NBA Rookie Heat-Check: Zion Williamson and Ja Morant have been better in real life than in fantasy

Yahoo Sports

By Nick WhalenRotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

It’s been a while since we’ve checked in on the 2019 rookie class. Over the last several weeks, the two names at the top of the class have continued to separate themselves from the pack. Ja Morant has lived up to the hype, and then some, while Zion Williamson hit the ground running in January and hasn’t looked back.

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Beyond the top two, the 2019 class has been somewhat of a disappointment. But several rookies have found their way into fantasy lineups throughout the season — even if it’s meant bouncing back and forth between the roster and waiver wire on a near-weekly basis.

Let’s take a look at some of the rookies making an impact on fantasy basketball in Week 20:

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Since the night he debuted, Williamson has continued to show why he was the consensus No. 1 overall pick. While his defensive impact has remained fairly limited, Williamson has been one of the most consistent finishers (and scorers) in the NBA over the last month-and-a-half. Through 15 games, he’s averaging 24.1 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.1 assists while hitting just under 60 percent of his field-goal attempts.

He’s shooting only 64.8 percent at the line, but Williamson is getting there 8.5 times per game, and he’s taken double-digit free throws in five of his last seven contests. Williamson enters Tuesday night’s matchup against Minnesota having scored at least 20 points in 11 straight games.

Fantasy-wise, the high-volume/low-percentage free throw shooting is severely hampering Williamson’s value, as is the lack of blocks/steals/threes production. Over the last month, he ranks just inside the top-100 in eight-category leagues, but if you remove free throw percentage from the equation, he jumps up roughly 50 spots.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

Still the heavy favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, Morant was easily the best player in the class until Williamson arrived. While any GM who says he’d rather have Morant is lying, the No. 2 overall pick is on a star trajectory of his own, averaging 17.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists, while shooting 49.3% from the floor — an outstanding number for any young guard, let alone a rookie.

Morant posted his first career triple-double shortly before the All-Star break, and he had arguably the best overall game of his career in an upset win over the Lakers this past weekend. In that game, Morant went for 27 points, 14 assists and six rebounds, which came on the heels of a 20-point, 11-assist showing against Sacramento the previous night.

If there’s a knock on Morant, it’s that his three-point shooting has considerably tailed off. He’s still hovering around 35% for the year, but since the start of February, that number has dropped to 25.7% on just 2.9 attempts per game. Maybe some credit is due to Morant for not forcing shots he’s not making, but for him to reach his immense long-term ceiling, he’ll need to improve in that area.

Like Williamson, Morant has been a more effective real-life player than fantasy commodity. He ranks inside the top-80 for the season in eight-category leagues, but over the last month, he falls outside the top-130.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

After going through a mid-season lull, White has re-emerged as a streaky scorer off the bench. He had a few "Did he actually take that many threes?" games near the beginning of the season, and with the Bulls battling some injuries, they’ve again begun to lean more heavily on the rookie. White had 19 points on 20 shots in Monday’s win over Dallas, which was his lowest point total in five games. Prior to that, he went for 33, 33, 35 and 22 points in consecutive contests, averaging 30.8 points and 5.5 made threes on 54/56/94 shooting in that span.

For the season, White remains outside of the top-200 in eight-category leagues, but he’s been a top-30 producer over the last two weeks, almost entirely due to the absurd three-point volume. With Zach LaVine set to miss at least three more games, White should continue to have plenty of opportunities.

Coby White has been putting up some eye-opening performances of late. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Coby White has been putting up some eye-opening performances of late. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers

Garland has been steadily decent and completely unremarkable for most of his rookie season. That’s better than being a flat-out disaster, but I can’t think of a single “wow” moment — or even a single anything moment — that stands out about his first 59 games.

Of course, team context is a major factor. Garland is in a fierce competition with RJ Barrett for whose supporting cast (and organization as a whole) has been more detrimental. Garland shares a backcourt with one of the worst passers in the league, and, like Barrett, he’s already on his second coach.

So, amid all of that, maybe Garland deserves some credit for putting together a fairly respectable line of 12.3 points and 3.9 assists on 40/36/88 shooting. He’s scored in double-figures in 26 of his last 28 games, but the issue is that Garland hasn’t shown much of a ceiling. The consistency is all well and good, but he hasn’t topped 20 points in any of those 28 games; not a single one, despite averaging 34.0 minutes. His passing has picked up of late — 5.1 APG over the last 12 games — but Garland is still prone to disappearing in that area as well as on the defensive end, where he’s contributing less than 1.0 combined steals/blocks per game on the year.

