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Numbers Game: Post-Summer League Rookie Rankings Update

Alex Rikleen

Rikleen writes the NBA column "Numbers Game," which decodes the math that underpins fantasy basketball. A certified math teacher, Rikleen decided the field of education pays too well, so he left it for writing. He is a Boston College graduate living in Delaware.

It’s been scarcely three weeks since thefirst edition of my Rookie Rankings, yet some revisions are already required. Three sessions of summer league changed perspectives on some players, while free agency stole opportunities from others.

Before we get to the ranks, a reminder that any stat projections are:

A) Approximate
B) Arbitrary -- Not RotoWire’s official projections
C) Aimed to be semi-conservative, with the main goal being to project categories of skill or deficiency.

These rankings are for 2017-18 only. These are not keeper ratings.

1. Dennis Smith Jr., PG, Mavericks (UP 1)

Smith was a revelation at summer league, relentlessly attacking opposing point guards and looking like a major steal at No. 9 overall. In most games, Smith was clearly the most talented player on the floor. He sunk turnarounds in the lane over Marquese Chriss, and dropped 21 points with six assists on Lonzo Ball’s Lakers. The talk on press row in Vegas was imagine what happens when those passes go to Dirk instead of Nicolas Brussino.

The Mavericks have not added a free agent who would impede Smith’s role, and as he’s shown this summer, he is already better than incumbent point guard, Yogi Ferrell. Seth Curry and J.J. Barea remain obstacles, but the former may be better suited to shooting guard, while the later should be Smith’s backup, especially with the Mavs embracing a mini-rebuild.

As always, summer league results should be taken with a grain -- if not a block -- of salt, but Smith averaged only 25.8 minutes per game. With more time but tougher opposition, his 2017-18 numbers could look similar to his summer league averages of 17.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists – except with the potential for more assists. He’ll also sink some threes and snag some steals.

2. Lonzo Ball, PG, Lakers (UP 2)

From the moment they were drafted, Ball and Markelle Fultz have been in toss-up territory as fantasy assets. Both are excellent, talented prospects with fantasy-friendly skills, and both landed in fantasy-friendly opportunities. Then, summer league reminded us why Ball should be the clear preference in redraft settings. Fultz looked every bit the future star analysts and fans are hoping for, but the 76ers were extra-cautious, sidelining him after a tweaked ankle. Meanwhile, Ball started shakily, but quickly found his groove and led the Lakers to the Las Vegas Summer League championship game before sitting out with an injury of his own. Nonetheless, despite missing two-and-a-half games in Vegas, Ball took home the league MVP trophy and led all players with 9.3 assists per game.

Ball has a stranglehold on his rotation role and won’t be subjected to Sixers management’s pattern of exercising extreme caution. Ball possesses a signature skill, and he’s far and away the favorite to lead all rookies in assists, perhaps by a fair margin. After summer league and free agency, I’ve boosted my Ball projections to roughly 15 points, 8.5 assists, five rebounds, two threes, and at least two stocks (steals + blocks). As was the case in Vegas, Ball may not shoot the three as efficiently as he did at UCLA, but he showed no hesitation, attempting 42 threes in six games.

3. Markelle Fultz, PG, 76ers (no change)

Though I am a frequent advocate for avoiding rookies in fantasy drafts, I may have no choice but to end up with one of these first three this season. The ability and potential is there. Fultz falls below Ball simply because he plays for the 76ers. Even if concerns over the medical team are unwarranted, the setting is still sub-optimal from a fantasy perspective. If we’re to assume Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will stay relatively healthy, Fultz will have two high-upside young players with which to compete for touches. On top of that, the 76ers have several capable scorers and passers, and the idea of Simmons spending time on the ball remains a distinct possibility. Fultz might already be the better player, but he’s a far riskier fantasy pick than Ball.



4. Ben Simmons, PG/PF/SF, 76ers (UP 1)

There is some recency bias here, as Simmons’ 2016 summer league exploits were similarly impressive to the Smith’s, Ball’s, and Fultz’s work in 2017. But Simmons has not played competitively since last summer, and that layoff in itself is cause for concern. Simmons faces identical institutional threats to his value – medical, managerial, and rotational – as Fultz. Simmons, however, has one additional question mark: what’s his position?

Fantasy managers should expect the 76ers to experiment with Simmons at several positions. Those experiments will help Simmons and the 76ers in the long run, but they will probably cause statistical irregularities. Depending on his usage, he could range anywhere from 12-17 points, 5-8 rebounds, and 2-5 assists. He committed a lot of turnovers at LSU and was a poor free-throw shooter, despite getting to the line frequently.

5. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kings (DOWN 4)

Fox’s fall is due mostly to the Kings’ signing fellow point guard George Hill. Hill is a good veteran whose presence will probably help Fox in the long term. But Hill’s addition could rob Fox of minutes, even if the Kings plan to start the pair together. I remain bullish on Fox long-term, and I have him higher in keeper and dynasty settings. He has elite speed – not prospect-elite, actual-NBA-point-guard-level elite – and he is an excellent fit next to Buddy Hield. Predicting his production is difficult, since it will depend heavily on his minutes, which are now uncertain. Hill has missed at least 30 games in two of the last three seasons, and any time he is out, Fox is likely to be a must-start-caliber fantasy commodity.

