Fantasy basketball rookie rankings: Doncic, Ayton, Bagley lead the way

Should you temper expectations for Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic or expect a huge statistical campaign? Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Three rookies finished in the top 50 among NBA players in fantasy value last season. However controversial his freshman status, Ben Simmons finished 14th overall on the Player Rater on the way to Rookie of the Year honors. Donovan Mitchell's scintillating scoring binges vaulted him to 24th overall, while Jayson Tatum's efficient season saw him finish 50th on the Player Rater -- an index of value that weights production across eight key categories. Even the Atlanta Hawks' John Collins cracked the top 100 (96th) and enters his second season as a key breakout candidate.

This wasn't the first time in recent history we've witnessed a transcendent group of professional freshmen positively impact the fantasy market -- the 2015-16 class offered bona fide statistical stars in Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic, Myles Turner and Devin Booker.

It's worth noting that not every class will produce as many immediate contributors, as Simmons's absence from the 2016-17 rookie class resulted in a uniquely shallow season for rookies. That campaign saw just Joel Embiid's 31-game flash, Dario Saric's high-usage finish and Malcolm Brogdon's respectable, if unspectacular, numbers surface as notable performances. It's quite likely that group was atypically weak but does confirm there is variance from year to year in regards to the number of meaningful statistical performances rookies will produce.

This new class does appear deep and promising, though, headlined by a wave of dynamic and versatile big men and complemented by a crew of gifted playmakers. With an eye on projecting redraft value for the new campaign, let's discuss the top fantasy rookies heading into the 2018-19 season.

1. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

In the wake of drafting Ayton first overall, the Suns let Alex Len walk in free agency and dealt Marquese Chriss, suggesting Phoenix is prepared to give their franchise center tons of minutes and touches from the first tip. Volume is key in driving Ayton's fantasy value.

In a dynasty context, I'd honestly have Jaren Jackson and Luka Doncic ahead of Ayton; mostly because of their own impressive ceilings, but also because Ayton had glaringly low block and steal rates compared to previous top prospects at the position. For example, Anthony Davis (13.8 percent NCAA block percentage, which is the percentage of shots a player blocks while on the floor) and Karl-Anthony Towns (11.5 percent) were truly dominant rim-protectors in college. Ayton (6.1 percent) proved far less adept at defending the paint. When we pay a high price for a center in fantasy basketball, there is an inherent expectation for strong block production given the nature of the position's responsibilities.

This all said, I'm possibly faultfinding a 7-foot-1 offensive dynamo who can shoot from distance and might just average 20 points and 10 boards on clean percentages right away. Ayton could become potent in points leagues right away, given that format's preference for volume over nuance. If his block and steal rates jump even slightly in the pros, Ayton can reasonably provide a profit at his current average draft position (52nd overall).

2. Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings

If Ayton's defensive rates in college were weak, then Bagley's are downright troubling (a meager 2.6 block percentage). Then again, also like Ayton, Bagley could be a generational offensive force -- one who ESPN's Draft Analytics model rated as the top prospect of the entire 2018 class.

We've already seen Bagley handle a heavy workload (26.3 percent usage rate at Duke) with efficient results (64.3 percent true shooting rate; a measure of efficiency at all three levels), while it appears there will be a healthy batch of shots, minutes and touches for him to consume on a Kings roster badly in need of a pick-and-roll partner for De'Aaron Fox.

A line that hovers around Jahlil Okafor's offensively productive, high-usage rookie year (17.5 PPG and 7.0 RPG) seems viable for Bagley.

3. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

I love Doncic's game and would have taken him first overall in the real NBA draft and in a dynasty rookie draft, given his potent floor game and sizable precedent of strong play at the highest level of European competition.

I might appear decidedly tepid on Doncic's stock this season, given this ranking, but I think we have to realistically factor in the sheer depth of the point guard position, the potential overlap in touches and usage with Dennis Smith Jr. and the sharp learning curve we often find for lead rookie guards.

I'm not confident Doncic will be a very efficient scorer to begin his career, as he hit on roughly a third of his 3-point attempts in Euroleague competition last season and could struggle at the rim as he transitions to NBA defenders. It's also just a good group of potentially valuable big men ahead of him here, and Doncic still has real value in fantasy for this season.

Working in Doncic's favor is the lack of volume passers outside the top 60 (or so) picks in fantasy drafts this season -- studies suggest 3-point volume and efficiency and assists are among the most predictable categories when projecting NBA production for a Euroleague prospect.

We already know Doncic's vision is what elevates him to an elite-prospect tier. For Doncic to truly pay off this season for fantasy managers, he'll likely need to approximate the prolific passing volume and efficiency Simmons and Lonzo Ball delivered last year -- or else he could struggle to meet his draft price in similar fashion to Smith Jr. last season.

4. Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

As ESPN NBA analyst Kevin Pelton deduced, "Block rate, assist rate and offensive rebound rate stand out as translating particularly cleanly from college to pro." Jackson averaged three blocks per game at Michigan State despite averaging just 21.8 minutes, and he subsequently swatted 3.8 shots per game in the summer league this past July. Jackson's collegiate block percentage (14.3) is even higher than Davis' prolific rate at Kentucky.

While the sample was small (just 96 attempts), Jackson sank 39.6 percent of his 3-point attempts as a Spartan. I can envision Jackson hovering around 10 points per game this season with modest offensive responsibilities, yet still deliver top-80 fantasy value thanks to his unique upside in blocks and utility as a floor spacer.

Just six players during the past three seasons have averaged at least one 3-pointer and 1.5 blocks per game: Durant, Embiid, Serge Ibaka, Brook Lopez and Porzingis. It's quite possible Jackson joins both Embiid and Porzingis in accomplishing this feat during his rookie campaign.

5. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

A polarizing undersized playmaker, Young could turn a fantasy profit if his awesome assist (48 percent) and steal (2.5 ) percentages from college carry over to the pros.

Young is somewhat of a contextual fantasy prospect for me; I'm more willing to take the chance on his expectedly low field goal rate if I already have a Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela in place to help counterweight such inefficiency.

Much like with Ball for the Lakers last season (sans the rebounding), Young will likely struggle with efficiency and turnovers as a rookie but can make up for that with a heavy volume of 3-point attempts, steals and dimes.

6. Wendell Carter Jr., Chicago Bulls

Strong rebounding and block rates from college along with a stellar summer league showing indicate Carter Jr. could be the sleeper of this class if the Bulls afford him enough work.

One holdup for "WCJ" breaking out could be traffic in the Chicago frontcourt, with Lauri Markkanen, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker all worthy of minutes. Yet another big entering the league with some outside touch (41.3 3-point percentage on a limited sample at Duke), Carter Jr. could near a double-double with solid defensive rates if he emerges as Chicago's full-time center.

7. Mohamed Bamba, Orlando Magic

The path to heavy minutes is also a bit cloudy for Bamba. But once again, I'm a fan of prolific defensive upside. Bamba posted a 13.1 percent block rate at Texas with a solid 20.2 percent rebounding rate. It also helps to note Bamba shot nearly 70 percent from the stripe and has worked on 3-point range this offseason.

It's truly rare to find an affordable and elite source of blocks who won't tank your free throw rate or prove hollow in most other stats. I don't buy the stretch shooter angle just yet (27.5 percent from 3-point range at Texas), but I do love that in a best-case outcome (say Nikola Vucevic is traded), we can envision Bamba netting around two blocks per game with solid shooting percentages.

8. Kevin Knox, New York Knicks

Knox could surprise as a useful contributor in points leagues, as I think he'll consume a uniquely heavy usage rate as a rookie on a Knicks team seemingly intent on featuring their prospects. In category formats, however, Knox's profile might appear too scoring-dependent to provide real value; he had sluggish assist, steal and block rates at Kentucky.

It was encouraging, though, to see Knox thrive in the summer league as a volume scorer -- he was fourth in scoring in Las Vegas, albeit on 35 percent from the field. One of the youngest prospects in the class, Knox could take some time to diversify his game, but he has 20-point scoring potential in the years ahead.

9. Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

If the Suns didn't have so many veteran wings (Josh Jackson, Trevor Ariza, TJ Warren), Bridges would be one of the more immediately valuable fantasy contributors from this class. But Phoenix does employ a good deal of competition for minutes and shots from the wing, so this curbs enthusiasm a bit for the pro-ready Villanova product.

One thing I immediately value from Bridges is his ability to flirt with the 1/1/1 club once he does earn steady minutes -- referencing fantasy nerd lingo that means a player averages at least one steal, one 3-pointer and one block per game -- thresholds he surpassed during his final collegiate season.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LA Clippers

Like Bridges, Gilgeous-Alexander would rise up this list if not for the presence of competition and role overlap in the backcourt depth chart for the Clippers. With Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Milos Teodosic, Avery Bradley and Jerome Robinson all in the mix for backcourt touches, it's tough to imagine Gilgeous-Alexander commanding the level of usage he'll need to become a consistent fantasy starter.

There is a lot to like about Gilgeous-Alexander's upside if the minutes do surface -- he averaged 19 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.0 APG and 2.3 SPG with unfettered usage in Las Vegas this summer.

Honorable mention

Collin Sexton's advanced numbers from college weren't so exciting (sluggish steal and assist rates), but his role in Cleveland could become quite rewarding if the team eventually clears the deck for him (trading George Hill, for example). ... Miles Bridges has real upside if the Hornets accelerate their roster rebuild, especially as Charlotte appears prone to run at a fast pace this season. ... Mitchell Robinson likely won't be a factor early this season for the Knicks, but his four blocks per game in the summer league reveals real defensive upside down the line. ... Michael Porter Jr. could miss the entire season for Denver, and even if he does suit up, it's tough to envision him carving out a sizable role on a contender this season.