By Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Now is the time, both in real life and in fantasy, when it’s time for a large swath of fans and managers to start looking ahead to the next NBA season. If you own the fantasy equivalent of the Memphis Grizzlies, for instance, there is hope that next season will bring about much greener pastures.
Some questions have probably crossed your mind: What went wrong? How can I improve? How many more slight variations of a black and white jersey can the Nets put out?
Maybe the most important question come draft day, however, is: Who will make the proverbial leap?
We’ve seen guys this season — Kris Dunn, Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine, Donovan Mitchell, to name a few — jump further up the rankings than anticipated. Below, I’ll outline a handful of players I think could make a similar jump into the top 100, or perhaps even the top 50, next season.
Note: I’ll be using rankings for 8-category leagues (no turnovers).
De’Aaron Fox, Kings (current ranking: 129)
Following this past summer’s free agency period, the Kings’ roster was like an abstract painting that the artist kept insisting held some deep meaning — squint really hard and you can see confetti falling down from rafters of the Golden 1 Center while George Hill is being hoisted up on the shoulders of Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, clutching the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
That specific creative vision has since been abandoned, with management trading George Hill to the Cavaliers at the trade deadline. In the process, De’Aaron Fox has become the full-time starter at point guard. Fox holds a season average of 27.4 minutes per game, which is solid, but there were plenty of nights when his minutes sat in the low-to-mid 20s earlier in the season, hurting his overall fantasy value. When drafting a rookie like Fox, the hope is that his adjustment from college to the NBA will be smoothed by a large minutes load on a consistent basis — especially on a non-contending team like Sacramento. That not being the case for much of the year has led to Fox averaging a meager 11.5 points, 4.3 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 1.0 steal per game for the season.
Next season, I’m banking on Fox averaging 30-plus minutes per game, which could easily vault him up the 29 spots he needs to crack the top 100, even if he makes no significant strides in his game. His numbers this season have been promising when the workload is there. When Fox plays between 30-36 minutes, he averages 15.2 points (43.% FG), 5.7 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.9 threes (33.3% 3PT).
Josh Jackson, Suns (current ranking: 78)
If for some reason you’ve had your finger on the pulse of Phoenix Suns basketball, you’ve noticed that Josh Jackson has resurrected what once looked to be a disappointing rookie campaign. Looking uncomfortable, Jackson averaged 9.7 points (39.3 percent), 3.6 boards and 1.2 assists across 21.7 minutes through his first 45 appearances. However, given various injuries and rotation trends, Jackson has been thrust into larger role over the second half of the season, and he’s begun to look more like the player the Suns thought they were getting with the No. 4 pick.
Since Jan. 24, Jackson is averaging 16.8 points (44.7% FG), 6.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steal in 28.9 minutes per game. Though his shooting continues to come and go on a near-nightly basis (69.8 percent from the charity stripe and 28.4 percent from deep), Jackson has proven to have legitimate upside as a scorer. Plus, his potential as a two-way player (combined 2.8 steals/blocks in college last season) hasn’t quite been realized yet. With another year of development and (hopefully) a more stable roster and coaching staff, Jackson will enter 2018-19 as a potential breakout candidate on what could be one of the NBA’s most exciting young teams.
Mario Hezonja, Magic (current ranking: 181)
Mario Hezonja looked so out of sorts during his first two seasons that the Magic declined his roughly $4 million player option for the fourth year of his rookie deal — a rarity for a fifth overall pick. As a result, Hezonja will be an unrestricted free agent heading into the summer That opens up the possibility of a team signing him and potentially giving him an expanded role.
So, what happened? Out of necessity, with Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic and Jonathan Isaac all missing extended time, Hezonja was thrown into the fire. He started several games as a small-ball power forward and was asked to carry a legitimate scoring load. His potential has shined through in the 11 games in which he’s seen between 30-36 minutes, averaging 17.6 points (50% FG), 5.7 rebounds, a combined 2.9 steals/blocks, 2.2 threes (40% 3PT) and 1.5 assists.
Is there a team out there looking to hand Hezonja 30 minutes per game next season? I’m not so sure. But it’s a situation we’ll have to examine when the time comes. Assuming he lands somewhere favorable — a return to Orlando isn’t out of the question — and continues to gain comfortability in the league, he’ll probably be worth a look in the 10th-12th rounds of many drafts. According to Hezonja himself, he’s “never had respect to anybody on a basketball court,” which, to me, makes him worth considering at any point in your fantasy draft.
John Collins, Hawks (current ranking: 104)
Predicting that someone will jump from 104 to 100 isn’t exactly risky. But, I believe Collins, along with Fox and Jackson, could shift closer to the 75 range. After Atlanta waived Hall-of-Fame-caliber charge-taker Ersan Ilyasova in late February, Collins officially took over as the team’s starting power forward. Prior to that, the rookie had been mostly coming off the pine, averaging 10.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and a combined 1.7 blocks/steals across 21.8 minutes in that role.
Collins’ post All-Star break numbers haven’t been substantially better — 12.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, a combined 1.3 blocks/steals in 27.5 minutes — though he’s been going up against opponents’ starters, which wasn’t always the case through the first half of the season.
Collins still has to work on his outside shooting (9-for-27 3PT) if he wants to continue playing power forward, though a long-term shift to center for the high-flying athlete isn’t out of the question. Making that switch seems both realistic and potentially beneficial, as Collins would — in theory, at least — be closer to the rim defensively, upping his potential for rebounds and blocked shots. All-in-all, greater opportunities seem to be headed Collins’ way.
With a summer to develop, he could end up being one of the league’s better young rebounders and defenders in the frontcourt, while remaining efficient from the field (58.4 percent) and the charity stripe (75.2 percent). The Hawks are in line to add a potential franchise cornerstone in the draft, but Collins is a key piece in the rebuilding process in his own right.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings (current ranking: 116)
The only man on this list who has legally changed his middle name to Trill, Cauley-Stein has shown improvement through each of his first three NBA campaigns. That improvement was accelerated last season after Kings management sent DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans, giving Cauley-Stein the opportunity to start at center. After the 2017 All-Star break, Cauley-Stein averaged 12.9 points (50.4% FG, 71.6% FT), 8.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists and a combined 2.0 steals/blocks in 30.8 minutes per game.
The improvement has carried over to this season, particularly on the offensive end. Cauley-Stein is averaging 16.0 points per 36 minutes on 49.1 percent shooting. That’s due in part to the development of a fairly reliable mid-range game. Cauley-Stein has converted 43-of-96 (44.8%) attempts from 16 feet to the three-point line, an encouraging development that suggests he could eventually expand his range to beyond the arc, an area he’s rarely ventured this season (3-of-12 3PT). The Kentucky product has also shown comfort with the ball in his hands in the halfcourt, handing out 2.9 assists per 36 minutes.
In addition to his scoring and passing, Cauley-Stein has posted 7.8 boards and a combined 2.4 steals/blocks per contest when seeing between 30-36 minutes. The rebounding is a bit disappointing for someone who drew Tyson Chandler comparisons coming out of college, though it’s worth noting that he’s increased his rebounding rate each year he’s been in the league. Overall, I think Cauley-Stein has the highest upside of anyone on this list heading into next season, and he could flirt with a top-50 ranking if everything breaks right.