Anatomy of a Top 10 Performer: Mitchell and Kawhi
Bradley Beal will probably never have a top 10 fantasy basketball season. I don’t want to pick on him alone, so I’ll include him in a list of guys who will likely never get to the upper echelons of fantasy stars – my apologies to Nikola Jokic, Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic and Donovan Mitchell.
Beal is an excellent fantasy basketball player, but the historical numbers suggest he may perpetually fall short of a top 10 season. Since 2003, only 51 total NBA players have registered at least one top 10 fantasy season using Basketball Monster’s historical per game player rankings1. While 17 of those players had exactly one top 10 season, the remaining 34 players averaged over four such seasons. What can we learn from looking at top 10 performers since 2003? This offseason, I will examine players that may have their ceilings overstated or understated based on comparing their statistical profiles to former elite fantasy performers. In this edition, I will explore why Lauri Markkanen is a better dynasty asset than Donovan Mitchell and reasons to worry about Kawhi Leonard’s future.
My analyses will be a combination of assessing major trends and examining outliers. When looking at the past 16 years, the first such trend is the relative youth of first top 10 fantasy season. Among players who logged four or more top 10 fantasy seasons in their careers, Ray Allen was the only player to log his first elite season after his 24th birthday, which bring me to my first sobering take of this series. As an owner of Jokic and a fan of the dad bod in pro sports, I was hoping I had on my hand a perennial top 10 contributor. While he has been hovering very close to top 10, so had other members of this list like Elton Brand, who had two top 15 seasons at ages 22 and 23. I still believe Jokic is a top 5 fantasy asset and should be drafted without fear, but he’s more likely to find himself outside the top 10 most seasons than inside as other mainstays hold tightly to their elite status and younger players overtake him. Alternatively, history is quite kind to Karl-Anthony Towns who looks to remain atop fantasy leaderboards for the next decade.
One of the most striking findings to me was how hard it is to have multiple top 10 seasons if you fail to have your first before your 26th birthday. Of 18 NBA players with their first elite season after 26, only Marcus Camby and Russell Westbrook have had more than two. Once you pass 28, things get even more dicey and seemingly more random, with Troy Murphy, Donyell Marshall and Brad Miller (!!!) accounting for three of the eight oldest newly elite. This should be sobering for managers with hopes for improvement from their late 20’s players such as Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic and Jrue Holiday.
Now, on to my first player spotlights, where I look at a different trend or player from the historical top 10s to shed light on current fantasy players.
Player Spotlight: Donovan Mitchell
While Donovan Mitchell has been a revelation for the Utah Jazz and dynasty owners the past two years, assessing prior top fantasy performers leads to a sober forecast. Of the 51 players on the below list of top 10 fantasy seasons, 41 of them had a top 50 season before their age 24 season. The only guards/wings amongst the late bloomers were Jimmy Butler, Danny Granger, Caron Butler and Larry Hughes.
Granger and both Butlers were lower usage players who were not offensive focal points early in their careers. Mitchell’s Usage rate of 31% is already higher than the career peaks of any of those players, and it is hard to imagine him increasing on that number. The only other late blooming guard, Hughes, had an outlier season across the board, with a 50% improvement in steal rate accompanied by a career high true shooting percentage. I believe his stock is overvalued compared to someone like Lauri Markannen, who is not as highly valued , but already has a top 50 season under his belt at a younger age, has increased his usage to the mid-20s (room still to grow) and has peaked at 32.3 minutes per game, noticeably less than Mitchell’s 33.7 last season. I would strongly endorse drafting Markannen several spots above Mitchell based on his path to the top 10 seeming much more in line with historical precedent.
Based on historical precedent and his sky-high usage, Mitchell should have already arrived near the top 10, if he were ever going to. Some other players who need to show up this year: Jamal Murray, Jaylen Brown and Brandon Ingram. If they don’t find themselves in the top 50 this season, they will likely never put together an elite fantasy season.
Player Spotlight – Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi reminds me a lot of Tracy McGrady (at a very high level, not stylistically). They’re both excellent wings who put up elite fantasy seasons at a young age, followed by a down year due to injury in their age 26 seasons. McGrady had a relatively healthy age 27 season and then suffered from injuries the rest of his career and didn’t start more than 40 games in a season after his 29th birthday.
|Fantasy Rank (per game)||Age 21||22||23||24||25||26||27||28||29||30|
While Kawhi has yet to drop out of the top 10 in any healthy season (he only played 7 games his age 26 season), his fantasy trajectory may start to look more like McGrady’s. Kawhi looked hobbled throughout the playoffs and he is likely to be “load managed” the rest of his career, so I’d expect a reduction in minutes per game. Interestingly, he peaked last year at 34.0 minutes per game, higher than any of his prior seasons and I’d anticipate a drop by a few minutes per game going forward. McGrady dropped from 40 minutes in his age 25 season to an average of 36 over the next four years.
Losing a few minutes per game is not the only trend I see Kawhi following. McGrady’s combined steals and blocks per 100 possessions surpassed 3.0 in 8 of his first 9 seasons in the NBA. From ages 27-32 he only surpassed that number once, in limited minutes during his age 31 season. Last year, Kawhi just had his lowest steal and block rate of his career at, you guessed it, 3.0. As he gets into his late 20s I would bet on that number further diminishing.
In addition to games missed, reduction in minutes and atrophy of steal and block rates, McGrady suffered from dramatic decrease in usage as he aged. I also anticipate a reduction in Kawhi’s usage from the low 30s that he’s seen the past few seasons. On the Raptors, Serge Ibaka was second in usage rate at 22.7%. Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell and Paul George all surpassed that number last year, with Williams and George averaging 29.7%. I would not be surprised if Kawhi’s usage rate drops several percentage points next season with the influx in offensive talent.
The combination of reduced usage, minutes, steal and block rates and injury question marks make Kawhi a perfect candidate for McGrady 2.0. While the comparison is apt and frightening, McGrady truly represents a near absolute worst-case scenario. I don’t anticipate the decline to be quite as sudden or as large, but based on the rate reductions, I would project Kawhi to be a top 25 player the next two seasons instead of fighting for the top 10 and I would much more likely bet on him ending up with McGrady’s 5 top 10 seasons than Kobe’s 9.
|Player||Age of First Top 10 Fantasy Season||Total # of Top 10 Seasons|
1 – Rankings from Basketball Monster based on per game value. If <30 games played, player was excluded from top 10 ranks and everyone behind them was moved up a spot.