30 Questions: Who will be this season's Ellis, Biedrins and Barnes?
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.
The Golden State Warriors were a fun team to watch last season and a bonanza for fantasy owners. Baron Davis owners were rewarded with All-Star level play for their midround gamble. Ellis surprised almost everyone with the huge improvement in his play, hence the Most Improved Player award he hauled in last season. Likewise, Biedrins, unknown to everyone but the staff of your local Latvian consulate, was waiver-wire gold last November. The Warriors kept on giving throughout the year. Matt Barnes and his Fruit Stripe Gum assortment of fantasy flavors was a midseason bonus in December and January. Then came the Jan. 16 trade that brought Stephen Jackson and Al Harrington to the team; both increased their value upon moving west, especially Jackson. Only Jason Richardson proved a disappointment, and most of his poor production can be blamed on injury.
Given coach Nelson's predilection for finding unknown talent and burnishing it into fantasy gold, who can we look to this season to provide value from the wire?
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The first thing to note about the Warriors is that they're deeper than they were last season. The depth is especially apparent at the 1, 2 and 3. Troy Hudson will help the Warriors keep the pace up behind Davis at the point. Ellis will also play some point, though his training camp neck sprain robbed him of practice minutes and Nelson has said he will again use Ellis as a combo guard. Shooting guard is loaded with Ellis, heralded rookie Marco Belinelli and Kelenna Azubuike; all are ready to contribute. At small forward, Jackson will start upon returning from his seven-game suspension and will be backed up by Barnes and Mickael Pietrus. Both players also can slide to power forward when the Warriors get like your girlfriend's favorite T-shirt and go extra small.
With this many horses, Nelson's rotation is going to be a bit different than the short-bench version of the Warriors you saw during the spring in the playoffs, which went only seven deep. I don't see anyone on this team who's likely to equal the unexpected value that Ellis and Biedrins provided last season. However, injuries happen and there are some players to keep your eye on. After all, the Warriors were the second-leading scoring team in the league last season with 106.5 points per game. With more shooting and scoring comes more fantasy value. And it isn't just on offense where the Warriors have value. They led the league in steals with 9.1 per game and were third in blocks (5.7). With these kinds of stats to go around, even marginal players should be of interest to savvy owners.
The thinnest position for the Warriors is center. Biedrins was impressive last season but was a bit gassed in the second half (10.2 points, 9.6 rebounds before the All-Star break and 8.3 points, 8.8 boards after). I do not expect a similar fade this season, and Patrick O'Bryant is part of the reason why. The second-year center spent most of last season in the D-League but is looking much stronger this preseason. In just 15 minutes per contest, he is averaging 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. As Biedrins' backup, O'Bryant should expect more minutes this season, and if you are in a deep league and need blocks and boards, he is a nice sleeper choice.
Azubuike is a name most non-Warriors fans will be unfamiliar with. He was a D-League call-up who averaged just 16 minutes in 41 games last season, yet looks like he is going to get the starting job at small forward while Jackson sits with his suspension. When Jackson returns, he could start at the two, allowing Nellie to use the high-scoring Ellis to lead the second unit. Azubuike brings excellent 3-point shooting to the table along with good handles and rebounding. Though many analysts in the offseason projected Belinelli to steal the starting 2-guard job from Ellis, it is Kelenna (or Kaz) who could get the nod. He has been electric in the preseason, leading the team in scoring (17.2) and will see minutes in the mid-20s. Both he and Belinelli will be worth owning at points throughout the season.
Outside of O'Bryant, Azubuike and Belinelli, I don't see anyone likely to emerge this season, and even they won't bring value like Biedrins, Ellis and Barnes did last season. I just don't see the minutes being there. Rookie Brandan Wright (14.8 minutes, 4.8 points, 3.8 rebounds in four preseason games) is likely to see time in the D-League and will not be fantasy-relevant until next season. Those of you in 30-team deep leagues -- they are becoming more popular, so don't scoff -- should watch Stephane Lasme's minutes. If he gets any run, he will block shots. He was second in the nation last season at UMass with 5.1 per game.
And remember, all of this is subject to the mercurial moods of Nellie. Who starts and who comes off the bench is not always a great indicator of minutes for Golden State. Today, Nellie is talking up Pietrus as the starting power forward. Tomorrow, who knows?
Guy Lake is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.