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By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Welcome to Week 13 of the fantasy basketball season!
This week, we’ll officially pass the halfway point in the NBA calendar, so I’ll do my best to no longer write about any players who are “off to a great start.”
For most fantasy managers, the darkest days of COVID-19 — when 10-day hardship signings reached a fever pitch — look to be in the rear-view. A handful of top-150 players are still battling the virus or sidelined due to conditioning, but the league has collectively weathered the storm, and injury reports are no longer resembling a print-out of the entire roster.
Over the second half of the season, the hope is that we’ll get as close to a “normal” stretch of fantasy basketball as we’ve had since the pre-pandemic days. It’s a big ask, but as boosters kick in and testing protocols lighten up, more of the league’s stars should be on the floor on a nightly basis.
With that said, there are still plenty of injuries keeping key players sidelined. We’ll touch on those, as well as the other top fantasy headlines from around the league, in this week’s deep dive:
The return of Klay Thompson
We begin in Golden State, where Klay Thompson made his long-awaited return to game action Sunday night against the Cavs. After an emotional pregame introduction, Thompson was back in the lineup at his customary shooting guard position alongside Stephen Curry.
Thompson hit his first shot of the night — a difficult, driving layup in traffic — to register his first points since Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. A noticeably aggressive Thompson went on to hoist 18 shots in 20 minutes en route to 17 points (7-18 FG, 3-8 3Pt), three rebounds, one assist and one block. Of course, the highlight of the night was Thompson’s right-handed dunk near the end of the second quarter.
Thompson’s return clearly gave the Warriors an emotional boost on a night when Draymond Green was only on the floor for the opening tip due to a calf injury. Golden State did not announce Green’s intentions until moments before the game began, sending both fantasy managers and sports bettors into a frenzy.
Green has already been ruled out of Tuesday’s game against Memphis and should be considered very much questionable for the Warriors’ upcoming back-to-back set Thursday (at Milwaukee) and Friday (at Chicago).
With Thompson back, Jordan Poole should function as the Warriors’ sixth man going forward. Poole played 24 minutes off the bench Sunday, finishing with 14 points, two rebounds, two assists and a block.
Uncertainty in Portland
While the Blazers pulled off a nice home win over the Nets on Monday night, the season has been a massive disappointment on the whole. Injuries are partially to blame, as both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have missed extensive time, while several role players have been in and out of the lineup.
On Sunday, coach Chauncey Billups (still weird to type) announced that Lillard would not join the team on its upcoming six-game road swing as he continues to deal with an abdominal issue. By the end of the trip, Lillard will have already missed 17 games — the most in any season of his career.
Even more concerning for Portland was a report from Bleacher Report’s Sean Highkin, who notes that the Blazers are considering shutting down the superstar guard for the season if he doesn’t demonstrate tangible progress within the next two weeks. That’s a scary proposition for fantasy managers who spent a first-round pick on a player who’s historically one of the league’s most dependable assets.
It’s difficult to look past the Lillard situation, but it’s not all doom and gloom in Portland. The Blazers should get CJ McCollum back at some point during their road trip. He’s reportedly fully recovered from the collapsed lung that’s sidelined him since Dec. 4, but McCollum will wait until the birth of his child — expected this week — before rejoining the team. Prior to the injury, McCollum averaged 20.6 points, 4.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 3.2 threes per game. With no Lillard, McCollum should be the team’s clear No. 1 option offensively.
Even with McCollum back, Anfernee Simons is well-positioned to hang onto an increased role going forward and perhaps for the remainder of the season. Beginning with his 43-point outburst against the Hawks on Jan. 3, Simons is averaging 27.8 points, 7.6 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 5.0 threes (44.6% 3Pt) over his last five appearances. He finished Monday’s victory over the Nets with 23 points, 11 assists and six boards in 38 minutes.
Kyrie is officially back
Fantasy managers who stashed Kyrie Irving for the first 12 weeks of the season were finally rewarded — at least to some degree — when he made his debut last week against Indiana. Irving finished the come-from-behind victory with 22 points, four assists, three rebounds, three steals and one block in 32 minutes. After sitting out home matchups against the Bucks and Spurs, Irving was back in action Monday night in Portland, where he again posted 22 points to go with eight boards, four assists, a steal, a block and three three-pointers.
Irving appeared to tweak his ankle during the fourth quarter, but he told reporters postgame that he does not expect to miss any time. Looking ahead, Irving will be eligible to play Wednesday at Chicago before the Nets return home to face the Thunder (Thursday) and Pelicans (Saturday).
After Monday’s game, Chauncey Billups referred to Irving as “a wizard.” Ironically, Irving will not be eligible to play in next Wednesday’s game against the Wizards due to Washington D.C.’s vaccine mandate. Irving should be cleared to play in the Nets’ other three Week 14 contests, however (at CLE, at SAN, at MIN).
The red-hot Grizzlies are gunning for their 10th straight win Tuesday against Golden State. Entering the night, Memphis has four players — Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson, Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks — ranked inside the top-100 in per-game value for the season.
Morant is clearly the leader of that brigade, posting averages of 24.7 points, 6.7 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.6 threes while shooting 48.9 percent from the field — an outstanding number for a point guard who feasts on difficult looks at the rim.
