NBA Observations: Embiid Returns, MPJ Set For Surgery, Thibs Shakes Up Rotation

NBA Observations: Embiid Returns, MPJ Set For Surgery, Thibs Shakes Up Rotation

This article is part of our NBA Observations series.

After a one-week break due to the Thanksgiving holiday, we're back with another edition of NBA Observations. As always, this week brings another packed schedule, though it's not quite as packed as the last few, as only eight teams are set to play four games. Meanwhile, both the Pistons and Lakers have only two games on their schedules.

With December just around the corner, when it comes to evaluating players, our sample size continues to build. The fantasy leaderboards are beginning to take shape, and it gradually becomes easier to separate early season deviations from longer-term trends.

Entering Tuesday night, Stephen Curry ranks as the No. 1 overall player in 8-category leagues (per-game value), followed by LaMelo Ball, James Harden, Paul George and Karl-Anthony Towns. Of that group, four were likely first-round picks, and while Ball wasn't projected to be this valuable, the fact that he's a Round 1 value isn't overly surprising.

The same cannot be said for Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan, who rank as the ninth- and 10th-best 8-cat players thus far. Valanciunas has flourished in the absence of Zion Williamson -- 19.3 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.3 3PM, 86.2% FT) -- while DeRozan has quietly usurped Zach LaVine as the Bulls' leading scorer. LaVine still ranks as a top-20 player, however, as does teammate Lonzo Ball. Chicago is the only team with three players in the top-20, and only three other teams -- Brooklyn, Charlotte and Utah -- have two top-20 players.

As we look ahead to a five-game Tuesday night slate, let's take a look around the league at the biggest fantasy storylines:

Ja Morant out indefinitely

One of the season's biggest breakouts -- and perhaps the most fun-to-watch player in the league -- exited Friday's game against Atlanta after appearing to tweak his left knee. The Grizzlies, and Morant's fantasy managers, held their collective breath while Morant underwent initial scans, which thankfully revealed only a sprain.

In the subsequent days, Memphis has revealed very little about just how much damage Morant sustained, and while the team said Morant will return at some point this season, his timetable is very much unclear. Fantasy managers should probably brace for a multi-week absence, at minimum.

Of course, it's worth noting that early last season Morant suffered what looked to be a severely sprained ankle, but he ultimately missed only eight games. This time around, the Grizzlies may exercise more caution with their franchise centerpiece.

  • So long as Morant remains out, some combination of De'Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones and John Konchar will likely absorb most of his minutes. The Grizzlies were blown out of Friday's game -- and they shellacked the Kings by 27 points two nights later -- so we haven't exactly had a true preview of what to expect going forward.
  • Of that aforementioned trio, Melton is probably the most intriguing fantasy player. Starting in place of Dillon Brooks to begin the year, Melton averaged 11.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.0 blocks and 2.1 threes in 28.8 minutes per game through his first 11 appearances.

MPJ's season (likely) over

The Nuggets stopped short of officially ruling Michael Porter Jr. out for the rest of the season, but that seems inevitable after it was announced Monday that he'll undergo surgery this week on his lower-back. It will be the third back surgery for the 23-year-old, who signed a five-year, $173 million extension less than three months ago.

  • At this point, fantasy managers in season-long leagues still holding on to Porter (75% rostered as of Tuesday) can safely cut him loose. Even before he was sidelined, Porter managed just 10.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 threes with a 36/22/56 shooting line through eight games. Based on how well he played down the stretch last season, fantasy managers were justified in targeting Porter early in drafts, but they'll essentially take a zero on a player who entered the year with an ADP of 26.8 in Yahoo leagues.
  • Denver's depth took another hit last week when PJ Dozier suffered a torn ACL in Tuesday's loss to Portland. Undrafted out of South Carolina in 2017, Dozier had climbed his way into a nightly role of around 20 minutes per game off the bench. With Jamal Murray (knee) set to miss a few more months, Michael Malone will have to lean more heavily on Monte Morris, Austin Rivers, Will Barton and rookie Bones Hyland.

Thibs boots Kemba from rotation

From a pure basketball perspective, Kemba Walker signing with the Knicks never made a ton of sense, but few would have expected the four-time All-Star to be dropped from the rotation less than 20 games into the season. That's exactly what Tom Thibodeau announced Monday, when he officially installed Alec Burks as his starting point guard, with Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley as the primary options off the bench.

  • Walker started 18 of the Knicks' first 19 games and averaged 11.7 points, 3.1 assists, 2.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 2.1 threes per game -- good for 135th overall in 8-cat leagues (total value). The raw numbers are pretty much in line with Walker's per-minute production from the last few seasons, but they don't tell the entire story.
  • When it comes to getting past defenders, Walker has clearly lost a step. But the bigger issue -- especially for a Thibodeau-coached team -- is that he's been a massive liability on defense and is the clear weakest link in a Knicks' starting unit that's been eviscerated for most of the season. Thibs isn't exactly known as an analytics whiz, but even he can't ignore when his team is plus-14.0 points per 100 possessions with Walker off the court.
  • At some point, Walker will get another chance, but for the time being, the Knicks will roll with Burks and Evan Fournier in the backcourt with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson as the starting unit. In his first start of the season Saturday in Atlanta, Burks went for 23 points, seven boards, three assists, two steals and four three-pointers in 39 minutes. He's still available in 52 percent of Yahoo leagues.
  • Walker never had a ton of fantasy value to begin with, so he's not worth stashing on most benches while he's out of the rotation.

