30 Questions: Who is the Pistons youngster to watch?
Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NBA team. Be sure to check out the 30 Questions Index to see them all.
Like their namesake, the Motor City, Detroit's Pistons are a well-oiled machine. The main components have been together for years, with Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace forming the core of the team since its championship run in 2003-04. In Detroit, the motto is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." But after another premature playoff exit in the spring, it might be time for a changing of the guard. In the search for this year's top model, the question on my mind is:
Just as I prepared to anoint Rodney Stuckey as the chosen one, the promising rookie broke his hand in the Pistons' final preseason game. Detroit will be stuck without Stuckey for about six weeks, roughly a quarter of the NBA season. While you shouldn't waste a roster spot on him now, keep Rodney in mind for later this season. His preseason numbers were quite impressive: in 25 minutes per game, Stuckey averaged 12.1 points, 3.1 assists, 1.2 steals, and more than five free throws made while shooting 79 percent from the line. His 37.5 field-goal percentage will improve with time, and there's no doubt that the Pistons would like him to be the first guard off the bench once he's healthy. While Stuckey's injury could open the door for fellow rookie Arron Afflalo to get more minutes, Afflalo is more of a defensive specialist and will not be a fantasy factor this season.
In Stuckey's absence, the answer to this question becomes much easier. The Pistons' energizing force, the young warrior who will jump-start Detroit out of its complacent, what-me-worry, been-there-done-that attitude, is none other than Mad Max, Jason Maxiell.
With Chris Webber unsigned and apparently not in the Pistons' plans, Maxiell will be the first big man off the Detroit bench, backing up both Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace. Last season, in just 14 minutes a game, Jason averaged 5.0 points, 2.8 rebounds, 0.45 steals and 0.9 blocks while shooting 50 percent from the field. His Achilles' heel was his 53 percent foul shooting, but hopefully that will improve with time. This preseason, Maxiell averaged 11.8 points, 8.4 rebounds and shot 52.8 percent from the field, but only 52.9 percent from the line, in 26 minutes per game. In college at Cincinnati, his career averages were 12.1 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Maxiell is listed at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, and his sturdy frame has drawn favorable comparisons to a young Charles Barkley. But Jason is deceptively explosive around the basket and is developing a nice short-range jump shot to complement his thunderous dunks. He should continue to improve as a shot-blocker and rebounder, and could earn up to 30 minutes of playing time as a sixth man. Especially if he gains center eligibility, Maxiell could be a fantasy factor this season, and is certainly worth a bench spot for your team.
Another Pistons youngster to keep an eye on, especially in keeper leagues, is Amir Johnson. The 6-foot-9 forward is entering his third season, but is just 20 years old, having come straight to the NBA from Westchester High School in Los Angeles. Johnson played in just eight games last season, averaging 6.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 15 minutes per game. But his tremendous potential was evident in the final week of the season; in one game against Boston, he exploded for 20 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks; in another game versus Philly, he tallied 12 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks. A sprained ankle has slowed him down this preseason, but Johnson is definitely a big part of the Pistons' future.
The future is now for Maxiell, who will be given every opportunity to excel this season. Playing in the shadows of his veteran Pistons teammates, Maxiell is still a relative unknown outside of Detroit. As of press time, he was owned in fewer than seven percent of ESPN leagues. By comparison, Tyrus Thomas, with comparable stats to Maxiell last season, was owned in 50 percent of ESPN leagues. Even unproven rookie Yi Jianlian is on nearly 40 percent of all rosters. So you can probably wait until the final round of your draft to nab Maxiell, a move which will be all the more gratifying when he shifts his game into overdrive this season.
Tony Targan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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