By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As the ninth week of the NBA season moves along, there’s no shame in looking ahead to a holiday week that brings the typical slate of five Christmas Day showdowns. But before you get too excited for Bucks-Sixers, Clippers-Lakers Round 2, or the Pelicans-Nuggets blockbuster, there’s still a full week’s worth of games to be played.
Over the weekend, injuries once again took center stage, as Luka Doncic, Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, P.J. Washington and Joel Embiid all found their way to the inactives list. Embiid and Booker should be back within the next few days, but many fantasy managers will once again have to head to the waiver wire to patch some temporary holes.
However, on the other end of the injury spectrum, a few notable names are due back during Week 9. Let’s check in on those players, as well as some of the other prominent storylines around the league entering Tuesday night’s six-game slate.
Chief among this week’s returnees is Deandre Ayton ...
... who’s expected to be back in the lineup Tuesday against the Clippers for the first time since opening night. Having served his 25-game ban for violating the league’s Anti-Drug Policy, Ayton doesn’t carry the usual physical concerns of a player returning from injury, but considering he missed nearly two full months, there’s a decent chance he’ll show signs of rust.
While the Suns have faded (set? burned out?) a bit since their hot start, both Aron Baynes and Frank Kaminsky have fared about as well as could possibly be expected as the primary replacements at center. Baynes, in particular, had an impressive run before missing time with an injury, but I’m not a believer in the notion that Ayton will come back to find himself in a timeshare. Baynes will command most of the backup minutes, sure, but I’d be very surprised if Ayton doesn’t eventually work his way up to 30-plus minutes on most nights. In his lone game this season — a 29-point win over Sacramento — Ayton went for 18 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in 33 minutes.
The Kings got one key piece in Marvin Bagley back ...
... from injury last week, and they’re on track to have De’Aaron Fox in uniform Tuesday night in Charlotte. Bagley made his return last Wednesday against the Thunder, finishing with 11 points, six rebounds and a block in his first action since Oct. 23. Since coming back, he’s averaging 12.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, but he’s playing only 22.0 minutes per game. Eventually, that number should increase — Bagley played 28 minutes on opening night — but for now, it’s a reminder that Sacramento has considerable (and probably unnecessary) depth in the frontcourt. And that’s with free-agent signee DeWayne Dedmon playing his way out of the regular rotation.
As for Fox, he’s technically listed as questionable for Tuesday night’s game, but all indications are that he’ll be back on the floor for the first time since Nov. 11. Considering he was dealing with a severely sprained ankle, there’s a good chance he’ll be limited for at least a game or two. However, the Kings don’t have the same level of depth at the point guard position, so expect Fox to push Cory Joseph and Yogi Ferrell back to reduced roles as soon as he’s back up to speed.
Prior to the injury, Fox was off to a somewhat disappointing start, but he’s only played in nine games, and his averages are weighed down by a pair of awful games against Phoenix and Utah early on. In his last six games before going down, Fox averaged 19.8 points, 8.0 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 0.8 blocks, though he hit just 28.6 percent of his threes (6-21 3PT) and 69.0 percent of his free throws (29-42 FT).
The East-leading Bucks will be without their starting point guard ...
... for at least another week-and-a-half after an MRI on Saturday confirmed Eric Bledsoe suffered a right fibula avulsion fracture in Friday’s win over Memphis. It’s rarely a good thing when the word “fracture” is involved in a leg injury, but the Bucks have to be relieved that Bledsoe is only expected to miss around two weeks.
In the two games without Bledsoe, second-year guard Donte DiVincenzo has been the primary beneficiary. He went for 15 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals in Saturday’s win over the Cavs and followed up with five points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, and three steals in 30 minutes Monday night versus Dallas. The Luka Doncic-less Mavs snapped Milwaukee’s 18-game winning streak three nights before the Lakers, who are streaking in their own right, come to town.
On the Doncic front, the MVP candidate ...
... is expected to miss weeks, rather than months, which is a massive relief for Dallas after Doncic limped off the floor early in Saturday’s game against Miami. Malika Andrews of ESPN reported Monday that Doncic is “responding well” to treatment and has already ditched his crutches.
Thus far, Jalen Brunson has benefited most, as he’s played 32 and 34 minutes, respectively, in the two games without Doncic. Brunson went for 18 points, seven rebounds and eight assists against Miami. In Milwaukee, he had a 13-point, 11-assist double-double. Delon Wright saw only nine minutes Saturday but had 13 points, three rebounds, two assists and four steals against the Bucks.
Other Injuries to Monitor
Blake Griffin left Saturday’s game in Houston with soreness in his left knee. He was held out of Monday’s game against Washington, but the Pistons don’t appear to be bracing for a lengthy absence. Griffin was initially listed as questionable Monday and seemed to have a real chance to play before being ruled out about an hour-and-a-half before tip-off.
Mike Conley has missed five straight games with a sore hamstring, but he’s expected to return to action Tuesday night against the Magic. It may not happen right away, but his return will likely send Joe Ingles back to the bench.
Devin Booker is still nursing a bruised forearm that’s kept him out of the last two games, including Monday’s narrow loss to Portland. He’s questionable to play Tuesday night on the second half of a back-to-back against the Clippers.
