By Gabe Allen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Heading into fantasy basketball draft season, there are only so many ways one can gain an advantage over the opposition. Following young players before they enter the NBA Draft — and during summer league — is one way to get ahead. Analyzing depth charts and the minutiae of offseason player movement is another. However, by the time fantasy basketball season arrives, most managers are familiar with the top rookies as well as the league’s new landscape.
So how else should one go about getting a leg up on the competition? One of the sneakier strategies involves identifying good players who are coming off uninspiring seasons and thus might be overlooked by the "What have you done for me lately?" crowd. Sometimes a down year is a warning sign of things to come, while in other cases it may be just a blip on the radar.
Here’s a brief rundown on 10 players who could enjoy bounce-back campaigns in 2021-22.
Anthony Davis, Lakers
Davis finished 2020-21 with career lows in field-goal percentage (49.1%), rebounding (7.9 RPG), blocks (1.6 BPG), and games played (36) while logging his lowest minutes average (32.3 MPG) since his rookie campaign. He also posted his lowest scoring average (21.8 PPG) since his sophomore season. Davis may not see his playing time increased and will likely spend most of his minutes at power forward, especially during the regular season.
As such, he might not improve his production much when it comes to the board and block departments. But the offseason addition of Russell Westbrook provides another excellent passer to help set Davis up offensively. Davis has never been elite at creating offense for himself. However, with Westbrook and LeBron James as his co-stars, Davis should get the cleanest looks of his career.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
Towns is coming off a strong season by most standards — but maybe not his own. Though he did average a career-high in dimes (4.5 APG) and shot a career-best free-throw percentage (85.9%), it was a down year overall. After connecting on over 50.0 percent of his field-goal attempts and 40.0 percent of his three-point attempts for three consecutive years, Towns had career lows in shooting (48.6 percent) and blocks (1.1) in 2020-21. Injuries also played a part, as he appeared in only 50 games.
Towns probably isn’t going to become a defensive force overnight, if ever, but his offensive ability, versatility, and upside remain remarkable. For the Timberwolves to contend for a playoff spot, Towns will need to have a bounceback season of epic proportions. If he can finally return to his early career ironman status, I like his chances.
GRIZZLIES YOUNG BIGS
Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies
In 2019-20, Clarke set the record for highest field-goal percentage (61.8%) by a rookie while exceeding expectations from the charity stripe (75.9%) and beyond the arc (35.9%). However, this past season he fell victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, as his field-goal (51.7%), free-throw (69.0%), and three-point shooting percentages (26.0%) all cratered. Worse yet, he was almost entirely phased out of the rotation by the time the playoffs rolled around, earning just nine total minutes in two appearances across the Grizzlies’ five-game first-round series against Utah.
Though he will face stiff competition for frontcourt minutes in Steven Adams, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Xavier Tillman on a Memphis team that’s likely to push the pace, Clarke is a solid bounce-back candidate thanks to his proven ability to stuff the stat sheet across multiple categories.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies
Jackson missed most of 2020-21 while recovering from knee surgery and failed to find his form offensively when he returned. Moreover, he showed little, if any, improvement in areas of weakness such as avoiding fouls or cleaning the glass. However, the Grizzlies’ offseason moves provided reason for optimism regarding Jackson’s 2021-22 fantasy projection. In particular, swapping out a score-first post-up center in Jonas Valanciunas for an offensive role player in Steven Adams means Jackson’s light will be neon green — if it wasn’t already. Ultimately, though, it’s going to come down to health for the Michigan State product, who’s appeared in only 126 games through three NBA seasons.
YOUNG VETERAN POINT GUARDS
Spencer Dinwiddie, Wizards
Dinwiddie is a fairly obvious choice here after missing all but three games last season due to a partially torn ACL in his right knee. Having left Brooklyn for Washington this offseason, Dinwiddie appears to be the clear-cut second option offensively behind Bradley Beal. Though an efficient field-goal percentage has never been Dinwiddie’s calling card, the Wizards will be heavily reliant on him to create offense for himself and others and help ease Beal’s load. Even if his stat profile doesn’t change, Dinwiddie should have a great chance to return top-100 value if he can stay on the court.
