By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We’re more than three weeks into the season, so what better time than now to revisit my preseason takes? Some of these were published on Yahoo and RotoWire, while others I kept to myself. Either way, the results have been definitively … all over the board.
Let’s jump in:
The take: LeBron James, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard are cross-offs for MVP
My thinking here was that James and Leonard would take themselves out of the race via a combination of missed games and in-game coasting. For Harden, it was all about perception. He hasn’t exactly been a media darling for most of his career, and at the time I wrote this take, he was in the early stages of forcing his way out of Houston. Even if Harden remained with the Rockets and put up his usual, historically elite numbers, it felt like the public had turned on him to the point that he couldn’t win the award.
Suffice it to say I feel pretty good about that part of the prediction. Not only did Harden eventually force his way out of Houston, but he did it about as abrasively as possible. Whatever lingering cache Harden may have held with fans or the media has been completely erased.
As far as Leonard and James go, they’re very much in the MVP race, so on the whole this prediction is not looking great. With the Lakers jumping out to the league’s best record and James playing in every game thus far, he may very well be the prohibitive favorite at this juncture. Meanwhile, Leonard has missed only two games, and he even played in both halves of a back-to-back earlier this month. Rest will always be a concern with Leonard, but thus far the Clippers haven’t load-managed him as aggressively as most expected.
The take: I’m staying away from Victor Oladipo and Blake Griffin
In general, I tend to be more conservative when it comes to targeting injury-prone players, so I made a point to avoid both Oladipo and Griffin in drafts. We’ll see how Oladipo adjusts to life in Houston, but through three weeks, not taking him at a discount (APD: 76.8) is looking like a mistake.
Oladipo was an actively damaging fantasy player for most of his 19 appearances last season, but he’s looked much more like his old self through nine games in 2020-21. His scoring average is back up to 20.0 points per game, and he’s adding a career-best 5.7 rebounds to go with 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals. His percentages are fine (42% FG; 36% 3PT), though his 73 percent figure at the free-throw line is a bit disappointing.
On the other end of the spectrum, staying away from Griffin is looking like the right move. I’m not claiming that avoiding maybe the most injury-prone player in the league was some sort of grand foresight on my part, but Griffin was coming off the board around the end of the seventh round in Yahoo leagues (ADP: 87.4), so he wasn’t exactly a 12th-round dart throw. Griffin’s counting stats have been slightly better of late, but he’s already missed three games and is averaging just 13.6 points on 38/32/68 shooting splits. As of Thursday, Griffin ranks outside the top-180 in nine-category Yahoo leagues.
In the interest of honesty, I should also note that I truly attempted to avoid Kevin Love, yet somehow ended up rostering him in two leagues. Love lasted a grand total of 47 minutes before going down with a calf injury in the Cavs’ third game of the season.
The take: I’m targeting Chris Boucher in drafts
Despite Nick Nurse going to extreme lengths* (*starting Alex Len) to avoid moving Boucher into the starting lineup, I feel pretty good about this one. I was able to snag Boucher in two leagues, and thus far he’s vastly outperformed his 132.2 Yahoo ADP. On his peak nights, Boucher might be the league’s best pure shot-blocker, and he’s also the rare efficient scorer (57% FG) who also provides three-point value (1.7 3PM/G). Through 10 games, Boucher is averaging 14.3 points, 6.2 boards, and 2.6 blocks in just 22.2 minutes.
The take: LaMelo Ball won’t be fantasy-relevant as a rookie
If there was any confusion, the answer is yes, I am paid to do this professionally.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say I was out on Ball as a prospect, but I certainly did not think he’d be a nightly triple-double threat 10 games into his NBA career. The counting stats are one thing, but my major concern was his efficiency. I was convinced Ball would be a sub-40-percent shooter who struggled from three and committed a ton of turnovers. Maybe I’ll end up being correct about his field goal percentage, which currently sits at 40.8 percent, but Ball has been remarkable at taking care of the ball, averaging just 2.0 turnovers per game.
In 12 appearances, Ball has as many games (3) with more than two turnovers as he does games with one or fewer. Entering Thursday, Ball ranks 43rd in nine-category leagues — not bad for a player with a 96.9 ADP.
The take: Drafting Damian Lillard over James Harden
I had the opportunity to get Harden with the fourth overall pick in one league and instead opted to take Lillard. I knew it would be a relatively controversial call, but three managers had already passed on him, and the draft was taking place the same night Harden showed up to a preseason game looking like Jerome Bettis, circa 2004.
So far, I’m happy to have the 10th-ranked player instead of the 45th, but I expect Harden will close that gap within the next few weeks. He essentially tanked his last five games in a Rockets uniform and still averaged a double-double with 5.0 rebounds. The adjustment to playing alongside Kevin Durant and (maybe?) Kyrie Irving could be clunky at first, but even with superstar talent around him, Harden should return to elite fantasy status.
Ultimately, though, the trade probably lowers Harden’s ceiling a bit, so I still feel good about my decision to draft the more dependable option of the two. In a vacuum, there’s no question Harden is the better fantasy asset, but I felt the gap could be close enough that it would be worth it to avoid having to deal with Harden’s antics and, at the time, still-pending trade demand.
The take: This is the year De’Aaron Fox breaks out
So, I’m not ready to completely abandon this take after three weeks, but Fox’s numbers look concerningly similar to those from the last two seasons. That’s still a very good player, but even if you remove Fox’s two weakest categories — FT% and turnovers — he still ranks outside the top-60 in per-game value.
As he settles in, I expect Fox’s value to steadily rise, but at this point, it’s difficult for me to feel great about a true breakout season. The good news is Fox has bounced back as an outside shooter (34.8% 3PT), but he’s still not taking as many as he should (3.8 3PA/G), and his free throw percentage (71.1% FT on 6.3 FTA/G) is a heavy anchor on his overall value.
The take: I’m staying away from Zion Williamson at his ADP
As one of the league’s most exciting young players, it was obvious Williamson’s value would be inflated in drafts, but he wound up with an ADP of 27.9 — way too high for a player with some glaring flaws. I would’ve happily selected him a few rounds later, but in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t reach for him in the third round.
Entering Thursday, Williamson ranks outside the top-150 in nine-category leagues, due in large part to the same deficiencies that plagued him in a limited sample as a rookie. He’s already shown he’s capable of elite points/rebounds contributions, but Williamson adds very little value elsewhere. His field goal percentage (55.7%) is a plus, but it’s not overwhelmingly great, especially considering he’s attempted only two three-pointers on the year.
Williamson also isn’t blocking any shots — he has four total blocks in nine games — and he’s averaging fewer than 1.5 steals and 1.5 assists per game while committing nearly 3.0 turnovers. Most damaging of all, Williamson is shooting only 62 percent at the free-throw line on 7.3 attempts. Even if you remove free-throw percentage from the equation, Williamson still ranks just 58th in per-game value.