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Frank Ntilikina & Cedi Osman: Two sophomores in slumps

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Is it time to give up on two could-be-strong fantasy talents?

Getty Images/Peter Rogers Illustrations

Let’s talk about two young NBAers, both in their sophomore campaigns: Cedi Osman, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Frank Ntilikina, a guard for the New York Knicks.

Are they any good?

The reason I ask is that I’m a firm believer that minutes are like water in fantasy basketball: they let everything else grow. If you play a large volume of minutes in the NBA, then you’re probably worthy of roster consideration because of the (supposed) large volume of counting stats that come with the minutes.

I also firmly believe that young players (25 and under) should usually be given the benefit of the doubt regarding their talent level: even a subpar NBA player is still one of the best basketball players in the world, and they might/could/maybe be even better, had they better coaches, or front offices, or better injury luck, etc. Also, sometimes players blossom later in life, and sometimes they just gradually improve from year to year, but we don’t really notice, until BAM, suddenly they’re 29 and they’re a top 50 player in the league, but they never really had a “breakout” season.

It’s tough to give up on dudes, especially fantasy boyfriends that we imbue with sentimental value because we chose them in our fantasy draft in two-thousand-whatever. For instance, it took me a long time to drop Frank Ntilikina from my roster. I loved the French Resistance, AKA Frank Ntili, AKA Nullikina (not really), AKA My Beloved 2017 Rookie Draft Pick. I thought I was drafting a defensive savant who only needed to practice his jumpshot in order to bring it to the NBA average: give Ex Nihilo Ntilikina enough shot attempts, and he’d develop a fine offensive game, or at least good enough to keep him rosterable in a dynasty league.

Unfortunately, Frank’s defense is so good that it literally destroyed his own offense, because this kid couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with an asteroid the size of Belgium. He’s averaging 34.9% from the field this season. That’s actually worse than last year! He’s worse from long range, too. The Knicks are a little screwy with their roster this season because they’re tanking, and so they’re basically just throwing everyone out there at different times to see if they can find any keepable talent, like Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh. Unfortunately, Frank Ntili’s offensive struggles have kept him from increasing his minutes. Generally, you’d like to see a promising sophomore given enough leash to play his way through his slump, but the Knicks haven’t done that. They’re basically treating him like any other “found” or “reclamation” player, rather than their #8 pick from two drafts ago: he has fewer total minutes than Damyean Dotson, even though Frank’s played in five more games. Frank’s 236th in total points this year (211); you’d generally like to have more points scored than Ed Effing Davis.

The start-weeping part: Frank Ntilikina isn’t in the top 250 fantasy players on ESPN Basic. He has a -1.62 on the Player Rater for the season, ranking 253rd (out of all human beings on the planet, that’s really, really good!). My beautiful basketball defensive dynamo is ranked lower than Avery Bradley, and he died two years ago while playing for Detroit. Darius Miller, a wing for the Pelicans, is the player above 0.00 with the least positive value on the season, 0.06. He’s a Void Rider, for sure (Marvin Bagley III is the other right now at -0.05), and he’s averaged 7 points per game this season. That is somehow better than Frank Ntilikina: 6 PPG, 2 assists per game, 2 rebounds per game, sub-average ratios.

Frank Ntilikina isn’t worth rostering right now, not unless you have deeeeep benches, or you’re trying to tank. That’s a serious bummer, but I still think he’ll improve. He’s only 20 years old. This is only his second season. I hate giving up on a young player I like, especially during a rough sophomore slump, but we’re approaching the halfway point of the season (Toronto’s already played 42 games), and difficult fantasy decisions are looming.

Which returns us to Cedi Osman.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Cedi is another young player (he’s 23) in his second year in the NBA. Whereas Frank Ntili has found consistent minutes somewhat difficult to find, even on a tanking team that should be playing their 2nd year lottery pick as much as they can, Osman is the opposite: he’s #1 in minutes played on the Cleveland Cavaliers (second in minutes played is Collin Sexton, Cleveland’s prized rookie point guard who they picked, ahem, #8 in the draft; he’s played over 1100 minutes this season while Ntilikina’s played 743; they’re both 20 years old; WHAT IS DAVID FIZDALE DOING AND WHY IS THE FRONT OFFICE LETTING HIM DO IT).

