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NBA Draft: Top 20 Fantasy Rookies

Nick Whalen

RotoWire's NBA Editor and award winning host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.

Now a full week removed from the 2016 NBA Draft, it’s time to take a look at which rookies will make the biggest impacts next season.

Of course, with free agency set to open at midnight on July 1, plenty will change between now and October, but it’s never too early to speculate which draft picks will translate to instant fantasy contributors.

Worth noting: These rankings only take into account current roster structure, though the likelihood of teams making additions or subtractions that would impact a given draftee’s role is also noted, when applicable. For instance, if the Timberwolves move Ricky Rubio, Kris Dunn’s value obviously increases significantly. Or if Jimmy Butler is traded, same likely goes for Denzel Valentine.

The rankings are also geared toward fantasy value, rather than real-life basketball value. So even if a player struggles on defense and ultimately costs his team wins, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a bad fantasy option -- the raw production is what we’re concerned about.

With that out of the way, let’s get right to it:

1. Ben Simmons, F, Philadelphia 76ers

Simmons easily tops the list. An instant face of the franchise, Simmons will step in as the Sixers’ number one option immediately, with the potential to provide all-category production, a rarity for any rookie. Simmons’ jumpshot remains a major question mark -- he made only one three-pointer as a freshman at LSU -- but his elite passing and rebounding should translate smoothly to the next level.

The 76ers are still a few years away from truly competing, so Simmons will be allowed to develop at this own pace. That should result in a long leash and heavy minutes load, and Simmons figures to handle secondary, or even primary, playmaking duties with certain lineups, especially given Philly’s relative lack of a capable point guard.

Even if Simmons initially struggles to score, he’s physical enough to get to the line (9.0 attempts/game last season) and will provide enough value across other major categories to easily make him the No. 1 rookie in the 2016 class.

2. Brandon Ingram, F, Los Angeles Lakers

The only true challenger to Simmons for the No. 1 pick, Ingram will come to LA as the crown jewel of what’s suddenly very intriguing Lakers rebuild. Ingram isn’t going to put up Kevin Durant numbers as a rookie, but he should score at a reasonably high rate while providing decent rebounding production as a hybrid forward.

After shooting a rather pedestrian 44% from the field at Duke last season, it’s hard to imagine Ingram will be hyper-efficient right away, though playing alongside D’Angelo Russell and (likely) Jordan Clarkson should produce more open looks from the perimeter than he’s used to.

Ingram is probably a couple of years away from where he needs to be physically, but the Lakers aren’t in a position to bring him along slowly. Make no mistake: He’ll have every opportunity to be their go-to offensive weapon.

3. Buddy Hield, G, New Orleans Pelicans

The reigning National Player of the Year is a perfect fit for a Pelicans team in need of a floor-stretching guard. To say Hield fits that description would be an understatement after he converted nearly 46% of his three-point attempts at Oklahoma last season. Of course, adjusting to the deeper three-point line may take some time, but Hield routinely launched from NBA range in college, both off the dribble and off the catch.

With the relative lack of backcourt depth in New Orleans -- Eric Gordon is a free agent and Tyreke Evans’ future remains clouded -- Hield could start right away, but even if he comes off the bench he’ll be a key piece in the rotation for a team that stands to lose its top two outside threats (by far) -- Gordon and Ryan Anderson -- from last season.

While Hield is a better playmaker than he’s given credit for, he won’t be asked to be a primary creator in Year 1, so assist production will likely be marginal. He rebounds well for his position, though, and should be an average source of steals after averaging at least one per game in all four years at Oklahoma.

4. Kris Dunn, G, Minnesota Timberwolves

Dunn’s value as a rookie is directly tied to what the Timberwolves do with Ricky Rubio. Rumors surrounding Rubio’s future before the draft only ramped up once Minnesota selected Dunn, a similar type of pass-first point guard with a suspect jumper.

Despite fairly lackluster production, Rubio has been a fan-favorite in Minnesota, so moving on wouldn’t be an easy task. That said, Dunn is nearly four years younger, with his prime more closely aligned to those of Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. That also means four years on a cheap rookie deal, while Rubio is set to make nearly $43 million before his contract expires in 2019. Money isn’t an issue for the Wolves right now, but they’ll need to begin preparing for inevitable max or near-max extensions for Towns, Wiggins and LaVine down the road.

