Mike Barner, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
At the beginning of the season, it was expected that players taken high in drafts, like James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antetokounmpo, would be the anchors of your fantasy squad. While those players go a long way to building a strong foundation, it’s often the players you take later on in the draft, or even ones you pick up off waivers during the season, who can make the difference between a good team and a championship-caliber roster.
With the All-Star festivities coming up this weekend, it’s time to name our own starting five of underrated fantasy All-Stars who have exceeded expectations so far this season.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets: The Nets entered the season with D’Angelo Russell and Jeremy Lin slated to handle the majority of the ball-handling duties. While they looked to be set at point guard, Lin was lost after the first game of the season due to a knee injury, while Russell has only played in 24 games while battling a knee issue of his own.
That left the Nets to turn over the starting point guard job to Dinwiddie, who had made a total of 19 starts in his first three seasons in the league. To say Dinwiddie has performed well is an understatement. The former G-Leaguer is averaging 13.7 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 0.8 steals and 2.0 three-pointers per game, while looking like much more than a minutes-eating placeholder for a rebuilding franchise. He’s hurt fantasy owners by shooting just 39.3% from the field, but that’s a small price to pay considering his overall production.
Even with Russell back in the fold, Dinwiddie has played so well that he has retained the starting job. While Russell may eventually join him in the starting backcourt, Dinwiddie should continue to have a significant role down the stretch. If you were lucky enough to pick him up off waivers, Dinwiddie has provided tremendous value for your fantasy squad.
Honorable Mention: Kris Dunn, Chicago Bulls
Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies: Injuries have plagued Evans in recent years, limiting him to just 65 total games in the last two seasons. The Grizzlies were in search of a scoring punch off their bench and decided to take a flier on the former Rookie of the Year, signing him to a one-year contract at near the veteran’s minimum.
Evans played well out of the gate but eventually stepped into a prominent role when Mike Conley (Achilles) was lost in mid-November. Not only has Conley remained out ever since, but the Grizzlies don’t have a ton of talent in general, which has resulted in Evans posting a career-high 28.4% usage rate.
Although Evans’ averages of 19.4 points and 2.1 three-pointers per game are impressive, he earns the starting nod on this squad because he is also averaging 5.0 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.0 steal per contest. Evans went in the later rounds, if he was even drafted, in most leagues, but with overall numbers like these, has been one of the best bargains in fantasy this season. Under the NBA’s standard scoring system, Evans ranks as the 37th-most-productive player.
Honorable Mention: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics: The Celtics suffered a devastating injury in their first game of the season, losing prized offseason addition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome ankle injury just five minutes into the game. He has not played since and might not play again this season, which has resulted in the Celtics relying on more production from their young players, Tatum included.
The third overall pick in the draft, Tatum is averaging 31 minutes per game in his rookie season. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s been a steady contributor across the board, averaging 13.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks and 1.3 three-pointers per game. He’s been an asset with his percentages, as well, shooting 47.8% from the field and 82.3% from the charity stripe. He is also shooting 43.1% from behind the arc, a better mark than that of C.J. McCollum (42.2%) and a guy named Stephen Curry (41.6%).
The Celtics made a lot of moves in the offseason and were likely going to give Tatum a contributing role right away, but it would have been hard for anyone to imagine this type of production from him if Hayward had stayed healthy. If you took a flier on Tatum late in your draft, you’ve received a handsome return on your investment.
Honorable Mention: DeMarre Carroll, Brooklyn Nets
Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls: The Bulls dove into a full rebuild by trading Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves on draft night. They then selected Markkanen with the eighth overall pick and hoped to eventually develop him into one of the leaders of their team.
Even though Markkanen was expected to be a big part of the Bulls’ future, the Bulls’ present — at least heading into the season — included Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis. With those two in the fold at power forward and Robin Lopez at center, Markkanen was expected to fill a somewhat-limited role off the bench to start the season.
Things changed in a hurry for the Bulls, though, when Mirotic and Portis got into a fight in practice before the start of the season, leaving Mirotic injured and Portis suspended. Not only did that leave Markkanen with more playing time, but he became the Bulls starting power forward right out of the gates.
Markkanen got off to a blazing start, averaging 15.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.0 three-pointers per game in October. Even though Mirotic and Portis both eventually returned, Markkanen has never looked back. He’s been extremely consistent, averaging at least 14.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 three-pointers per game in each successive month heading into February.
Markkanen’s quick ascension to a significant role has helped him to far exceed his expectations for fantasy owners this season. With Mirotic now in New Orleans, expect Markkanen to continue to be productive down the stretch.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers
Enes Kanter, New York Knicks: The Knicks appeared to have a logjam up front heading into the season with Kanter, Joakim Noah, Kyle O’Quinn and Willy Hernangomez all on the roster. Not only did they have those four centers, but they also had Kristaps Porzingis to play center when they decided to go small. As a result, it was unclear if Kanter would get enough playing time to be a productive fantasy asset.
While the Knicks had a lot of depth, Noah fell out of favor almost immediately, and Hernangomez never really earned a rotation spot, leaving Kanter with a clear path to minutes from the start. While he continues to have his ups and downs on the defensive end, Kanter is averaging a double-double (14.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game) for the first time in his career. He doesn’t provide much in the way of blocks, but his percentages — 60.4% FG, 87.8% FT — are off the charts.
Kanter has not only had an excellent start to the season, but his prospects perhaps look even better moving forward with Porzingis out for the season due to a knee injury, Noah away from the team and Hernangomez now in Charlotte.
Honorable Mention: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers