By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As the month of December nears its end, the league is collectively closing in on the halfway point in the regular season.
The first two-and-a-half months have been marred by a number of key injuries, but the hope is that the trend reverses as we approach the All-Star break. By this point in the NBA calendar, we have a solid sample size by which to judge the 2022 rookie class. Led by No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero, the class has produced a handful of notable names, though only a handful of first-year players have proven to be worth starting in most weekly fantasy leagues.
As of Dec. 29, not a single rookie – not even Banchero – in nine-cat, per-game value. If you look at total value, which takes into account games played, a handful of rookies – like Walker Kessler, Jabari Smith Jr. and Tari Eason – are on the cusp of the top 100, but it's due almost entirely to the fact that they've barely missed any time.
This season, especially, availability is a major asset, but the overall point remains: In terms of fantasy value, the 2022 rookie class has been a major disappointment thus far. Of course, that could certainly change as the year goes on and players become increasingly comfortable. But at this stage, it’s fairly unlikely that any of this year’s rookies finish inside the top 75 in per-game value.
As we near the 40-game mark, let’s check in on the biggest names in the class and highlight some rookies to monitor in deeper leagues and dynasty formats:
Paolo Banchero, Magic
The No. 1 overall pick has been far and away the most productive rookie in the 2022 class, so it's no surprise he's the (-714 at BetMGM as of Dec. 29). Despite averaging 20.9 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 threes and 1.5 combined steals/blocks per game, Banchero checks in at 135th in nine-cat, per-game value.
While that number is a bit misleading, Banchero’s free throw percentage (75.2% FT on 7.9 FTA/G), relatively high turnover rate (2.9 TPG) and pedestrian field goal percentage (44.2% FG) have pushed him down the overall rankings. Still, he’s been a consistently valuable source of scoring and rebounding while adding well-above-average value as a passer – especially by rookie forward standards.
Banchero is coming off of a pair of rough showings against the Lakers (four points, 1-6 FG) and Pistons (15 points, 4-12 FG), but prior to that, he had a 10-game run in which he posted 21.6 points, 7.5 boards, 4.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.9 threes per game while shooting better than 40% from distance.
Looking forward, Banchero is pretty easily the No. 1 fantasy rookie in the class, though, to me at least, Banchero vs. Chet Holmgren remains a fun debate in dynasty formats.
Jabari Smith Jr., Rockets
After a shaky first month of the season, Smith appears to be settling into a groove for the Rockets. While his season-long numbers are still pretty ugly – particularly his 38.3% FG – Smith has been more reliable of late.
Over a 12-game stretch from Dec. 2 to Dec. 26, he posted 13.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 0.8 steals while hitting 44.4% of his field goal attempts (32.8% 3PT). A fantastic 3-point shooter at Auburn, Smith is yet to find consistency from deep, but it’s a positive sign that he’s launching nearly six attempts per game.
Surprisingly, Smith actually ranks ahead of Banchero in nine-cat value, though that’s largely due to his free throw shooting (83.3% FT) and very low turnover rate (1.4 TPG). The No. 3 overall pick is up to six double-doubles on the year and should continue to gradually improve as the season progresses.
While Houston is among the obvious tanking candidates after the All-Star break, Smith’s role should be safe – and it could even increase if Houston leans hard into a youth-oriented rotation down the stretch.
Keegan Murray, Kings
The No. 4 overall pick continues to alternate between stretches of very poor and very encouraging play. Most recently, it’s been the former, as Murray has just 19 points and eight rebounds combined over his last three games. Complete no-shows, such as Wednesday night’s five-point, two-rebound effort against Denver, have made Murray difficult to start in weekly leagues, but he’s still shown enough flashes for me to warrant holding in a bench spot.
Over a four-game stretch from Dec. 14 to Dec. 21, Murray averaged 16.0 points and 3.8 threes (15-31 3PT) in nearly 34 minutes per game. Earlier in December, he had a six-game run in which he posted 16.5 points, 5.0 boards and 3.3 threes (45.5% 3PT) in just 28.3 minutes.
Chances are, Murray will continue to be a frustrating player to manage, but if you have a roster spot available, I would hold him in hopes that the 3-point volume becomes more consistent as he gains comfort.
Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers
At this stage in his career, Mathurin is a more impactful real-life player than fantasy player, as he ranks well outside the top 200 in nine-cat. That's thanks in large part to a poor field goal percentage (41.5% FG) – not uncommon for rookie guards – combined with a low assist rate and virtually no defensive contributions (0.7 steals/blocks combined).
The Arizona product’s raw scoring production has kept him rostered in more than 70% of Yahoo leagues, but he’s been a difficult player to justify starting as of late. Over his last four games, Mathurin is seeing just 23.0 minutes per game and averaging 11.5 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists. He’s 3-of-14 from downtown in that span.
Like Murray, I would try to hold Mathurin, as there's clearly plenty of upside (13 games with 20+ points). The best-case scenario for fantasy managers would likely be the Pacers falling back in the Eastern Conference, dealing Buddy Hield at the deadline and feeding Mathurin 30-plus minutes per night.
Jaden Ivey, Pistons
Fantasy-wise, Ivey and Mathurin have been comparable fantasy assets as we near the halfway point. While Mathurin has flashed more upside as a pure scorer, Ivey is the better passer and defensive producer.
Ivey is struggling from the field (41.2% FG) and from three (31.4% 3PT), though neither of those figures should come as much of a surprise. Similarly, Ivey’s free throw percentage is hindering his fantasy value – especially since he’s getting to the line 4.6 times per game, a figure that will likely rise as the season progresses (6.8 FTA/G over the last six games). Free throw shooting was an issue for Ivey at Purdue, so this shouldn’t be shocking, but the hope is that he’s able to climb closer to 80% as he develops.