Bane is one of the season’s biggest breakouts, as he currently ranks 53rd in 8-cat leagues. Not bad for a player with a 136.0 ADP in Yahoo leagues.
The Grizzlies will be without Brooks for several weeks — and perhaps until after the All-Star break — after he was diagnosed with a severely sprained left ankle over the weekend. His absence should open up more shots for Bane, while Kyle Anderson, De’Anthony Melton and Brandon Clarke could also benefit.
Stephen Curry is the leading All-Star vote-getter in the Western Conference and remains among the MVP favorites, but his numbers have quietly fallen off of late. Dating all the way back to the end of November, Curry is shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three over his last 17 games. While he’s still providing fantasy managers with 24.8 points, 5.1 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 4.6 threes in that span, he hasn’t been quite the same guy who put up 28.6 points (46.6% FG), 6.8 assists, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 5.5 threes (42.3% 3Pt) over his first 19 games.
The last five weeks have knocked Curry out of the top-three in per-game fantasy value. He now ranks fourth in 8-cat leagues behind LeBron James, Nikola Jokic and Kevin Durant.
Rajon Rondo made his Cavaliers debut last week at Portland, finishing with 11 points, five rebounds and three assists in 17 minutes off the bench. Strangely, Rondo attempted eight three-pointers — his most in any game since the 2018-19 season.
In two subsequent games, he’s posted 15 points, three rebounds and five assists (Sunday at GSW) and five points, four rebounds, six assists and two steals (Monday at SAC). For now, Rondo can be ignored in most season-long leagues, but as he settles in he could emerge as a lower-end option in deeper formats.
Lance Stephenson has been a revelation in Indiana, stepping up in the absences of Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, T.J. McConnell and Chris Duarte. Stephenson, who signed a second 10-day contract Tuesday, has averaged 20.0 points, 6.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 2.7 threes over his last three games (30.7 MPG).
Once those regulars return, Stephenson will likely be forced into a lesser role, but Brogdon has missed 10 of the last 11 games, while LeVert has missed five in a row due to COVID-19 protocols.
Speaking of LeVert, Shams Charania of The Athletic reported Monday that Indiana is still pursuing trade opportunities for the 27-year-old ahead of next month’s deadline. The Cavaliers, who lost Ricky Rubio and Collin Sexton for the season, are among the teams showing interest in LeVert as a potential secondary ball-handler next to Darius Garland.
LeVert got off to a shaky start, but prior to entering protocols he’d averaged 22.9 points (45.4% FG), 5.4 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 2.1 threes (36.8% 3Pt) over his last 12 games.
Remember James Wiseman, the No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft? The long-lost big man is reportedly ramping up his activity at recent practices and will join the Warriors on their current, four-game road trip. It’s still unclear when Wiseman might make his debut, but it could come before the end of the month. He’s firmly a wait-and-see option in season-long leagues, but the 20-year-old still holds a fair amount of upside in dynasty formats.
Despite exiting COVID-19 protocols over the weekend, Jrue Holiday remained out for Saturday’s loss to Charlotte, as well as Monday’s rematch (another loss for Milwaukee). The Bucks listed the defensive-minded guard as out due to a sore ankle, so his status will be worth monitoring ahead of Thursday’s home showdown against Golden State.
Pat Connaughton made his return from COVID-19 protocols Monday but finished scoreless (0-6 FG, 0-5 3Pt) in 23 minutes off the bench. With Holiday and Grayson Allen (COVID-19) sidelined, Jordan Nwora remained in the starting lineup and finished with 18 points on 7-of-10 shooting (4-7 3Pt).
No. 2 overall pick Jalen Green has looked better since returning from a hamstring injury that kept him out for most of December. Over his first nine games back, Green is averaging 17.7 points on 44/41/83 shooting splits. He’s providing virtually no value outside of scoring and threes, however.
Still no real update on Zion Williamson, who last week moved his rehab away from the Pelicans’ facilities to Portland, OR. At this point, Williamson simply playing in an NBA game would feel like a victory for the fantasy managers who burned an early round selection on him.
Rui Hachimura made his season debut Sunday against the Magic, seeing 14 minutes off the bench and finishing with six points, three rebounds and one assist. A personal matter delayed Hachimura’s arrival to Washington D.C. and kept him away from the team for much of the last few months. Suddenly, the Wizards are flush with frontcourt options — Hachimura, Daniel Gafford, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Davis Bertans, Deni Avdija — so Hachimura doesn’t make for an overly appealing fantasy target.
It looks like the Wizards will get another frontcourt piece back soon, as Thomas Bryant could make his debut sometime within the next week, per coach Wes Unseld Jr. Bryant has not played since tearing his ACL on January 9 of 2021.
The Lakers took an ugly loss to the Grizzlies on Sunday, but LeBron James had yet another outstanding individual performance. Finishing with 35 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, James is now up to 31.2 points (54.0% FG), 8.4 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.3 blocks and 3.0 threes (37.7% 3Pt) over his last 21 games. In that span, James has 16 games with at least 30 points – something he accomplished only nine times in 45 appearances in 2020-21.