Identifying impact rookies and sleepers
We at ESPN have a magical tool called the Player Rater, which measures players' fantasy values based solely upon statistics. And that tool tells us that Stephen Curry was the seventh-best fantasy basketball player on the planet last season, despite being a skinny rookie from a mid-major program whose role with his team fluctuated for much of the season. The commonly held perception that rookies are overrated has been shattered based upon the past two seasons, as rookies across the board exceeded expectations as fantasy players, and many became the best value-based player on fantasy squads, based upon their final Player Rater ranking versus average draft position (ADP).
Two years ago, 12 rookies landed in the top 150 on the Player Rater, and last season that number was 11, including players such as Marcus Thornton, Wesley Matthews and Jonas Jerebko, all practically anonymous on draft day, and not including guys like DeJuan Blair, Terrence Williams and Omri Casspi, who failed to crack the top 150, but all had stints of fantasy-relevance and exceeded draft-day expectations. Check the top 10 rookies' final rankings on the Player Rater as compared with their ADPs:
Only Evans could be considered a disappointment, although I'll take 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 boards from my sixth-round pick any day. The moral? Rookies have significant impacts upon fantasy standings and drafting them with your late-round picks is one of the best ways to ensure a value-laden sleeper, even this year in what is seen as an inferior rookie class compared to the past few seasons. Let's take a look at which rookies will have the most immediate impact, as well as identify some sleepers and those with more long-term upside who may only be worth consideration in keeper leagues during fantasy drafts this fall.
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards: His lack of 3s and the arrival of Kirk Hinrich, which provides the Wizards with the luxury of not having to play Wall 40 minutes per game as a rookie, indicate that he won't be the best rookie in the fantasy world. Much like former No. 1 overall pick Derrick Rose, Wall wasn't a deadly 3-point shooter in college (37 3s made in 37 games last season), which will pose an obstacle in the fantasy sense, and if Gilbert Arenas is still on the team alongside Wall and Hinrich, things could get muddled. Although Wall will have immediate impact and will be fantasy-viable from the jump, his prospects as an actual player exceed those as a fantasy player, at least for his rookie season as he adjusts to the NBA game and establishes a clear role with the Wizards.
DeMarcus Cousins, PF, Sacramento Kings: He and Derrick Favors will regularly be mentioned in the same sentence for the next decade after being the first bigs off the board and both being selected in the top five, but Cousins' fantasy prospects appear brighter this season. I love Favors' 2.1 blocks and near 62 percent mark from the floor, as well as his freakish athleticism and springs, but Cousins' superior offensive game and NBA-readiness project him as being more effective if he's in shape both mentally and physically. Questions about his work ethic and conditioning are disconcerting, but with the Kings eschewing their former center of the future Spencer Hawes for erratic veteran Samuel Dalembert, a lucrative fantasy situation could emerge if Dalembert's inconsistency continues.
Evan Turner, SG, Philadelphia 76ers: The best player in college basketball last season is the early frontrunner for rookie of the year in many experts' opinions, but the two biggest questions surrounding Turner -- his ability to hit 3s and his role with the team/ability to mesh with Andre Iguodala -- will heavily dictate his statistical productivity. His impressive stats at Ohio State -- 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.9 blocks while shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor -- are promising, and Turner could start this season and either push Iguodala to the 3, or prompt the Sixers to trade him. Either way, he does a bit of everything, and even if he doesn't come close to matching his dominant college stats, he should provide enough across-the-board production to exceed expectations.
Ekpe Udoh, PF, Golden State Warriors: This is a tough one to call based upon the recent history with the Warriors. Looking at the draft picks they've made to fill out their frontcourt, namely Brandan Wright and Anthony Randolph, they've busted twice by gambling on upside-laden athletes. But looking at last season, and the success that D-League call-ups Reggie Williams and Anthony Tolliver had by simply getting minutes for Don Nelson, one would think that plugging him into that system will reap benefits. Also, his 3.7 blocks per game at Baylor should translate directly into swats at the NBA level, and in the fantasy world, blocks are gold. Questions surround his strength, polish and basketball IQ, and he'll have to make serious strides in his offensive game if he wants to be considered more than a one-category wonder. Even if he fails to do so this year, that one category is the best one to have, and Udoh should average at least 1.5 blocks per game if given decent minutes.
