2019 Fantasy Basketball: What's behind these eight early season surprises?

By Nick WhalenRotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

Last week, we took a look at a handful of players who have underperformed through the first several weeks of the season. A number of those players were top-50 fantasy picks just over a month ago, but as we move closer to the quarter mark of the NBA season, they’ve given fantasy managers reason to worry.

This time around, we’ll highlight players who’ve done the exact opposite. From Luka Doncic to Brandon Ingram to, yes, Danuel House, each player below is outperforming preseason expectations thus far.

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

I don’t even know where to begin with Doncic. Nothing he’s doing is completely unexpected, or out of the realm of possibility for a player of his skill-level. But the fact that he’s throwing up a 30-10-10 virtually every night as a 20 year old is remarkable.

When it comes to fantasy projections, we tend to skew conservatively. No one was going to project Doncic to average a 30-point triple-double in Year 2. But with 16 games now under his belt, Doncic has already reached a Harden-esque plain where the numbers are jaw-dropping, yet nothing he’s doing appears to be imminently unsustainable. The Mavs are healthy, they’re playing at a below-league-average pace, and Doncic is averaging fewer than 34 minutes per game. If anything, he might still have room to ascend, especially considering that less than a week ago — before he hit 6-of-10 threes in a win over Golden State — Doncic was shooting just 31 percent from beyond the arc. 

Given that he’s still (clearly) not in peak physical shape, could he eventually wear down over the course of 82 games? Sure. But good luck finding a manager willing to sell high on the third-ranked player in Yahoo leagues, who came into the season with an ADP of 18.3.

Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons

Drummond’s ADP (20.5) was just a couple spots behind that of Doncic, and he, too, has provided great returns early on. While a high turnover rate (3.9 per game) is partially responsible for keeping Drummond out of the top-10, he ranks 14th in Yahoo leagues heading into Tuesday night.

For the most part, Drummond is up to his old tricks. He’s the best rebounder in the league (16.8 RPG), and while his real-life effectiveness on defense remains questionable, he’s sitting above 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks for the third straight season. Drummond is also handing out 2.9 assists per game — up from 1.4 last season — and, most encouragingly, he’s hitting a career-best 68.1% of his free throws. 

There’s some truth to the notion that the assists number could gradually tail off with Blake Griffin back in the lineup — Drummond hasn’t had more than four assists in a game since Griffin returned — but having a player who can almost single-handedly win you a category while also ranking in the top 10 in blocked shots is invaluable. If Drummond’s rebounding average holds up, he’s on pace to average the most boards in a season since Dennis Rodman’s 16.8 per game in 1994-95 as a member of the Spurs.

Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic

For the second straight year, Isaac was a popular preseason breakout candidate, but even his strongest supporters would admit they weren’t expecting him to hang around the fringes of the top-10. At face value, Isaac’s numbers — 13.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists — don’t appear overly remarkable, but his defensive statistics have made him a first-round value.

Through 14 games, Isaac is averaging 1.4 steals and a remarkable 2.9 blocks per contest. His block rate (8.2%) is currently the highest ever by a true wing player (Basketball-Reference estimates Isaac has spent 70% of his minutes at small forward). On top of that, Isaac has become a vastly more efficient offensive player. His field goal percentage (48.9%) is up seven percentage points, while his three-point percentage (38.5%) is up 6.2 points on higher volume.

Carrying an ADP of 68.0 — lower than Aaron Gordon, Al Horford, and Danilo Gallinari — Isaac has been among the biggest risers in all of fantasy basketball thus far. Nearly 3.0 blocks per game may not prove to be sustainable, but it’s worth noting that Isaac is putting up these numbers for a team that plays at the league’s slowest pace.

Nov 1, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA;Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac (1) during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

Like Isaac, Ingram had been a popular breakout prediction in years past, but his emergence as a top-25 fantasy player was a development few saw coming. Through three up-and-down injury-plagued years in Los Angeles, Ingram still forged a reputation as a reliable scorer. But he seemed to plateau offensively last season, and further concerns arose when a blood clot issue sidelined him down the stretch and for part of the offseason.

