By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As we look ahead toward the halfway point of the 2020-21 NBA season, it’s time to take a look back and examine the 2019 NBA Draft, which brought us two of the most-anticipated pro prospects of the last decade.
Zion Williamson and Ja Morant continue to lead the way, but several other 2019 draftees have made their mark this season — both on the court and in fantasy basketball.
Let’s take a closer look — a progress report, of sorts — at the top fantasy players from the class, as well as some other notable names.
Eight-category rankings refer to per-game value.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans
No. 1 pick
8-cat rank: 56
For a player who was billed as Draymond Green crossed with Blake Griffin crossed with Charles Barkley crossed with a bulldozer, Williamson’s fantasy production has been somewhat of a disappointment. We only got to see 24 games of Williamson as a rookie, and while he was a hyper-efficient scorer (22.5 PPG; 58.3% FG) and solid rebounder (6.3 RPG), he didn’t quite resemble the all-around freak from his days at Duke.
Year 2 has brought much of the same for Williamson, whose stat line is eerily similar to last season’s, despite a decent bump in minutes. He remains an effective scorer and rebounder, but his contributions in those categories are offset by his sub-70-percent figure at the line. To his credit, Williamson has picked up his all-around production of late, averaging 24.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and 1.0 block while shooting 78 percent at the line over his last five games.
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
No. 2 pick
8-cat rank: 79
Morant was one of only a handful of fantasy-viable rookies last season, as he cruised to averages of 17.8 points, 7.3 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and an impressive 48/34/78 shooting line. This season, the reigning Rookie of the Year came out of the gates red-hot, throwing up a combined 72 points and 16 assists over his first two games. A sprained ankle cost him the next two weeks, and while he’s looked fine since coming back, Morant has yet to recapture that level of explosiveness.
In nine games since the injury, he’s yet to score 20 points, and his shooting efficiency, especially from beyond the arc (26.7% 3PT), has taken a significant dive. Morant is still handing out assists and an elite clip, however, and he’s up to 1.1 steals per game. Even so, it feels like the ankle injury may have (temporarily, at least) derailed what was shaping up to be a memorable sophomore campaign. In the long run, Morant is still right there with Zion when it comes to projecting the best fantasy player in the class.
RJ Barrett, Knicks
No. 3 pick
8-cat rank: 167
As is the case with Williamson and Morant, Barrett’s second season feels a lot like his first. He’s more polished and making better decisions, but Barrett’s numbers are about even with last season’s when you account for the bump in minutes (30.4 to 34.8 MPG). He’s a capable scorer and a well-above-average rebounder for a guard (6.4 RPG), but his assists numbers are just OK, and he offers less than 1.0 combined steals/blocks per game.
On the whole, Barrett’s scoring efficiency is up (43.1% FG), but he’s shooting the ball worse from three this season than he did as a rookie, which is probably the biggest long-term concern. Barrett has shown tangible improvement at the line, however, where he’s hitting 73.6 percent of his attempts after converting an ugly 61.4 percent last season.
De’Andre Hunter, Hawks
No. 4 pick
8-cat rank: 59
Had it not been for Williamson’s recent surge, Hunter would still be the highest-ranked player in the class this season. Before going down with the knee injury that will cost him the next two-plus months, Hunter was in the Most Improved Player discussion, averaging 17.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists with a 51/37/88 shooting line.
Relative to last season, those jumps in field goal and free throw percentage are massive. Hunter was also getting to the line more than four times per game after averaging 2.3 attempts as a rookie. The Hawks should get him back for the stretch run, but unfortunately, fantasy managers who made the right call by taking a flier on Hunter late in drafts won’t be able to fully reap the rewards.
Darius Garland, Cavaliers
No. 5 pick
8-cat rank: 97
Coming off of a very up-and-down rookie season, Garland is in the conversation with Hunter as the most improved player in the class. Garland started out red-hot, averaging 19.0 points and 7.2 assists while shooting the lights out in his first five games. An injury absence temporarily derailed his progress, but now that he’s back up to full speed, Garland has bounced back to post 16.8 points, 5.3 assists, and 1.0 steal, in addition to shooting 43.3 percent from three over his last nine games.
Even for a guard, Garland is a very poor rebounder, and he doesn’t provide much on the defensive end. But he’s working on a 46-40-89 shooting line, which would be a bit more meaningful if he was able to get to the line more than 1.6 times per game. Still, both the Cavs and fantasy managers should be encouraged by the leap Garland has made in Year 2.
