Owning/drafting 'layaway players' worth it?


How many times has the following happened to you?

You're heading into the sixth round of your draft, and there has been a significant drop-off in the talent pool. Or, more specifically, a drop-off in players with name recognition. Gone are the Roys, the Artests and the Odens. You're staring into the faces of Richard Hamilton, Tyson Chandler and Jamal Crawford. Solid yet, on the whole, uninspiring performers. (I used to play with this one owner in an L.A.-based league who every year, without fail, would lament, "This is the last superstar left!" sometime in the third round. I miss that guy.)

The big names are long gone. But there is one name that leaps out at you: Gilbert Arenas.

As in, the guy with 29.4 points per game … 6.1 assists per game … 2.5 3-pointers … 2.0 steals … but it was in 2005-06.

Yes, he's hurt again, and it's mind-boggling as to why the Wizards are apparently caring for their superstars via HMO, but at least Arenas is supposed to be back by late December! And he says he could be back even sooner! How do you know this? Because you read his blog way too often! Not to mention the Wizards are your favorite team, and Arenas is your favorite player (at least now that Popeye Jones is gone)!

Now empathy creeps in. Poor Agent Zero, all by his lonesome, unpicked as of yet. People are cruel. No, people are haters. It's not Arenas' fault Gerald Wallace ran into him two years ago (which, incidentally, is why you've found it hard to draft Wallace ever since).

The ESPN music stings! You're up!

You know Arenas is not going to last into the seventh round. Do you take a solid fantasy producer with upside such as Andris Biedrins, or do you go for the gusto and play a waiting game on one of fantasy's top performers? Of course, that "top performer" label was from two seasons ago, but all indications are that, with a little patience and some tender, loving care, you'll have an All-Star's services for approximately 50 games.

You can enjoy watching your fellow owners sweat as reports of his imminent return flood the information superhighway. You'll look like a genius, a regular miniature Ernie Grunfeld. Then, if you want, you can always trade Gilbert to a panicked owner -- a less intelligent, impatient soul -- for whomever you desire.

So what do you do?

I'll tell you what you do. You exhale, take Biedrins, and let someone else worry about why a professional training staff needs about two full years to successfully repair a knee problem. (Honestly, I'm not bitter.)

I told you this story to help answer a larger question, not "How smart was I for taking Biedrins?" but this one: "Is it worth putting a star player on what I like to call 'Fantasy Layaway?'"

It's really a case-by-case decision, but for the most part, I stay away from such situations. I generally don't do it because you're potentially surrendering a draft pick. Yes, there's big upside, but if you want to go for upside, there are other players with upside who will give you a full 82 games. And it forces you to draft the injured players' handcuff, if he hasn't been drafted already. So now you're talking about two potentially wasted picks.

But there have been times I've done it. Here's a little checklist I use when making the decision:

1. Timetable for return: How many games can we project we'll get out of this player? Anything All-Star Weekend or beyond, leave him alone. It gets even tougher to call when the projected return is January to February because the timetable easily could be slid back to after the break at that point.

2. Type of injury: Are we looking at a fracture -- something that shouldn't cause any lingering effects once said player returns -- or something potentially chronic, such as a knee or ankle issue? What type of surgery, if any, did it require? Was it fixing an ACL? Was it the dreaded microfracture procedure? And even after he returns, will the player need to be eased back into a full-time role in the rotation?

3. Injury history: Is this a normally durable player who just had a bit of bad luck, like Elton Brand last season? Or is this player just preternaturally brittle, like an Elisabeth Hasselbeck or Dwyane Wade? If the latter, you must take any timetable given to rehabilitation with a Robert Traylor-sized grain of salt.

4. Team outlook: Is this a contending team that will put the pedal to the metal and get our dented star back on the court ASAP? Or is this a team with no postseason prospects that might be better off just deciding to shut down its franchise player?

5. Team depth at position: Is this player the only top performer at his position, or is there someone with upside lurking in the wings who could end up taking away minutes after our star comes back?

Now let's take a look at a couple of recent cases of "fantasy layaway."

Pau Gasol, 2006-07
Average Draft Position (ADP): 64.4
Players taken in his vicinity: Andre Iguodala, Deron Williams, Josh Howard

Gasol infamously fractured his foot in the summer of 2006 while playing for the Spanish national team in the FIBA World Championships. His return was projected to be a wonderful Christmas gift for his patient owners (sadly, a little too late for Hanukkah).

That was a reasonable timetable for return. And since it was a fracture, nobody expected any lingering effects (although Zydrunas Ilgauskas did have problems when he returned from a broken foot). On draft date, Gasol was the franchise player on a playoff team, so you figured the Grizzlies probably were pretty eager to get him back. And finally, his only competition up front was Stromile Swift.

If you drafted Gasol, you got 59 games of pretty primo Gasol: 20.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and a .538 field goal percentage. Of course, you could have gotten 80 games of Deron Williams (18.8 points, 9.3 assists), but that's just nitpicking, isn't it?

Elton Brand, 2007-08
ADP: 94.2
Players in vicinity: Mike Dunleavy, Hedo Turkoglu, Al Horford

In this case, Brand ruptured his Achilles while playing one-on-one with Chris Kaman (who, when confronted with a defenseless Brand, apparently took the opportunity to enact some sort of wraith-like temporary mind-suck of Brand's basketball talent). Brand's initial return was projected sometime in January.

So, not-so-reasonable a return. It was a ruptured Achilles, a fairly serious injury and one that can be tough to come back from (but once it's returned from, it usually isn't a chronic malady). Again here, Brand was the franchise player on a playoff team. And his only real competition up front? Chris Kaman.

If you drafted him, you watched his return get pushed back further … and further … and further … just a little bit more and … finally he was back -- with eight games remaining in the season. You got 141 points, 64 rebounds and 15 blocks for the season. He was only a ninth-round pick, but a ninth-rounder also could have netted you 80 games of Al Horford (10.1 points, 9.7 rebounds, 0.9 blocks).

Not enough? What about 82 games of Mike Dunleavy (19.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 3-pointers, 3.5 steals). Doesn't scare you?

Then how about 82 games of Hedo Turkoglu (19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 2.0 3-pointers, 1.0 steals, .456 field goal percentage, .875 free-throw percentage, the admiration of Turkish people around the world).

I rest my case.

And get well soon, Gilbert!

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.