Fantasy Basketball: The cases for polarizing players in drafts

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By Nick Whalen and Alex Barutha, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

With fantasy basketball draft season underway, managers can begin to take note of which players they may be higher or lower on, relative to the general consensus. For most players, there’s a general, defined range in which they’ll be drafted, but a few players carry question marks that could swing their value dramatically from draft to draft.

While one fantasy manager may have a higher tolerance for drafting an injury-plagued big man, another may have that player on his Do Not Draft list.

Below, RotoWire’s Nick Whalen and Alex Barutha have identified 12 of the season’s most polarizing players and made the case for why they could either boom or bust in 2021-22.

Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

For: Irving has been a top-10 fantasy player on a per-game basis five times in his career. There is a point in a draft that it’s worth it to select Irving, despite the potential for a high number of missed games in the New York market since he’s a vaccine holdout. When he’s on the court he’s one of the best fantasy assets available. If Irving breaks down and eventually gets the vaccine, he could end up being a steal.

Against: The seven-time All-Star hasn't been vaccinated against COVID-19. Because of New York City's vaccine requirements, Irving won't be eligible to practice or play in games in Brooklyn unless he elects to get at least one dose of the vaccine at some point in the future, or if he's given an approved medical or religious exemption. The prospect of Irving missing 40-plus games means that fantasy managers considering investing an early round draft pick in him may need to tread carefully and potentially mitigate risk with other selections. On top of the vaccine concerns, Irving has a checkered injury history and has missed at least 15 games in five of the last six seasons.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

For: When healthy and engaged, Williamson is the most effective and unstoppable interior scorer in the NBA. He led all fantasy players in value derived from field goal percentage last season and improved as both a playmaker and free-throw shooter as the season wore on. As he gains comfortability and experience in the NBA, Williamson should continue to improve across the board. Defensively, he’s only scratching the surface of the player he could be. The Pelicans may struggle again, but Williamson is unquestionably the No. 1 priority and franchise cornerstone.

Against: While he stayed mostly healthy last season, Williamson missed extensive time as a rookie, and it was revealed at media day that he underwent surgery to address a fractured foot over the summer. A player with his combination of weight and power is a natural injury risk. Health aside, Williamson remains a glaring minus at the free-throw line, and he’s yet to display the effort or instincts required for him to be the elite defensive presence he was at Duke. He's also not a threat from three-point range, and his side-of-the-head jump shot doesn’t portend immediate improvement in that area. There’s no question Williamson can be an elite fantasy player, but managers must be cautious not to pull the trigger too early in drafts.

Julius Randle, New York Knicks

For: Randle is coming off of a career year in which he finished as the sixth-most-valuable player in 8-cat leagues (total value). The Knicks run their entire offense through the big man, who scores, rebounds, passes, and spaces the floor at well-above-average levels. Set to turn 27 in November, Randle is entering the prime of his career and could even continue to improve his scoring and free throw efficiency.

Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks
Julius Randle was one of the most impressive players from the 2020-21 season. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Against: For as dependable and impressive as Randle was last season, missing only one game and playing nearly 38 minutes per game were huge factors in his success. On a per-game basis, he was only the 25th-most-valuable fantasy asset. While this could very well be the player Randle is going forward, it’s also possible his massive leaps in free-throw and three-point percentage will not be sustainable. Jumping from 28 percent to 41 percent from three is borderline unprecedented. The Knicks also bring back virtually their entire roster from last season, and they also added Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker. Randle is still the unquestioned No. 1 option, but New York should at least attempt to take some offensive responsibility off of Randle’s shoulders.

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

For: The 23-year-old is one of the NBA’s most efficient and explosive scorers, and he’s essentially played one healthy season. As he moves further away from the back issues that plagued him in college, Porter should only improve and become more confident. With Jamal Murray sidelined for most of the 2021-22 season, Porter will be the clear No. 2 next to Nikola Jokic. Over a 26-game span after the All-Star break last season, Porter averaged 23.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.8 blocks, 3.5 threes, and posted a ridiculous 57/48/83 shooting line.

Against: Porter Jr. staying healthy thus far has been a pleasant surprise, but his back began acting up during the playoffs and will always be a concern. Health aside, Porter Jr. doesn’t offer a ton outside of scoring and rebounding, and he’s shown little progress in improving as a playmaker or on-ball defender. He averaged just 1.1 assists per game last season — a woefully low number for a player of his skill level. Porter Jr.’s free throw percentage also took a hit last season, dropping from 83.3 to 79.1 percent. Most of these are relatively minor concerns, but taken together — and coupled with the fact that Porter Jr. has openly resisted the COVID-19 vaccine — it’s not a lock that Porter Jr. makes another significant leap.

Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies

For: One of the most dynamic young players in the league, Morant should only continue to blossom as he enters his third year in the NBA. He began to show improvement as a three-point shooter late last season and averaged 31.0 points, 7.8 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.5 threes, and 1.0 steal in six playoff/play-in games. Morant got to the line nearly 6.0 times per game last season and will continue to be the clear focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense. If he continues to gain confidence in his outside shot, he could legitimately approach 25 points per game.

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Against: For as exciting as Morant is to watch, he’s been a far more effective real-life player than fantasy asset thus far. Last season, Morant finished outside the top-100 in per-game value (8-cat), thanks to low-volume three-point shooting, poor defensive production, and a damaging free-throw percentage (72.8%). As his career progresses, Morant figures to improve upon those numbers, but expecting him to make a significant leap in multiple categories may be asking a bit too much. While there’s plenty of reason to target Morant as an upside play, managers must be realistic about his fantasy value versus his true, on-court impact.