Joel Embiid missed Sunday’s blowout loss to Brooklyn with an illness but should be back for Wednesday’s matchup against Miami. Embiid has already missed six games this season due to injury or suspension. When healthy, Embiid has been a top-15 player in Yahoo leagues, but those absences place him outside the top 25 in terms of total fantasy production.
Kyrie Irving remains out indefinitely with a shoulder impingement that’s now sidelined him for more than a full month. Irving did not travel with the Nets on their two-game road trip that includes stops in New Orleans on Tuesday and San Antonio on Thursday.
Caris LeVert did make the trip to New Orleans, signifying that his return from torn ligaments in his thumb could be right around the corner.
Fred VanVleet looks to be headed for a fifth straight absence Wednesday night against the Pistons. He was able to go through parts of practice Tuesday, and the Raptors are handling his status on a game-to-game basis. In VanVleet’s absence, Norman Powell has moved into the starting lineup, and he’s averaging 22.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 3.0 three-pointers over the last four games.
Odds and Ends
Hassan Whiteside is a top-25 player in Yahoo leagues on the season, and he’s catapulted into the top five over the last two weeks. Whiteside has always been a strong points/rebounds/blocks contributor when the minutes are there, but he’s suddenly erased the one massive liability in his fantasy profile: Free-throw shooting. For the season, Whiteside is hitting just under 77% of his attempts at the line.
Over the last two weeks, that number jumps to 80%. In that span, Whiteside is averaging 18.7 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 2.3 assists (!!!) and shooting 70.4% from the field. Through 24 games (685 minutes), Whiteside has more assists (32) than he had in the entire 2015-16 season when he played 73 games (2,125 minutes) and led the league in blocks.
He won’t get there, but Devonte’ Graham deserves whatever small quantity of All-Star buzz he’s generating in the greater Charlotte area. Graham went for a career-high 40 points in a win over Brooklyn last week, and he’s now a top-20 player in Yahoo leagues based on total fantasy production. Graham ranks second in the league in minutes played, second in made threes, fourth in assists, 17th in points and 12th in offensive box plus/minus. Over his last seven games, he’s putting up 24.4 points, 6.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 5.1 made threes on 11.6 attempts per contest (38.5% 3PT).
When it comes to replacing what Kemba Walker meant to the organization, Graham has a long way to go. But it’s interesting to compare his age-24 season to that of Walker, who at that point already had three years under his belt:
Graham per 100 possessions: 28.1pts, 10.7ast, 5.5reb, 1.2stl, 4.5tov, 40.1% FG, 41.1% 3PT, 80.3% FT, 112 ORTG, 116 DRTG
Walker per 100 possessions: 26.2pts, 7.7ast, 5.4reb, 2.2stl, 2.4tov, 38.5% FG, 30.4% 3PT, 82.7% FT, 103 ORTG, 104 DRTG
In Washington, Davis Bertans has emerged as perhaps the league’s most lethal catch-and-shoot threat. Over the last two weeks, he’s a top-25 player in Yahoo leagues thanks to his 21.1 points and 4.9 made three-pointers per game. His hot streak actually began even earlier, as Bertans started the month of December with consecutive games of six, four, seven, five, six and eight made threes (6.0 per game) on a ridiculous 50.7% shooting.
The 27 year old is a major reason the 8-17 Wizards are still a top-five offense in the NBA. The question is whether he’s played so well that Washington will cash him in as a sought-after trade asset before February’s deadline. Bertans is on the books for just $7 million before hitting unrestricted free agency this summer.
Only one team (Golden State) finds itself with a two-game Week 9, but Week 10 is one of the sparsest of the entire season. That’s due in large part to 1. A league-wide off day on Christmas Eve; and, 2. The usual, small Christmas Day slate, which happens to fall on a Wednesday — a night that often houses double-digit games. In Week 10, only eight teams have a four-game week (DEN, GSW, HOU, MEM, NOR, PHI, SAC, TOR), while four teams have a two-game week (BRO, CHA, CHI, LAC).
Waiver Wire Targets
Isaiah Thomas, WAS (35 percent rostered)
An injury caused Thomas’ roster rate to plummet, but he returned in a big way Monday against the Pistons, hitting five threes and finishing with 23 points and six assists in 26 minutes.
Donte DiVincenzo, MIL (20 percent)
As long as Eric Bledsoe remains out, DiVincenzo should remain a viable, low-end option in most leagues. His scoring can be hit-or-miss, but he’s particularly attractive to managers in need of steals.
Nerlens Noel, OKC (38%)
I wouldn’t be overly comfortable starting Noel on anything but a four-game week, but there’s almost always room on a roster for a player averaging at least 1.0 steal and 1.0 block per game. Noel is hitting both of those marks this season, but his upside will remain capped as long as Steven Adams is healthy and wearing a Thunder uniform.
Brandon Clarke (64%)
There’s a decent chance Clarke isn’t available in your league, but if you’re among the remaining 36%, grab the rookie (who recently missed five games with an injury) as soon as you can. In his last three games, Clarke is averaging 18.0 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.0 block while shooting 72.4% from the field. His minutes load typically sits in the low-to-mid-20s, but Clarke is very start-able in a four-game Week 10 for Memphis.