2019 Fantasy Basketball: Can these six early season disappointments turn it around?

By Nick WhalenRotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

As we move through Week 5, we’ll officially hit the one-month mark of the NBA season. At this point, sample sizes can still be accurately referred to as “small," though by the end of the week, some teams will have completed more than 20 percent of their schedule.

With that in mind, now is the time to examine players who are under-performing and determine the difference between an early season slump and a longer-term trend.

We’ll follow up next week with some early season fantasy basketball surprises.

Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

While Jokic remains the fulcrum of a Western Conference contender, his numbers are down across the board through his first 12 contests. Part of the issue is Jokic is playing just 30.4 minutes per game — a low number for a superstar — but nearly all of his rate stats are down, including rebounds, assists and true shooting percentage, as well as usage rate and PER. He’s still giving fantasy managers 16.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.2 steals per night, but that barely places him inside the top 40 in Yahoo leagues — a far cry from where a player who was a near-unanimous top-nine pick was expected to land.

The good news for fantasy managers is Jokic is attempting roughly the same number of shots as last season — and he’s taking more threes — but he’s getting to the free throw line at a career-low rate. A year ago, Jokic’s average shot depth was 10.4 feet from the basket. This season, that number jumps up considerably to 14.1 feet. The increase in three-point attempts is the biggest reason for the leap, but Jokic is hitting less than 25% of those, down from an already-unsightly 31% in 2018-19.

As the season progresses and Jokic (hopefully) plays his way into better shape, he should slowly climb his way back up the fantasy rankings. Nonetheless, it’s been somewhat of an alarming start for those rostering him.

Don't lose hope on the big man. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Dewayne Dedmon, Sacramento Kings

Dedmon has battled some durability issues over the years, but at the time, I liked the signing for the Kings, who had let Willie Cauley-Stein walk in free agency. As it turns out, Dedmon needed only four games to lose his starting spot, even as Sacramento lost another keystone frontcourt player on opening night. Even with Marvin Bagley sidelined, Dedmon has been unable to reclaim a meaningful workload, and he heads into Tuesday night’s game against Phoenix having played fewer than 18 minutes in six straight contests.

Dedmon currently ranks outside the top-250 in Yahoo leagues, with his rostership plummeting to just 32% (which is probably too high). With Richaun Holmes hovering around the top-100 and Bagley’s return approaching, Dedmon may need another serious injury or two to even have a chance to recoup his preseason value.

Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

Robinson is a lesson in never, ever trusting the New York Knicks. Sure, there was reason for concern after the Knicks cornered the market on replacement-level power forwards this summer. But when it came to Robinson, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume he’d be immune to whatever roster malpractice would inevitably take place. Through Robinson’s first 10 games, that’s proven to be incorrect.

As I discussed with James Anderson on last week’s RotoWire NBA Podcast, I thought the worst-case scenario for Robinson was that he’d see only a slight bump in minutes rather than the 30-plus per night his talent warrants. Instead, Robinson is playing nearly two fewer minutes per game, and his production has stagnated appropriately.

To Robinson’s credit, he’s still managed to boost his per-game scoring and rebounding numbers, and he leads the league in field goal percentage. But his best fantasy skill has taken a slight step back, as he’s averaging just 1.9 blocks per game, down from 2.4 last season.

His per-36 figure is also down slightly, though his block rate (10.1%) is almost identical to that of his rookie season (10.0%). The combination of fewer minutes and fewer players challenging Robinson at the rim has led to the big man clinging to a Yahoo ranking of 84th on a per-game basis. Factoring in a few missed games, Robinson falls out of the top 100 in terms of total production.

For as long as the Knicks stick with their current rotation, which has heavily favored Julius Randle and Marcus Morris (!!!), Robinson will likely remain stuck in the back-half of the top-100. But if a coaching change is indeed on the horizon, it could be the saving grace Robinson needs to be fully unleashed as a shot-blocking and field-goal-percentage monster.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Jackson was a popular breakout pick in the preseason, but thus far he’s looked like mostly the same player as last season. To be fair, that’s still a valuable asset, but Jackson currently sits on the outside of the top-100 in Yahoo leagues. Part of the issue is he’s only playing 26.6 minutes per game, roughly the same as last season. His usage rate (22.6%) is also identical to last season’s, which is a minor disappointment given the promise he showed in 58 games before being shut down due to injury.

Percentage-wise, Jackson is still in good shape. His field goal percentage is down a few points, but that can be chalked up to a significant increase in three-point attempts, which he’s hitting at a healthy 37.7% clip. Fantasy-wise, the biggest issue for Jackson remains his lack of rebounding as well as his propensity for picking up fouls. 

Jackson’s total rebound percentage sits at just 10.7%, which places him in the same neighborhood as noted glass-cleaners Patrick Beverley, Kyle Kuzma, Ricky Rubio, and Mikal Bridges. Rebounding was an issue for Jackson last season as well, and it’s likely to be a weak spot in his fantasy profile for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Jackson continues to pick up fouls at an alarming rate. As a rookie, Jackson was constantly in foul trouble, and he’s already fouled out of two games while picking up five personals in two more. Per 100 possessions, Jackson ranks sixth in the league in fouls among players who’ve played at least 300 minutes. And while his per-100 number is actually down compared to last season, the Grizzlies’ huge spike in pace has essentially canceled that out.

Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls

Markkanen currently sits outside the top 100 in Yahoo leagues, with last season’s strong finish — 19.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.2 threes — fading further and further into the rear-view. After going for 35 and 17 on opening night against Charlotte, Markkanen has fallen off a cliff, failing to reach 20 points in 13 straight games. In that span, he’s averaging just 12.5 points on 33/28/85 shooting splits, to go with 7.0 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.5 steals/blocks. On Monday night against the Bucks, he bottomed out with nine points on 2-of-12 shooting in 27 minutes.

For what it’s worth, Jim Boylen did acknowledge last week that Markkanen has been fighting through an oblique injury. But for the most part, it hasn’t affected his playing time, and there’s been no indication that he’ll be shut down to rehab the injury. Markkanen’s start has been a difficult pill for fantasy managers (myself included) to swallow, but unless you can find an unlikely sell-low trade, riding it out may be the only option. 

Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

Suffice it to say, it has not been a great start for those on “This is the year Aaron Gordon makes a run at the All-Star team” island. For the second straight season, Gordon appears to have taken a step back, as he’s averaging just 13.9 points per game on 42.3% shooting, down from 16.0 per game a year ago and 17.6 in 2017-18.

Gordon’s usage, rebounds, and assists rates are all down, and through 13 games he’s topped 20 points as many times as he’s scored fewer than 10. To his credit, he’s picked things up a bit over his last eight games — 16.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists — but he’s shooting just 25.7% from deep in that span. Outside shooting has been Gordon’s biggest deficiency thus far (28.8% 3PT), but he’s also stagnated on the defensive end and no longer looks like a potential 2.0-blocks/steals-per-game guy.

If Gordon can turn his three-point shooting around, he’ll slowly inch his way up the rankings, but heading into Wednesday’s game in Toronto, he sits at 136 overall — well below his 59.0 ADP.

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