If the Wolves move Rubio, Dunn could usurp Hield, and even Ingram, on this list. Playing alongside Towns and Wiggins should open the floor up at levels Dunn never saw in college, and he’d be the heavy favorite to lead all rookies in assists.

If Minnesota hangs on to Rubio, things get more muddled. On draft night, the Wolves insisted the two can play together, but that seems unlikely, especially for a team that ranked 29th in made threes last season. Dunn is a markedly better shooter than Rubio, which isn’t saying a ton, but he’s never played off the ball, and that’s not where the Wolves want him long-term. Regardless of what Minnesota says, trading Rubio remains the most likely scenario, and probably the best for both parties.

5. Dario Saric, F, Philadelphia 76ers

A lottery pick in 2014, Saric will all but certainly join the Sixers this season after spending the last two years overseas. The 22-year-old -- a teammate of 2016 Sixers’ first-round pick, Furkan Korkmaz -- has been arguably the best player in all of Europe over that span, and he’ll face sizeable expectations as a rookie. Best-suited as a stretch-four, Saric should alleviate some of the Sixers’ spacing issues, but he’ll join a frontcourt that was already going to be overcrowded even if he’d stayed another year in Europe.

At some point, the 76ers are going to have to make a decision on the future of the center spot. While Jahlil Okafor is the preferred trade chip, a back-down big man who doesn’t play defense is a tough sell. Nerlens Noel is believed to be available at the right price, but it’s clear the Sixers prefer a Noel-Joel Embiid tandem long-term.

Moving Okafor would be the best-case scenario for both the Sixers and Saric. Embiid’s health is still a massive question mark, and bringing him along slowly off the bench next season is the most sensible route. That would free up minutes at the four for Saric, who could also slide down to the wing should Brett Brown want to get creative with a bigger lineup.

The addition of Ben Simmons presents a potentially significant roadblock for Saric, but Brown will find ways to play the two in tandem, with Saric’s shooting (40.3% 3PT last season) offering an agreeable contrast to the attacking style of Simmons. Saric should be more ready than most young imports, and first-year production on par with that of Nikola Mirotic, who arrived in Chicago under similar pretenses two seasons ago, seems like a realistic expectation.

6. Jamal Murray, G, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets were thrilled Murray slipped to them at 7, even if he doesn’t fill much of a present need. Denver already has capable options at shooting guard in Gary Harris and Will Barton, but Murray’s upside is the highest of the three, and he’s better equipped to play on the ball when Emmanuel Mudiay is off the floor. Still, Harris is coming off of a strong sophomore season, so unseating him in the starting lineup won’t be easy, and Barton was a top-five finisher in the voting for Most Improved Player. It wouldn’t be a major surprise if Murray starts over Harris, but the more likely option is beginning the season as the sixth or seventh man, seeing regular minutes at both guard spots in a three-man rotation with Mudiay and Harris.

If Denver keeps Barton, Wilson Chandler, and Danilo Gallinari -- they’ll have to think about consolidating with all three under contract through at least 2018 -- Murray could see more of his minutes backing up Mudiay at the point. Jameer Nelson remains under contract for $4.5 million next season, but the Nuggets should be content to slide him into a lesser role as he enters his age-34 season.

Again, like all of the players on this list, Murray’s impact as a rookie will be determined by level of opportunity. If the Nuggets cut a deal this summer to move Barton (seems unlikely given his suspiciously cheap contract) or Gallinari/Chandler (more likely given contact size and injury history), suddenly more minutes become available at the two. But assuming the status quo, Murray’s rookie season could play out similar to that of Zach LaVine in 2014, when he started about half of Minnesota’s games and averaged just under 25 minutes.

7. Wade Baldwin, G, Memphis Grizzlies

Baldwin falling to No. 17 was a godsend for the Grizzlies, who are in desperate need of help at point guard, whether Mike Conley returns or not. The consensus best point guard in the draft after Kris Dunn, Baldwin could start on opening night if Conley signs elsewhere. If not, he’ll back up Conley and also see time at shooting guard, another position of weakness for Memphis, which renounced Lance Stephenson’s team option for next season.

