By Nick Whalen
Special to Yahoo Sports
Traditionally, rookies tend not to be major factors in the fantasy basketball landscape. Of course, there are exceptions — most recently, Karl-Anthony Towns and Damian Lillard — but on the whole, even the most NBA-ready rookies rarely enter the league with the efficiency and well-rounded skillset necessary for fantasy stardom.
That rang especially true last season. The 2016 rookie class was perhaps the most underwhelming in recent NBA history, culminating in a bizarrely bland Rookie of the Year race that was nearly won by a guy who played 31 games. When the dust had settled, only three rookies finished within the top 50 at their position in total fantasy points. Malcolm Brogdon ranked 42nd among guards, Dario Saric placed 28th among forwards, and Joel Embiid finished as the 33rd overall center, though on a per-game basis he was a top-five player at the position.
For as discouraging as last year’s rookies may have been, the 2017 class enters the NBA with as much fanfare as any in the last decade. Led by a slew of big-name guards, not to mention last year’s No. 1 pick, the class goes 14 or 15 deep with players who project to either start or step into the rotation from day one.
In Part I of our Rookie Preview, we’ll take a look at the top first-year players to target in drafts and auctions, while Part II highlights other notable rookies who could play their way into fantasy relevance.
We’d probably view the 2016 rookie class in a more favorable light had Simmons stepped foot on the court last season.
Even with his perceived deficiencies as a shooter, Simmons would be the easy No. 1 fantasy rookie in most seasons. But he enters a situation in Philadelphia where his own teammate might be his stiffest competition for Rookie of the Year. That, combined with the return and hopeful health (fingers crossed) of Joel Embiid make Simmons difficult to assess.
Even so, he’ll play a prominent role for a coach who could very well deploy him at three or four positions. And while he won’t be a dominant scorer from day one, Simmons should be a very good passer and rebounder with the potential to provide rare assist numbers for a rookie forward.
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Fultz faces virtually the same question marks as Simmons when it comes to role and team construction. After a dominant statistical season at Washington, Fultz has the makings of a multi-category monster, but whether we truly see that unleashed remains to be seen. Fultz may be as talented as point guards like Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose and John Wall, who each excelled as No. 1 picks, but he’s unlikely to be handed a high-usage, unquestioned-centerpiece role right away.
Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
One of the most unique prospects in a while, Ball will face enormous expectations as the new face of basketball in Los Angeles. A strong Summer League showing only poured gas on that fire, and it’s hard not to be excited about the style of play Ball seems to naturally instill whenever he’s on the floor.
From a fantasy standpoint, Ball should be an excellent source of assists, who rebounds well for his position and supplies three-point volume. Ball was an efficient shooter at UCLA, but his jumper didn’t look great in Las Vegas, and he doesn’t get to the free throw line at a high rate.
Dennis Smith, Dallas Mavericks
It’s usually a good sign when a player goes ninth overall and is crowned the steal of the draft almost immediately. Smith is a perfect fit for a Mavs team looking to transition out of the Dirk Nowitzki era without bottoming out, and he should be given plenty of offensive responsibility right away.
North Carolina State played a lot of ugly basketball last season, but Smith had one of the most impressive individual campaigns of any player in the country. Dallas has a couple of nice young guards in Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell, but Smith’s ceiling is substantially higher, and he should leapfrog both players right away.
Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns
Jackson will have a good chance to start at the three right away for the Suns, pairing with Devin Booker to form one of the better young tandems in the West. Jackson isn’t nearly the scorer Booker is, but he’s lightyears better as a defender and doesn’t get enough credit for his rebounding and playmaking ability. If Jackson can prove the concerns about his jumper are overblown, he’ll be among the most ownable fantasy rookies.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
After moving on from DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento has quietly assembled a stable of young talent, with Fox as the cornerstone. He’ll face questions about how his rather slight frame will hold up in the NBA, and the lack of a reliable three-point shot — 24.6% 3PT at Kentucky — is a glaring issue, but Fox is as competitive as they come on both ends and should see plenty of opportunities as a rookie. Perhaps the biggest unknown is how Fox will fit alongside veteran free agent addition George Hill. The two are expected to start together, though Hill could end up cutting into Fox’s touches.