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Fantasy basketball: Overlooked players with statistical upside

Michael Porter Jr. is starting to show the vast talent that made him a lottery pick in 2018. Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Statistical Electricity.

The quality the greatest fantasy players possess.

The ability to change the flow of a game in the blink of an eye, then convert that captured flow into a quantifiable statistical result.

Stars back up their considerable on-court presence with meaningful numbers. They combine dynamic style with diversified numerical substance. They seize the moment and generate stats that contain efficiency and depth.

Statistical Electricity. That's what we saw out of Zion Williamson last night.

The very top of the fantasy value pool is defined by those players. Players we can invoke with just one name. Giannis. LeBron. Zion. Players who capture the flow of the game, then convert it into numbers. Players who spin their determination into powerful production.

It's not about scoring. Points are just a byproduct. Hassan Whiteside -- a top-five player this season -- averages only 15.5 PPG. But he exudes Statistical Electricity. He's affecting games in a way that's powerful, dynamic and substantive.

In Fantasyland, we don't care about wins and losses. We care about box scores. And when you look at a Trail Blazer box score? It tilts in Whiteside's direction.

Cut back to last night. Yes, Zion went 4-of-4 from deep. Yes, he generated 22 points in 18 minutes. But that's just so damn obvious. For me, there were two moments in Williamson's debut that showed Statistical Electricity -- where Zion converted his vast potential into production.

One: the early assist to Brandon Ingram. The first moment of the game -- of Williamson's career -- where Williamson flashed "it." The ball moved to Williamson. Two defenders closed. But in a blink, Williamson harnessed touch and vision. He flipped the court and hit Ingram as he cut to the basket for an easy dunk. Fantasy result: one assist, one 2-point basket.

Two: the late assist to E'twaun Moore. This was a three-act fantasy play.

Act I. Williamson casually overpowered Jakob Poeltl for a defensive rebound. Combined potency with just enough finesse to corral the rebound without getting called for a foul. Fantasy result: Williamson added an unexpected rebound to his box score.

(So the ref swallowed the whistle because the NBA can be subjective. But what generates subjectivity? On-court presence. Having "it." "It" controls narrative. And players that control narrative create subjectivity.)

Act II. Williamson turned up the Pace. In a blink, Williamson pivoted from raw power into leading the break. In a blink, he switched on his ability to dictate tempo.

Act III. Williamson punctuated the break with a perfect cross-court pass to Moore. Moore slid in for the layup. Fantasy result: one assist, one 2-point basket.

Statistical Electricity. The ability to seize the flow, then channel the flow into the box score.

We talk about stars having "it." But lesser-known players can also have "it." Maybe it's "it" in fits and starts. Maybe it's extrapolated into a less flashy metric (rebounds, free throw production). But players up and down the Player Rater top 200 have "it."

Part of our job here in Fantasyland is to identify said players on the way up. Before they break through. Look for players who impact a box score with weight, but aren't getting enough minutes to make the world take notice.

Think of Fred VanVleet. Not the VanVleet of today. I'm talking early 2018-19 VanVleet.

Last season, VanVleet starting to clock some Statistical Electricity in November. The role was limited, but the numbers were there. Then his minutes jumped in December. Then VanVleet added more minutes in the playoffs. Rode that momentum into 2019-20. Today: He's a borderline fantasy star.

But some of us started getting excited around Thanksgiving 2019. Because even then, he had "it." Who told you about Davis Bertans at the beginning of this season? I did. Why? Because Bertans has "it."

One tool I employ in the search for Statistical Electricity: per-36 production. What would a player's numbers look like extrapolated across 36 minutes?

Zion's per-36 NBA career stats: 43.3 points, 13.8 rebounds, 10.9 assists, 7.9 3s.

Gets your attention, am I right? Yes, it's just a one-game sample. Those numbers flatten across the course of a season. Or even a week. But the point is that Zion's per-36 grabs you with its sheer Statistical Electricity.

Once I've been diverted, I fold in three other key metrics: true shooting percentage, usage rate and PER. Zion's one-game career averages across those stats: 86.2 TS%, 40.5 USG, 38.25 PER.

Add it all up and yeah, I think this Zion Williamson just might be a player to watch.