Baldwin is a capable shooter with a great feel for the game, but his defensive abilities are what will keep him on the court as a rookie. At 6-4 with a 6-11 wingspan, Baldwin can guard up to three positions, and he’s a good enough shooter (42.2% 3Pt in two seasons at Vanderbilt) to spend time off the ball without compromising spacing.

Perhaps more so than any player on this list, Baldwin’s value will be tethered to how the free agency dominoes fall. If Conley walks and the Grizzlies don’t bring in another capable veteran, Baldwin could rank in the top five among rookies in minutes. At worst, he’ll be a rotational guard from Day 1, without a glut of veterans or other young talent standing in his way. For that reason, it’s tempting to rank him ahead of Murray. Murray is the better player, but how much will Denver’s other young talent get in the way?

8. Jaylen Brown, F, Boston Celtics

Boston’s seemingly reluctant selection of Brown at No. 3 wasn’t exactly inspiring, but he’ll enter an organization with a proven track record of developing defensive-minded young players. With Jae Crowder firmly entrenched at small forward after a breakout year, Brown will likely come off the bench, unless Brad Stevens opts to go super-small with Brown at the four. He’s athletic and strong enough to make that work, but it’s probably something Stevens would only turn to in short stretches.

Brown does a lot of things well, but it’s tough to pinpoint an elite offensive skill -- in other words, the story of the entire Celtics roster. That makes him difficult to project as a fantasy commodity, but as the third overall pick he’s a virtual lock to see significant minutes. Brown might not average 10 points or even five rebounds per game as a rookie, but he should do enough across all categories and spend enough time on the court to hold decent value in deeper leagues.

9. Dragan Bender, F, Phoenix Suns

Bender was a great fit for the Suns at No. 4, with his floor-spacing ability offering a contrast to the interior-focused games of most of Phoenix’s other big men. Then GM Ryan McDonough worked a trade with Sacramento to move up and grab Marquese Chriss, doubling down on power forwards in the top-8.

Certainly, the Suns will find a way to involve both players, but it’s fair to wonder if developing both simultaneously will work against their individual fantasy values next season. Both are raw, but Bender is further along at this point, despite limited exposure at the highest level of overseas basketball.

Per DraftExpress: While Bender did play in seven Euroleague games and three Eurocup games, the bulk of his production game in the Israeli Superleague, where he played 31 games. The Israeli league is still a competitive professional league, but it's not on the same level as the Spanish ACB League.

Whatever competition Bender faced no longer matters now that he’s in the NBA. But it’s worth noting that a Porzingis-like ascent probably isn’t realistic. He still projects as the better fantasy rookie than Chriss, though, and should be a part of the rotation right away.

With Mirza Teletovic no longer in Phoenix and Jon Leuer set to be an unrestricted free agent, the Suns will need Bender’s versatility, even if it’s only in short stretches. That versatility should allow Bender to mold himself into a stretch-five down the road, but most of his minutes will probably come at the four next season as his body continues to develop.

10. Jakob Poeltl, F/C, Toronto Raptors

One of the most NBA-ready bigs in the draft, Poeltl is a near-lock to be a key piece in the rotation next season. He has the size and agility to play both center and power forward, and Dwane Casey will have to consider starting him alongside Jonas Valanciunas. Power forward has long been the Raptors’ glaring positional weakness (sorry, Jason Thompson), but Poeltl should bring some stability as the Raptors reload for another run at the Cavaliers.

Floor-spacer Patrick Patterson is still around, and the Raptors will likely make some minor additions of their own in free agency, but Poeltl is a sizeable upgrade over Luis Scola, who somehow started 76 games for the second-best team in the East last season. Even if Poeltl doesn’t start, he’ll be Toronto’s first big off the bench -- assuming Bismack Biyombo cashes in elsewhere as a free agent -- backing up both the 4 and the 5.

11. Denzel Valentine, G, Chicago Bulls

Valentine wasn’t the sexiest pick at 14, but he’s among the most NBA-ready players in the draft and will be ready to contribute at both guard spots as a rookie after a stellar four-year career at Michigan State. As of late-June, the Bulls’ only point guards are Jerian Grant and Jose Calderon, so Valentine seeing time on the ball isn’t out of the question. He’s not a natural point guard but often played the facilitator in college and is a skilled enough passer to make it work.

