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Fantasy basketball roundtable – Biggest early-season surprises, draft-day redos and best preseason hunches

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We are merely two weeks into the fantasy basketball season, but already it’s easy to identify some draft-day hits and misses.

Our team of fantasy experts — Eric Karabell, Eric Moody, Jim McCormick and John Cregan — got together to discuss some of the things that have stuck out to them in the early going.

Which players are your biggest surprises from the opening weeks of the season?

Karabell: Charlotte’s Miles Bridges has to top the list. We knew he was more than just a flashy dunker, but to show legit signs he can double his scoring average long-term is quite impressive. Bridges is hitting many 3-pointers but his overall field goal percentage is just like last season. How did we miss on this? Well, chances are the Hornets did not expect this either, so do not feel too bad. Bridges may settle in around 20.0 PPG and 7.0 RPG but with the steals, the 3-pointers and excellent shooting, that is a top-20 option in fantasy, and I doubt anyone expected that.

McCormick: It’s gotta be Miles Bridges and Cole Anthony. Bridges is currently second on the Player Rater and has taken a relatively unexpected leap to statistical star for Charlotte. Even as he’s settled a bit as a scorer, Bridges brings elite defensive rates and relentless rebounding to the floor most nights. Anthony, meanwhile, has recently become a go-to scorer for the Magic and is among the best rebounding guards in the league through two weeks. I admittedly didn’t actively pursue either in drafts this season, but there are elements to both production profiles that signal their respective leaps are somewhat real. If these ones are too obvious, how about Kyle Kuzma becoming a nightly double-double for the Wizards? The rebounding chances and nature of the roster suggest Kuzma could really be a special source of rebounds. Because, you know, we all think of Dennis Rodman when we hear Kuzma’s name.

Moody: Taking into account Al Horford‘s age and the youth of the Boston Celtics, his per game averages of 30.3 MPG, 13.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 3.8 BPG are impressive. Robert Williams III has also flourished on the court alongside Horford. Right now, the 35 year old Horford is a top-20 player in category formats and a terrific value when you consider his average draft position (110.6).

Cregan: There are a few I could mention as pleasant surprises: Horford, Harrison Barnes, CJ McCollum. But I’m pleasantly floored by the sudden acceleration of Ja Morant from top-40 riser into the top-10 in both Points and Roto formats. When a player arrives in full like Morant, it’s no mirage. This doesn’t tend to be the result of a few hot games, because Morant’s boost is broad-based: volume, efficiency, minutes and usage.

If you could do your draft all over again, what is the one thing you would do differently?

McCormick: I would have been more open to taking Derrick White. The opportunity rates for White are finally strong in San Antonio and perhaps I let confirmation bias of overdrafting him last season get in the way of what was clearly a pretty enticing role on this thin Spurs roster. With such a fun block rate and real equity as a playmaker in the San Antonio offense, White will almost certainly outperform, or at least deliver, on his draft price. If not this, then I wish I’d had believed my eyes more with Scottie Barnes in the preseason; he was dynamic in creating for himself and others in the exhibition season and that’s entirely translated thus far.

Cregan: I would drafted Josh Giddey in every league, rather than only two. Oklahoma City is the land of fantasy opportunity. Outside of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, all a player needs to jump up the fantasy radar is a steady diet of minutes. I made Giddey an endgame pick whenever I could, but I should have started targeting him around round 10. Oh, and I would have filtered the Michael Porter Jr. hype with a bit more intensity.

Karabell: You mean other than draft Miles Bridges by Round 5, of course. Well, I tend to avoid rookies early in drafts but it sure looks as if Cleveland’s Evan Mobley is mature enough to keep aiding fantasy managers in typical big-man categories, while shooting well and adding steals. Sure, there will be some off-nights, but he and Jarrett Allen can coexist. Speaking of rookies, I still think Houston’s Jalen Green has a bright future, but for his first season, it may include him torching everyone’s field goal percentage more than we can deal with, which is a problem.

Moody: Jimmy Butler is a player I would actively pursue. His play on the court has been outstanding to start this season. I had some concerns that Butler’s supporting cast wouldn’t be good for his fantasy value along with his age (32) since he missed 20 games last season. He’s averaged 34.3 MPG, 25.3 PPG, 0.5 3PM, 7.0 RPG, 5.5 APG, 2.8 SPG, and 0.3 BPG thus far.

