By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
It’s Week 8 of the NBA season, which means we’re almost exactly one-third of the way through the slightly abbreviated 2020-21 campaign. As things continue to come increasingly into focus, let’s take a look around the league at the players and storylines impacting fantasy basketball.
This week, we’ll examine Jordan Clarkson’s mini-breakout, Giannis’ struggles at the line, Anthony Davis’ shot selection, and much more.
Hopefully this doesn’t jinx anything, but for the first time in several weeks, it feels like the virus is only a minor subplot in the NBA. While a few notable players — namely, Kevin Durant — are still dealing with COVID-19-related absences, it’s been mostly good news on that front, as the league hasn’t had to postpone any games (yet) for the upcoming week.
The Kevin Durant saga grabbed headlines over the weekend, as Durant was ruled out, then in, then back out of Friday’s loss to Toronto. Durant ultimately played 19 minutes before being pulled in the second half due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Durant was held out of Saturday’s game against Philadelphia, and he’s expected to miss the Nets’ next two games (Tuesday at DET; Wednesday vs. IND) before returning for Saturday’s game at Golden State. Assuming that all holds up, Durant will have already missed nine contests on the season.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still without a clear return date as he deals with the aftermath of a positive COVID-19 diagnosis in mid-January. Monday’s loss to Dallas marked Towns’ 13th consecutive absence. Dating back to last season, Towns has played in only four of the Timberwolves’ last 36 games. Minnesota is off Tuesday night before a home matchup with the Clippers on Wednesday. The Wolves finish out the week with games against Charlotte (Friday) and Toronto (Sunday).
Jrue Holiday was a last-second scratch from Monday night’s win over the Nuggets due to COVID-19 concerns. Milwaukee hasn’t confirmed anything, but a postgame quote from Khris Middleton heavily implies that Holiday tested positive for the virus. Holiday will not travel with the team for Wednesday’s game in Phoenix, and if he has indeed tested positive, he’ll likely miss a string of games over the next couple of weeks.
Jordan Clarkson: Sixth Man of the Year?
For much of his career, Clarkson was typecast as a player who never saw a shot he didn’t like. While he’s averaged double-figures in all seven of his NBA seasons, most have dismissed Clarkson as a ball-dominant, empty stats gunner who spent the early portion of his career on some memorably bad Lakers teams.
Since coming to Utah midway through last season, Clarkson has completely flipped the narrative. Now sitting as the prohibitive Sixth Man of the Year favorite, Clarkson has scored in double-figures in 34 of his last 35 games dating back to last season. The Missouri product holds career-highs in points and rebounds per game, as well as field goal, free throw, and three-point percentage.
With multiple three-pointers in all but one game this season, Clarkson has emerged as perhaps the league’s most dangerous bench scorer. His lack of passing and defensive production still inhibits his fantasy value, but Clarkson’s high-volume/high-efficiency shooting has propelled him up to 52nd overall in eight-category leagues (total value). Coming into the year, Clarkson held a Yahoo ADP of 138.9 and had never finished higher than 78th in total value.
Giannis at the Line
After hovering around the mid-70s for the first six years of his career, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s free throw percentage has been on a sharp decline since 2018-19. Antetokounmpo finished that year at a respectable 72.9 percent, but that number tumbled all the way down to 63.3 percent in 2019-20, knocking him out of first-round value in eight-category leagues.
Fast-forward to 2020-21, and Antetokounmpo’s struggles at the line are persisting. Through 23 games, he’s just barely clearing 60 percent (61.6% FT), and that includes a recent hot streak — using that term very liberally — in which he’s hit 73.7 percent of his attempts over the last five games. Considering he ranks third in the league in attempts per game (9.7), Antetokounmpo’s troubles at the stripe have severely hindered his overall fantasy value.
Entering Tuesday, he ranks 24th in eight-category leagues and 43rd in nine-category leagues (including turnovers). If you eliminate free throw percentage from the equation, Antetokounmpo jumps all the way up to second overall — behind only Nikola Jokic — in both formats. Antetokounmpo is still providing ultra-elite counting stats across the board, so if you’re punting free throw percentage, you’ll be in great shape. But his high-volume shortcomings at the line have made it increasingly difficult to build a balanced fantasy team that can compete in that category. Until he demonstrates consistent improvement, Antetokounmpo’s value in category leagues simply has to be discounted.
Reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, De’Aaron Fox, is in the same boat as Antetokounmpo. He’s not getting to the line as often (6.5 FTA/G), but Fox is shooting a career-worst 68.7 percent. Whereas Antetokounmpo has never been a great jump-shooter from any distance, Fox is shooting 48 percent from the field and a rock-solid 36.1 percent from three this season, so the free throw percentage is difficult to explain. Granted, Fox has never shot better than 72 percent at the line since entering the league in 2017-18, but his efficiency has only worsened as he’s improved his ability to get to the line. Fox jumps from 48th to 28th overall in total value with free throw percentage eliminated as a category.
