Fantasy Basketball 2022-23: Expectations for Zion Williamson, other stars returning from injury

By Jeff Stotts, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

As the 2022-23 NBA season creeps closer and closer, it’s officially become socially acceptable to begin preparing for fantasy basketball draft season. As always, a major piece of that preparation is evaluating players recovering from injuries and deciding whether or not they’re worth their ADP.

Of course, some players’ injuries are more severe than others, and each player’s individual history must be heavily considered. Managers may want to think twice before drafting veterans like Kyrie Irving or Malcolm Brogdon, who always seem to be banged up. Meanwhile, a player like Damian Lillard could get the benefit of the doubt, as last season’s abdominal issue marked the first time he’s missed an extended stretch due to injury.

Below, RotoWire’s Jeff Stotts takes an in-depth look at seven key players recovering from injury and offers his take on what fantasy managers should expect for the season ahead.

Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Williamson missed the entire 2021-22 season after suffering a fractured fifth metatarsal in his foot during the offseason. He signed a lucrative extension this summer and is on track to be an active participant in training camp.

While Zion has the tools to be a top-50 fantasy player, availability obviously remains a glaring issue. Williamson has played in just 85 games over his three professional seasons primarily due to injuries to his foot and knee. Based on the nature of these injuries and ongoing concern about Zion’s size, New Orleans may elect to carefully manage his minutes and workload. Even if he avoids a third significant injury, 60-65 games played seems like a best-case scenario. Fantasy managers should be cautious not to over-draft the 2019 No. 1 overall pick.

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies’ defensive anchor will be sidelined to start the year after undergoing surgery to address a stress fracture in his foot. The bone involved was not disclosed but the team’s recovery timeline estimated Jackson would miss four-to-six months.

Like Zion, Jackson’s early career has been limited by injuries. He has averaged 26.3 games missed per season since being drafted and that is despite playing in a career-high 78 games last year. A return sometime around Christmas seems likely and fantasy managers should anticipate more games missed when he does return. Memphis has historically managed injuries conservatively and the risk of a re-injury or recurrence will linger. Jackson’s early ADP currently sits at 68.3 in Yahoo leagues, which may be a bit high given the timetable.

Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers / Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets

The two former All-Stars both missed the entirety of last season recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sustained during the 2020-21 campaign. Murray tore his left ACL in April of 2021 while Leonard’s injury occurred two months later in the postseason. Both Denver and Los Angeles elected to hold them out for the year to ensure each player was 100 percent upon their return and Murray and Leonard will be ready to start the new season.

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the LA Clippers is a fantasy star
Kawhi Leonard missed all of the last fantasy basketball season thanks to injury. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) (Thearon W. Henderson via Getty Images)

However, returning to play and returning to a prior level of performance are two very different things. Studies have shown players returning from ACL reconstruction report lower performance markers in their first season post-surgery. While those statistics appear to return to pre-injury levels in the second season after surgery, this does suggest expectations for Leonard and Murray may need to be appropriately adjusted. Those opting to invest in either player should anticipate some early season struggles and routine days off.

Leonard’s injury history makes him a bigger risk to miss time than Murray. Leonard has endured a myriad of injuries in his career, including lingering tendinosis in his quadriceps tendon. He has also displayed a tendency to err on the side of caution with any type of ailment and expecting anything more than 65 games played from him is a stretch.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

Lillard underwent surgery to repair an abdominal tendinopathy after struggling for the majority of the season. Fortunately, these procedures have a high success rate, and Lillard should return to his All-Star level of play. Lillard has been a relative ironman in his NBA career and there’s no reason to think he can’t play 70-plus games after missing 53 games last season.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers / Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets

Simmons and Porter Jr. are both dynamic players who have been upper-echelon fantasy weapons in prior seasons. However, both come with checkered injury histories, beginning with both players missing their respective rookie seasons. Simmons missed his first season after being drafted due to a fractured fifth metatarsal while Porter was sidelined following back surgery.

Now, both players are looking to bounce back following procedures to address back injuries. Simmons underwent a lumbar microdiscectomy. In the procedure, a piece or pieces of an intervertebral disc or discs is removed. The approach is utilized to relieve impingement on the neighboring nerves in the area.

Porter’s surgery did involve the lumbar spine but was not confirmed as a microdiscectomy. However, this is the third back surgery of his career, and he has previously undergone a microdiscectomy in the L3-L4 region of his lower back.

Both players are expected to receive clearance in time for training camp, but they are far from out of the woods. Back surgeries can be complicated, with many individuals reporting symptoms like spasms, soreness, or nerve pain in subsequent seasons. Additionally, roughly 30 percent of NBA players to undergo a microdiscectomy required a second surgery. As noted, Porter has already needed multiple surgeries.

Denver will likely ease Porter (and teammate Murray) back into the rotation in the early portions of the season. Simmons’ playing time may also be carefully managed given his prior list of injuries. Somewhere around 20 to 25 games lost for either player seems plausible with both likely sitting one of two games in early season back-to-backs.

Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

Sexton missed 71 games last year after tearing the meniscus in his left knee in November. The specific surgery Sexton underwent dictated his prolonged recovery. When a meniscus injury occurs, the appropriate treatment is dependent on the location and nature of the tear.

Most meniscus tears are treated using a procedure known as a meniscectomy. In a meniscectomy, the damaged cartilage is simply removed or cleaned out. With the root of the problem gone, the affected individual can return to play in a manner of weeks after the associated symptoms subside and the knee is considered stable. However, a removal does increase the individual’s long-term odds of developing osteoarthritis in the future as a part of the shock-absorbing cartilage is no longer available.

To combat any long-term issues, a surgeon can utilize a true meniscus repair but only if the tear is in a specific portion of the involved disc. A true repair preserves the cartilage but does come with a much longer recovery as the athlete is not allowed to weight-bear following surgery.

Sexton was able to undergo a true repair which is why he was unable to return for the 2021-22 season. However, he should be fine in time to begin his first season in Utah. There will be a degree of risk that comes with any meniscus surgery, but he has a chance to play meaningful minutes and could easily play in 60+ games for the fourth time in his five-year career.

It’s anyone’s guess what Utah’s roster will look like by the time Opening Night rolls around, but if any of Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson or Bojan Bogdanovic is moved, the door will be wide open for Sexton to function as the No. 1 option on what the Jazz front office hopes will be a very bad team. If he’s able to stay healthy, Sexton could approach his numbers from the 2020-21 season, when he posted 24.3 points, 4.4 assists, 3.1 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.6 threes while shooting 47.5 percent from the field (37.1% 3Pt).