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Fantasy Basketball: No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham leads rookies to watch

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By Nick Whalen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

With fantasy basketball draft season on the horizon, it’s time for managers to begin deciding which rookies may be worth targeting.

Unlike last season’s crop of rookies — which looks better now than it did at the time, for the record — the 2021 class is loaded with the kind of star-talent evaluators begin raving about the year before they’re even draft-eligible. Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, and Evan Mobley, the top three picks in July’s NBA Draft, were long-awaited gems, while even Gonzaga standout Jalen Suggs would have been in the No. 1 pick conversation if he were transplanted into the 2020 class.

Of course, lofty pre-draft pedigrees don’t always translate to success in the NBA. For all we know, Green is the next Bradley Beal. Or he could be the next Josh Jackson. Those possibilities exist with any elite prospect, though it bears noting that there’s an undeniable sense of optimism around the top five players in the 2021 class — including Scottie Barnes, the Raptors’ pick at No. 4.

Statistically, it’s highly unlikely — if not outright unprecedented — that all five become All-Stars, but there’s plenty of reason to believe each can find success at the NBA level. Of the group, Cunningham is easily the top fantasy target for 2021-22. Possessing both the highest ceiling and the highest floor, Cunningham likely won’t put up Luka Doncic numbers as a rookie, but he’s the best bet to offer positive values in the highest number of categories.

Green, Mobley, and Suggs are all worthy later-round targets, while Barnes, who landed on easily the most talented and competent franchise of the three, may have more upside in dynasty leagues. Ultimately, Cunningham, Green, Mobley, and Suggs could all be top-100 players in 8-cat leagues. For reference, last year’s class produced three top-100 players on a per-game basis (LaMelo Ball, Tyrese Haliburton, Anthony Edwards).

Due in part to the caliber of names at the top, the 2021 class is somewhat top-heavy, but, as always, a handful of rookies will inevitably work their way into your weekly waiver claims. For non-high lottery picks, it’s all about finding opportunity, which is oftentimes difficult to impossible to predict before the season begins. Even so, it’s important to evaluate team context and depth charts in an effort to get an edge on potential under-the-radar targets before the rest of your league catches on.

Let’s take a look at this season’s most notable rookies, as well as some other first-year players worth monitoring:

Cade Cunningham, Pistons

The No. 1 overall pick is also the top fantasy prospect in the class, as he brings his diverse, well-rounded stat profile to the Pistons. A 20-point-per-game scorer at Oklahoma State, Cunningham also added 6.2 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three. Like all rookies, Cunningham will need some time to adjust to the NBA game, but the Pistons are prepared to hand him the keys to the franchise, so he should handle plenty of playmaking responsibility right away. Field goal percentage is probably the biggest concern for Cunningham, but he’s a strong free-throw shooter who got to the line a ton in college.

Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons
You should feel comfortable about selecting Cade Cunningham in your fantasy drafts. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Jalen Green, Rockets

While Green eventually emerging as the best player in the class wouldn’t be a surprise, he starts his career on a lower tier than Cunningham when it comes to fantasy value. Arguably the best pure scorer in the draft, Green should be a good source of points and threes right away, but his stat profile is heavily shaded toward those categories. He also joins a Rockets roster that’s not quite as talent-deficient as its record would imply. While Houston likely won’t be a playoff threat, it still has Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. — two high-volume offensive players. You'll notice John Wall wasn't mentioned, as the recent news of the guard and the team both agreeing to him not playing and seeking a trade changes things on multiple levels here.

Make no mistake: Green is the Rockets’ keystone asset, and he could increase his usage rate if Wall is out of the picture.

Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

With Cunningham and Green off the board, the Cavaliers were thrilled to land the best big man in the draft with the No. 3 pick. At the time, Mobley filled a major need for a team that went with two guards and a wing with its previous three lottery picks. On some level, developing the franchise’s best young asset will have to be a priority, but with Kevin Love still on the roster, Jarrett Allen re-signing and Lauri Markkanen coming over from Chicago, Mobley’s path to big minutes right away is suddenly crowded.

Mobley’s ability to slide between the four and five should help his cause — and perhaps the Love situation will eventually resolve itself — but he carries more question marks about his role than most prospects of his stature. Nevertheless, Mobley is talented enough to help fantasy managers in points, field goal percentage, rebounds, and, especially, blocks.

Scottie Barnes, Raptors

Toronto passing on Jalen Suggs was somewhat of a draft-night surprise, but it’s hard to fault the Raptors for falling in love with Barnes’ size and two-way ability. At 6'9" 230 pounds, Barnes has the body of a power forward but the skill set of a guard. He’s not LeBron James or Magic Johnson as a passer, but Barnes is well-above-average for his size, turning in 4.1 assists to go with 4.0 rebounds and 10.3 points in just 24.3 minutes per game at Florida State last season. Of the top-five picks, Barnes will likely be brought along the slowest, but his ability to play anywhere should still lock him into a consistent role right away.