Going forward, Ivey is essentially in the same basket as Mathurin and Murray. There's clear upside in Detroit with Cade Cunningham done for the year, but Ivey's percentages may ultimately keep him from being a plus fantasy asset as a rookie.
Jalen Duren, Pistons
Since moving into the starting lineup on Dec. 9 in Memphis, Duren has been on a tear, and his roster rate has shot up to 65% in Yahoo leagues. That number will likely rise again next week, particularly after Duren grabbed 18 boards in Wednesday’s win over the Magic.
Over his last 11 games, Duren is up to 10.2 points, 12.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists while shooting 68.1% from the field. Shot-blocking is the missing piece for the Memphis product, as he has just seven total blocks in that span. Either way, Duren is doing enough as a volume rebounder to warrant plenty of fantasy attention.
Walker Kessler, Jazz
The big man moved back to the bench Tuesday against Golden State with Kelly Olynyk back in action, but he still managed to record three blocks in 20 minutes of action. By this point, we know the book on Kessler: It's all about blocks – and maybe some rebounds as well.
In the 16 games this season in which Kessler has played at least 20 minutes, he’s averaging 9.4 points, 8.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 74.7% from the field. The presence of Olynyk is a roadblock for the time being, but the veteran big man could very well be on the trade block come February.
For the immediate future, Kessler is worth targeting if you’re in dire need of blocks, but he’s a player I plan to pick up in as many spots as I can over the next several weeks. If the Jazz move Olynyk, the coast could be clear for Kessler to return big-time defensive value over the final 20-25 games of the regular season.
Tari Eason, Rockets: Eason ranks inside the top 150 in nine-cat and continues to be a solid, all-around contributor. If you can spare a roster spot, Eason (17% rostered) is absolutely worth picking up as the deadline approaches under the belief he could see an expanded role down the stretch.
Jeremy Sochan, Spurs: Sochan has been all over the map as of late, but we're starting to see the two-way tools that made him a lottery pick. The Baylor product is averaging 14.0 points, 7.8 boards, 3.8 assists and 1.4 combined steals/blocks over his last five games (28.2 MPG).
Jalen Williams, Thunder: One of my favorite players in the class, Williams has started more than half of his appearances this season and looks to be locked into that role. Over his last eight games (all starts), he's scored in double figures seven times, though he's struggling mightily from three (22.7% 3PT) and not adding much defensive value.
AJ Griffin, Hawks: The Duke product scored in double figures in 10 of 11 games from Nov. 30 to Dec. 21, putting up 14.5 points, 2.7 boards, 1.3 steals and 2.5 threes in that span. He's cooled off over the last week, but Griffin remains a name to monitor in deeper leagues. The 3-point shooting is appealing, but he'll probably need an injury – or trade – to warrant holding in most leagues.
Malaki Branham, Spurs: The Ohio State product is still in deep-leagues-only territory, but he's played 20-plus minutes in five of the last six games and had a 20-point night against the Jazz on Monday. Keep Branham in mind, as the Spurs' rotation could be completely unpredictable over the final month of the season.
Andrew Nembhard, Pacers: Earlier in December, Nembhard had his moment in the sun when he went for 31 points, 13 assists, eight boards and five threes in a win over the Warriors. Since then, he's scored in double figures only twice in 11 games despite averaging 30.1 minutes per contest. Like Mathurin, Nembhard would benefit if the Pacers shake up the roster at the deadline, but there's a reason his roster rate has plummeted to 14% in Yahoo leagues.
Shaedon Sharpe, Trail Blazers: Sharpe may be the best pure leaper in the NBA, but he's not worth much fantasy consideration in redraft leagues. He bottomed out with a season-low seven minutes played Monday against Charlotte.
Mark Williams, Hornets: The big man has spent the bulk of the year in the G League, but he returned after Christmas and has played double-digit minutes in back-to-back games. Nick Richards was unavailable for both of those games, however.
Christian Braun, Nuggets: The former Kansas standout has emerged as a nightly rotation player for coach Michael Malone. Even so, he's not producing nearly enough to warrant fantasy attention.
TyTy Washington Jr., Rockets: After missing the start of the season due to injury and spending time in the G League, Washington played a career-high 20 minutes against the Celtics on Tuesday. He's not worth rostering right now but is a name to keep a cursory eye on later in the season.
Johnny Davis, Wizards: It continues to look as though the No. 10 overall pick won't be anything close to an impact player in Year 1. Thus far, he's only logged 50 total NBA minutes across 10 appearances. In 14 G League games, Davis is averaging 11.9 points but shooting only 40.8% from the floor.
Dyson Daniels, Pelicans: While he continues to show encouraging flashes – particularly as a passer and defender – Daniels is more of a dynasty league consideration at this point, due in large part to the Pelicans' overall depth.
MarJon Beauchamp, Bucks: While the Bucks are without Khris Middleton (knee) indefinitely, Beauchamp has remained on the fringes of the rotation. For now, he's buried beneath the combination of Grayson Allen, George Hill, Pat Connaughton, Joe Ingles and Jevon Carter.
David Roddy, Grizzlies: One of the most unique players in the class, Roddy saw double-digit minutes in 17 straight games from Nov. 13 to Dec. 20, but he's recently fallen out of the rotation with Desmond Bane back from injury. Roddy was assigned to the G League earlier this week.