The NBA regular season gets underway this week, which means it's time for fantasy managers to spring into action. Draft season is over, so from here on out, it's all about roster management.
As games begin, it's also our last chance to put some official predictions on the record. From emerging rookies to high-upside veterans to young stars with some major red flags, here are eight of our boldest fantasy predictions for the 2021-22 season:
Jonas Valanciunas will have a better fantasy season than Zion Williamson
The news surrounding Williamson isn't great. The emerging star underwent unpublicized foot surgery in the offseason, and it seems like the initial timetable given for his return was inaccurate. He has yet to start running, and he's set to be re-evaluated at the end of the month. It seems extremely unlikely Williamson will be on the court until mid-November at the earliest. That already caps his fantasy ceiling, and he's bound to miss more games once he actually finds his way on the court. He ranked 50th on a per-game basis last season, but the missed games mean he could easily trend closer to 75th this season, if not farther down.
Meanwhile, his teammate, Valanciunas, is coming off a monster year. He ranked 41st per game behind 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 28.3 minutes. The more time Williamson misses, the more opportunities Valanciunas will have to recreate those numbers. The Pelicans are thin on offensive talent either way, so Valanciunas is expected to play a big role. On draft day, Valanciunas should be drafted before Williamson. - Alex Barutha
Paul George will be a Top 5 fantasy player
George returned second-round value last season in a bounce-back campaign. With Kawhi Leonard (knee) out for most, if not all, of the upcoming season, George will have another opportunity to improve on his fantasy value. He's now the clear-cut No. 1 option on the Clippers for a team that seriously lacks offensive talent after he and Reggie Jackson. In 2018-19, George had a massive season with the Thunder and ranked No. 4 overall in fantasy per game. In 36.9 minutes, he averaged 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals. If the Clippers stand any chance of making the playoffs, George will likely need to average those types of numbers again. - Alex Barutha
Scottie Barnes and Chris Duarte finish ahead of Jalen Green in fantasy value
Don't get me wrong: I love Jalen Green as a prospect and think he has an extremely bright future in the NBA. But if we're talking strictly fantasy value, I'm not sure he'll have a major impact as a rookie. Green could easily average close to 20 points per game for the rebuilding Rockets, but I'm skeptical that he'll contribute enough in other areas to be a top-100 player in category leagues. And like many rookie guards, there's a good chance those 20 points per game come on pedestrian shooting percentages.
Meanwhile, Barnes may not be in as advantageous a position as Green, but his stat profile projects to translate well to fantasy basketball. An all-around contributor who can play and guard multiple positions, Barnes finished the preseason averaging 9.8 points, 5.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. His lack of a dependable three-point shot is a concern, but if Barnes is able to secure a consistent role in Nick Nurse's rotation, he may not need a monster workload to push his way into fantasy relevance.
Like Barnes, Duarte also had an impressive preseason, putting up 13.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.5 threes and 0.8 steals in 23 minutes per game. As a 24-year-old rookie, Duarte will be expected to contribute right away, and he joins a Pacers team flush with injury-prone guards in Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren. All four of those players are either currently injured or dealt with injuries in the preseason, so it feels like only a matter of time until Duarte is forced into a larger role.
There's so much elite talent at the top of the class that it probably won't happen, but if you're looking for a longshot Rookie of the Year candidate, Duarte may be the best bet to be the next Brogdon or Michael Carter-Williams (being called the next Michael Carter-Williams used to be a good thing, I swear). - Nick Whalen
OG Anunoby will finish inside the Top 30
Anunoby's great fantasy season fell somewhat under the radar last season due to his missed games, with the forward appearing in just 43 contests. But he ranked 49th on a per-game basis behind 15.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals. His strides as a passer and shooter really vaulted his value. This season, with Kyle Lowry out of the picture and Pascal Siakam recovering from shoulder surgery, Anunoby should take on a bigger role once again. He took 17.9 shots per 36 minutes during the preseason – a massive leap from the 13.0 shots per 36 minutes he took last season. - Alex Barutha
Chris Paul misses at least 20 games
Admittedly, Paul has outpaced my expectations in each of the last two seasons with Oklahoma City and Phoenix, respectively. But while he's barely missed any time in that span, I can't help but recall when he was among the most injury-prone players in fantasy basketball. From 2012-13 through 2018-19, Paul missed at least 10 games five times and at least 20 games four times.
His late-career health renaissance truly came out of nowhere, and as he heads into his age-36 season, I wouldn't be surprised if all of the mileage begins to catch up to him. To Paul's credit, he's had a hand in effectively managing his workload since turning 30 – he's played 32.0 or fewer minutes per game in five straight seasons – but there's virtually no precedent for a player of his size to remain this healthy and this effective in his 17th NBA season. While predicting injuries is never any fun, this is not the year I'll be targeting Paul in the early rounds of my fantasy drafts. - Nick Whalen
Jonathan Isaac is the biggest fantasy sleeper
The Magic have been silent about Isaac's recovery, and we haven't gotten an update on him since late September. That update signaled that he's still without a firm return timetable, and that he wasn't expected to take part in any full-court or any full-contact work during training camp. It's tough to draft Isaac inside the top 100 given that news, but he has potential to be this year's biggest fantasy sleeper. Two years ago, he appeared in 34 games and ranked 34th in per-game production behind 11.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 1.6 steals and 1.4 assists in 28.8 minutes. When it's possible to draft someone outside the top 100 that could return third-round value when healthy, do it. - Alex Barutha
Russell Westbrook will be the biggest fantasy bust
Westbrook is being drafted at the end of the second round this season, with an ADP of 23.9. Last season, he ranked 25th on a per-game basis, and it's tough for me to envision him reaching the kind of volume with the Lakers that he had with the Wizards. He took 19.0 shots in 36.4 minutes last season, and he's taken just 13.5 shots per 36 minutes this preseason. He's also committed 8.2 turnovers per 36 compared to just 7.1 assists, suggesting he's not comfortable in the Lakers' offense with the season just about to start. Maybe Westbrook can make up for reduced volume with increased efficiency, and he'll likely cut the turnovers down, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him finish with fourth-round value or worse. That early in the draft, two-plus rounds of lost value is massive. - Alex Barutha
Anthony Davis finishes outside the top-25 in fantasy value
Coming off of a dominant run to the 2020 NBA Finals, expectations were high for Davis last season, but he ended up turning in his worst fantasy season since his rookie year in 2012-13. The general expectation is that Davis should bounce back in a major way this season, but I'm not sure I buy it. Injuries played a part in Davis' disappointing 2020-21 campaign, but even when healthy he didn't look remotely like the inside-out threat who ran through the league two seasons ago. Davis saw notable declines in virtually every statistical category, including falling from 2.3 to 1.6 blocks per game and hitting just 26.0 percent of his three-point attempts. Davis' free throw percentage also careened to 73.8 percent – down from a career-best 84.6 percent in 2019-20.
While the Lakers may have upgraded their overall talent level, the addition of Russell Westbrook is a questionable fit, at best. As the league's premiere rebounding guard, it's fair to wonder how much he'll cut into Davis' numbers, which already reached a career-low 7.9 RPG last season. New teammates aside, if Davis can't bounce back as a three-point or free throw shooter, he'll have a difficult time returning second-round value. - Nick Whalen