Jalen Suggs, Magic

The Gonzaga standout was never truly in the No. 1 overall pick argument, but he’s not too far behind Cunningham, Green, and Mobley. A good-at-virtually-everything guard who plays hard on both ends, Suggs profiles as the Magic’s best young prospect since Victor Oladipo. And he’ll begin his career in perhaps the best fantasy position of any rookie. Even with Suggs, the Magic are in contention for the league’s worst roster. Markelle Fultz remains without a firm timetable, so Suggs should walk into a starting spot — and likely a heavy workload — from Day 1. If Suggs can shoot the three efficiently and his high steal rate carries over, he’ll have a good chance to be the second-most-valuable fantasy rookie behind Cunningham.

Davion Mitchell, Kings

The star of Baylor’s run to the 2021 National Championship, Mitchell arrives in Sacramento to team up with De’Aaron Fox, Tyrese Haliburton, and — for now, at least — Buddy Hield. How Luke Walton decides to divide up minutes between those four will ultimately determine Mitchell’s fantasy ceiling. If the minutes are there, Mitchell could emerge as a low-end bench option who adds steals, points, and threes. But the outside shot is still a question mark (Mitchell shot 44.7% last season but hovered around 30% in his two previous seasons), and he’s a very poor free-throw shooter (career 65.7% FT) for a guard.

Alperen Sengun, Rockets

The 16th overall pick doesn’t quite fit the mold of the players above, but he’s a rookie worth monitoring early in the season. Staring down another rebuilding year, the Rockets are one of the league’s most fantasy-friendly teams. While he’ll play behind Christian Wood and free-agent signee Daniel Theis, Sengun should be able to secure a consistent role in an otherwise shallow frontcourt. As he showed at Summer League in Las Vegas, Sengun is a high fantasy-point-per-minute player who rebounds at an elite rate and can chip in defensive stats and assists.

Other Notables

Jonathan Kuminga, Warriors: After delivering a few highlight-reel plays at Summer League, Kuminga reminded evaluators why he was once considered a top-five lock. Talent-wise, Kuminga’s ceiling is as high as any player’s in the draft, but he joins a restocked Warriors roster that will also add Klay Thompson mid-season. Steve Kerr will have to find a role for Kuminga, but it’s unlikely to be large enough to land him in standard-league consideration right away.

James Bouknight, Hornets: A high-volume, score-first guard, Bouknight projects to grow into a solid source of points and threes, but his game isn’t exactly fantasy-friendly. On a Hornets team suddenly flush with scoring options after adding Kelly Oubre, Bouknight could struggle to find enough shots on a nightly basis to register on the fantasy radar.

Franz Wagner, Magic: Long-term, the No. 8 overall pick has the kind of well-rounded profile that translates to fantasy success, but he’s likely a year away from delivering on that promise. Orlando’s depleted roster is a mark in Wagner’s favor, however, and his multi-position ability should keep him in the mix. If Jonathan Isaac, who sat out all of last season while recovering from a severe knee injury, misses time yet again, Wagner would carry more appeal in deeper leagues.

Josh Giddey, Thunder: An ankle injury in the first quarter of his first game put an abrupt end to Giddey’s Summer League, so no one is quite sure how the 18-year-old will look against dramatically better competition. No one is expecting Giddey to hit the ground running like Ben Simmons or Luka Doncic. But the good news is Giddey should have a long leash for a Thunder team that’s still multiple years away from playoff contention.

Trey Murphy, Pelicans: Summer League is Summer League, but Murphy had a fantastic showing and looks like he could be ready to contribute for the Pelicans right away. He’ll have to battle Josh Hart, Garrett Temple, and Naji Marshall for minutes, however, so his ceiling is ultimately fairly low.

Moses Moody, Warriors: The other Warriors lottery pick will vie with Kuminga for minutes in Year 1, but it’s difficult to imagine both playing enough to warrant fantasy attention. Golden State selected Moody with the future in mind, so he makes for a more appealing target in dynasty formats.

Ziaire Williams, Grizzlies: Memphis surprised everyone by taking Williams at No. 10, but it’s a move focused on developing a potential star for the future. Williams will get some looks, but it’ll likely be a developmental season for the 19-year-old as Memphis aims to return to the postseason.

Chris Duarte, Pacers: With the 13th pick, Indiana took the complete opposite approach of Memphis, making the 24-year-old Duarte not only the oldest lottery pick but the oldest first-round pick since 2002. Obviously, the hope is that Duarte can be plugged directly into the rotation, but with Caris LeVert, Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, and T.J. McConnell on the roster, he’ll likely need an injury — a very real possibility, it should be noted — to move into fantasy consideration.

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