t hit the broadside of a barn, I don’t want him to even try.)

The assists, the out-of-position rebounds, the steals (and blocks!)… when Giddey goes for 15 points, it’s just gravy.

Scottie Barnes, SF/PF, Toronto Raptors

14.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 0.3 3PG, 0.6 BPG, 1.0 SPG, 48.0 FG%, 72.0 FT%

No one, not even Mobley, burst out of the gate like Barnes. We saw what Barnes is capable of in a Pascal Siakam-less rotation: 20-10. I don’t care where Siakam was; any rookie going 25-13 in his second NBA game is a serious fantasy riser.

Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder

10.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.7 APG, 1.1 3PG, 0.4 BPG, 0.6 SPG (last four games)

I’m pushing Robinson-Earl over the starrier names (Jalen Suggs, Franz Wagner, Chris Duarte, Jalen Green… even Alperen Sengun) for a reason: to get you to take notice. Just like Giddey, Robinson-Earl is overachieving in a developmental ecosystem. He’s the kind of rookie that could end up starting before long. Minutes + upside + low expectations = a whole mess of fantasy goodness.

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