If You're Hardcore: Turning around a slow start
Last week we discussed players that, three months into the season, can be discarded from rosters with little worry. They had half a season to prove their worth and failed to distinguish themselves, and at this point you write them off as inconsistent and not worth the trouble and instead try your luck with potential replacements.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are players in the midst of turning around their season that might be difficult to notice because three months' worth of stats have affected how they're perceived, and now they're in danger of becoming overlooked and forgotten.
It's an underappreciated occurrence when players go from fantasy irrelevance to spare-part usefulness; the Danny Grangers get the recognition, while the Luke Ridnours get the doubt. But depth comes from somewhere, often the unlikeliest of places. Here are a group of players making a case to be the Sixth Man of the Year (fantasy edition) for the next half-season:
Raja Bell, SG, Bobcats: The best thing about Bell is his dependability. Since joining the Suns in 2005, he averaged 35 to 37 minutes per game and played in at least 75 games. This season, though, seemed to be the year in which his age would show; his minutes were down and the team was less explosive offensively. Then he was traded to a young Bobcats team with an offense that can kindly be described as plodding. It seemed safe to write Bell off, which I definitely had no problem doing.
Bell has come on recently, averaging more than 39 minutes in his past nine games with 16.1 points and 1.7 3-pointers per game on 49.2 percent shooting. Sure, he's a one-trick pony, but one that still provides fantasy value, and is in a stable role. He played for Larry Brown early in his career as well, and it's not hard to see why Bell's throwback style of play would suit Brown. The moral of this little story is that it's a long season, and it's essential to keep re-evaluating players as their circumstances change. There's no shame in being wrong; just be right on a guy before anyone else.
Mike Conley, PG, Grizzlies: His value is based more on potential than production at this point, and while I usually shy away from owning those types of players, he's one of the few exceptions.
It's important to remember that dealing with Conley will take patience; it's easy to forget that his scouting reports from the 2007 draft stressed a steep learning curve for the young point guard. That makes owning him exciting, since now he is getting an opportunity to learn while receiving starter's minutes. He has seven steals in his past five games, which could be a sign of things to come, as he was a prolific thief in college. He has shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc the past two months, a tremendous increase from November's 31.3 percent and last season's 33 percent. The improvements will come.
Conley looks like the starter for the foreseeable future and is averaging about 32 minutes, so unless he's downright awful, he's going to be at least a serviceable player with great upside; why aren't more owners taking a chance on him?
Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves: Can this charade end already? Ryan Gomes and Craig Smith are bench filler and should not be starting over Love. I am sure there is some kind of legitimate reason Love has been held back -- the whole not-handing-a-kid-the-job-on-a-silver-platter kind of thing -- but this is the point of the season where that's no longer an excuse. He's a beast, and one of the best things about him is that he doesn't foul, at least in comparison to his peers: 2.4 fouls in 23 minutes is phenomenal for a rookie big man. He is going to be incredible soon enough, yet oddly his percent owned is at one of his lowest points all season. If there was one guy I would put all my eggs in one basket for, it would be Love. Buy now before he goes Paul Millsap on the league after the All-Star break.
Jason Thompson, PF, Kings: When Brad Miller gets traded -- let's just assume it to be true, as it makes too much sense for it not to happen -- minutes will open up for Thompson to emerge. The only worry is whether the Kings let him play through his foul troubles; at this point it's obvious he isn't going to suddenly stop fouling, at least not this year. With the disappearance of Spencer Hawes, Thompson has become by far the most productive big man on the roster, and he doesn't even need that much more playing time to become a factor. He's averaging 12.6 points and 7.0 rebounds on 53.8 percent shooting in 28 minutes per game in January, so he's already knocking on the door; creeping up to 31 to 32 minutes would do wonders. He has even dropped 16 and then 21 points against the Cavaliers and Celtics, respectively, his past couple of games, and at some point you bet hard on a guy's talent and hope the situation irons itself out. This recommendation is the one most founded in conjecture, so don't go crazy, but I think he's starting to make believers out of people.
Drew Gooden announced that he has a strained abdominal and a pulled groin, injuries that are notoriously difficult to heal. That's great news for owners of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas, who could see extended runs for the next couple of weeks depending how Gooden's recovery goes. Noah has 12 blocks in his past two games and has been a rebounding fiend this month; Thomas is averaging a season-high 2.3 blocks in January and is available in a majority of leagues. It's worth noting that Darrell Arthur has seen his foul rate decline in January, from 2.8 in 18 minutes to 2.4 in 20 minutes. It could be just variance, or maybe those token starts have helped him foul less. It could be a boon to his future value, but for now he needs to find a way to get his field goal percentage out of the low 40s. The recent production of Peja Stojakovic (23 points per game) and James Posey (2.8 3-pointers) in their past five games can be attributed to the absence of David West, who's day-to-day with back spasms. It's great if they were in your lineup, but it's about what you will do for me, not what you have done; I will be convinced once either can sustain a modicum of consistency when the team's second scoring option is back at full strength. It was a good story when J.J. Redick briefly emerged from the shadows to nail a couple of 3-pointers and remind people why he was a (misguided) lottery pick. With Gerald Wallace out indefinitely due to the collapsed lung and broken rib he suffered at the hands of Andrew Bynum, Adam Morrison will get that same opportunity. Then again, he's shooting a brutal 36 percent from the field. Look at the Bobcats' depth chart, though, and you come across names like Shannon Brown, Alexis Ajinca and Juwan Howard. This is where a 10-day contract player might come in; don't be surprised if a no-name suddenly emerges with value.
Chris Andersen, PF, Nuggets (1.8 percent owned): On a per-minute basis, Andersen is quite productive, averaging 10.4 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per 36 minutes. Even slicing those numbers in half, 5.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks with 56.5 percent shooting is pretty decent. Blocks are so scarce that Andersen is tied for fourth in blocks per game, and he has slightly better numbers than the other underrated block specialist, Ronny Turiaf (2.1 per game). So many owners are loath to add a guy logging less than 20 minutes to their roster, but blocks really are that valuable. It reminds me of the steals category in baseball; sure, it's better to get a player who contributes in more than one category, but in an imperfect world, the specialists have value too, and are inexplicably being overlooked. Andersen also has the chance (or "upside") of being thrust into the fantasy spotlight if the perennially injured Nene comes down awkwardly one of these days.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.