Devonte’ Graham, Pelicans
Following a sensational sophomore season in which Graham posted 18.2 points, 7.5 dimes to 2.9 turnovers, 3.5 threes, 3.4 boards and 1.0 steal in 35.1 minutes per game, he was simply overshadowed by rookie phenom LaMelo Ball in 2020-21. Graham still drew the start in 44 of his 55 appearances, but his per-game averages fell to 14.8 points, 5.4 assists to 1.5 turnovers, 3.3 threes, 2.7 rebounds, and 0.9 steals across 30.2 minutes.
While he may be the fourth option offensively behind Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Jonas Valanciunas in New Orleans, the elite finishing abilities of that trio could translate into an uptick in dimes for Graham. And if there’s one thing he proved last season, it’s that he can provide a superb assist-to-turnover ratio in a dialed-down role where he’s not being asked to do too much. The 26-year-old guard will likely continue to struggle from the field since most of his shot attempts come from beyond the arc, but the defensive end is one area where there’s more hope for improvement. Graham’s steals production held steady last season despite the notable drop-off in playing time.
THE 30-AND-OVER CROWD
Will Barton, Nuggets
Barton enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career in 2019-20, as he averaged 15.1 points (45.0% FG, 37.5% 3PT, 76.7% FT), 6.3 boards, 3.7 assists, 1.9 threes, and 1.1 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. However, he got off to a rough start in 2020-21 and finished with averages of 12.7 points (42.6% FG, 38.1% 3PT, 78.5% FT), 4.0 boards, 3.2 assists, 1.8 threes, and 0.9 steals across 31.0 minutes. With Jamal Murray (knee) sidelined indefinitely, the Nuggets need role players to step up, and re-signing Barton to a new, multi-year deal was a significant vote of confidence. Whether he’s a starter or sixth man, Barton’s chemistry with reigning MVP Nikola Jokic bodes well for his odds of rebounding in 2021-22.
Eric Bledsoe, Clippers
The Clippers being without Kawhi Leonard (knee) for an indefinite period leaves the door of opportunity ajar for Bledsoe to revitalize his NBA career in the same place it began just over a decade ago. Bledsoe will likely have to contend with the new and improved Reggie Jackson for minutes at point guard, though both players’ off-ball experience means they’ll likely share the floor at times.
Paul George has improved considerably as a playmaker over the years, but it’s no secret that Los Angeles brought Bledsoe in hoping he still has some gas left in the tank offensively. He doesn’t even need to replicate the numbers from his final season in Milwaukee — 14.9 points (47.5% FG, 34.4% 3PT, 79.0% FT), 5.4 assists, and 4.6 rebounds in 27.0 minutes per game — to register a bounce-back-caliber campaign. Bledsoe set the bar so low last season that even just a return to fantasy relevance would constitute a bounce-back.
Robert Covington, Trail Blazers
Covington was abysmal offensively for much of last season, managing just 8.5 points per game, well below his career average (12.1 PPG). Apart from his rookie year (2013-14), during which he played just seven games, Covington had always scored at least 12.4 points per game. The main culprit was a decrease in shot attempts. Covington attempted only 7.3 field goals per contest last season after hoisting double-digit attempts in each of the previous six seasons. Of course, Covington remains one of the league’s best contributors when it comes to combining boards, steals, blocks and threes, so he’s a good candidate to get back on track so long as he’s a bit more involved on the offensive end.
Al Horford, Celtics
No one is expecting Horford to come back to Boston at age 35 and turn in a vintage season. However, it’s safe to say he won’t be a healthy scratch for the final third of the schedule. While Boston is also hoping for a bounce-back season following a first-round exit, Horford hasn’t been consistently valuable for fantasy purposes since his last stint with the Celtics (2018-19), when he turned in averages of 13.6 points (53.5% FG, 36.0% 3PT, 82.1% FT), 6.7 boards, 4.2 assists, 1.3 blocks, 1.1 threes and 0.9 steals in 29.0 minutes.
Given the Celtics’ depth at center, Horford will have a hard time equaling that stat line, but even in a backup role, he could push for top-100 value. And if the injury-prone Robert Williams were to go down, Horford would instantly become a sought-after fantasy asset.