Beware the perils of Rookie Love.
It's easy to succumb to its charms. From the buzz of March Madness, to the heady optimism of draft night, to the defense-parched romp that is the summer league -- it's simple to see why we overdraft rookies.
But as a fake basketball edict? NBA rookie classes invariably disappoint. Across a typical fantasy campaign, managers are fortunate to see two-to-three NBA freshmen dent the top 100.
But the rookie class of 2018 was emphatically and empirically atypical.
Three rookies -- Deandre Ayton, Trae Young and Luka Doncic -- flashed tangible top-50 upside. All three delivered on their rookie hype ... and cemented themselves as surefire early fantasy picks in 2019-20.
Better yet? Another five rookies closed out strongly. So strongly that 7-10 sophomores will clock top-100 production this season.
Rookie Love is a tough ride. But the Sophomore Breakout is a thing of numerical beauty.
Rookies tend to fall short of expectations. Sophomores tend to exceed expectations. It's the moment in most fantasy careers when hype is surpassed by production.
There's something special about this sophomore class. It's packed with players who could end up outperforming their ADP by several rounds.
At the top, you have the Ayton/Doncic/Young trifecta. They're not sneaking up on anyone. You'll likely need spend a top-30 pick to acquire their services.
But the group I'm really excited about -- the players who could unexpectedly power you to fantasy glory -- arrive in the middle rounds.
A couple of those middle-round sophomores are going to hit fantasy hard in 2019-20. All of the conditions for multiple breakouts are there: athletic chops, increasing usage, premature efficiency, guaranteed playing time ... and (best of all) low team-wide expectations.
In fantasy and reality, I can't overstress the importance of low expectations. You can have all of the upside in the world, but if you're on a team with playoff aspirations, you're going to be playing on a shorter leash. Teams looking to rebuild (or even better, tank) give their young players ample room to grow.
Let's get into the top sophomore breakout candidates.
(I'll add the caveat that my list slightly deviates from our official ESPN rankings, especially when it comes to the middle-round players. Chief reason: I'm factoring in upside. The potential for certain players to break out. To underscore the breakout potential, I'm including each player's ceiling.)
Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns
Ceiling: Top 20
New coach. New point guard. At worst, Ayton will be option 1B in the Suns' offense. Place your marker on Ayton joining the 20-10 club in 2020.
At worst, Ayton will return top-30 value. That's if you factor in only his plus scoring, rebounding and shooting efficiency (60.8 TS% as a rookie). The rest of Ayton's potential -- what could drive him into the top 20 -- rests in the defensive categories.
Save for Ayton suddenly developing a 3-point shot (still a distant possibility), Ayton will look to amp up his blocks and steals to crash the second round. Ayton posted a decidedly pedestrian 1.8 steals+blocks as a rookie. But if Ayton can clear 3.0 steals+blocks, a top-20 finish could come into sharper focus.
Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks
Ceiling: Top 20
I'm ranking Young ahead of Doncic for one reason: momentum. No rookie closed out more strongly than Young in 2018-19. And there's no reason to believe that momentum won't carry into 2019-20.
Over the last month of the season, Young notched 23.4 points, 9.1 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 2.1 3s, and 1.0 steals. Transfer those numbers into the present, and you're looking at a top-five point guard.
That means I'd take Young over Westbrook in roto leagues. When you factor in Young's considerable room for growth, he could enter 2020-21 as the No. 3 fantasy point guard, behind only Curry and Lillard.
The linchpin to Young's 2019-20 fantasy season: 3-point efficiency. Young improved to 34.8% from deep after All-Star weekend, which means he basically went from "oh, no" to "meh."
But if Young can push his 3-point production towards 3.0 per game, he'll finish top-25 ... at worst.
Luka Doncic, SG, Dallas Mavericks
Upside: Top 20
Usage rate: 30.5. 3-point percentage: 32.7% I'll just come out and say it: I have yet to be won over.
Doncic's ROY-worthy stat line was fueled by stratospheric usage and volume. His box scores were so overstuffed that no one noticed Doncic's 19.6 PER was barely above water.
In points leagues, Doncic rates as a late second-round pick. In that format, Doncic's volume stats will serve him well (expect 23 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 3s per game). And I don't expect his usage to be dinged by Porzingis' presence.
But in roto leagues, Doncic could disappoint as a second-round selection. There are red flags that can't be ignored. The turnovers (3.4). The effective field goal percentage (49.7%). The sub-par free throw percentage (71.3%).
The good news? There's ample room for improvement. If Doncic can elevate his TS% into 60.0% territory ... I'll fall in line with everyone else.
Upside: Top 40
There's Antetokoumpo-esque potential here. All Jackson has to do is stay on the court.
I'm not saying Jackson will end 2019-20 in the top three. What I am saying is that Jackson is arriving way ahead of schedule. At 20, Jackson is already a multi-categorical threat. And as opposed to Doncic, Jackson's shooting efficiency is already there (59.1 TS%).