Greg Monroe, PF, Detroit Pistons: He boasts an NBA-ready body, intangibles and incredible passing ability for a big man, evidenced by his 3.8 assists per game last season at Georgetown. He's a lefty with a soft touch and a jumper that should continue to develop, but the biggest knock on Monroe is the fact he doesn't have the killer instinct and is often seen as passive, so a veteran team like the Pistons is a nice fit; he won't need to display that ability to take over right away. His increase in rebounds from 6.5 to 9.8 per game from his freshman to sophomore season, as well as his presence on the defensive end (1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game for his college career) and accuracy from the field (54.3 percent) provide enough optimism to quell some of the worries regarding his demeanor.
Hassan Whiteside, C, Kings: He dropped to the second round and will scrap for any extra minutes left behind by Cousins, Dalembert and Jason Thompson. His overall game is suspect, but those 5.4 blocks -- yes, 5.4 -- per game in college will translate into NBA swatting success. He should block a shot every 10 minutes or so, so if he can even crack 15-20 minutes per game, he'll be on teams in deep leagues simply due to the scarcity of swats.
Eric Bledsoe, PG, Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers acquired Bledsoe from the Thunder for a future first-rounder, and he provides Baron Davis with a legitimate backup. Davis' injury history, as well as Bledsoe's ability to play alongside a marquee guard (he shared backcourt duties with Wall in Kentucky), indicate he could be a nice sleeper who sees some starts this season, and in fantasy hoops starting point guards are the most highly coveted position. Bledsoe is strong, quick and blessed with athleticism that helps compensate for his lack of size. And in a draft class lacking a great deal of point guard talent, Bledsoe has a promising future.
Cole Aldrich, C, Oklahoma City Thunder: Aldrich has the size and ability to block and rebound in the league today, and the Thunder have a considerable lack of size in their frontcourt, with Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic both lacking girth. Serge Ibaka gets a lot of attention based upon his upside and late-season play for the Thunder, and Aldrich will provide a nice complement to him in the long term and should step in and get minutes in the short term. He's a low-risk, low-reward type this season.
James Anderson, SG, San Antonio Spurs: Many considered him as the best shooter in the draft, and Anderson could surface as a steal for the Spurs, who desperately need some youth infused into their aging lineup. Anderson, George Hill and DeJuan Blair could form a nice young core for the Spurs who are transitioning from the Duncan/Ginobili/Parker era, so look for them to develop him much like they did Hill, who has shattered all expectations as an NBA player. One of the best scorers in the draft, Anderson will have a chance to flex his offensive ability this season.
Derrick Favors, PF, New Jersey Nets: Favors has perhaps the highest ceiling of all players in the draft, and he'll contribute on some level this season. But as the No. 3-overall pick fighting concerns surrounding his conditioning and work ethic, as well as Brook Lopez, Yi Jianlian and even Josh Boone and Kris Humphries for minutes in Jersey, Favors will likely experience growing pains and inconsistency as a rookie. He makes for a great late-round keeper-league selection.
Xavier Henry, SG, Memphis Grizzlies: Henry is a fantastic athlete with a prototypical NBA swingman body and incredible strength. He didn't put up crazy stats in college, but his 1.5 steals and 1.9 3s per game -- the first two stats I look for in a college guard attempting to transition his game from college to the NBA -- are very promising. He'll contribute from the NBA 3-point line this season, which is what we fantasy owners love out of guards, and if he improves his all-around game, he'll be dangerous down the line.
Ed Davis, PF, Toronto Raptors: Davis is likely a couple years away from contributing, because he's raw, soft and a total project. But he's got tremendous length, a soft lefty touch and a good work ethic. As he adds size, strength and experience, he could develop into a legitimate starting big man after some seasoning.
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.