2022-23 Fantasy Basketball Breakouts and Busts
The leaves are changing colours, the sweaters are back on, and Halloween decorations are popping up.
The time has come.
It’s Fantasy Basketball draft season for all you die-hard ball fans.
This season brings a new wave of ambiguity that we haven’t seen in years.
Some high-profile trades have reshuffled the decks in both conferences.
A ton of superstar players return from injury ready for a full season.
And Victor Wembanyama looms in the backdrop inspiring one of the boldest tank-a-thons we’re about to witness since the LeBron sweepstakes.
From a fantasy perspective, usage rates and game played will be more of a factor than previous seasons.
Fabio Lucarini and Wesley Cheng give their three breakout and bust candidates organized by tier (early, middle, and late-round).
PG, SF, PF: LeBron James, Lakers (ESPN Rank: 20 | ADP: 9.6)
A breakout in LeBron’s 20th season? The title might not fit, but the principle remains – LBJ is an underrated fantasy option at his current rank and ADP. After three straight seasons outside the Top-15 in fantasy, he had a resurgent year in 2021-22 finishing 4th in 9-cat leagues. While he projects on the low side for games played, there are several other players in the first two rounds who carry the same risk – Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, or Anthony Davis. While LeBron isn’t likely to break the 30 ppg barrier again, he continues to find ways to grow, shooting a career-high 2.9 three-pointers per game and finishing with a 75.6 free-throw percentage, his highest rate since 2012.
PG: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers (ESPN Rank: 14 | ADP: 17.2)
Calling Lillard a sleeper is a bit blasphemous, but sign me up if he's slipping into the 2nd round. Dame looks fully recovered from an abdominal injury that kept him out most of last year, and is primed for a bounce-back season. When healthy, he's a certainty to produce gaudy numbers in points and triples on solid percentages, and a run at the NBA scoring crown isn't out of the question. The steals may drop slightly, but those are cheap currency on the waiver wire. An added bonus - Portland is going to be battling for those Western Play-In spots, so Dame doesn't figure to be a shut down candidate.
SG: Desmond Bane, Grizzlies (ESPN Rank: 49 | ADP: 59.4)
Bane exploded onto the scene last season doubling his ppg from 9.2 to 18.2, establishing himself as a convincing backcourt running mate with Ja Morant. He’s the purest shooter on Memphis averaging a full three-pointer ahead of any teammate. He finished with a 43.6 three-point percentage, second in the NBA. Even though Dillon Brooks remains on the roster taking shots away from Bane, there’s a legitimate opportunity for growth in usage and minutes. Morant has a track record of missing time, De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson were shipped out and Jaren Jackson Jr.’s shots will have to be absorbed by someone. Considering Bane was a top-40 player in just 29.8 mpg last year, the arrow is pointing up for a breakout.
SG, SF: Devin Vassell, Spurs (ESPN Rank: 61 | ADP 93.5)
The Spurs are in full-out tank mode for the chance to land the obscene Victor Wembanyama in next year's draft, but NBA rules say a team must field a lineup for 82 games. Of the players who will see the court, Vassell figures to be one of the fantasy standouts. He was productive as a starter last year in 32 games, averaging 13.6 points, 2.3 triples, 4.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.5 blocks in over 30 minutes a night. Vassell will have every opportunity to further develop in what will be an ugly season for the Spurs, and a top-75 season could be in the cards.
PF: Jabari Smith Jr., Rockets (ESPN Rank: 142 | ADP: 124.5)
Rookie guards traditionally don’t transition to the NBA well for fantasy purposes, but similar to Evan Mobley last season, rookie bigs have a better shot at being productive. Jabari has an excellent stat profile that’s hard to find at this stage in the draft. He projected as the No. 1 overall pick due to his defensive prowess combined with his elite shooting touch (42.0 percent from three) given his 6’10 frame. After trading away Christian Wood, Houston is razor thin up front and one of the teams likely to tank for Wembanyama. Smith Jr. has a high minutes floor and immediately steps into a prominent role.
