By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
We’re in the thick of the holiday season, and as a loaded NBA Christmas Day slate approaches, it’s time to put together a last-second wish list -- for fantasy managers, that is.
Whether it be a healthy return from injury, a larger role for a key player, or an improvement in a category or two, all fantasy managers have something they could upgrade. If we covered everything, this is a list that could probably span a few hundred pages, but we’ll stick to just a handful of “gifts” that nearly any fantasy player could appreciate.
Speedy recoveries for Siakam, Doncic and other injured stars
Even as teams go to greater lengths than ever to prevent injuries, a number of the league’s brightest stars have already lost significant time this season. From Stephen Curry to Kyrie Irving to Gordon Hayward to De’Aaron Fox, injuries have once again ravaged teams — both real-life and fantasy — and sent managers scrambling to the waiver wire.
Most recently, Pascal Siakam went down with a groin injury that will sideline him “indefinitely” — a term that, in and of itself, is fairly innocuous, though the lack of clarity is a nightmare for fantasy players. Thus far, Siakam has missed two games, both Raptors wins, but he figures to remain out through at least Week 10, which includes a Christmas Day showdown with the Celtics.
Elsewhere, the Mavericks are still without Luka Doncic, though there’s hope he could be back at some point in Week 10 -- perhaps as early as Thursday against San Antonio.
In Phoenix, Deandre Ayton is still on the shelf with an ankle injury, which he picked up in his return from a 25-game suspension last week against the Clippers. The No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft has played 57 total minutes thus far.
Another Western Conference big man, Karl-Anthony Towns, has already missed three straight games entering Monday’s matchup with Golden State. He’ll have a chance to play, but if he’s held out, he’ll have only two more chances to take the floor in Week 10 (Thursday at SAC; Saturday vs. CLE).
LeBron James was held out of Sunday’s loss to the Nuggets due to a thoracic muscle strain, but he’s on track to play Christmas Day against the Clippers as the Lakers look to snap a three-game losing streak.
With the holiday approaching, other notable injuries include Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Smart, P.J. Washington, Justise Winslow, Eric Gordon, Eric Bledsoe, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Thomas Bryant.
Better free throw shooting from the MVP
Giannis Antetokounmpo has reached the point where any criticism of his game has to be couched in a I know he’s unstoppable, but… statement. That’s a great place to be, and one to which few players have truly ascended. Last week’s home win over the Lakers felt like a passing-of-the-torch moment for the league, and there’s little doubt that, if you were putting together an NBA team right this second, you’d want to build around Antetokounmpo.
However, from a fantasy perspective, a major hole has developed in Antetokounmpo’s profile. While he’s upped or maintained his production in nearly every category this season, he’s shooting a horrific 59.8 percent at the line -- down 13 percentage points from last season and more than 16 points from 2017-18. What initially looked like an early season anomaly has grown into a real issue, and considering the reigning MVP takes 10.5 free throws per night, it’s hurting his fantasy value. Entering Week 10, Antetokounmpo ranks seventh in per-game value for category leagues, trailing James Harden, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Luka Doncic, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, despite leading that group by a significant margin in field goal percentage and rebounding, while ranking second in both scoring and blocks.
Going hand-in-hand with that wish is a plea from fantasy managers for the Bucks to play more close games. A byproduct of Milwaukee firmly establishing itself as the league’s best regular-season team has been a reduction in minutes for a number of frontline players -- especially Antetokounmpo, who’s down to just 31.1 minutes per game. That’s down from 32.8 per game last season and 36.7 per game in 2017-18.
The Bucks aren’t going to extend Antetokounmpo more than they have to at any point from here on out, but that won’t keep fantasy players from dreaming about what would happen if Antetokounmpo had to carry the same workload as other superstars. Per 36 minutes, Antetokounmpo projects out to 35.9 points, 14.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.4 blocks and 2.0 made threes.
A healthy Zion Williamson
Maybe we covered this one at the top, but Williamson is a special enough prospect to warrant his own, separate wish. The most electrifying player in the history of high school Instagram highlights, Williamson delivered on the hype in one season at Duke before going No. 1 overall in June’s draft. In the preseason, Williamson somehow looked even more dominant, but a somewhat-mysterious knee injury has now kept him on the shelf for nearly three months.
Understandably, the Pelicans have played things close to the vest, but as they move past the 30-game mark, it’s fair to wonder not when but if we’ll see Williamson in an NBA game this season. Currently sitting at 7-23, with one victory since Thanksgiving, the Pelicans are seven games out of the eight-seed entering Monday. The question is, once Williamson is medically cleared, will they be too far out of the race to justify bringing him back?
For fantasy managers who took him with, on average, a third-round pick, the answer could be season-defining.
Jaren Jackson to stop fouling
One of the more underrated fantasy developments this season has been Jackson growing into one of the best stretch big men in the league. He’s more than doubled his per-game three-point attempts over last season and enters Week 10 hitting 39.8 percent of his 6.2 threes per game. Jackson’s lack of rebounding is a concern, but he still blocks shots at a decent rate and offers solid free throw shooting (78% FT) for a big man.
Rebounding aside, by far the biggest issue for the 20-year-old is his propensity for racking up fouls. He’s up to 4.1 per game, a number that’s often kept him glued to the bench early in games. Jackson is averaging just 27.4 minutes on the season, due in large part to nights like last Wednesday in Oklahoma City, when foul trouble limited him to just 16 minutes of action in a four-point loss. Ten times this season, Jackson has played fewer than 25 minutes, and he’s been held under 20 minutes in half of those games. He’s fouled out five times and picked up at least five fouls in 13 of 29 contests, overall.
Until he can get his arms (and legs and body) under control on the defensive end, Jackson will have a difficult time ascending much higher than his current rank of 51 overall in Yahoo category leagues.
Kristaps Porzingis to remain aggressive
Ever since Doncic limped off the court in Miami on Dec. 14, it’s like a switch flipped for Porzingis. The big man was off to a decent start alongside Doncic, but it’s clear he was still working out the kinks of playing alongside an ultra-high-usage ball handler. In five games without Doncic, Porzingis has asserted himself as a top-20 fantasy asset in category leagues, boosting his usage rate to 26.8% and averaging 22.4 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.6 blocks and 2.8 made threes in 36.6 minutes per game. He’s still a significant drag on field goal percentage for his position, but you’ll live with that if he’s adding elite production elsewhere.
For fantasy managers, the hope is that this six or seven-game run without Doncic is enough to motivate Porzingis to remain aggressive going forward.
A starting spot for Marvin Bagley
Another victim of bad injury luck early on, Bagley got hurt on opening night and missed the next 22 games. Fantasy managers welcomed him back with open arms on Dec. 11, and while he’s played in all six games since then, the No. 2 overall pick in 2018 is yet to return to the starting lineup. He’s averaging just 23.6 minutes per game since coming back, and while that’s still resulted in 13.3 points and 7.0 rebounds, Bagley has fallen well short of expectations.
The Kings have dropped three straight, and four out of five, entering Week 10, so maybe a change is on the horizon. But until Luke Walton pulls the plug on Nemanja Bjelica and hands a larger role back to Bagley, managers will have to make a difficult start/sit call on a weekly basis. Since returning, Bagley ranks just inside the top 150 in Yahoo category leagues.