The NBA bubble has afforded hoop heads a respite, as pro basketball is finally back in action. While the 2019-20 fantasy campaign was abbreviated, given that eight non-contending teams didn’t make the trip to Orlando, Florida, we can still develop actionable fantasy basketball takeaways from the training camp process, the final eight seeding games and the eventual playoff process.
With appraisal of the 2020-21 fantasy market in mind, let’s highlight several key players and scenarios worth closely watching over the next several weeks in Orlando.
Ben Simmons‘ recent shift to power forward from his role as the full-time point guard for the Sixers coincides with a seemingly meaningful shift in his willingness to shoot from distance. As ESPN’s NBA sage Jackie MacMullan revealed in a well-reported feature on Simmons this past spring, the unique Aussie spent time during the intermission not just healing from a back ailment but also seeing a sports psychologist to help in countering his reluctance to shoot from outside the paint.
Simmons hasn’t become Kyle Korver just yet, but he did willfully take two corner 3-pointers — sinking one — in Philadelphia’s training camp victory over the Memphis Grizzlies last weekend. Even amid a slight downturn in ball dominance and a shift in court positioning, elite defensive rates from the NBA’s current steals leader have still surfaced in Orlando, as has his regular flirtation with triple-doubles. Still afforded tons of touches as a distributor out of the high post and the requisite freedom to convert rebounds into transition jazz in his new role, Simmons should remain a special fantasy force for next season, even if he doesn’t expand his shot selection in the coming weeks.
We shouldn’t ever expect Simmons to become an impact shooter, but if we do see him loft two or three catch-and-shoot 3-pointers per game with the confidence he flashed against Memphis in exhibition play, then we might finally see him convert one of his few statistical failings into more of a neutral issue en route to becoming a multi-category fantasy force.
Simmons’ positional transition also welcomes combo guard Shake Milton to the starting fold for Philly. Given Philly’s tight salary cap situation going forward, Milton could continue to play a pivotal role for the 76ers into next season, making this audition as a key rotation member a telling moment for his potential as a deep fantasy sleeper. Roughly a 43% 3-point shooter in college and a confident off-the-bounce shooter in the pros thus far, Milton presents an interesting underrated statistical story to track down the stretch.
South Beach specialist
Miami might just have unearthed the game’s next great shooting specialist in undrafted gem Duncan Robinson. Third in the NBA in made 3-pointers and fourth in 3-point percentage from beyond the arc in his second professional season, this Michigan product has continued his prolific shooting success with a series of daring step-backs and contested catch-and-shoot attempts in exhibition outings.
While the fantasy market finally began to respect Robinson this past winter, a continued leap in volume and proficiency as an elite floor-spacer to finish out this season and into the playoffs could make him a key midround fantasy target come this fall’s fantasy drafts.
Often among the league leaders in deflections and steals dating back to his days as an off-ball chaos creator with the Sixers, Covington has since added elite rim protection to his portfolio; after joining Houston in February, Covington averaged a whopping 2.5 blocks while contesting a center-like 6.6 field goal attempts per game within 6 feet of the rim as a defender. Compare this to the 4.1 such shots he defended per game while with Minnesota this season or the 3.4 shots per game within 6 feet he defended in his final full season in Philly, and his awesome block rate for Houston begins to feel more legitimate.
No, Covington isn’t going to average well over two blocks over a long sample of games next season for Houston, but he can reasonably hover around 1.5 swats as one of Houston’s rare proven interior defenders, all while maintaining dominant steal and 3-point production. Keep an eye on Covington’s block rate over the next several weeks, as he might just morph into a sneaky early-round gem for fantasy purposes in 2020-21 if his swat success proves enduring.
Per the ESPN Stats & Information group, with Nurkic on the floor, Portland outscored teams by 10.5 points per 100 possessions in 2018-19. When he was off the floor, the Blazers were outscored by 2.2 points per 100 possessions, making him one of just six players whose team had a plus-10 net efficiency when he was on the floor but were outscored when he was off the floor (minimum 1,000 minutes played).
Playing 27 minutes in a recent training camp victory over Toronto signals that Nurkic has earned the trust of the training and coaching staffs in Portland to withstand a full workload on the NBA floor after missing so much time with a significant leg injury. With Hassan Whiteside scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, a healthy Nurkic has some serious fantasy helium to consider for next season.
Even though the sample is just a handful of exhibition games, Victor Oladipo finally looks like himself after sputtering a bit this past winter for the Pacers in his return from a serious knee injury. Looking bouncy, spry and confident once again, Oladipo has the potential to reestablish his fantasy stock as a top-25 pick with a strong stretch of play during the eight-game seeding stretch and into the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges in undeniably on the rise down in Orlando. This emergent 3-and-D wing has singed the nets while providing Covington-like defensive rates for Phoenix in four exhibition contests. Consider that, per a noted Suns blogger, Bridges’ per-36-minute rates in training camp competition equate to 25.2 PPG, 5.8 RPG and an awesome 3.1 combined blocks and steals. The eventual return of Kelly Oubre Jr. could curb some of the scoring fun from Bridges next season, but this Villanova product is certainly on the ascent and is a great sleeper candidate for the 2020-21 fantasy season.
Taking risks despite the health concerns surrounding both Bol Bol and Michael Porter Jr. in recent drafts could pay off for the Nuggets in the coming years. For the coming weeks, it’s more likely we see MPJ serve a meaningful role in the team’s deep and competitive rotation, though it’s been exciting to see Bol emerge as a potential 3-point and block specialist for next season.
As for Porter, he tallied 19 points in 20 minutes in his exhibition debut in Orlando. With potential to become a key scoring playmaker for Denver down the stretch and into next season, Porter’s workload and efficiency to end the summer could factor heavily into his fantasy stock for next year.
Unsettled in San Antonio
With the Spurs’ DeMar DeRozan heading into free agency this offseason, it’s possible that young wing Lonnie Walker IV assumes a much larger role next season for San Antonio. Even if DDR sticks around with the Spurs going forward, Walker has been empowered with increased touches and minutes thus far in exhibition competition and is an intriguing player to watch, given some real upside heading into next season.
As I wrote earlier this summer in appraising the 2019-20 fantasy campaign, Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac was well on his way to a breakout effort before an injury cut his campaign short. Isaac this season joined Anthony Davis, Josh Smith and Andrei Kirilenko as the only players to average at least 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals while also sustaining at least 12 PPG and 6.9 RPG during the past 20 NBA campaigns.
Isaac returned to action for the Magic this past week to post 13 points and seven rebounds despite playing just seven minutes. If Isaac can prove healthy for Orlando during the final eight games, I’d be confident in reaching for him in drafts come this fall.