By Gabe Allen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
More often than not, winning a fantasy league comes down to which manager has the most success identifying undervalued players, particularly in the mid-to-late rounds of drafts and on the waiver wire. And — surprise, surprise — those undervalued players are frequently on overlooked teams that aren’t supposed to reach the playoffs or will not be staples of the national TV schedule.
It should go without saying, but teams with losing records compile stats, too.
With all that in mind, here are five surprise teams, and a number of key players on those teams, to keep a close eye on throughout the preseason and into the opening weeks of the 2021-22 NBA season.
After trading away most of the team’s established veterans prior to last year’s trade deadline, Orlando is expected to compete for the league’s worst record in 2021-22. While it will be another long year in Orlando, the roster is stocked with potential sleepers from a fantasy standpoint, as not a single Magic player is projected to be an early-round pick.
Wendell Carter Jr. is perhaps the team’s most intriguing breakout candidate, while Jalen Suggs could be among the league’s most productive rookies — both in fantasy and real-life. Once healthy, Jonathan Isaac (knee) and Markelle Fultz (knee) will be oozing upside. Mo Bamba showed some signs of improvement late last season after Nikola Vucevic was moved. Cole Anthony will be worth a look, particularly in points leagues. Even R.J. Hampton, who showed some flashes during the final weeks of 2020-21, could be a consistent contributor if he earns decent minutes.
Of the five teams that made the cut, Orlando played the slowest (T-16th) last year, but there’s a strong chance the young Magic find themselves in the top half of the league in pace this season.
One more name to keep an eye on: Chuma Okeke. The 2019 first-rounder missed his entire rookie season while recovering from a torn ACL, but he showed flashes of defensive brilliance last season. He may still be a year away, but Okeke has the type of stat profile that translates to fantasy success. In just 25.2 minutes per game last season, Okeke posted a well-rounded 7.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.5 blocks, and 1.1 threes per game. With Isaac sidelined indefinitely, Okeke should see plenty of opportunities over the first month or two of the season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans played at the ninth-fasted pace last year, and the defense — which was not good last season — might be borderline non-existent in 2021-22. Even though Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram probably won’t be undervalued, the rest of the roster will likely be slept on for fantasy purposes.
Jonas Valanciunas is coming off a superb season with the Grizzlies and could be an absolute steal in the middle rounds, while Devonte’ Graham is a good bet to exceed expectations if he falls to the latter stages of the middle rounds. Then there’s Josh Hart, one of the best rebounding wings in the league, and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who had his moments last year, particularly when Lonzo Ball was sidelined. Of that group, Alexander-Walker has the best chance to break out. Across 13 starts last season, he averaged 19.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.7 blocks and 3.1 made threes (34.0 MPG).
For those in deeper leagues, Tomas Satoransky and Garrett Temple are well-rounded role players with the size and versatility to slot in at multiple positions. And lastly, Trey Murphy III was one of the stars of the summer league, so he’s worth keeping an eye on both in the short and long term. If the minutes are there, Murphy’s three-point shooting could eventually force his name into fantasy relevance in deeper leagues.
The Rockets operated at the sixth-highest pace in 2020-21, and there’s not much reason to believe the team will slow things down this season. Given that it’s unlikely Houston gets much in exchange for John Wall, should a trade eventually go down, there doesn’t seem to be that much risk in reaching for Rockets in the mid-to-late rounds of fantasy drafts. Christian Wood was having a spectacular season last year prior to injuries and has upper-mid-round-steal written all over him. After being handed the keys to Houston’s offense, Kevin Porter Jr. thrived, looking like a future star at times.
Rookie guard Jalen Green, who looked great in Summer League, should receive no shortage of playing time. And fellow rookie Alperen Sengun was another standout in Vegas who makes for a fine sleeper in most formats, even if he’s coming off the bench, given that Houston is likely to devote most of its attention to developing its young talent.
Jae’Sean Tate was a jack-of-all-trades as a rookie and should earn plenty of minutes again this season. Based on how well Kelly Olynyk played in a Rockets uniform late last year, Daniel Theis could be a sneakily impactful later-round target.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs lost a proven All-Star and easily their best offensive player, in DeMar DeRozan this offseason. Without an isolation expert who can reliably grind out a good look for himself or a teammate when the shot clock starts winding down, San Antonio will be forced to change lanes in 2021-22.
Leading that charge will be Dejounte Murray, who isn’t making it out of the early rounds of most drafts; if all goes well, he could flirt with averaging a triple-double while turning in his usual stellar defensive production.
However, Keldon Johnson, Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl, Thaddeus Young, and Doug McDermott are players to keep in mind for the mid-to-late rounds. Unlike with Murray, you may not have to reach much, if at all, for any of them, with Johnson as the one potential exception. White has had enough injuries to scare away the risk-averse, but he still has breakout potential if he can stay healthy. Meanwhile, Poeltl showed what he could do in a starting role last season when the LaMarcus Aldridge Era ended, Young was among the league’s most versatile contributors for much of last year, and McDermott offers vital floor-spacing offensively.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder registered the seventh-fastest pace last year, and only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is expected to be an early-round pick in fantasy leagues. At this point, no one else on the roster seems like a surefire top-100 pick, but there are several players with the potential to finish the year ranked inside the top-100 across various formats.
Darius Bazley could be a nightly double-double threat and a top-50 player in points leagues if he stays healthy. Sophomore Aleksej Pokusevski has the same top-50 potential for points leagues. Luguentz Dort is a good bet to see heavy minutes along the wing. Rookie Josh Giddey, who started alongside Dort and Gilgeous-Alexander in Monday’s exhibition opener, should have every opportunity to earn a sizable role. And Isaiah Roby and Kenrich Williams were often solid spot starters last year when injuries hit the frontcourt.