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How assists are changing fantasy basketball

No longer are assists just for guards. Welcome to the age of the Point Forward.

USA TODAY Sports/Peter Rogers Illustrations

Welcome to the age of the New Assist! Did you know that there are currently 32 players in the NBA who average 5 or more assists per game? Last season there were 34, and the year before that 30, so this season is not ahistorical. In 2013-14 there were 36 players who averaged at least 5 assists per game. So, why do I say “new” assist?

Check out the 2013-14 top 10 in assists versus this season’s. Notice anything?

Assists

Rank 2013-14 2017-18
Rank 2013-14 2017-18
1 Chris Paul, PG Russell Westbrook, PG
2 Rajon Rondo, PG John Wall, PG
3 Kendall Marshall, PG James Harden, PG
4 John Wall, PG Chris Paul, PG
5 Ty Lawson, PG LeBron James, Forward
6 Ricky Rubio, PG Draymond Green, Forward
7 Steph Curry, PG Ben Simmons, Forward
8 Jrue Holiday, PG Rajon Rondo, PG
9 Brandon Jennings, PG Lonzo Ball, PG
10 Kyle Lowry, PG Jeff Teague, PG

In 2013-14, only three non-guards averaged 5+ assists per game: LeBron (ranked 14th at 6.3), Kevin Durant (31st, 5.5), and Joakim Noah (33rd, 5.4).

This season there are nine, and there are 12 in the top 50.

In 2014-15, there were four non-guards in the top 50.

In 2015-16, there were nine in the top 50.

And, in 2016-17, there were ten.

Ten years ago, there were six, but LeBron was the only one in the top 30.

This is the age of whipping the ball around until a perimeter player has a wide open shot, or the one interior player has a mismatched defender. Isolations = bad basketball, especially if it doesn’t result in a trip to the foul line. Bigs are passing more. Everyone’s passing more.

Because of this extra passing, there are, duh, more assists, or at least, the possibility of assists. Ten years ago the average team’s assist rate was 26.7 per game (led by the Steve Nash Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, coached by Mike D’Antoni, GM’ed by Steve Kerr, hmmm). Going back to 1996-97 the assists per game was under 30 every single year.

Until last year. The Golden State Warriors broke the 30-Assist Threshold (whispered of in olden times by Ancient Taj’s predecessors). The next highest was Denver with 25.3.

This year, Golden State is first in assists again, averaging 30.8 per game, which is over 4 more than second place. HOWEVER, the top 4 teams are interesting. The team with the second-highest assist average is New Orleans, a team led by their bigs. The third team is Philadelphia, a team with a point forward and an elite big. And, the fourth team is, hysterically, the Bulls, a team with young, heralded bigs. In fact, the only team that averages fewer than 20 assists per game is Portland, a team that is heavily reliant on their guards.

Good bigs are distributors now. They have touch, and court vision, and should be able to pass over smaller defenders because most of them have wingspans that would make Dhalsim blush. Forwards and Centers need to be able to move the ball around as well as their back court peers, otherwise the offense stalls, and you’re Ian Mahinmi. (I’d like to take this opportunity to remind Wizards fans that they owe Mahinmi $16 million per year for two more seasons after this one. Thank you for letting me share.)

To bring this to fantasy, every forward in my league who averages at least five assists a game has a double digit player rating value. To put that into context, only 26 players total have double digit PRs on ESPN basic.

We like to say that the NBA is going smaller, by which we mean that the lineups are trending towards perimeter players and away from traditional big men. But this is misleading. Overall, the players in the NBA are getting taller; it’s the style of play that’s changing. Wings are now seven feet tall, and have thousand-yard wingspans. Point Forwards are becoming normalized, if not yet essential. Almost everyone is expected to be able to shoot and pass. Dribbling will be the next skill to focus on, I’d wager, as the league moves towards a hybrid of elite, enormous two-way point forwards. That’s what New Orleans is already, no? Boogie Cousins is the distributor on that team, just like Jokic in Denver. Joakim Noah did it a few years ago when he was the MVP of the Bulls after DRose went down.

All of this is to say that players have got to be able to pass these days. Whipping the ball around, hunting for mismatches, and almost forcing assists is how the NBA has evolved from the dominating interior presence of bigass MFers battling in the paint. Traditional bigs still exist, and are still useful. But, in fantasy, you want the most valuable players. And, these days? That’s players who pass. Case in point: Andre Drummond, who is averaging almost 4 assists per game, by FAR his career best, has the 4th highest assist rate for Centers. Guess what his ESPN player ranking is for Centers? Fourth.

You can see it with the rookies, too, most of them have pretty good court vision and know how to pass. Four rookies are in the top 50 in assist value.

The future of the NBA is swiftness: players constantly moving, players constantly passing, players constantly looking to catch and shoot. Two of the three most successful teams this year are the two teams led by the men who made the Seven Seconds Or Less Suns, Golden State and Houston.

Next year when drafting your fantasy NBA roster pay close attention to who actually passes the ball the most. The days of point guards equaling assists are behind us. Welcome back again to the New NBA.