By Mike Barner, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
One of the keys to having a successful fantasy basketball season is determining which players are poised for breakout campaigns.
Whether it’s because of their improvement, or the betterment of the situation around them, every season several players take significant steps forward. This season will be no different, and identifying those players could be the key to winning your league.
Here are five players poised to make a significant leap in fantasy value in 2021-22:
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
Murray already made significant strides last season, averaging career-highs in points (15.7), rebounds (7.1), assists (5.4), and three-pointers (0.9) per game. Part of the reason for his improved production was that he averaged 32 minutes per game — six minutes more compared to the previous season. He was another year removed from a torn ACL that kept him out of the entire 2018-19 season, which was likely one of the main reasons for his increase in playing time.
As good as Murray was last season, he has the potential to be even better this year because of the departure of DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan led the team with a 26.1 percent usage rate and was also one of the Spurs’ top playmakers, averaging 6.9 assists per game. Murray could see increased production in both departments while continuing to provide stellar rebounding numbers for a point guard. While he may never become a lethal three-point shooter, his new role for a rebuilding Spurs team could provide shades of what we saw from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the Thunder last season. Murray may never score on that level, but he’s an elite rebounder for his position and has the potential to be the best defensive guard in fantasy basketball.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, New Orleans Pelicans
Alexander-Walker didn’t see much action in his rookie season, averaging only 13 minutes per game. He was still limited last season, but he did play more, jumping up to 22 minutes per game as the backup to Lonzo Ball. That helped him produce modest averages of 11.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. There were two key areas to be excited about his improvement, though.
First, he was more efficient, shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 72.7 percent from the charity stripe, compared to 36.8 percent and 67.6 percent, respectively, in his rookie campaign. Second, despite his limited playing time, he drilled 1.7 three-pointers per game.
The Pelicans decided to completely rework their backcourt this offseason, letting Ball sign with the Bulls and trading away Eric Bledsoe. They did bring in Devonte’ Graham and Tomas Satoransky, but one of the starting backcourt spots has likely opened up for Alexander-Walker. Across 13 starts last season, the Virginia Tech product averaged 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 3.1 three-pointers. That was with a 24.6 percent usage rate in the role, which he could easily replicate this season as the third scoring option behind Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
After being selected with the fourth-overall pick in the 2018 Draft, Jackson has generated a ton of hype. He’s a unique fantasy option because of his ability to both hit three-pointers and stuff the stat sheet on the defensive end. Case in point: He averaged 2.5 three-pointers, 1.6 blocks and 0.7 steals across 57 games during the 2019-20 season. The problem is that injuries, and a deep Grizzlies’ roster, have limited his overall production. Due to a much-longer-than-expected recovery from a torn meniscus, Jackson appeared in just 11 games last season and shot only 42.4 percent from the field across 24 minutes per game. The sample was so small that it’s difficult to draw any real conclusions, so Jackson essentially enters 2021-22 with a blank slate.
Another year removed from the injury, a big season could be on the horizon for Jackson. The Grizzlies traded away Jonas Valanciunas during the summer, bringing in a far inferior offensive center in Steven Adams. Brandon Clarke also appears to be falling out of favor after barely seeing the floor in the NBA playoffs. The Grizzlies still have a lot of depth, but an expanded role in their offense and the potential increase in playing time could lead Jackson to set new career-highs in several categories. Don’t expect Jackson to be a volume rebounder, but fantasy managers should be chasing his points, blocks, steals, and three-pointers.
Isaiah Stewart, Detroit Pistons
Entering last season, the Pistons brought in Mason Plumlee, which seemed like a bit of an odd move given their status as a rebuilding team. Nonetheless, Plumlee took to the starting center job, averaging 10.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists across 27 minutes per game. He was frequently rested down the stretch, though, and was eventually traded to the Hornets during the offseason.
Initially, it seemed like the trade of Plumlee was a huge windfall for Stewart, who led all rookies in both total rebounds and total blocks last season. Across 14 games as a starter, the promising rookie averaged 12.7 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks, while shooting 56.8 percent from the field and 78.6 percent from the free-throw line. However, the Pistons just couldn’t resist adding another veteran big man, this time signing Kelly Olynyk to a three-year contract.
With Olynyk now in town, Stewart has some competition for the starting center job. With that being said, even if he doesn’t win the job from the onset of the season, he should still at least threaten to average 25 minutes per game, which would be a four-minute increase compared to last season. Olynyk should also see minutes at power forward backing up Jerami Grant — a role that Plumlee couldn’t fill.
Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
Going back to the Spurs, Murray isn’t the only member of the team who could be poised for a big year. Johnson showed flashes while taking on added playing time last season, finishing with averages of 12.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 0.9 three-pointers a game. The downside was that his increased minutes came with decreased efficiency. He shot 47.9 percent from the field and 74.0 percent from the charity stripe, compared to 59.6 percent and 79.5 percent, respectively, as a rookie. Ultimately, that near-60-percent figure was unsustainable, but the hope is that he can rest somewhere in the middle this season.
Not only could the departure of DeRozan help Johnson, but veteran Rudy Gay is also no longer with the team. His 23.6 percent usage rate was actually the second-highest on the Spurs last season. Meanwhile, Johnson, who spent the summer with Team USA in Tokyo, posted just a 19.2 percent usage rate. With the potential for Johnson to play over 30 minutes per game and move into a leading role, he’ll join Murray as two of this season’s most popular fantasy breakout candidates.