NBA Draft: Which Rookies Are Worth Targeting In Fantasy?

NBA Draft: Which Rookies Are Worth Targeting In Fantasy?

This article is part of our NBA Draft series.

Targeting rookies in fantasy basketball tends to be a difficult strategy to pull off, but every year at least a handful of first-year players make significant impacts. This year will be no different – especially as the league welcomes in one of the most-anticipated draft classes in recent memory.

With Cade Cunningham in Detroit, Jalen Green in Houston and Evan Mobley in Cleveland, fantasy managers will have three elite rookies to target, while the likes of Jalen Suggs, Scottie Barnes, James Bouknight and Franz Wagner could all be late-round targets. 

Once the dust settles on free agency, which kicks off Monday, August 2, we'll have a better grasp of where each rookie stands. But with the draft now behind us, here's an early look at which first-year players could be worth an investment in season-long fantasy drafts.

Cade Cunningham, Pistons

The No. 1 overall pick is the Rookie of the Year favorite, and he'll also enter the season as the top fantasy rookie. Whether he finishes in that spot remains to be seen, but Cunningham will be well-positioned as the primary ball-handler for a roster in need of a true No. 1 option. Based on Cunningham's college production, he projects as an uncommonly well-rounded fantasy player from Day 1 – particularly if he can maintain his three-point shooting (40% 3PT; 5.7 3PA/G) and defensive impact (2.4 steals/blocks per game).

Like all rookies, Cunningham will go through some rough periods and likely have a high turnover rate – he committed 4.0 per game at Oklahoma State – but his statistical floor is easily the highest of any player in the 2021 class.

Jalen Green, Rockets

A few years from now, it wouldn't be shocking if Green emerges as the best player from this draft. But in terms of immediate fantasy impact, he's a tier below Cunningham. A natural, polished scorer, Green will be the favorite to lead all rookies in points per game, and his G League Ignite numbers imply that he'll carry a high three-point attempt rate. While that will likely lead to a relatively pedestrian field goal percentage, that's par for the course when it comes to rookie guards. In terms of non-scoring stats, Green averaged 4.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals in 15 G League games (32.0 MPG), so while points will be his calling card, he can still offer some non-scoring production.

The biggest question for Green is where he'll fall in the hierarchy for a rebuilding Rockets team that features a borderline-All-Star in Christian Wood, a former All-Star in John Wall and a high-volume gunner in Kevin Porter Jr. Green's development should take precedence over all three players, but the Rockets have more mouths to feed than most franchises picking second overall.

Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

Mobley's situation in Cleveland isn't all that different from Green's in Houston. Both teams are bad, but both teams already have a couple of key pieces in place. As of now, Mobley has Kevin Love and Jarrett Allen to contend with in the frontcourt, but there's a good chance at least one, if not both, could be in a different uniform by the time the regular season begins. Keeping Allen around makes more sense, but with Mobley in place for the foreseeable future, the need to re-sign the restricted free agent isn't nearly as pressing. No matter what happens, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Mobley isn't starting on opening night.

In the backcourt, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland will still be the Cavs' top two scoring options. Mobley can safely be penciled in as the No. 3, though while he can hit face-up jumpers and take bigs off the dribble, he won't create his own shots with the same frequency as Cunningham or Green. Still, Mobley is easily the best non-guard fantasy rookie, with shot-blocking being his most valuable asset (2.9 BPG at USC).

Scottie Barnes, Raptors

Toronto taking Barnes over Jalen Suggs was the first surprise of draft night, but Toronto landed the most versatile defensive player in the draft. At the college level, defense was Barnes' calling card, and while there's reason to believe his offense will eventually catch up, he's unlikely to be a consistent scorer as a rookie. Barnes shot just 27.5 percent from three on low volume at Florida State, and he hit only 62.1 percent of his 2.8 free throw attempts per game. He's a good enough passer (4.1 APG) and defender (2.0 blocks/steals per game) to warrant consideration at the end of drafts, but as of now Barnes has much more value in dynasty formats than redraft leagues.

Jalen Suggs, Magic

The Magic would've happily pulled the trigger on Barnes at No. 5, but Suggs falling into their lap could be a godsend. The dynamic guard helped lead Gonzaga to the National Title Game behind averages fo 14.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals to go with a 50-34-75 shooting line. The three-point and free-throw percentages are somewhat concerning, but Suggs has a smooth-looking jumpshot that should improve with time. Other than Cunningham, Suggs projects as the most well-rounded fantasy player in the class – especially if his high steal rate translates to the next level.

Suggs joins a Magic roster in dire need of a player with true star potential. Cole Anthony had an encouraging rookie year and Markelle Fultz was looking better before tearing his ACL, but Suggs is immediately the top asset for a team loaded with cast-offs and theoretical three-and-D wings. It will be interesting to see how Orlando handles the Suggs-Anthony pairing, but Suggs' ability to play both guard spots is a significant mark in his favor. With the Magic mired into a multi-year rebuild and destined for the lottery again in 2022, Suggs is in as good of a stat-producing position as any rookie in the class. 