Chicago will undoubtedly address the position in free agency, however, so when the dust settles Valentine’s services might not be necessary. Regardless, he’ll battle with Doug McDermott for minutes at the two behind Jimmy Butler, assuming he’s still on the roster come October. Whether he’s playing on or off the ball, Valentine has the potential to provide four-category production, if the minutes are there, after leading the Spartans in points, assists, steals and defensive rebounds last season.

12. Taurean Prince, F, Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are hoping they landed the second coming of DeMarre Carroll in Prince. A physical, defensive-minded wing, Prince is the prototypical 3-and-D forward capable of guarding smaller fours and athletic threes alike. Prince is the type of player any coach would love to have at his disposal, and he’s positioned to be a key cog in the rotation next season, particularly if unrestricted free agent Kent Bazemore signs elsewhere.

The Hawks still have veterans Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha, but both have battled injuries with their best years in the rear-view. Atlanta will have money to throw at free agents this summer -- there’s reported to be mutual interest in retaining Bazemore -- so the roster could end up looking a much differently than it does now, but Prince should have no trouble carving out a role as a regular reserve wing, at the minimum.

Without stepping foot on an NBA court, he’s already a better option than Tim Hardaway, Jr., and his stiffest competition might come from fellow-rookie DeAndre Bembry..

13. Caris LeVert, G, Brooklyn Nets

Three surgeries to address stress fractures in his left foot limited LeVert to only 33 games over his junior and senior seasons at Michigan, but when healthy he was among the best players in the Big Ten. LeVert’s latest procedure took place in late March, preventing him from working out at full speed for teams prior to the draft. He won’t play for the Nets’ summer league entry, but the expectation is that the 6-7 guard will be ready when camp rolls around in the fall.

Prior to the foot issues, LeVert was a near-lock for the lottery. If he can stay healthy -- and the Nets, whose team foot/ankle doctor actually performed LeVert’s surgery in March, believe he will -- Brooklyn landed excellent value with the pick acquired from Indiana in the Thaddeus Young trade. The Nets are entering a full rebuild this summer -- or at least doing what they can without draft picks -- so LeVert should be thrown into the fire right away on a roster void of top-end talent. With the size to play both the 2 and the 3, LeVert should have no trouble finding the court, though that could change should the Nets add a piece or two in free agency. Restricted free agent Allen Crabbe is believed to be a target, while Harrison Barnes and Jeremy Lin’s names have also surfaced as potential additions.

14. Henry Ellenson, F, Detroit Pistons

Ellenson fell out of the lottery but into an excellent situation in Detroit. He won’t unseat either of Marcus Morris or Tobias Harris in the starting lineup but will be an option off the bench for Stan Van Gundy.

The addition of Ellenson probably makes Anthony Tolliver expendable, but Detroit could still make a run at Ryan Anderson, who played under Van Gundy in Orlando, or a lesser free agent like Mirza Teletovic. Still, Ellenson should be a key part of the rotation right away, bringing the stretch capabilities that Van Gundy covets in his power forwards.

15. Marquese Chriss, F, Phoenix Suns

The Suns debated taking Chriss at No. 4 but were able to work a trade with the Kings to move back up into the top-10 to grab the athletic freshman. Of the top nine picks in the draft, Chriss has the furthest to go before he’s ready to contribute night in and night out, and the Suns aren’t in a position to rush his development. They’ll find out what they have in Chriss, but it’s difficult to imagine a player who fouled out of nearly half of his games last season making a substantial impact as a rookie.

Plus, the Suns also have Bender to develop and, again, the pair could ultimately end up hindering each other’s fantasy value in the short term. The long-term outlook for Chriss is much more promising, as Phoenix sheds the contracts of P.J. Tucker and Kris Humphries next summer. At that point, the hope is that Chriss’ game and body will have matured to the point that he’s ready for a much larger role in Year 2.

16. Malachi Richardson, G, Sacramento Kings

It’s difficult to grasp exactly what the Kings were thinking when they traded out of the No. 8 pick, passing on Marquese Chriss to move back and grab Georgios Papagiannis at 13. A less-puzzling move was the decision to send the struggling Marco Belinelli to Charlotte before the draft in exchange for the No. 22 pick. The Kings used it to select Richardson, a late-rising prospect heavily responsible for Syracuse’s surprising run to the Final Four.