PG,SG: De'Anthony Melton, 76ers (ESPN Rank: 114 | ADP:139.9)
Melton's defensive tenacity and three-point shooting should see him carve out a spot in the Sixers rotation, and he's already earned praise from head coach Doc Rivers, saying "I love the kid, I think he fits our DNA.". Underutilized in Memphis last season, Melton's per-36 numbers were dynamic: 17.2 points, 3.0 triples, 7.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.3 steals on 37.4 per cent shooting from behind the arc. I believe he will get a steady number of minutes in Philly, making him a worthy late round target.
SG,SF: Jimmy Butler, Heat (ESPN Rank: 28 | ADP: 32.2)
Butler is unquestionably a stat stuffing fantasy stud when he's healthy, but a pattern of unreliability has been established in terms of how often he suits up. Since joining the Heat in 2019, Jimmy hasn't played in more than 58 games in any of his three seasons in Miami, often battling a series of minor injuries. At age 33 and coming off an extended playoff run, I expect the Heat to be even more cautious with him this season. For a guy that requires a late 2nd or early 3rd round pick, the likelihood is he'll be out more than I'm willing to accept.
PG, SG: Darius Garland, Cavaliers (ESPN Rank: 26 | ADP: 35.6)
It pains me to list him here because I’m a big fan of his game and room for growth. The issue comes down to usage and my belief that Donovan Mitchell is their alpha dog scoring when the game is on the line. If it wasn’t for the trade, Garland would have top-20 potential. But just like last season, his volume is dependent on the absence of others. Last season, it took an early-season injury to Collin Sexton and a season-ending injury to Ricky Rubio for Garland to truly emerge. He was 51st in 9-cat leagues up until Rubio’s departure and finished 35th the rest of the way. His efficiency should go up but Mitchell and him cannibalize each other’s production.
PG: Ben Simmons, Nets (ESPN Rank: 74 | ADP: 70.8)
Even at the best of times, Simmons is a flawed fantasy player in category leagues. The rebounds, assists and steals are seductive, but he will cripple your FT%, his three-point shooting is non-existent, he's not a great scorer, and his turnover rate isn't positive. Let's now add in the fact that he hasn't played a real game since June of 2021, there are no guarantees on how sharp he'll be physically or mentally, and he'll need to gel with a sketchy team in Brooklyn. Simmons will go higher than he deserves to be taken in drafts, so I'm taking a pass.
C: Jusuf Nurkic, Trailblazers (ESPN Rank: 59 | ADP: 93.1)
It’s been over six seasons of analysts begging Nurkic to get more minutes, the reality should set in, he’s simply not a 30.0 mpg guy. Nurk Alert finished outside the Top-100 last season and went down for the season around the same time C.J. McCollum, Norman Powell, and Robert Covington were all shipped out of town. It marked the third straight season he played under 60 games. There are two main concerns about his fantasy profile – his depreciating production in blocks and his depressed free throw percentage. As with all centres, blocks are a young man’s game and entering his 10th NBA season, that trend is unlikely to magically U-turn.
PG, SG: Spencer Dinwiddie, Mavericks (ESPN Rank: 107 | ADP: 98.0)
With Jalen Brunson leaving Dallas, Dinwiddie steps into his role as the Mavericks’ secondary playmaker. It’s an excellent opportunity playing alongside Luka Doncic, but Dinwiddie’s track record suggests he’ll never be efficient enough to provide fantasy value. During his best NBA season in 2019-20 with Brooklyn when he averaged 20.6 ppg, he still finished outside the Top-150. He’s a career 41.1 percent shooter from the field and provides below-average value in defensive stats. Add in the fact Tim Hardaway Jr. returns this season and the upside isn’t as palpable as you’d think.
C: Clint Capela, Hawks (ESPN Rank: 85 | ADP: 103.4)
Capela saw a decent decline in his numbers last season compared to 20-21. He went from 15.2 points to 11.1, 14.3 rebounds to 11.9, and 2.0 blocks to 1.1 while also playing nearly three less minutes a night. Capela should still be good for a double-double on most occasions, but the emergence of Onyeka Okongwu is a real threat to Capela's productivity. Okongwu is turning into one of the best pick-and-roll men in the league, generating 1.44 points per possession as a roller last season. At 21-years old, it feels like Okongwu is ascending and Capela is declining, so don't be shocked if their minutes are close to equal this season in a time-share situation.