Josh Giddey, Thunder

Another draft-night surprise, Giddey landing with the Thunder at No. 6 puts him on a team that's shifted firmly into developmental mode. For an 18-year-old in need of seasoning at the NBA level, Giddey is in an excellent spot to develop. But for the immediate future, Giddey may have difficulty gaining relevance in most fantasy leagues. He comes over from Australia with a diverse stat profile – 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.1 steals in the NBL last season – but he'll have to contend for touches with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, and (for now) Kemba Walker.

As a poor shooter (29.3% 3PT; 69.1% FT) with a thin frame, Giddey doesn't project to have a major off-ball impact. He'll likely be eased into action early on, with his best chance for fantasy relevance coming later in the season if the Thunder deal some key players or embrace a full-on tank, as was the case over the second half of 2020-21.

Jonathan Kuminga, Warriors

Early in the draft process, Kuminga was viewed as a potential No. 1 overall pick, but by the time the draft rolled around, evaluators were decidedly undecided on the 18-year-old, who spent last season alongside Green with the G League Ignite. At 6-6, 210 with top-tier athleticism, Kuminga certainly looks the part of an elite NBA wing, but his effort and decision-making raised question marks, as did his 39-25-63 shooting splits.

Despite the inefficiency, Kuminga still got to 15.9 points per game – while adding 7.2 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.9 steals/blocks – but he'll enter the year as the No. 1 boom-or-bust candidate among rookies. For fantasy purposes, Kuminga is too risky to warrant draft consideration in most standard leagues. And even if does look better than advertised, he'll be stuck behind Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and perhaps even James Wiseman in the pecking order. 

Franz Wagner, Magic

One of the more unique players in the class, Wagner's length and intangibles are the primary traits that vaulted him into the top 10. Wagner averaged a well-rounded 12.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.0 block as a sophomore at Michigan last season. He's far from a traditional playmaker, but Wagner's passing is well-above-average for his age and size.

He also profiles as a potentially elite defender capable of shadowing opposing big men and sticking with guards at the rim. Wagner will have more competition for minutes than Suggs – including from his older brother, Moritz – but he could end up having a Jae'Sean Tate-like fantasy impact if the minutes are there. 

Other Notables

Davion Mitchell, Kings

There's a lot to like about what Mitchell brings to the NBA, but Sacramento was not the best landing spot for his fantasy value. With De'Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton in place – as well as Buddy Hield, for now – Mitchell will almost certainly be looking at a backup role. The Kings dealing Delon Wright to Atlanta on Friday helps Mitchell's cause, however.

Ziaire Williams, Grizzlies

Taking the raw-but-talented Williams at 10 may have been a reach, but it's hard to fault Memphis for targeting one of the few potential stars still on the board. Williams will likely be brought along slowly for a deeper-than-you'd-think Grizzlies team, but he's a player worth targeting in dynasty formats. 

James Bouknight, Hornets

Like Mitchell, Bouknight landed in a situation that doesn't exactly play to his benefit, fantasy-wise. But even in an ideal situation, Bouknight projects as a better real-life player than fantasy commodity, as he's a score-first guard who wasn't overly efficient in his two seasons at UConn. While he'll have a chance to carve out a role as perhaps the first guard off the bench, Bouknight will be stuck behind Terry Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward, so long as all three are healthy. One mark in Bouknight's favor: the Hornets did not tender Malik Monk a qualifying offer.

Chris Duarte, Pacers

If you're drafting a 24-year-old in the lottery, he better contribute right away. That's the plan, anyway, for Duarte, who averaged 17.1 points on 53.2 percent shooting (42.4% 3PT) at Oregon last season. Indiana's roster could look quite a bit different by the time we get to October, but for now he'll likely slot in as the primary backup to Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert.

Moses Moody, Warriors

The Warriors took high-upside wings with both lottery picks, and both Moody and Kuminga will enter the season with similar outlooks. Minutes will be available off the bench, but Moody will have to beat out Jordan Poole and Damion Lee – assuming they stick around – for a rotation spot. Either way, Moody profiles as more of a long-term fantasy investment.

Corey Kispert, Wizards

The 15th overall pick capped a strong, four-year college career with averages of 18.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.8 threes as a senior at Gonzaga. Coming off of back-to-back seasons shooting 44 percent from three, Kispert is a certified marksman, but he joins a roster that's suddenly flush with swingmen. Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Deni Avdija and Davis Bertans – not to mention Bradley Beal – could all stand in Kispert's way. But if he can clear a path to consistent minutes, Kispert could be of use for managers in need of threes.

Alperen Sengun, Rockets

Sengun may be a year or two away from truly cracking the fantasy radar, but the Rockets are one of only a handful of teams that can offer him a consistent role right away. That's especially true if Kelly Olynyk signs elsewhere in free agency. Keep an eye on Sengun early on to see if he's able to garner enough touches to work his magic on the block.

Josh Christopher, Rockets

Admittedly, it would be a surprise if Christopher is an impact fantasy player as a rookie, but the Rockets are incentivized to at least give him a shot. There are some obvious roadblocks in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter Jr., but Christopher is a talented scorer who, for better or for worse, profiles as a perfect good stats/bad team guy, should Houston make some roster-clearing moves at some point.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
RotoWire's NBA Editor and host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Nick was awarded the FSWA Best Podcast -- All Sports award in 2017 and 2018. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.
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