Coby White, Bulls
No. 7 pick
8-cat rank: 120
It’s been a strange start to the season for White, but his stock received a short-term bump after he knocked down eight threes on his way to 30 points and seven assists in Wednesday night’s win over the Pelicans. With a few exceptions, big performances like that one have been an outlier for White, who’s clinging to a 40.3 field goal percentage through 24 games.
The good news is he’s converting better than 36 percent of his attempts from three — and he’s been fantastic at the line (87% FT) — but White is struggling to finish at the rim, and he’s providing even fewer defensive stats than last season. Fantasy-wise, he’s still been a fairly serviceable option, but White is yet to justify his preseason Yahoo ADP of 73.6.
PJ Washington, Hornets
No. 12 pick
8-cat rank: 96
Washington was surprisingly consistent as a rookie and projects as one of the most well-rounded fantasy prospects in the class. His efficiency is down a bit compared to last season, but he’s shooting much better at the line and has gone from 0.8 to 1.3 blocks per game, despite a slight drop in minutes.
While the addition of Gordon Hayward may have partially stifled Washington’s progress, he’s still a top-100 fantasy player with considerable long-term upside. He’d rank several spots higher if not for a recent rough patch that’s seen him average just 4.6 points (27.3% FG), 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.4 blocks over the last five games.
Tyler Herro, Heat
No. 13 pick
8-cat rank: 108
Coming off of the Heat’s run to the Finals, Herro’s stock was higher than ever, and rightfully so. His preseason ADP (80.8) was probably slightly inflated, but the hype was justifiable. Herro got off to a slow start this season, but he’s rounding into form of late, averaging 19.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.3 made threes over his last 10 games. His three-point efficiency still has room to improve, and he should eventually correct his strange decline at the free-throw line (79.5% FT, down from 87.0% last season).
If those things happen, Herro should be able to climb into the top-100, though he’ll have a hard cap on his fantasy ceiling as long as he remains a complete non-factor on the defensive end (0.7 combined steals/blocks per game).
Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies
No. 21 pick
8-cat rank: 118
This time last year, Clarke looked like one of the major steals of the 2019 class. That hasn’t necessarily changed, but he hasn’t improved to the level you’d expect with a 6.0-minute-per-game increase in playing time. Clarke is contributing 1.2 steals per game, but he’s declined in virtually every other category on a per-minute basis.
Scoring efficiency is a major reason why Clarke was so valuable last season, but his field goal percentage has fallen off of a cliff (61.8% to 48.8%), and his three-point (35.9% to 26.5%) and free throw (75.9% to 59.4%) percentages have also followed suit. With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow yet to play a single minute for the Grizzlies this season, Clarke has squandered a major opportunity.
Keldon Johnson, Spurs
No. 29 pick
8-cat rank: 115
The Kentucky product had a strong close to last season in the bubble, but he essentially had three good games, so there was still some rightful skepticism entering Year 2. Thus far, Johnson has mostly backed up the hype, beating his ADP (130.8) by more than 10 spots and holding down a 30-minute-per-game role for the Spurs.
Johnson’s fantasy profile is similar to that of Washington, though he doesn't have quite as much upside on the defensive end. And after a hot start from three, Johnson is shooting just 23.3 percent from deep over his last 16 games. That trend, in particular, will be worth monitoring as the year wears on.
Cam Reddish, Hawks (No. 10 pick): Reddish closed last season on a strong run, but he’s reverted to his feast-or-famine ways in 2020-21. Through 20 games, Reddish is shooting just 36.3 percent from the field and 25.5 percent from three.
Cam Johnson, Suns (No. 11 pick): In real-life, Johnson looks like he’ll be a valuable role player for a long time. But for fantasy purposes, he’s essentially a points/threes specialist, which puts a cap on his upside.
Matisse Thybulle, 76ers (No. 20 pick): Thybulle’s per-minute defensive production remains ridiculous, but he’s only seeing 17.3 minutes per game. On top of that, he offers very little offensively and is down to 25.0 percent from three this season.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Lakers (No. 46 pick): The Lakers saw something in Horton-Tucker, and it’s beginning to pay off. He’s been wildly inconsistent this season, but on his good nights, he looks like a future 20-point-per-game scorer. Coming off the bench for one of the deepest teams in the league limits Horton-Tucker’s short-term fantasy upside.
Kendrick Nunn, Heat (undrafted): He’s not technically part of the 2019 Draft class, but Nunn was a rookie last season so he bears mentioning. Some injury luck has propelled Nunn back into the starting lineup, and he’s posting 17.6 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.5 threes over his last 10 games. In that span, he ranks inside the top-70 in eight-category leagues.