Fantasy basketball: How dimes are making bigs like Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle special

As the Knicks have asked more of Julius Randle this season, his fantasy value has soared. AP Photo/Tony Dejak

Like you, I've been fortunate to watch a metric ton of basketball over the past week. While taking in Monday's Knicks-Celtics tilt, I had an extended opportunity to really soak in Julius Randle... and the leap he's taken in fantasy productivity.

As of this writing, Randle is nearly notching career highs across the board (22.8 PTS, 11.0 RPG, 6.1 APG, 1.5 3PG). All of the spikes are in Randle's counting stats. Randle's taken a divot in his True Shooting Percentage, dropping from a 60.0 TS% in 2018-19 to his current 57.7 TS%. But still, Randle is above water in shooting efficiency (the current league-wide NBA TS% is 56.5%).

Earlier in our respective careers, I had the habit of referring to current Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau as The Fantasy Vortex of Doom™. A renowned black hole of statistical value, Thibodeau's phlegmatic, defense-first approach kneecapped pace and inflicted depressed production on fantasy managers the world over.

On top of that, when it comes to managing a rotation, Thibodeau has a Dusty Baker-type rep. That is: a reputation for riding his favorite players until their wheels fall off.

First Thibs tendency: nothing but fantasy malevolence. Second Thibs tendency: good in short term, possibly ruinous longterm.

The second tendency -- short rotations and expanded playing time -- is one of two factors driving Randle's evolution. The other factor is roster construction, with a dash of where the NBA is headed (flatter roles by position). Simply put, Thibodeau has correctly identified Randle as a point forward. His best in-house option to run the Knicks' offense. Because it's not as though Thibodeau suddenly decided to turn up the pace (the Knicks are currently last in the NBA in possessions per 48 minutes).

In fantasy terms, Randle has been somewhat of a disappointment until this season. In our world, points scored and rebounds are nice to have, but can't drive elite production on their own. A lack of supporting statistics, specifically in the defensive categories, conspired to make Randle perpetually overdrafted, an empty points player in a big man's body.

Randle's gaudy 6.1 APG is the natural byproduct of his role and singular evolution. He's logging an eye-popping 37.1 minutes per game (his previous high: last year's 32.5 MPG). He's the Knicks' most efficient starter (20.2 PER). He leads all starters in usage (27.7). Add on Randle's expanded shooting range (1.5 3PG, 35.5 3PT%) and improved free throw shooting (77.1 FT%), and you have all the conditions needed to push Randle into the top 40. That's all despite his continued sub-mediocre production on defense (0.9 steals + blocks per game).

Randle's breakout is a pleasant surprise. But it shouldn't have been seen as shocking once it became clear Randle is a Thibodeau favorite. A cursory look at Randle and Thibodeau's respective history should have enabled us to call that particular shot.

Still, after watching Randle on Monday, the thought hit me: what other rising bigs out there are line for a similar jump -- one fueled by jumps in defense and/or assists, both statistical areas our new points system adores?

Let's take a look at some rising names.

Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic
Current Stats: 14.8 PTS, 7.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 1.5 3PG, 0.9 SPG, 0.9 BPG, 54.1 TS%

Like Randle, Gordon has been increasingly placed in a point forward role and is thriving in fantasy as a result. What's better, his assists are tracking up (38 assists in his last 6 games). Don't forget, ESPN's new point system awards 2 fantasy points per assist.

Unlike Randle, Gordon's doing it with reduced playing time thanks to a minutes restriction (28.8 MPG, down from 32.5 MPG). What's fueling Gordon's jump? Assist production. Gordon threw down one of the best fantasy box scores of his career Wednesday night against Minnesota... but did it while scoring only 13 points (adding 9 rebounds, 7 assists, 1 3-pointer, 4 blocks and a steal).

Gordon may be the best distributor on Orlando right now. Gordon has always been a source of out-of-position production (3s, steals, assists), but is showing signs of really putting it all together and moving up to a new fantasy level. Gordon historically is a highly streaky shooter. But even when his shot is off, Gordon is showing new ways of making a difference via other categories. Even if Gordon just maintains his averages, he's due for an uptick as soon as his minutes restriction is lifted.

P.J. Washington, PF/C, Charlotte Hornets
Current Stats: 12.9 PTS, 7.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.2 3PG, 0.9 SPG, 1.3 BPG, 53.0 TS%

Washington was one of my favorite sleepers headed into this campaign. The reason had as much to do with Charlotte's roster as Washington's skill set. They kind of remind me a little of Phoenix or Memphis: a nice combination of young upside and managed expectations.

Washington's established a nice baseline of production and is trending up as his minutes expand and his usage rises (21.1). His counting stats are all arriving with a wide degree of variance: I'd hate to start Washington in a DFS situation. In the wash, though, Washington's averages just continue to rise.

Kyle Anderson, SF/PF, Memphis Grizzlies
Current Stats: 12.5 PTS, 7.2 RPG, 4.1 APG, 1.5 3PG, 0.6 SPG, 0.8 BPG, 52.2 TS%

Another rising young big notching career-best production on the heels of a spike in assists. But Anderson value faces a clear existential: the imminent return of Jaren Jackson Jr.

Larry Nance, Jr., PF/C, Cleveland Cavaliers
Current Stats: 10.8 PTS, 6.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 1.7 3PG, 2.5 SPG, 9.5 BPG, 53.0 TS%

Like Anderson, Nance is having himself a quiet career year. Also, like Anderson, it's hard to see how Nance maintains this level of value after Kevin Love returns.