What was your best preseason hunch that appears to be panning out just as you envisioned?

Moody: Not hesitating to select Anthony Davis at his ADP (20.1). Last season, he played only 36 games and finished 28th on a per-game basis, so he burned many fantasy managers. For a player like Davis, a short turnaround after a championship wasn’t ideal. Davis is performing well this season and contributes in multiple statistical categories, as he always has.

Cregan: In terms of the longview, this is all extremely health-dependent, but targeting Jimmy Butler in the late second round is panning out nicely so far. I went for Butler and ignored the historical injury red flags for two reasons: his underrated late-career spike in efficiency (PER since 2018-19: 19.8, 23.6, 26.5, 30.3) and the anecdotal hunch that this is an “all-in” season for the Heat. I hate playing hunches with top-20 picks, but the Heat’s moves headed into this campaign smacked of a go-for-it mindset. And with players who play with a certain reckless abandon, the players who tend to get to hurt more than others? I’ve found they tend to pace themselves a bit more in those dynamics. So I’ve got Butler down to play 70-72 games, which would give him early-second-round upside.

McCormick: Sticking with Toronto, it’s the ascent of OG Anunoby as a valuable 3-and-D contributor. On a Raptors roster ready to feature Anunoby as a wing scorer, he’s now above 20.0 PPG with strong rebounding and defensive metrics to complement a strong fantasy profile. I had envisioned that Anunoby would finally pay off the years of hype he’s earned from fantasy nerds, and this is looking like the season where his talent and production marry.

Karabell: That Knicks star Julius Randle would continue to pile on the assists despite the addition of actual point guard Kemba Walker. Let us be fair: Walker appears healthy and is shooting well, hitting a ton of 3-pointers and he has been active defensively with the steals, but this offense still runs through Randle. No other Knick, including Walker, is close to averaging even four assists per game. Randle should not have come at any draft-day discount.

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Coach Tom Thibodeau removes struggling Kemba Walker from New York Knicks’ rotation

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New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters Monday afternoon that he is removing guard Kemba Walker from not only the team’s starting lineup but also the rotation as a whole, beginning with Tuesday’s showdown with the crosstown-rival Nets in Brooklyn.

“It’s a tough decision to make, but you always have to do what you think is best for the team,” Thibodeau said after practice Monday in explaining his decision. “I view Kemba as a starter, and so it’d be tough to play three small guards together. I gave it consideration, and I’ve got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all he’s accomplished in this league.

“But I have to do what I think is best for the team.”

In this case, Thibodeau decided that meant benching Walker in favor of Alec Burks. Walker, a four-time All-Star and New York City basketball legend, returned home this past summer on a two-year, $20 million deal after being bought out by the Oklahoma City Thunder following a trade from the Boston Celtics.

After seeing Burks go for 23 points in 39 minutes in Saturday’s win in Atlanta over the Hawks — a game Walker didn’t play in after scoring 17 points in New York’s loss to the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden the night before — Thibodeau has opted to put him in the starting five moving forward.

“I want to tighten the rotation. I liked the way the team functioned, so it will be similar to what we did in the Atlanta game.”

Walker, 31, is averaging career lows across the board, including points (11.1), rebounds (2.6), assists (3.1), field goal attempts per game (9.8) and minutes (24.5). After a hot start to the season, his numbers have tailed off dramatically, as he averaged 10 points on 39% shooting overall — and 29% from 3-point range — through 12 games in November.

Meanwhile, New York’s starting lineup has simply not worked. Entering Monday night’s action, the team’s typical starting lineup — Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — is the NBA’s most-used five-man lineup, logging 287 minutes. It has also been outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, and has what would be the NBA’s worst defensive rating (118.9). Individually, the Knicks are being outscored when Walker is on the court by 13 points per 100 possessions, and are outscoring teams by 11 points per 100 possessions when he isn’t.

Walker spent the past two seasons in Boston after the Celtics signed him to a four-year max contract in 2019 to replace Kyrie Irving once the latter left to sign his own max deal with the Nets. After making the All-Star team his first season and helping Boston reach the Eastern Conference finals with strong play in series victories over the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors along the way, Walker struggled with knee issues last season, missing 29 games in the regular season and the final two games of Boston’s five-game loss to Brooklyn in the first round.

