By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Round 1 of the 2020 NBA Playoffs hasn’t even finished, but there has been no shortage of storylines. From both one-seeds losing Game 1 to the return of Russell Westbrook to the rise and fall of T.J. Warren, the first round has been about as compelling — and, for the most part, competitive — as the league could ask.
Looking at things through a fantasy lens, it’s important not to put too much stock into just a five- or six-game sample, especially given the circumstances of these particular playoffs. But when also taking into account what transpired during seeding games, we can glean some knowledge to carry forward when drafts for the 2020-21 season rapidly approach.
Donovan Mitchell is really good
I hate to start with a clickbaity headline like this, but I’m not afraid to say it anymore: Donovan Mitchell plays basketball very well. He is well above average at basketball.
This isn’t news to anyone who’s watched Mitchell since the moment he entered the league, but since that explosive rookie season, his development hasn’t accelerated at quite the same pace.
Across the board, Mitchell’s numbers this season were nearly identical to last season’s. He remained a very, very good young guard but had seemed to fall slightly behind the trajectories of other young stars like Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Dallas’ Luka Doncic. Through six playoff games, suffice it to say Mitchell is back on track. While Utah may be on the verge of blowing a 3-1 series lead to Denver, Mitchell is averaging a playoffs-high 38.7 points per game on 55/55/95 shooting splits, while adding 5.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. In 69 regular season games, Mitchell only had one game with more than 38 points. His 44-point Game 6 on Sunday was only his third-highest-scoring outing of the series.
Putting up nearly 40 points per game on unprecedented efficiency can’t continue, but Mitchell’s Round 1 performance has inspired renewed optimism for his fantasy ceiling for 2020-21.
Jamal Murray: Also really good
As Tuesday’s Game 7 approaches, Nuggets-Jazz has essentially devolved into a game of anything you can do, I can do better between Jamal Murray and Mitchell. The two leading scorers in the playoffs are both putting up huge scoring numbers on mind-bending efficiency. As if Mitchell’s 55/55/95 line wasn’t absurd enough, Murray currently sits at 59/57/91 after another monster effort in Game 6 (50 points; 9-12 3PT).
Coming into the bubble, no one was conflating Mitchell with Murray. Even with an extra year of service under his belt, Murray was unquestionably the inferior player, capable of erupting for a 20-point quarter one night and finishing with 12 points in 37 minutes the next. That inconsistency hasn’t completely disappeared — he scored 26 points in Games 2 and 3 combined — but over the last three games, Murray has begun to shift the narrative on his entire basketball existence.
One 50-point game, even in the Playoffs, can be dismissed as a lucky shooting night. Two means something more, especially when there’s a 42-8-8 line sprinkled in between. Whether Denver wins Game 7 or not, Murray will still need to prove he’s a more consistent scorer, but, like Mitchell, he’ll enter next season with considerably more upside than most thought possible even two weeks ago.
TJ Warren is TJ Warren
There was about a five-day stretch in early August when it looked like LeBron might have no choice but to pack it up and hand over the crown to T.J. Warren.
Beginning with a 53-point dismantling of the 76ers in the Pacers’ first seeding game, Warren went on a five-game run in which he averaged 34.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.4 blocks, while shooting 61 percent from the floor and 56 percent from three. Those numbers were slightly ahead of his pre-shutdown averages, sure, but after five months of no basketball, I was ready to believe in anything.
When the playoffs began a little more than a week later, it gradually became clear that Warren would not, in fact, continue to put up 35 points a night on Shaq-level efficiency. Considering he entered the series battling a foot injury, Warren acquitted himself well — 20.0 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.0 APG, 2.3 SPG — but he looked much more like the guy we’d watched for the last six seasons than the last two weeks.
Looking ahead, Warren has certainly boosted his public profile, but his fantasy stock isn’t dramatically higher. If the Pacers were to move on from Victor Oladipo, that would help Warren’s case, but Jeremy Lamb is set to return from injury next season, and a healthy Domantas Sabonis will also cut into Warren’s workload.
