By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As the NBA season chugs along into February, it’s time for our weekly look around the league at the players and storylines shaping fantasy basketball.
For the second week in a row, the virus has been only a secondary story, as only a handful of teams are still detailing with COVID-related absences and postponements. The NBA won’t be out of the woods anytime soon, but the fact that it appears to be moving forward with plans to hold some semblance of an All-Star Weekend next month speaks to the league’s growing confidence that it can at least manage the virus.
On the court, Week 7 brings us another balanced schedule, with the bulk of the league once again set to play four games. The fantasy season continues to be a bumpy, unpredictable ride, but now that we’re more than a quarter of the way in, managers can (hopefully) start to gain a better perspective on where their teams truly stand.
This week, we’ll take a look at the emergence of Thaddeus Young, Immanuel Quickley’s impressive run, the enigma that is Chris Boucher’s fantasy value, and much more.
Mercifully, the virus has lessened its effect on the league over the past week, but the NBA is far from in the clear. Just minutes before tip-off Monday night, the league postponed the Nuggets-Pistons game due to an inconclusive test from a Pistons player. For now, it appears the league was simply being extra cautious, as the Pistons departed for Salt Lake City late Monday night and are on track to play Tuesday’s game against the Jazz.
Karl-Anthony Towns remains the biggest name affected by COVID-19 protocols this week. Monday’s game in Cleveland marked his ninth consecutive absence stemming from a positive test in mid-January. The thought is that Towns will soon be cleared from the league’s protocols, but his status is up in the air for Wednesday’s game in San Antonio. After that, Minnesota has a day off Thursday before a back-to-back set against the Thunder on Friday and Saturday.
In Memphis, Jonas Valanciunas and Grayson Allen remain in COVID-19 protocols and will not be available for Tuesday’s game at Indiana. It will be the fourth consecutive absence for Valanciunas, who has not played since Jan. 16. The Grizzlies had multiple games postponed in that span.
Miami’s Tyler Herro was cleared to play Monday night following a COVID-related scare over the weekend. A close associate of Herro’s reportedly tested positive for the virus, but it was ruled that Herro would not be subject to a quarantine period. He finished Monday’s overtime loss to Charlotte with 11 points, eight assists, three rebounds, three threes, and a steal in 33 minutes.
Chris Boucher free-falling
A mere two weeks ago, I wrote about Boucher’s rapid ascent up fantasy leaderboards. At that time, he was swatting shots and draining threes on his way to a spot inside the top 10 in nine-category leagues. Fast forward to now, and it’s fair to question whether Boucher should even be in your lineup this week.
Nick Nurse has once again done a complete 180 on Boucher, relegating him to 18 or fewer minutes in each of the last three games. It’s part of a larger overall downturn that’s resulted in Boucher averaging just 8.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.0 block over his last seven games (19.7 MPG). Nurse has returned to favoring veteran Aron Baynes, who, to his credit, has raised his production of late. Baynes had eight points and a season-high 16 rebounds in Sunday’s win over Orlando. Boucher came off the bench to post nine points and four rebounds in 18 minutes. For the first time all season, Boucher has gone back-to-back games without a blocked shot.
Thaddeus Young out of nowhere
One of the season’s more improbable developments has been the recent emergence of Thaddeus Young as a nightly triple-double threat. After spending the first month of the season putting up modest numbers off the bench, Young broke out with 16 points, nine rebounds, nine assists, a block, and a steal in last Monday’s matchup against Boston.
At first, it looked like a one-time anomaly. But then Young went for eight points, 11 rebounds, and a career-high 11 assists against Portland on Saturday. And in Monday night’s win over New York, he finished with 13 points, eight boards, eight assists, a steal, and a block.
Since entering the league in 2007, Young has just five total games with at least eight assists. Three of those have come in the last week. Chances are, the veteran won’t be putting up LeBron-James-level assists numbers for the rest of the year, but fantasy managers who aggressively pursued Young on the waiver wire this past weekend appear to have landed a major steal. As of Tuesday, Young remains unrostered in 56 percent of Yahoo leagues.
