Fantasy Basketball: Lessons and hard knocks from 2017-18 NBA season

San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray earned a permanent PG spot this season. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

By Alex Rikleen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports

As the 2017-18 season nears its close, it’s time to take a look at some lessons we learned as we begin our preparations for 2018-19.

Changing of the (point) guard

The 2017-18 season saw the emergence of a new breed of point guard.

For years, Russell Westbrook has rebounded like a big man. However, since Westbrook was already a first-round pick, and one of Fantasy’s elite options overall, he was more of a unique phenomenon than a trend to react to. Since the 2011 lockout season, James Harden is the only other guard (point or shooting) to average at least 6.0 rebounds per game multiple times.

The first hints of a shifting landscape came early, with Ben Simmons out-rebounding Westbrook over the first month of the season, while Lonzo Ball became the youngest player in NBA history to record a triple-double.

But it didn’t stop there. In January, the Spurs made sophomore Dejounte Murray their permanent point guard, and he averaged 7.2 rebounds per game from that point forward. Others, most notably David Nwaba and Josh Hart, had periods when they averaged big-man-level rebounds when given starter-level workloads. Terry Rozier isn’t a clean fit in this new genre, but he’s more like Dejounte Murray than a more typical Jeff Teague-like point guard.

This new wave of volume-rebounding point guards is a major shift in the rebound economy. Punt builds that depend on winning rebounds will have to adapt. While punt strategists are the most impacted by this shift, the new rebound economy will impact all teams in 2018-19.

Don’t draft rookies

Don’t draft rookies. The 2017-18 rookie class is one of the best in recent memory. Though it’s still too early to make any sweeping conclusions, it seems possible that this rookie class will go down as one of the best in NBA history. If we could magically transplant Malcolm Brogdon’s 2016-17 Rookie-of-the-Year season into 2017-18, it wouldn’t stand a chance – it might not even get a single vote.

Yet, comparing average draft position (ADP) to the overall rankings, this rookie class was just as much of a disaster as every other. Ben Simmons has been Fantasy’s best rookie, which was expected. Even so, the first rookie drafted has a current overall rank (51) that is a full round below his ADP (38). Three other rookies finished inside Fantasy’s top-80. Two, Donovan Mitchell and Lauri Markkanen have ADPs so low that they were not drafted in 12-team leagues. Given Mitchell’s early struggles and the low draft cost, it’s highly likely that many of the managers in 14-team and 16-team leagues dropped him before he emerged as Fantasy stud. The second and third rookies drafted, Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz, have been disastrous. Ball is technically a top-100 player, but his points and field goal percentage have damaged rosters far beyond what they could have planned for.

Despite potentially the best rookie class in a decade, only one rookie was both widely drafted and has exceeded expectations: Jayson Tatum. And his season was drastically altered by Gordon Hayward’s season-ending injury just five minutes into opening night.

The 2018-19 rookie class appears to be loaded, and it could be close to good as the 2017-18 rookie class — at least at the top. Names like Doncic, Bagley and Ayton will generate a lot of hype, and some of them will be future All-Stars. But that hype drives draft prices too high, and the NBA community’s track record for predicting the best rookies is abysmal. Drafting rookies in redraft leagues is a losing bet.

Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon became a top-100 player. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Don’t write off former lottery picks

As with “don’t draft rookies”, this is a lesson we should have already known, but 2017-18 did an unusually good job of reinforcing the lesson. If rookies are anathema to winning Fantasy teams, then old forgotten lottery picks are the panacea.

This season saw two drafts worth of former lottery picks emerge as crucial contributors. Last summer, most would have described both the 2014 and 2016 draft classes as massive disappointments. Some of the disappointment was the result of bad injury luck, sure, but that only accounted for a few players. Not one player from the 2016 draft topped Fantasy’s top 100. In three seasons, Nikola Jokic was the only member of the 2014 draft class to crack the top-65 while missing fewer than 25 games. Fast forward a year and both of those draft classes look a lot better.

Five members of the 2014 draft class now rank among Fantasy’s top-60, only one of whom missed more than 25 games. Five players from the 2016 class have moved into the top-100. These breakouts aren’t limited to former lottery picks, but former lottery picks make up a huge chunk of this growth.

Aaron Gordon, Dario Saric, T.J. Warren, Jamal Murray, Kris Dunn and Buddy Hield all emerged as top-100 players, posting the best seasons of the their careers. Other former lottery picks aren’t inside the top-100 for the season as a whole, but had lengthy stretches announcing them as likely future top-100 players for years to come, such as Julius Randle and Brandon Ingram.

Finally, many more recent lottery picks had medium-term spurts as pivotal waiver acquisitions, such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Domantas Sabonis, Denzel Valentine and Jakob Poeltl. If we extend our watch beyond strictly former lottery picks, then Gary Harris and Clint Capela join the first group, Dejounte Murray joins the second, and Terry Rozier joins the third.

Managers often act like a scorned lover when a hyped prospect they invested in disappoints. This frequently leads to avoiding those players in future seasons. Meanwhile, other managers simply forget about those hype trains that they never boarded. Keeping track of once-highly-touted prospects can yield significant fantasy profits over time.

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