Cam Reddish, Atlanta Hawks

A back injury kept Reddish out of Monday night’s game, but before that he’d shown signs of finally emerging from a season-long slump. Over a seven-game stretch from Feb. 10 through Feb. 28, Reddish averaged 16.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals on 46.9% shooting, including 36.1% from three. He also got to the line 4.1 times per game — nearly double his season average.

Back in January, Reddish had a similar run, posting 14.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.5 made threes over an eight-game span. For a player who faced similar consistency issues in college, the negatives still outweigh the positives. But Reddish is at least beginning to show some progress as the Hawks march toward another high-lottery berth. 

RJ Barrett, New York Knicks

Coming out of the All-Star break, I wrote that I’m still in on Barrett and expected him to have a few standout performances down the stretch. He had one of those Monday night against Houston when he tied his career-high of 27 points to go with five rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes. It was perhaps Barrett’s best all-around game of the season.

The 19 year old has quietly put together a solid stretch of play since the break, averaging 17.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.2 assists over his last six games. He’s hit nearly 48% of his field goals during that run, though he remains an abject disaster at the free throw line (11 of his last 25) and has been a complete non-factor, statistically, on defense.

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Looking ahead, Barrett will likely be on my list of players to make a tangible leap in Year 2, but if he continues to be a massive liability at the line, his fantasy value is going to lag behind any progress he makes.

Kevin Porter Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers

A particularly sad question I heard recently: Is Kevin Porter the Cavs’ best young guard?

It’s not sad because of anything Porter, himself, has done. Since returning from a knee injury, he’s cranked up his production and is shooting just under 40% from three. But considering he’s playing alongside the No. 4 and No. 8 picks in the last two drafts, if the answer is “Yes," then the Cavs have some explaining to do.

Garland and Collin Sexton aside, Porter has looked like a more confident player since coming back from a sprained knee in late-January. He’d already shown some signs of improvement before the injury, but over the last 14 games, Porter is averaging 14.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.0 steals on 45/39/72 shooting. He topped out with a career-best 30 points to go with eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals in an upset win over Miami on Feb. 24.

Over the last month, Porter ranks 10 spots ahead of Garland in eight-category leagues.

Quick Hits

PJ Washington, Charlotte Hornets

A rough stretch before the break caused Washington’s roster rate to plummet, but he’s righted the ship, to some degree, over his last six games. In that span, Washington is averaging 13.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.7 assists, but he’s shooting just 40.8% from the floor.

Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat

It’s a two-man race for Rookie of the Year, but Nunn is still clinging to the third-best odds in Vegas. He doesn’t offer a ton outside of scoring and struggles to get to the line, but Nunn is in the midst of a strong stretch, averaging 18.1 points on 51/42/88 shooting over his last eight games. 

Eric Paschall, Golden State Warriors

Paschall is back inside the top-150 in eight-category leagues over the last two weeks, providing his usual scoring to go with a handful of rebounds and assists. He had back-to-back 20-plus-point games against the Lakers and Suns to close out February.

Jordan Poole, Golden State Warriors

He’s scored in double-figures in nine straight games, but Poole is one of the NBA’s worst three-point shooters and should not be considered in most leagues. His 15 assists over the last two games are intriguing, yet he’ll be one of the players who will likely see his minutes dip when Steph Curry returns.

Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Still a top-100 player in terms of per-game value this season, Clarke looks like one of the steals of the draft, but he’s sidelined indefinitely with a quad injury. Just before the break, Clarke had his best fantasy performance of the season (41.7 Yahoo FP) in a win over the Blazers, going for 27 points (12-14 FG), six rebounds, two steals, an assist and a block in just 23 minutes.

Sekou Doumbouya, Detroit Pistons

This current version of the Pistons is probably the least talented team in the league, so it’s a little concerning that Doumbouya is still seeing fairly limited minutes off the bench. He’s averaging just 5.5 points and 3.4 boards in 20.5 minutes over his last 11 games.

Rui Hachimura, Washington Wizards

A top-130 player over the past month, Hachimura returned from a lengthy injury absence at the start of February ready to play. Over his last 11 games, he’s averaging 14.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 1.0 steals while shooting 51% from the floor and 78% at the line. He’s also hitting 47% of his threes, though that’s come on fewer than two attempts per contest.

Jalen McDaniels, Charlotte Hornets

After playing seven total minutes from the start of the season through Feb. 4, McDaniels is suddenly a part of the regular rotation as the Hornets shift even more to a youth movement. McDaniels isn’t a fantasy consideration right now, but he’s a name to monitor if there’s an injury in the frontcourt down the stretch.

Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

Herro injured his foot against the Sixers on Feb. 3 and hasn’t played since. He remains without an official timetable.

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