Kristaps Porzingis remains a liability
Porzingis has officially taken the mantle from Joel Embiid as the player I most want to see stay completely healthy for a three-year stretch. For most of the bubble, Porzingis looked like the ultra-aggressive floor-spacer the Mavs hoped he could be. He averaged 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds during seeding play and had a 34-point, 13-rebound effort in Game 3 against the Clippers.
We didn’t know it at the time, but that game would end up being Porzingis’ final appearance of the season. A torn meniscus kept the big man out of Games 4, 5, and 6, essentially slamming the door shut on any chance for the Mavs to pull the first-round upset. While this particular injury shouldn’t keep Porzingis sidelined for long, it’s another in a concerning trend of lower-body injuries for the 7’3” forward, who missed the entire 2018-19 campaign while rehabbing a torn ACL.
When healthy, Porzingis looks every bit the part of the ideal running mate for Luka Doncic, but when evaluating his fantasy value, the injuries are enough of a factor to knock it down by a round or two.
Michael Porter Jr. is a difficult evaluation
During seeding play, Porter Jr. gave a preview of the player he’s capable of growing into. Over four games from Aug. 3 through Aug. 8, Porter averaged 29.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, shooting 56 percent from the field, 47 percent from three, and 96 percent at the line. A fearless shot-taker who can get it off against anyone, Porter has some Kevin Durant to his game, though he’s not nearly on that level as a creator or defender.
In the postseason, Porter has remained a key piece in the Nuggets’ rotation, but he’s taken on a lesser role while shots funnel through Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. The efficiency is still there — 42.4% 3PT on 5.5 3PA/G — but Porter is averaging 12.3 points on just 10.3 shots per game. When you consider Porter is essentially a rookie with 50-odd games under his belt, anything positive he gives you in the playoffs is a bonus.
The question is whether the Nuggets will fully remove the training wheels next season after seeing firsthand what Porter is capable of providing offensively. With Paul Millsap hitting free agency, the opportunity for a larger role should be there. Will Barton and Jerami Grant (player option), both rock-solid rotation players, will likely be back, but in terms of upside, there’s no comparison.
Fantasy-wise, the evaluation process for Porter this offseason is going to be a difficult one. Maybe the Nuggets make a roster move or two that clears things up, but Porter could enter next season facing the same Will he start? How many minutes will he play? questions that followed him over the latter half of this season. If the workload is there, Porter profiles as a potential 20-and-10 player. But given that he doesn’t really play-make and provides very little in the defensive categories, Porter could end up being over-drafted if he’s stuck in a complementary role.
Tyler Herro is a name to watch
The 13th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft made a name for himself during the regular season but looked even more confident in Miami’s first-round sweep of the Pacers. Despite coming off the bench, Herro scored at least 15 points in all four games, averaging 16.5 points per game for the series while hitting 46 percent of his field goals.
Herro became one of only seven rookies in the last 20 years to have at least four 15-point games in their first career playoff series, joining a list that includes Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, and Derrick Rose (and, yes, Drew Gooden and Brandon Jennings). Herro doesn’t provide defensive production, but he does just enough as a passer and rebounder to buoy his fantasy value. After finishing just outside the top 180 as a rookie, he’ll have room to climb in 2020-21.
Jayson Tatum is here to say
After watching Tatum put the 76ers away with 28 points and 15 boards in Game 4, it’s strange to think that not that long ago he was in the midst of a somewhat-disappointing third season. More than halfway through the regular season (36 games), Tatum’s averages sat at 20.8 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 combined/blocks steals. He was hitting just 42 percent of his field goals, including 35 percent of his threes.
Beginning with a then-season-high 41 points in a Jan. 11 win over New Orleans, Tatum flipped the narrative, ending the pre-bubble regular season with a 23-game run of 27.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.5 blocks/steals per game while hiking his efficiency up to 49 percent from the field (46% 3PT).
Since arriving in Orlando, Tatum has picked up where he left off. Coming off of a strong showing in seeding play, Tatum is averaging 25.8 points and 9.6 rebounds through Boston’s first five playoff contests. He drilled eight threes in Game 2 against Philadelphia and continues to hover around 45 percent from deep.
Already a top-25 player during the regular season, Tatum could move closer to the top 10-15 next season. He’ll need to do it over the course of a full year, but all indications are that Tatum’s leaps in scoring and efficiency are here to stay.