DeMarcus Cousins’ Time to Shine
Due to a run of severe lower-body injuries, we haven’t seen a fully unleashed version of DeMarcus Cousins since his 2017-18 season, which was cut short by a torn Achilles tendon. Cousins resurfaced with the Warriors the following season but only appeared in 30 games and was never truly 100 percent healthy. Then, shortly after signing with the Lakers, a torn ACL kept him out of the entire 2019-20 campaign.
Now with the Rockets, Cousins began the year in a minimal, backup role to Christian Wood. But with Wood needing a wheelchair to leave the arena last week following a severe ankle sprain, the stage is set for Cousins to have an extended run as the starting center. His first two starts — losses to San Antonio and Charlotte — haven’t been overly spectacular, but Cousins is still fully capable of putting up borderline-elite counting stats when given the opportunity. In six starts overall this season, he’s averaging 13.7 points, 12.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.5 blocks and 2.2 made threes.
The drawback, however, is that Cousins is shooting just 39 percent from the field in those games, and he’s down to 35.8 percent for the season; far and away a career-low. That number is tough for any fantasy manager to stomach, but if you’re punting field goal percentage, Cousins becomes a top-100 value with considerably more upside over the next few weeks.
LaMelo Ball: Starting for Good?
The most impressive rookie from the 2020 class thus far, Ball has played well enough to start for most of the season. But with Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham in place, the Hornets brought Ball off the bench for the first 20 games of his career. The trend reversed last week when, thanks to a Rozier ankle sprain, Ball made his first NBA start on Feb. 1 in Miami.
Monday’s shellacking of the Rockets in Charlotte marked Ball’s fifth consecutive start. During that stretch, he averaged 22.6 points, 6.6 assists, 6.0 rebounds, 3.8 made threes, and 1.0 steal, while holding a 44/51/89 shooting line. The Hornets have had a regular starter miss each of those games (first Rozier, then P.J. Washington, then Devonte’ Graham), but Ball has shown well enough that it’s fair to wonder whether James Borrego can justify moving him back to the bench when Graham returns from the groin strain that cost him the last two contests.
In the game Washington missed — Friday’s 138-121 loss to Utah — Borrego started the Ball-Rozier-Graham trio together and Ball posted a career-best 34 points (14-27 FG, 4-9 3PT) to go with eight assists and four rebounds. Graham did exit that game early with the groin injury, however. Looking ahead, Ball’s value will remain elevated as long as Graham is out, but Borrego could stick with the three-guard look when the roster is fully healthy.
Either way, Ball has firmly established himself as an every-week starting-caliber option. He finished Monday's game with 24 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds, and a career-high seven three pointers (7-12 3PT). Ball is all the way up to 28th in total value in eight-category leagues. The next-highest rookie is Tyrese Haliburton at 57 overall.
A Banged-Up Anthony Davis
Davis was withheld from Monday’s win over the Thunder due to tendinitis in his right leg. The positive news for the Lakers is an MRI on Davis’ Achilles tendon came back clean, but the big man is clearly laboring through an injury that’s impacted his fantasy value.
For the most part, Davis is putting together another elite season, but he’s dropped off considerably in a few areas. Most notably, at the free-throw line, where he’s shooting a career-worst 70 percent, down from a career-high 84.6 percent a year ago. Davis’ volume is also down (5.7 FTA/G; 8.5 FTA/G last season), and he’s yet to attempt more than 10 free throws in any game thus far — something he accomplished 23 times (including playoffs) last season.
Davis has also taken a slight step back as a three-point shooter, hitting just 31.5 percent of his 2.6 attempts per game, down from 33.0 percent and 3.5 attempts, respectively in 2019-20. The overall decline in scoring (22.3 PPG, down from 26.1 last season) can partially be explained by the Lakers’ influx of quality depth and scoring options, but Davis simply hasn’t been as aggressive attacking the basket.
A year ago, 34 percent of Davis’ field goal attempts came from within three feet. This season, that number is down to a career-low (by far) 24.9 percent. Meanwhile, Davis has dramatically increased his mid-range frequency, with 24.3 percent of his attempts coming from 10-to-16 feet, up from 15.5 percent last season. To his credit, Davis is converting those looks at a career-high 48.8 percent clip, but they’re often high-degree-of-difficulty shots with a low probability of drawing a foul.
When push comes to shove, Davis is still fully capable of being the league’s best two-way big man, but he simply hasn’t shown the same level of aggressiveness that was so often on display in the bubble. There’s a good chance the leg issue is partially to blame, so Davis’ status will be something fantasy managers should closely monitor over the next week. Davis is considered questionable to play in Wednesday’s rematch against the Thunder, but it wouldn’t be surprising if he ends up missing multiple games. The Lakers also play Friday (vs. Memphis) and Sunday (at Denver) to close out Week 8.