A note to our readers: At this point in the rankings, we move to the players who should not be drafted outside of the deepest of leagues. Please, unless you are in an 18-team league or have a penchant for backup Jazz point guards, don’t draft these players in a re-draft league. Watch-list your favorites and add them in January, but don’t waste your draft pick.

6. Jayson Tatum, SF, Celtics (previously unranked)

Tatum was up there with Smith and Ball as one of the biggest standout players at summer league. Tatum’s offensive abilities are a perfect match for the Celtics’ deficiencies, and he looked ready to play. Nonetheless, managers should avoid drafting Tatum for the same reasons that kept him off our initial rankings.

Boston’s wing rotation is crowded, led by Gordon Hayward, Jae Crowder, and Jaylen Brown. There aren’t many guard minutes available, with Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier all fighting for time – and all three have proven that they can share the court with one another. There also isn’t much room available at the four after the Celtics acquired Marcus Morris in the Avery Bradley deal. After being selected third overall in 2016, rookie Jaylen Brown averaged 20 or fewer minutes for every month other than February. Tatum may be in line for a similar Year 1 trajectory.

7. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Bulls (DOWN 1)

The Bulls paid a hefty price for Markkanen, one of the centerpieces of the Jimmy Butler draft-night trade. Markkanen underwhelmed in Vegas, though his 9.0 rebounds per game were better than expected. He’s in line for a lot of minutes in a lackluster Bulls’ frontcourt rotation. If Nikola Mirotic returns to the Bulls, Markkanen probably drops out of the top 10.



8. Frank Ntilikina, PG, Knicks (no change)

Ntilikina did not participate in summer league due to injury. The Knicks haven’t acquired a point guard in free agency and appear to have cooled on bringing back Derrick Rose, leaving Ntilikina the heavy frontrunner for the starting role, and all the minutes that come with it. Lots of ‘decent player on a bad team’ stats to be had here.

9. Josh Jackson, SF, Suns (DOWN 2)

Even after a strong summer league showing, I am very much down on Jackson. He has a ton of talent -- that’s undeniable -- but he also carries some character concerns. We know about the suspension at Kansas and the controversy surrounding his scheduled-then-canceled workout with Boston. Then, during summer league, I witnessed multiple instances of Jackson willfully ignoring mid-game advice from Suns’ veterans Devin Booker and Alan Williams. It’s a small detail, but it was a striking nonetheless. Jackson will probably see more court time than any rookie not already listed, but he’ll need to develop and mature in order to translate that into fantasy value. If Jackson can become a more consistent three-point threat, he could be a fantasy contributor as a scorer and rebounder. In Vegas, Jackson led all players in minutes and put together averages of 17.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals per game.

10. Donovan Mitchell, G, Jazz (UP 1)

Mitchell stood out in summer league, looking like one of the most NBA-ready members of his class. The Jazz acquired Ricky Rubio to replace George Hill as the starting point guard, and they still have 22-year-old Dante Exum. Mitchell may need injuries ahead of him to see significant minutes in Year 1 for a team with playoff aspirations, though the wing depth chart is replete with injury risks (Alec Burks, Rodney Hood) and vets on the wrong side of 30 (Joe Johnson, 36; Thabo Sefolosha, 33; Joe Ingles, 30).

11. Malik Monk, SG, Hornets (DOWN 2)

Monk is too talented to drop any lower, even though his situation is less favorable than that of John Collins, Justin Jackson, or Jarrett Allen. If something happens to Kemba Walker or Nicolas Batum, Monk could put together some productive weeks. The No. 11 overall pick did not participate in summer league due to injury.

12. John Collins, PF, Hawks (DOWN 2)

The Hawks look like a rebuilding team (that’s code for “very bad”), and they’re particularly weak in the frontcourt. Collins could realistically begin the season as a starter, which says more about the state of the Hawks than it does about Collins. Outside of the top five on this list, Collins probably has the clearest path to major minutes.

13. Jonathan Isaac, F, Magic (previously unranked)

Here’s another lottery pick whose summer league performance convinced me to add him to these rankings. Isaac didn’t play much, averaging only 18.7 minutes per game in Orlando, but he managed 10.3 points and 8.0 rebounds in that limited run. He needs a lot of development, though his length alone will enable him to contribute steals and blocks right away, and he’s a switchy enough defender to stay on the floor at multiple positions.



14. Justin Jackson, SG/SF, Kings (DOWN 2)

Jackson is a good fit for the Kings. He’s an NBA-ready contributor who should be near the top of the team’s wing depth chart. Sacramento passed on Malik Monk with the 10th pick in the draft, opting to trade down and snag Jackson instead. Monk had been discussed as a possible top-five draft pick as recently as April, so passing on that upside demonstrates a degree of confidence in Jackson.

15. Jarrett Allen, C, Nets (DOWN 1)

The Nets made some competent moves this offseason, but they still look like a high-lottery team. Allen’s path to starter-level minutes is not nearly as clear as Collins’ or Markkanen’s, but as with those two, there should be a lot of ‘decent player on a bad team’ stat inflation if the minutes are there. Allen is a particularly raw prospect, though, so he could struggle to see a fantasy-viable workload, particularly early in the year.