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Fantasy Basketball: Need defense? Add or trade for these players

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By Mike Barner, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

We are a month into the NBA season, which means your fantasy basketball league standings are starting to take shape. If you’re in a roto league and need help with defensive categories, the time to address the issue is now — before too much of the season is in our rearview mirror.

Let’s highlight six players who could help out in steals and/or blocks who you should either consider trading for or adding off of waivers.

Mo Bamba, Orlando Magic

Bamba was stuck behind Nikola Vucevic to begin his career, which didn’t afford him much playing time. The Magic decided to undergo a rebuild at the trade deadline last season, moving Vucevic to the Bulls. While that would have appeared to have been good news for Bamba, the problem was that the Magic brought back another young center in Wendell Carter Jr. in the deal.

The Magic did allow Bamba to play more at the end of last season, and he didn’t disappoint, posting averages of 11.0 points, 9.2 rebounds, 0.6 steals, 1.9 blocks and 0.9 three-pointers over his final 14 games. During that stretch, he averaged 24 minutes per game.

Bamba was named a starter from the outset of this season, teaming up with Carter in a two-center lineup that’s led to valuable fantasy starts for both players. The increased role has allowed him to average 31 minutes per game. He’s combined the added playing time with his unique defensive abilities to average 1.1 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Not only could Bamba provide a significant boost for fantasy managers in need of defensive stats, but his averages of 11.4 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.6 three-pointers make him an extremely appealing trade target, in general.

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

Like the Magic, the Cavaliers have gone big up front. They drafted Mobley in the first round and re-signed Jarrett Allen to a hefty contract during the offseason. They also acquired Lauri Markkanen to go along with holdover Kevin Love, creating what looked to be a logjam up front.

A breakout of COVID-19 on the roster has sidelined Markkanen and Love, but even if they were healthy, it’s clear that Mobley is going to log plenty of minutes. He’s logged fewer than 30 minutes in a game only three times, leaving him with an average of 34 minutes per contest, overall.

Similar to Bamba, Mobley is a unique defensive talent, so his averages of 1.0 steals and 1.5 blocks come as no surprise. He’s also much more than just a defensive presence, providing averages of 14.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

Of course, the downside here is that Mobley is expected to miss 2-to-4 weeks with a right elbow sprain. However, this could create an opportunity to trade for him at a discount if his current manager grows impatient.

Ricky Rubio, Cleveland Cavaliers

After a six-season stint with the Timberwolves to begin his career, Rubio has bounced around the league, making stops in Utah, Phoenix and Minnesota (again) before landing in Cleveland. At first, it didn’t appear to be an ideal landing spot for the veteran, since he’d have to come off the bench behind Darius Garland and Collin Sexton.

Throughout his career, Rubio is more known for his ability to rack up assists, but don’t sleep on his defensive abilities. He’s never averaged fewer than 1.3 steals per game during his career and has averaged at least 2.0 steals four times.

A knee injury to Sexton has forced Rubio into more playing time. Across four games since Sexton went down, Rubio has averaged 2.0 steals in 31 minutes per game. The Cavs haven’t offered up a timetable for Sexton, but he’s dealing with a torn meniscus, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Rubio’s increased role sustains for multiple months.

Cleveland Cavaliers' Ricky Rubio
Ricky Rubio could provide sneaky production in Collin Sexton's absence. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls

The Bulls underwent significant changes during the offseason, most notably adding DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball. Those names attracted most of the fanfare, so the addition of Caruso flew somewhat under the radar. The Bulls signed him to be a key part of their bench and help provide a boost to their defense. Caruso didn’t average more than 21 minutes in any of the last three seasons with the Lakers, but he still managed to average at least 1.0 steals in each campaign.

Injuries have taken an early toll on the Bulls, especially with Patrick Williams (wrist) likely being out for most, if not all, of the regular season. They’ve been forced to play small and have even started Caruso the last two games with Vucevic in the league’s health and safety protocols. The end result has been Caruso averaging a whopping 2.5 steals across 29 minutes per game.

Although Coby White made his season debut Monday, Caruso’s role isn’t going to decline anytime soon. His energy and defensive prowess are too critical to the team. He’s still available in 47 percent of Yahoo leagues, so if you need steals, add him now, while you still can.

Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers

An outbreak of COVID-19 has landed several Sixers players in the league’s health and safety protocols, including Thybulle. He’s missed six straight games, so as long as he doesn’t have any severe symptoms, it would appear likely that he’ll be back soon. Before contracting the virus, he averaged 25 minutes per game, which was a significant increase over the 20 minutes he averaged last season.

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Despite playing so infrequently last season, Thybulle still managed 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. With his playing time on the rise this season, he’s averaged 2.3 steals and 1.7 blocks. He’s likely to disappoint in non-defensive categories, but his ability to rack up steals and blocks is on a completely different level from any other wings in the league.

While he’s currently available in 53 percent of leagues, that number could be on the decline if he’s cleared to return soon. Doc Rivers said Wednesday that Thybulle will likely make his return at some point during the remaining four games of the Sixers’ Western Conference road trip, which finishes out with games at Denver (Thursday), Portland (Saturday), Sacramento (Monday) and Golden State (next Wednesday).

Royce O’Neale, Utah Jazz

Of all the players on this list, O’Neale might be the easiest to add to your roster given that he’s available in 57 percent of Yahoo leagues. He’s not a flashy player and he’s not overly involved in the Jazz’s offense, but that doesn’t mean that he’s not an important part of the team. After averaging 32 minutes per game last season, he’s averaged exactly 31 minutes this season.

O’Neale isn’t a major contributor in terms of blocks, but his average of 1.7 steals per game this season is a big improvement compared to seasons past. He did have one big game in which he racked up six steals, but he’s also registered at least two steals in six of 14 games. O’Neale also rarely misses time, which helped him rank inside the top-90 in eight-cat, total value in 2020-21. Whenever the Jazz are set to play four games in a week, O’Neale could be worth deploying.

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