Thompson closing in on return

The Warriors have been careful to avoid placing a firm timetable on Klay Thompson's return, but all indications are that the sharpshooter is getting close to making his first appearance since the 2019 NBA Finals. Prior to Thanksgiving, Thompson took part in a full practice, as well as a full scrimmage, with the Warriors. He did not travel with the team on its current, two-game road swing, instead opting to stay back and continue 5-on-5 work with team staffers. 

All along, the belief is that Thompson is targeting a return around Christmas Day, but based on his recent progress, it's possible he could be back in the mix a week or two before the holiday. Chances are, Thompson will be limited to around 18-to-22 minutes through his first several games back, but the hope is that he can return to a full workload by early January. Fantasy managers who've held Thompson in an IR spot will hope he can reclaim his status as perhaps the league's most lethal spot-up shooter. Prior to tearing his ACL and Achilles, Thompson finished as a top-30 player (total value) in four of his last five seasons.

Quick Hits

  • Evan Mobley made his return from a sprained elbow Saturday against Orlando, finishing with 13 points, nine boards, three assists and four blocks in 33 minutes. The rookie was initially expected to be sidelined for as long as a month, but he ultimately missed only four games.
  • Nikola Jokic returned from a four-game absence of his own Monday in Miami, going for 24 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists as Denver snapped a six-game skid.
  • Another star big man, Joel Embiid, was back in action for the Sixers over the weekend. Embiid missed a string of nine games before returning to put up 42 points (12-23 FG, 16-21 FT) and 14 boards in 45 minutes in a 121-120 loss to Minnesota. Embiid followed up with just 16 points on 4-of-16 shooting Monday, but it was enough to propel Philly to a 101-96 victory over the lowly Magic.
  • Tuesday night's game against Memphis will mark OG Anunoby's seventh consecutive absence as he deals with a left hip pointer. He remains without a timetable, and Nick Nurse struck fear into the fantasy community when he told reporters Monday that Anunoby has apparently "hit a wall" in his recovery process.
  • After an injury-plagued start to the season, Jrue Holiday is beginning to heat up for the Bucks -- winners of seven straight games entering Wednesday's home matchup against Charlotte. Over his last five games, Holiday is averaging 18.0 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.8 threes while shooting 52.1 percent from the floor. On the season, however, Holiday is hitting only 32.1 percent of his three-point attempts -- down from a sizzling 39.2 percent a year ago.
  • Kristaps Porzingis departed Monday's game against the Cavaliers with a sprained right ankle that could keep him sidelined for a few games. The Mavs are yet to issue an official update, but it would be relatively surprising if the big man plays Wednesday against New Orleans.
  • Talen Horton-Tucker burst onto the fantasy scene with 23.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.7 threes over his first three appearances, but he's gone ice cold over the last six games. In that span, THT is down to just 6.2 points (26.9% FG, 14.3% 3Pt), 4.5 boards, 3.0 assists and 0.3 threes in 28.2 minutes per game.
  • Speaking of the Lakers, LeBron James currently ranks as a top-five fantasy player on a per-game basis. Of course, the fact that James has already missed 11 games is a serious blow to his total value, but when healthy, The King has been an elite fantasy option. James' rebounding and assists numbers are down from last season, but he's averaging a career-high 2.9 threes per game, as well as 1.8 steals -- his highest figure since 2011-12. James' value is also boosted by the fact that he's playing 36.9 minutes per game -- 3.5 more than last season. Long-term, that may not be a good sign for the four-time MVP, who turns 37 on Dec. 30.
  • Fred VanVleet has found a groove of late, posting 22.3 points, 5.6 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks and 3.8 made threes over his last eight contests. During that stretch, VanVleet is hitting 41.1 percent of his threes and 88.9 percent of his free throws.
  • Jonas Valanciunas erupted for a career-high 39 points and seven three-pointers during Monday night's blowout win over the Clippers. The big man had hit just 2-of-12 attempts from deep over his last five games.
  • Bam Adebayo is coming off of a 24-point, 13-rebound, six-assist effort in Monday's loss to Denver, but on the whole he's been one of the season's biggest fantasy disappointments -- particularly for roto-league managers. While Adebayo is averaging a double-double, his assists production is down (3.2 APG compared to 5.4 last season), and he's blocking just 0.3 shots per game -- down from 1.3 in 2019-20 and 1.0 in 2020-21. On top of that, Adebayo has failed to build on last season's major jump at the free throw line, hitting just 75.9 percent of his career-best 6.2 attempts per game thus far. Entering Tuesday, Adebayo ranks outside of the top-65 in 8-cat leagues.
  • The Magic lost rookie guard Jalen Suggs to a fractured thumb during Monday night's loss to the 76ers. No official timetable has been released, but Suggs figures to be looking at a multi-week absence that could extend into January. The No. 5 overall pick had just started to look a bit more comfortable, averaging 13.9 points (38% FG; 34.2% 3Pt), 3.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.6 threes over his last eight games (27.0 MPG).

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Nick Whalen
Now in his 10th year with the company, Nick is RotoWire's Senior Media Analyst, a position he took on after several years as the Head of Basketball Content. A two-time FSWA award winner, Nick co-hosts RotoWire's flagship show on Sirius XM alongside Jeff Erickson. He also co-hosts RotoWire's Football and Basketball podcasts. You can catch Nick's NBA and NFL analysis on VSiN and DraftKings, as well as RotoWire's various social and video channels. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @wha1en.
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