Despite facing restrictions for much of the summer, Ingram arrived in New Orleans a different player. The absence of Zion Williamson has helped, but Ingram has emerged as the Pelicans’ top scoring option, putting up 26.1 points per game on career-best (by a wide margin) 51/46/78 shooting splits. Most notable, of course, is the sharp uptick in three-point shooting — both from an efficiency and volume standpoint. In just 13 games, Ingram already has more made threes (34) than all of last season (31), and his three-point attempt rate has shot from 13% up to 30%.

Beyond the scoring, Ingram is averaging career-bests in assists, rebounds, and blocks, while his usage rate (30.1%) sits nine points higher than his career average. Not bad for a player who came into the season with a lower ADP (101.9) than Mikal Bridges and Enes Kanter.

Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors

Most fantasy managers approached VanVleet with cautious optimism after a strong finish to last season and some notable roster attrition. Those who took a chance on him in Round 6 or 7 (ADP 88.5) have been proven right thus far, as VanVleet leads the league in minutes (38.0 MPG) and has raised his production nearly across the board. Entering Tuesday, VanVleet is providing 18.5 points, 7.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 2.5 threes per game — good enough to place him inside the top 20 in Yahoo leagues.

He’s still a drag on field goal percentage (40.2% FG), but he makes up for it with his contributions from three, as well as by being one of the league’s best free-throw shooters. The Wichita State product is hitting better than 90% of his attempts this season, and his free throw rate (.297) has jumped by more than 10 percentage points.

VanVleet’s value may be at its peak right now while Kyle Lowry is on the shelf, but even when Lowry was healthy, VanVleet was still averaging more than 37 minutes per game. Without Lowry, however, his usage rate has risen to 25.3%, up from 18.9% pre-Lowry-injury.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

It’s taken five years, but a team finally handed Holmes significant minutes and he’s rewarded fantasy managers accordingly. Currently ranking inside the top-45, Holmes (132.1 ADP) is averaging 11.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks while posting career-best field goal (66.1%) and free throw (79.4%) percentages.

Holmes has long been a per-minute fantasy darling — on a per-36-minute basis, his numbers are right in line with his career averages — but he was stuck behind Joel Embiid in his final year with the Sixers, then behind Deandre Ayton last season in Phoenix. An injury to Marvin Bagley on opening night has helped, but Holmes essentially wrestled the starting job away from DeWayne Dedmon, who the Kings brought in as a free agent this summer.

With Bagley’s return approaching, Holmes will likely lose some value, but there’s been no reason to believe Dedmon, who’s played more than 15 minutes just once in the last eight games, will reclaim his starting job anytime soon.

Danuel House, Houston Rockets

It wouldn’t be fair to say House wasn’t on the fantasy radar coming into the season. But with an ADP just outside the 12th round (136.0), he was coming off the board as a flyer-at-best in most leagues. Despite battling a back injury over the last two weeks, House ranks within the top-70 and has emerged as a full-time starter for the league’s most three-point-happy team.

Accordingly, much of House’s value is derived from his outside shooting — 2.5 3PM/G; 43.8% — but he’s also developed into a solid rebounder (4.6 RPG) and defender, who’s currently providing 2.0 combined steals/blocks per game. While House’s value could take a slight hit once Eric Gordon returns from knee surgery, he was still hovering around 30 minutes on most nights with Gordon available.

Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets

This list would not be complete without one of the bigger out-of-nowhere fantasy players in recent memory. We knew the Hornets’ roster would have plenty of room for production, but Graham wasn’t even remotely on the radar as recently as 35 days ago. Fast-forward to late-November and he’s provided roughly the same value as Terry Rozier. 

Entering Tuesday, Graham ranks third in the league in total threes made (60), eighth in made threes per game and 12th in assists per game. The Kansas product doesn’t add much on the defensive end, but he rebounds at a fine rate for his size. He currently sits just outside the top 100 in Yahoo leagues, with a poor field goal percentage (40.5%) and too many turnovers (3.4 per game) preventing him from rising even further up the rankings.

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