In his first significant move as president of the franchise, former coach Brad Stevens chose to trade Walker to the Thunder, along with the No. 16 pick in July’s NBA draft, to bring center Al Horford back to Boston. Horford has seamlessly fit right into Boston’s lineup, particularly with starting center Robert Williams missing chunks of multiple games with various injuries early on this season.

Walker, on the other hand, eventually agreed to a buyout with the Thunder, allowing him to return home to New York to play a smaller role with his hometown team. But after being benched down the stretch repeatedly over the past several weeks, along with other members of the starting lineup, as New York’s bench has consistently outperformed it, Thibodeau decided Monday to take things a step further.

The Knicks are currently 11-9, putting them in the middle of the tightly bunched Eastern Conference standings. New York is three games behind the East-leading Nets and one ahead of the 76ers in 11th.

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Blake Griffin, out of Brooklyn Nets’ rotation, preaches patience, knows ‘that’s not my decision’

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NEW YORK — Falling completely out of the Brooklyn Nets‘ rotation was not something Blake Griffin saw coming.

After starting 17 games this season, Griffin has sat the past two games after Steve Nash inserted LaMarcus Aldridge into the starting lineup.

“No, I mean listen, [Aldridge] has been playing unbelievable,” Griffin said. “So, I totally get starting him, especially Joe [Harris] has been out, and I totally get that.

“Being completely out of it, though, I didn’t necessarily see that coming. But that’s not my decision. As players it’s our job to do whatever coaches see best, so at this point that’s what it is.”

Griffin, a six-time All-Star, was averaging a career-low 5.5 points to go with 4.9 rebounds while shooting just 16.1% from behind the 3-point arc. The power forward is shooting a career-low 31.8% overall from the field. Last season with the Pistons and Nets, Griffin averaged 11 points, 4.9 rebounds, 42.3% shooting overall and 34.1% 3-point shooting.

“Well, I feel for him,” Nash said. “That’s not easy. You know it’s tough when you go through a rough stretch of play and the world kind of caves in on you a little bit. I’ve been there and understand it. We have to give other guys an opportunity at this point, but Blake’s had a great attitude. I really admire him for being positive through this and keeping himself ready so if his opportunity comes back, he can have an impact.”

With Harris out for potentially four to eight weeks after he will undergo ankle surgery, the Nets need more shooting around Kevin Durant and James Harden. Aldridge has been one of the Nets’ best players this season, averaging 13.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 58% shooting from the field in just 22.1 minutes per game.

Griffin said he has been in touch with some of his former teammates, including DeAndre Jordan, since Nash’s decision. Jordan started the season as a starter before losing his spot in the starting five early last season.

“I have seen [and] have had great examples,” Griffin said. “DeAndre last year, he is a guy that I talked to that reached out. A lot of the guys from last year reached out. He did a really great job with it. I told him that. That is how I am going to try to do it as well.

“Just be a professional and do exactly what you are supposed to do,” Griffin added of what message his former teammates told him. “It may sound like not good advice, but in this situation, everybody always needs to hear the right thing.”

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Brooklyn Nets’ Joe Harris to undergo ankle surgery, out 4-8 weeks, agent says

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NEW YORK — Brooklyn Nets guard Joe Harris will undergo surgery on his injured left ankle and is expected to miss four to eight weeks, with optimism he can return on the shorter end of that timeline, Harris’ agent Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Nets head coach Steve Nash said Harris’ surgery will address “a little bone particle” in the ankle and hopefully allow the shooter to move forward from the injury. Harris has missed the last six games since injuring his ankle in a win at Oklahoma City on Nov. 14.

“He is going to have a scope and then we’ll see what that means once they’ve had the procedure,” Nash said after Nets practice. “We think this is a really positive thing that can put this situation behind him long term rather than risking reoccurrences or uncertainty with the injury.”

Harris is averaging 11.3 points and shooting 46.6% from behind the 3-point arc this season.

“There’s a little bone particle in there,” Nash said. “Just the uncertainty of it, just better to take it out. We thought that it would potentially sort itself out because it’s been there but it’s not. Hopefully that’s the end of it.”

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