The Immanuel Quickley show
Last week, I mentioned Quickley as a dark horse Rookie of the Year candidate. While he still trails LaMelo Ball and Tyrese Haliburton in that race, he’s — pardon me — quickly doing his part to narrow the gap. While Tom Thibodeau is still bringing the rookie off the bench behind Elfrid Payton, Quickley has played at least 23 minutes in each of the last five games, including a season-high 30 in Monday’s narrow loss to Chicago.
Finishing with 16 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and two made threes, Quickley is now averaging 22.0 points, 4.7 boards, 4.3 assists, and 3.0 threes over his last three appearances. And that doesn’t even include a 31-point, five-three-pointer outburst against the Blazers last weekend. Fantasy-wise, the downside with Quickley is he provides almost nothing on the defensive end, and he’s barely shooting 40 percent from the field (40.9% FG) for the season. However, he’s sitting north of 35 percent from three, and he’s already proven to be a hyper-efficient free throw shooter (94.2% FT).
The Jerami Grant experiment is working
With the obvious caveat that the Pistons are 5-15 and sitting in 14th place in the East, the Jerami Grant: Role Player Turned Number One Option experiment has been a rousing success — at least for fantasy purposes. We can quibble about how much Grant’s production has impacted wins and losses, but the numbers demonstrate that he’s been more than a run-of-the-mill good/stats bad team guy.
Through 20 games, Grant is putting up 23.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 blocks, and 0.9 steals per game, while maintaining a 45/40/87 shooting line. He’s turning it over less than twice per game, and ranks inside the top 20 in the NBA in minutes, made field goals, made free throws, blocks, points, block percentage, and turnover percentage.
Grant is the 16th-ranked player in nine-category Yahoo leagues, thanks in large part to the massive jump in both free throw attempts and percentage. The increased volume isn’t a major surprise — Grant’s usage rate has climbed from 18.0% last season to 26.0% this season — but for a player who entered the year shooting 66.9 percent at the line for his career, the leap up to 86.6 percent is a massive improvement. In three of his last six games, Grant has made double-digit trips to the line, including a pair of perfect 10-for-10 nights against the Sixers and Cavaliers in back-to-back games.
Jaren Jackson’s murky timetable
A little over two weeks ago, Jackson gave some cryptic quotes to reporters suggesting his season debut was not far off. “It will probably sneak up on you,” Jackson said when asked when he’d take the floor for the first time since suffering a torn meniscus in the NBA bubble in early August.
On Monday, it was reported that Jackson will ramp up his rehab program “over the next month or so” — not exactly the sneak-attack the 21-year-old implied it would be. Of course, there’s a chance Jackson could beat that timetable, but as of now, fantasy managers stashing him on IR will likely have to wait at least a few more weeks. If he remains out for the entire month of February, that would tack on 15 more absences to the 15 games he’s already missed.
No days off for LeBron James
Back in October and November, the prevailing belief was that LeBron James — and other veteran stars who played deep into the playoffs in the bubble — would take it easy to begin the accelerated 2020-21 campaign. LeBron himself openly joked about the possibility, while then-teammate Danny Green even said he wouldn’t be surprised if James took the first month of the season off.
No one would’ve faulted James for, at 36 years old with more than 60,000 minutes under his belt, easing into his 18th NBA season. But the four-time MVP has gone completely in the other direction, starting all 22 of the Lakers’ games thus far, including four back-to-back sets. For the most part, the Lakers have done well to keep James’ minutes in check. He’s currently sitting at 33.5 per game; the lowest of any season in his career. Lately, however, that trend has changed, as James has played at least 36 minutes in seven of the Lakers’ past eight games. In that span, he’s averaging 36.5 minutes, roughly the same figure as his final season with the Cavaliers in 2017-18.
As the year goes on, the Lakers will almost certainly make an effort to return James’ workload to the low-30s on most nights. As the odds-on favorite to win the title, it’s the obvious move. But even in Year 18, James is showing few, if any, signs of slowing down. With a fifth MVP award perhaps within reach, don’t expect James to be the one who voluntarily puts the brakes on yet another brilliant statistical season anytime soon.