Cedi’s another young player I believed in before the season. Perhaps not in overall talent level—I didn’t think he’d make any All NBA lists or anything—but I figured his opportunities on a bad Cleveland team would result in a good fantasy season. He’s a 6’8” wing and I figured his ratios from last year (57.7% true shooting, 48 FG%) suggested the makings of a 3-and-D Small Forward, a very useful player to have in today’s NBA. Plus, I knew he’d be cheap (though I figured his ownership would be higher than its current sub-1% level).

Boy Howdy, have I been wrong.

Cedi Osman has played 1,209 minutes this season—more minutes than Giannis Antetokounmpo—yet his player rating on ESPN Basic is outside the top 150. Cedi Osman’s been the 164th “most” “valuable” player so far this season. He’s been less valuable than Zach Collins, and you don’t even know who that is. (He’s a backup center for Portland.) Cedi’s 1.27 Player Rating is the WORST rating for any player in the top 50 in minutes played this season. Cedi hasn’t been a negative drag on a fantasy team, but god damn, has he produced mediocre value for his time played.

Let’s try and stay positive though and look at him from another angle to see whether he’s rare or valuable in ways we could find useful in fantasy. After all, a mediocre PR doesn’t necessarily mean the player is bad for your fantasy team: specialists who get lots of assists (JJ Barea) or lots of blocks (JaVale McGee) or rebounds (Ed Davis) can be super helpful in fantasy, so long as they’re complimentary to your core team (Marcus Smart for steals, too). So, let’s consider Cedi step-by-step:

  • He averages 11+ points per game this season. 114 players (who’ve played at least 30 games) are also averaging 11+ PPG.
  • Cedi’s also averaging 4+ rebounds per game (4.9, so nearly 5). 82 players are averaging 11 and 4, or better, on the season. (57 average 11 and 5.)
  • He’s also averaging 2+ assists per game. 56 players are averaging 11/4/2, or better, on the season. (41 average 11/5/2.)

Not terrible! Cedi’s production, especially if we give him the benefit of the doubt and say he’s averaging 5 RPG, is a solid floor for counting stats for a fantasy team, one that only 40-60 other players can equal or exceed.

Here’s the bad news: Cedi’s ratios. They’re...well...listen, it’s suboptimal, I won’t lie to you. Out of those 56 players who are averaging 11+ PPG, 4+ RPG, and 2+ APG, Cedi’s got the third worst field goal percentage (39.3 FG%), and the ninth worst three point percentage (30.5 3PT%). His true shooting percentage has dropped 8 points from last season (from 57.7 TS% to 49.9 TS%). The Cavs are atrocious, but not all of Cedi’s numbers can be blamed on the roster or the coaching. His shooting must improve, if he wants to be a starter in the NBA.

But if he does improve by just a little bit from this season to next, Cedi could be in elite company: only 23 players are averaging 12+ PPG, 5+ RPG, and 3+ APG. Is it crazy to think a young player could improve by 1 point and 1 pass per game? (He’s already nearly at 5 RPG.) Remember, Cedi’s true shooting dropped by a ton with the increase in shot attempts. If that bounced back, even a little bit (something perhaps suggested by Osman’s solid free throw percentage), then Osman’s PPG and improved FG% would follow suit.

I’m not saying Cedi Osman will be a top 100 player next season. What I am saying is that he could very well be a top 150, and maybe even more if his shooting improves even slightly. I was a Cedi Osman believer, and I still am. Ditto, Frank Ntilikina. But, my expectations have been tempered. Keep them on your watch list, and let’s hope they both have better second halves.

All numbers courtesy of NBA.com and ESPN.com. Thank you!