Identifying impact rookies and sleepers
When it comes to the NBA draft, the common perception among the fantasy crowd is that rookies are often overrated in the fantasy game. Personally, I tend to agree with that logic. Let's be honest, rookies are rarely able to step right in and make an immediate contribution. Sure, last year's crop of first-year players certainly proved to be the exception to the rule, but aside from a handful of players each season, there's not a great track record for instant success. Most rookies will take at least half of their inaugural season to get their feet wet, and even more will take at least a year or two to develop (if ever).
Needless to say, there's a whole lot of uncertainty when it comes to dealing with rookies in fantasy leagues, but that doesn't mean we won't be able to find a few players who will pay immediate dividends now and in the future. Take last season, for instance. A total of 12 rookies managed to land in the top 150 of our Player Rater at season's end, and it wasn't hard to see why. Many of the most physically talented rookies landed with teams that desperately needed them to contribute right away. That combination of talent and opportunity yielded one of the best rookie (fantasy) classes in recent memory. And that's exactly what we're looking for when projecting rookie relevance for 2009-10.
Blake Griffin, Clippers: The more I see Griffin, the more I become convinced that he is going to be a star in the NBA. He has the body and athleticism to contribute right away, and he should get decent run in Los Angeles as a rookie. Granted, the Clippers have a bit of a logjam in the paint with Marcus Camby, Zach Randolph and Chris Kaman all vying for minutes, but all three have had injury issues in the past and the Clippers are expected to deal one of their big men to clear space for Griffin. With that said, expect Griffin to earn 25-30 minutes and average somewhere around 14-15 points with 7-9 rebounds per game as a rookie, but expect him to struggle from the free throw line, as he shot less than 60 percent from the stripe in college. The key for Griffin's fantasy growth, however, will be his commitment to the defensive end. He certainly has the potential to create some steals and block a few shots (possibly one per game in each category at some point down the line).
Stephen Curry, Warriors: Curry would have been in a slightly better spot had he landed in New York, but Golden State is the next best thing for his talents. The Warriors, like the Knicks, play with the up-tempo style that suits Curry's game well. He shouldn't have a problem earning ample minutes as a rookie either at the point or at the 2-guard for coach Don Nelson, and we should expect him to be a quality scorer and 3-point shooter from the start. I'm thinking he has the potential to mirror Eric Gordon's 16.1 points, 1.7 3-pointers and a steal per game as a rookie.
James Harden, Thunder: I actually loved this pick for the Thunder. Harden not only gives them the shooting guard they coveted but also allows them to keep Russell Westbrook as a point guard. Although Harden doesn't possess the physical gifts of some of his counterparts, he is a crafty talent who is as NBA-ready as any other player in this draft. As a fantasy player, he'll be mostly a scorer with the ability to extend beyond the 3-point line, but he also could help out in steals and post above-average numbers in rebounds and assists for a shooting guard. Look for Harden to earn 28-32 minutes as the primary shooting guard in Oklahoma City, while Thabo Sefolosha comes off the bench as a defensive specialist.
Terrence Williams, Nets: Not only did I really like this pick for the Nets but, now that Vince Carter is gone, I think T-Will could be a deep sleeper pick for fantasy rookie of the year this season. Williams is a phenomenal athlete with an NBA-ready body, and he should have no problem stepping in as the starting small forward for the Nets from Day 1. Williams averaged a versatile 12.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks and 1.5 3-pointers as a senior at Louisville, and he figures to bring a similar statistical versatility to the NBA. The one major knock on T-Will's game is his inconsistent shooting, particularly from the free throw line, so be careful with the percentages if you decide to take a flier on him in fantasy drafts.
Tyreke Evans, Kings: Evans needs to work on his jumper and shot selection, but there's a lot fantasy owners should like about the 19-year-old thanks to an incredible 6-foot-11 wingspan that will aid in creating steals and even blocking some shots from the guard position. He landed in a great spot in Sacramento and has big-time upside, so don't be surprised if he earns heavy minutes at some point in 2009-10. With that in mind, Evans strikes me as the type of player who could have a big second half for fantasy owners next season.
Jordan Hill, Knicks: New York fans can boo all they like, but this was the right pick for them after Curry came off the board. Hill might need a few years to realize his full potential, but there is no debating his raw talent. He's a great fit for the Knicks, as he is an athletic big man who can get up and down the court in Mike D'Antoni's fast-paced offense. As a rookie, he'll have to compete with David Lee and Al Harrington for minutes in the paint, but don't sleep on his potential as a rebounder and shot-blocker as early as this season. Also, it's important to note that Hill could quickly earn center eligibility in fantasy leagues if the Knicks decide to play him at the 5.
Jrue Holiday, 76ers: Holiday's fantasy value will hinge largely on what happens with Andre Miller in the offseason. If Miller leaves, Holiday could earn quality minutes along with Lou Williams in the Philly backcourt. If Miller stays, Holiday will take on a backup role and likely won't have much value in his first professional season. Stay tuned
DeMar DeRozan, Raptors: DeRozan already has the scouts drooling about his athleticism and NBA-ready body, but he still has a lot of maturing to do before he'll be ready to contribute in the fantasy game. The future certainly looks bright for DeRozan, and the Raptors could use his talents right away, but I don't think he's ready yet, and we shouldn't overrate him for the upcoming season based on his future potential.
Brandon Jennings, Bucks: Jennings has some work to do before he realizes his true potential, but there is no denying his upside. He is a flashy player who is super quick, but he still needs to refine his game and work on his jumper. Be sure to follow his progression with the Bucks closely, as he has the potential to be a future fantasy star.
Earl Clark, Suns: Clark could end up being one of the better fantasy players in this draft at some point in the future, but it likely won't be this season. Keep his name filed away for future use, though, and be sure to keep him on your fantasy radar.
• Gerald Henderson and Tyler Hansbrough are big names, but I'm not expecting much from either player in 2009-10. Henderson likely will take on a reserve role for the Charlotte Bobcats, and I'm still not sold on Hansbrough's ability to produce at the NBA level.
• Austin Daye has a ton of upside as a shot-blocker and 3-point shooter, but he really needs to improve his strength if he's going to contribute in the NBA. The Pistons made a nice upside pick here, but fantasy owners shouldn't expect much in 2009-10.
• I like James Johnson as a talent, but not in Chicago, at least not right away. He's long and athletic (much like Tyrus Thomas), but is incredibly inconsistent. Johnson could turn into a quality fantasy player at some point down the line, just not immediately.
• B.J. Mullens is an intriguing player for the Oklahoma City Thunder. They desperately need a center, but I don't think Mullens is ready to handle the duties just yet. Keep an eye on how the position battles shake out during the summer and in the preseason, but consider Mullens a long shot to have value this season.
• I would have liked both Ty Lawson and Eric Maynor depending on where they landed, but neither figures to earn enough minutes to have a fantasy impact next season. Lawson will be stuck behind Chauncey Billups in Denver, and Maynor will back up Deron Williams in Utah. It is possible that Maynor could earn some run as a combo guard for Jerry Sloan, but he still won't see enough time on the court to be fantasy-relevant unless injury woes hit the Jazz.
• If Mike Bibby leaves town, Jeff Teague could be an intriguing player to consider in Atlanta. The Hawks picked up Jamal Crawford via trade, but Teague could earn quality minutes depending on how he performs in the summer leagues and in training camp. Keep an eye on his progress, and be ready to scoop him up late in deep drafts if it looks as though he'll see enough minutes.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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