I don't quite get why Jackson isn't getting more Fantasyland buzz. It likely has to do with being shut down (only 59 games played) and the low 26.1 MPG as a rookie. And there's a red flag: Jackson packed a heavy 3.8 fouls into those scant 26.1 minutes.
But fantasy potential has as much to do with situation as it does with talent. And Jackson is in a perfect fantasy situation. Memphis is all in on a rebuild. New coach Taylor Jenkins is promising more pace and space. It sounds like the Grizzlies' days of high-grind, low-scoring games are over. And no one stands to benefit more than Jackson.
Long-term, I'd rather have Jackson than any other player on this list. This season, 18 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, a steal and a 3 is a reasonable expectation.
Upside: Top 40
Robinson should average a double-double, with at least four steals+blocks. There are only two roadblocks in front of him: foul trouble, and the sudden glut in the Knicks' frontcourt rotation.
I'm not sure that the best way to respond to missing out on Kevin Durant was to run out and overpay three other guys (Julius Randle, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis) to siphon away developmental minutes from your one promising big. Randle, Gibson and Portis will have to log time at center. It's the only way to get everyone even scratching requisite playing time.
But if Robinson can play 28-30 MPG, he'll register top-40 value. His defensive potential is that good. I'd probably let the Knicks fan in your league take Robinson at the end of the third round. But if Robinson makes it to the middle of your draft, don't be shy about scooping him up.
Upside: Top 60
If Chris Paul is dealt -- or spends extended time on the shelf -- SGA will absolutely muscle his way into the top 60.
Even if Gilgeous-Alexander stays at 2-guard, he'll be the kind of player who can help lay a solid statistical floor for fantasy squads. He does a little bit of everything. And he has some secret sauce with his blocks rate (0.6 per game is relatively high for a PG).
Going into 2019-20, SGA should be the focal point of the Thunder's rebuild. His minutes will edge into the 30s. If Gilgeous-Alexander can up his steals (into elite territory) and iron out his 3-point stroke (he raised his 3-point shooting to 43.8 FG% post-All-Star break) ... he'll deliver sixth-round value regardless of Chris Paul's status.
Upside: Top 60
Carter barely played half of his rookie season. But even in a truncated campaign, Carter showed enough upside to warrant middle-round consideration.
Locked in as Chicago's starting center, Carter is sort of a poor man's Mitchell Robinson. The steals+blocks won't be as elite, but Carter does add the extra sizzle of a decent 3-point shot ... and his assist rate could surprise.
Upside: Top 60
Factoring in hype, I wouldn't be surprised to see Bagley's ADP outpacing Gilgeous-Alexander and Carter. I can understand why: Bagley's biggest rookie drawback wasn't his production. It was his coach. After coming off the bench as a rookie, Bagley is finally slated to start under new coach Luke Walton.
Bagley has elite rebounding upside, decent percentages. He'll push 18-plus points per game. He's decent in the defensive categories, and should notch around 2.0 steals+blocks.
So why do I have him ranked this low? I'm worried about an overdraft situation. I like Bagley as a target in the late sixth or early seventh round, but I wouldn't be tempted to bite before that.
Upside: Top 80
It's the post-Kemba era. And Bridges is primed to benefit. Someone is going to have to add some offensive punch. More than any other tenured Hornet, Bridges is in line for a usage boost.
There are touches to spare in Charlotte. Bridges is penciled in as the starting PF. Bridges won't wow managers in any specific category, but he packs 1+1+1 potential ... the capability to average a steal, block and 3-pointer.
Kevin Huerter, SG, Atlanta Hawks
Upside: Top 100
I'll admit it: I have a bit of an irrational roto crush on Huerter. There's a little bit of JJ Redick-esque look to his box scores. After debuting in Fantasyland labeled as a 3-point specialist, Huerter surprised with some subtle statistical diversification.
At the starting 2-guard, 4.0 assists and rebounds per game don't seem so farfetched. The 3s could be elite. You could do worse than grabbing Huerter as an endgame sleeper.
Upside: Top 100
The personification of an "empty points" player. Sexton's 20 PPG potential will cause all kinds of overdrafting. But until he claws his way above flat-liner status in assists and steals, Sexton will be hard pressed to crack the top 100.
Mikal Bridges, SF, Phoenix Suns
Upside: Top 100
He'll back up Kelly Oubre Jr. but should still log 28-30 MPG. Elite steals potential. Has room to grow in terms of 3-point efficiency. Just keep an eye on him.
Upside: Top 100
Brown is slated to back up CJ Miles at small forward. But even with a star like Bradley Beal, the Wizards are going to be decidedly short on hope in 2019-20. And starting Miles at the 3 doesn't exactly scream "C'mon, Brad ... you know you want to sign that extension."
Look for Brown to push for the starting gig by New Year's Eve. If he gets the gig, Brown will be a solid waiver-wire add. He rebounds well and has some upside in the assist column.