Let's look past the obvious. Let's sort some players into four buckets.

One: low-minute players who could be one injury away from making a real fantasy impact. Two: specialists who could be one category away from making a fantasy impact. Three: young players who could be in line for a minutes boost in the second half of the season. Four: players who play for Gregg Popovich and show they can produce in his system and just need more minutes.

(Yes, Popovich players get their own bucket. If I have to explain, you wouldn't understand.)

Michael Porter, Jr., SF, Denver Nuggets
Key Per-36: 20.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.1 3s, 1.2 blocks, 0.9 steals, 63.0 TS%, 21.5 USG, 19.97 PER

The past week shows what Porter can do with bigger minutes: 27.3 minutes, 16.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.3 3s, 2.0 steals + blocks. The production is there. The problems: injuries and expectations.

Injury-wise, Porter has to stay healthy to gain consistency and momentum. After a great last week, getting picked up in a bunch of leagues ... back tightness. Late scratch in warmups. (The worst scratch in fantasy.) On the other side of the injury coin, Porter may not hold on to extended minutes as other Nuggets get healthy.

Expectations-wise, Porter has to tighten up his defense. The Nuggets are looking like serious contenders. Giving extended minutes to a gifted offensive player with defensive narcolepsy won't make as much sense as the playoffs approach.

Christian Wood, PF, Detroit Pistons
Key Per-36: 20.8 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.2 3s, 1.8 blocks, 0.8 steals, 66.9 TS%, 20.7 USG, 22.72 PER

Right now, Wood is fantasy insurance for Andre Drummond managers. A nice handcuff to have in deeper leagues. But if Drummond is traded? Wood could explode. Exhibit A: Wood's Jan. 13 line against the Pelicans. 18 points, 9 rebounds, 2 3s, 3 blocks, 2 steals.

Nerlens Noel, C, Oklahoma City Thunder
Key Per-36: 15.5 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 2.1 steals, 71.3 TS%, 15.4 USG, 23.30 PER

There have been other times in Noel's career where he's gotten oh-so-close to breaking through. But he's never been as close as right now. It would take an extended Steven Adams injury or trade. But Noel is proving why he was a top-five lottery pick ... even if no one's noticing.

If fantasy were based on per-36 numbers? Noel would be a top-10 player. Right up there with Harden and Giannis. And he's showing he can keep up the high level of production as a starter. Look what he did in last night's spot start against Orlando: 14 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks, 1 steal.

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Washington Wizards
Key Per 36: 20.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 1.8 3s, 1.1 blocks, 1.3 steals, 68.2 TS%, 21.0 USG, 18.72 PER

With Zion back, Fantasyland now turns its eyes to another soon-to-return per-36 star: Moritz Wagner. OK. So I'm the only geek who's actually excited. But Wagner has been ├╝ber-productive in a limited role. The Wizards are rolling fantasy-wise with their high-pace, defensively moribund style of play. Wagner is looking like just the kind of player who could break out post-All-Star Weekend.

Put it this way... if you're Scott Brooks and you're playing for pingpong balls, who would you rather watch, Moritz Wagner or Ian Mahinmi?

Brandon Clarke, PF/C, Memphis Grizzlies
Key Per-36: 20.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 0.8 3s, 0.7 steals, 2.6 assists, 68.2 TS%, 18.6 USG, 21.72 PER

Like the Pelicans, the Grizzlies stock young upside up and down the roster. The question here: What will the Grizzlies do at the trade deadline? Will they hold on to veterans like Jae Crowder in the push for the eighth seed? Or will they deal and open up minutes for statistically electric players like Clarke (and De'Anthony Melton)?

Come on, amorphous, flat-structured Grizzlies front office! Work those phones! Make those deals! There's a way for Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. to peacefully and numerically co-exist! I'll ship some matcha, cold brew, Butterscotch Krimpets, whatever it takes. Let's make this happen.

Other names to watch:

Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Houston Rockets
Dejounte Murray, PG, San Antonio Spurs
Denzel Valentine, SG/SF, Chicago Bulls
De'Anthony Melton, PG, Memphis Grizzlies
Matisse Thybulle, SG, Philadelphia 76ers
Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Milwaukee Bucks