Richardson is still rather raw, but at 6-6 with ball-handling skills it’s easy to envision him developing into a capable combo guard in the NBA. That said, he was woefully inefficient as a shooter for most of last season (37% FG) and recorded more turnovers (79) than assists (77). Those numbers suggest he’s a ways away from being a meaningful contributor, but the Kings aren’t exactly flush with talent at shooting guard.

After dealing Belinelli, only Ben McLemore remains under contract next season. Sacramento will certainly be a player on the free agent market, though the league’s most dysfunctional franchise is far from a destination for impact players. As a result, whether he’s ready or not, Richardson could be a key bench piece as the Kings enter the Dave Joerger era seeking their first postseason berth in more than a decade.

17. Domantas Sabonis, F, Oklahoma City Thunder

Serge Ibaka and Victor Oladipo were the headliners of the draft-night deal between Oklahoma City and Orlando, but it’s Sabonis who was the key to getting the deal done. The Gonzaga product would have been a nice fit just about anywhere, and he’ll join a stacked Thunder team gearing up for another run at Golden State, albeit while being (temporarily) held hostage by Kevin Durant.

Sabonis can still add polish and range to his offensive arsenal, but he’s an NBA-ready big man who would probably start for a few teams. The Thunder are not one of those teams. They’ll need to replace Ibaka’s 32 minutes per game of spacing and rim protection, but with both Steven Adams and Enes Kanter ahead of him in the rotation -- not to mention Durant occasionally sliding up to the four, as he did with great effectiveness in the playoffs -- Sabonis will likely be limited to a bench role as a rookie, battling with Mitch McGary for minutes as the third big man.

Sabonis’ value comes in the fact that he can play both power forward and center, offering Billy Donovan reprieve should Kanter or Adams find early foul trouble. Barring an unexpected frontcourt addition in free agency, Sabonis will be a factor as a rookie, but he’s unlikely to produce on a consistent enough basis to yield strong fantasy value

18. DeAndre Bembry, G, Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks doubled down on versatile wings on draft night, selecting Taurean Prince at No. 12 and Bembry nine picks later. While Prince would seem to have the inside track to more minutes as a rookie, Bembry is equally NBA-ready and more of a threat offensively.

Like Prince, he’ll jump Tim Hardaway, Jr. in the rotation right away, but what the Hawks do in free agency could ultimately determine whether or not he’s a fixture in the rotation next season. If Atlanta loses Al Horford and Kent Bazemore and enters a rebuild phase, Bembry’s stock could rise significantly. Regardless, Bembry’s long-term outlook remains strong with the contracts of Korver and Sefolosha set to come off the books next summer.

19. Furkan Korkmaz, G, Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers left Brooklyn with their best draft-night haul yet, but figuring out next season’s rotation remains a difficult task. The frontcourt is its own mess, while the backcourt has been a revolving door of second-rounders, cast-offs, and certified gunners over the last three seasons.

Korkmaz will bring immediate help to the league’s worst offense and should be a decent source of three-point production after knocking down 40% of his attempts for Anadolu Efes (Turkey) last season. With a boatload of cap room, Philadelphia is expected to be among the most active teams in free agency, which could ultimately complicate Korkmaz’s path to the rotation. That said, there’s always room in the rotation for players who can stretch the floor, particularly on a team that’s ranked 24th, 29th, and 30th in three-point percentage over the last three seasons.

20. Malik Beasley, G, Denver Nuggets

While I’m higher on Beasley than most, it’s tough not to see him as the odd man out of a deep Nuggets backcourt rotation as a rookie. No. 7 overall pick Jamal Murray stands in Beasley’s way, as do Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and Gary Harris. It’s possible Denver moves one of those three -- Chandler would likely be the preference -- before next season, but that still wouldn’t leave Beasley with a clear path to significant minutes. The most likely scenario is Beasley opening the year as the Nuggets’ third shooting guard and filling a role similar to Harris’ as a rookie, when he appeared in 55 games and averaged 13 minutes per game, mostly off the bench.