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks

For: When healthy, Porzingis is a proven top-40 player with a pair of top-20 finishes to his name. Few big men offer his combination of scoring, rebounding, blocks, high-volume threes, and, especially, free-throw percentage (85.5% FT last season). The fit alongside Luka Doncic hasn’t been perfect, but Porzingis has still been able to maintain his production, and new head coach Jason Kidd seems determined to maximize the big man’s skill set.

Against: The case against Porzingis is almost entirely injury-related. After playing in 72 games as a rookie, Porzingis has played just 66, 48, 57, and 43 games, respectively over his last four seasons on top of sitting out the entire 2018-19 campaign. Even when active, Porzingis hasn’t been quite as dynamic as his pre-torn-ACL days, and his shot-blocking numbers have declined in each of the last three seasons (career-low 1.3 BPG last season). While Kidd’s arrival could breathe life into Porzingis, it’s concerning how reliant he’s become on spot-up shooting in recent seasons.

Jaren Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies

For: Injuries have limited Jackson early in his career, but he showed his potential in 2019-20 when he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks as a 20-year-old. If he can stay healthy, it seems reasonable for him to build upon those numbers, especially if he can consistently start seeing 30-plus minutes. If that all comes to fruition, he could be a top-50, if not top-40, player.

Against: While Jackson has shown potential, his health is a significant concern. Since being drafted fourth overall in 2018, Jackson has appeared in just 126 games, and he’s never seen more than 28.5 minutes per game. Until he actually proves he can stay on the court for more than 60 games, it’s hard to put faith in the big man.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (for now)

For: Two seasons ago, Simmons was the 19th-ranked fantasy player on a per-game basis. Wherever he’s eventually traded, it’s possible, if not likely, that he’ll end up in a better basketball situation. Could he again return top-20 value on whatever team he ends up playing for? If that’s the case, fantasy managers shouldn’t feel too bad about some missed games early in the year. Obviously, it’s a risk, but there’s a point in which that risk is worth taking.

Ben Simmons #25 of the Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons might be the most polarizing player in the NBA this season by virtue of his trade request. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Against: With Simmons apparently set on not playing another game for the 76ers, it’s unclear when he’ll actually be on the court. Could he hold out the whole season if he’s not dealt? Surely the 76ers will find a deal by the deadline, but that would limit Simmons to roughly half a season’s worth of games. It’s difficult to gauge where to draft him with so much uncertainty.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

For: Green had a bit of a revival last season with Steph Curry back healthy, helping to fuel a career-high 8.9 assists per game. That dynamic will be in play again this season, and the addition of Klay Thompson in December or January could help Green’s production even more since he’s someone that thrives with other talented players around him.

Against: The 31-year-old hasn’t been aging gracefully, as he’s scored fewer than 10 points per game over the past three seasons. He also shot under 30 percent from three during that stretch. It’s fair to wonder if the other parts of his game will slow down in the near future, as well. If Green can’t rebound or play defense up to his usual standard, it will crater his fantasy value.

Robert Williams, Boston Celtics

For: Williams was the seventh-best fantasy player on a per-minute basis last season. If he sees minutes in even the mid-20s, he could be one of the best centers available after Round 3. He’s a constant double-double threat with a high field-goal percentage who can also rack up assists and blocks. Plus, if Al Horford gets injured or rests due to his age, Williams could finally see 30-plus minutes somewhat regularly.

Against: Williams has struggled to stay healthy since being drafted 27th overall in 2018. The center has appeared in just 113 games. His health concerns and some holes in his game have also prevented him from seeing heavy minutes, with Williams playing more than 30 minutes in just one career game. On one hand, the Celtics handed him a four-year, $54 million extension. On the other hand, they acquired Al Horford, who is clearly most effective as a center at this point in his career. It’s tough to blame anyone for hoping that Williams will see 24-plus minutes per game, but it’s possible he’ll continue to live in the high-teens to low-20s as a sparkplug big man.

Jusuf Nurkic, Portland Trail Blazers

For: Nurkic ranked 34th on a per-game basis in 2018-19 behind 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.0 steals in 27.4 minutes. If he’s able to stay healthy this season, it’s very possible he could reach those heights again. The Trail Blazers aren’t a deep team, so Nurkic could spend time with the bench unit and be a hub of the offense in those minutes.

Against: Nurkic hasn’t been able to stay healthy over the past two seasons, appearing in just 45 games. He also saw a reduced role in 2020-21. He played just 23.8 minutes per game and averaged 11.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.1 combined steals-plus-blocks. There’s clearly room for him to improve his numbers, but who knows what his workload and health will look like.

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

For: He’s option 1B on a Raptors team without substantial depth that just lost a franchise stalwart in Kyle Lowry. Siakam has improved his passing every season of his career, and he should be a constant threat for 25-5-5 this season. Toronto will unquestionably lean on him night after night, and he appears rejuvenated and refocused after a frustrating 2020-21 campaign.

Against: Siakam is expected to miss the first few weeks of the season while recovering from a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Having missed games pre-built into his season caps his upside, and fantasy managers shouldn’t expect more than 65 games out of him, factoring in the potential for other injuries throughout the year. The forward’s production also plateaued last season, and he worryingly regressed as a three-point shooter on fewer attempts.

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