Guest Column from Patrick Hayes (Fli City). You can follow him on Twitter @patrick_hayes.
I have drafted Ben Wallace first overall in a fantasy draft twice. I’ve been tempted more than once to pick an Oakland University player (much love to anyone who can name all three Golden Grizzlies to reach the NBA). I always take Draymond Green way too high.
The point is, I’m loyal to my guys. I would much rather roll with players I actually like following and rooting for than do “research” or have “knowledge” and have a roster full of mercenaries I barely care about or actively root against just in the name of chasing fantasy basketball glory. That hasn’t exactly led to success in this league, other than putting together a late run last season that saw me come from 11th place and win the consolation bracket. I was rewarded for that effort with a new league rule preventing teams outside of the playoffs from making transactions, because competing hard until the end shows poor moral character apparently.
This season, I employed the same strategy -- drafting guys I like. I took a trio of players from Flint who I happened to cover as a sports writer while they were in high school. Out of the group -- Kyle Kuzma, Monte Morris, and Miles Bridges -- only Kuzma entered the season as a sure draftee in fantasy leagues. But I took late round flyers on Morris and Bridges for the hell of it. No one gets hurt, it’s my team, my business.
This was met with more smoke from the commissioner’s office. In December of 2018, this “analysis” was provided: “Yes, Miles Bridges and Monte Morris are from Flint, but no, they are not viable fantasy players.”
Unwarranted! I’ve been stewing over that comment for weeks now, and wanted to take the opportunity to defend this Flint trio as they develop into reliable fantasy players for the next decade.
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Kyle Kuzma (Pre-season fantasy rank: 80, Current: 143) has already arrived. As a late first round pick, he was perhaps the least heralded of the Los Angeles Lakers alleged young core, but he quickly asserted himself as the best prospect of the … promising? … group that includes Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and … uh … Mike Muscala. He made the All-Rookie First Team, averaged nearly 17 points per game, and provided consistent floor-spacing and the ability to get crafty buckets around the basket without the Lakers having to run any plays for him.
This season, his three-point shooting has dipped a bit with more attempts -- 37 percent to 32 percent -- but his overall field goal percentage has improved, impressive considering he’s had a larger role in the offense and served as the Lakers go-to player while LeBron James took five weeks off to try and convince the world he was entitled to replacing half of his busted team with the second or third best player in the world.
Kuzma is averaging 19 points per game, and has had 41, 39, and 37 point efforts this season. He doesn’t do much fantasy-wise other than scoring and 3-point shooting, but he’s efficient, plays within himself, and has already far out-played expectations based on where he was drafted.
Kuzma bounced around high schools in the Flint area and was always a solid player but never a star -- other players at the time got more attention. Then he went to a prep school out of state for a year, hit a late massive growth spurt, ended up and the University of Utah, and just simply worked his ass off to get to the NBA. It’s really easy to root for his continued success.
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Monte Morris (Pre-season fantasy rank: 270, Current: 64) never should’ve got out of Michigan. He was a 4-year starter at Flint Beecher, won two state championships, led his team to four State Finals appearances, and won the Michigan Mr. Basketball award as a senior.
Since he was a freshman in high school, he played a non-flashy but highly efficient style. The same things true of him now -- he never takes a bad shot, he rarely turns it over, he’s unselfish, and he plays fantastic defense -- were true of him when he was a scrawny, soft-spoken 14-year-old at Beecher.
Somehow, Michigan and Michigan State both severely under-recruited him -- imagine him as a freshman on Michigan State’s Travis Trice-led surprise Final Four team in 2015, then taking over for Trice as the starter the following year? Sounds a bit better than “four-year starting point guard TumTum Nairn” right?
Morris led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio all four years he played at Iowa State, and was a second round pick by the Denver Nuggets. He played very little his rookie season (but put up great numbers in the G League), and came into this season with a difficult path to playing time in a loaded Denver backcourt. The team already had Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Malik Beasley vying for minutes, then added former All-Star Isaiah Thomas to that mix.
Injuries to Thomas, Harris, Murray, and Barton throughout the year, along with Mike Malone’s love for Morris’ heady play -- Malone has said that it is impossible for him to not find minutes for Morris -- have kept him in the rotation. He played heavier minutes beginning in December, and has, despite Commissioner Toor’s skepticism, become a valuable fantasy contributor. He averages 11 points and 4 assists per game while shooting 39 percent from three and nearly 50 percent overall. He is incredible at taking care of the ball -- over his last six games for example, he has 34 assists and just two turnovers. If his free throw shooting gets to where it should be, he’s a definite candidate to have a 50-40-90 season in the future.
Denver’s backcourt situation will continue to be crowded, but Morris has shown over long stretches in the rotation that he can be a starting caliber point guard on a good NBA team.
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Miles Bridges (Pre-season fantasy rank: 304, Current: 214) is the most heralded out of the three Flint players on my roster -- he was expected to be a one-and-done prospect when he committed to Michigan State, was projected as a lottery pick after his freshman year, then decided to stay another season and pursue a national championship at MSU. His Flint roots made playing at Michigan State a huge point of pride for him, enough even to forego a guaranteed NBA contract for another year.
Bridges was drafted 12th overall by the Los Angeles Clippers, then had his rights traded to the Charlotte Hornets.
He has been in Charlotte’s rotation all season, where his athleticism often provides a needed boost as that team has desperately looked for anyone with two functioning legs to keep pace with Kemba Walker. Bridges is in a crowded rotation that includes veterans who aren’t necessarily good but are … present, I guess ... in Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Jeremy Lamb, plus last year’s lottery pick Malik Monk.
Also hindering Bridges has been the fact that he’s somewhat position-less. He has the height and look of a wing, but a skillset that is often more conducive to playing at the four or five.
Still, he is a mainstay in the rotation, and his per-36 averages of nearly 13 points, 7 rounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block per game are promising. His three-point shooting has to improve -- he’s just over 30 percent for the season. But one area to watch for with Bridges is shot blocking -- he’s an exceptional shot blocker for his size and position, especially if Charlotte continues to play Bridges at center. Bridges actually has a ton of potential as a small ball four-five in today’s NBA, but while at Michigan State, Tom Izzo stubbornly refused to play him in the post, robbing us of the chance to see how dangerous a lineup with Bridges at the four and fellow lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr. at the five would’ve looked.
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Kuzma (skills competition and rising stars game) and Bridges (dunk contest) will both be a part of All-Star Weekend festivities, joining fellow Flint natives and past participants JaVale McGee (whose double dunk should’ve won him a Slam Dunk Contest title), Glen Rice, who won a 3-point shootout, and Trent Tucker, who participated in the three-point shootout.
For a small city, Flint has produced NBA talent at a rate on par with any large city in the country. Kuzma, Morris, and Bridges are ensuring that legacy of contributing to the league and game will live on for another generation.