- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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I watch the NBA draft every June, and not to see who the last man in the green room is. Personally, that looks painful, having your Brady Quinn moment for more than an hour while the cameras follow your every fake smile and real frown. This past NBA draft, poor Darrell Arthur from Kansas sat around looking like he would rather be anywhere else, as rumors of a kidney problem made the rounds and kept him undrafted an extra hour. Meanwhile, after a draft-night trade, Memphis' Arthur is eighth among all rookies in rebounding. He's not fantasy-viable for most of us, but eventually, who knows?
To me, the high point of the 2008 draft was watching the Lopez brothers in action. I'm not a huge college basketball fan, consuming probably 90 percent of my annual NCAA hoops during March Madness, but even from watching a few Stanford games -- and the highlights on draft night -- I could see one of the brothers was going to make a much better pro, at least initially, than the other. I'm simplifying things, but Brook Lopez seemed a bit of a steal by the Nets at No. 10 overall, while the Suns reached a bit for Robin Lopez five picks later.
I liked what the Nets did, and labeled their pick an immediate fantasy sleeper because Lopez was going to a situation where Yi Jianlian, Josh Boone and Ryan Anderson were the top competition. That, my friends, plays a large part in how we analyze fantasy options. I can decide who I think has game and who doesn't, and read John Hollinger and the rest of our terrific crew of NBA writers, but ultimately a player needs opportunity. The better Lopez, the one who could score some, won that fraternal battle as well. All Robin had to deal with in Phoenix was some future Hall of Famer who goes by the name of Shaq, and top-5 fantasy pick Amare Stoudemire. If I liked any rookies after the obvious choices at all, Brook Lopez was looking like quite a nice sleeper.
On a personal level, I didn't like him so much Saturday night, though, as my favorite team -- the 76ers, for those of you who don't know -- was missing 18 consecutive field goal attempts and blowing a game that didn't appear could be blown. It was just a meaningless January night in the big picture of what will end up as a .500 season (and sure playoff spot in the East), but if you commit yourself to watching the good, you can't change the channel for the bad and see which episode of "Law & Order" is on. Lopez played a huge role in the monster comeback in Philly, dunking home the winning points in a career performance. The next morning I checked the fantasy team I drafted Lopez on, and obviously, the 24 points and 17 rebounds didn't hurt. I've had him active most of the time since Thanksgiving. It just would have been nice if he had missed that putback dunk inside 10 seconds.
Brook Lopez is similar to many rookies at this time of the season, starting to produce a noteworthy game more than once a month but still lacking consistency. I think we see it with big men more than the little guys, though I can't back that notion up with actual statistical proof. How does one define consistency? I see it in Greg Oden a few times per week, but let's face it: He is a rookie. Get him in early foul trouble and his night is generally ruined. Minnesota's Kevin Love is looking better and better, getting pimped by colleague Adam Madison in last week's If You're Hardcore. Brian McKitish seems to have stock in the Kings' Jason Thompson for the weekly check-in from his excellent Working the Wire column. It's not such a bad rookie class for fantasy this season.
Lopez improved his scoring from 10.9 points to 14.9 in January, which is significant, but ultimately he was a bit more valuable in December when he was blocking 2.3 shots per game and garnering 8.8 boards. Either way, he was worth owning each month, and Lopez is finally on more ESPN rosters than not. It's only going to get better, especially if, as we saw Saturday night, Vince Carter sprains his ankle more often. Someone has to score, and with Philly's Samuel Dalembert limping around on his own sprained ankle, it was Lopez. Maybe he can teach Yi how to block a shot.
The stunning thing I learned Monday about Lopez: You know how good a scorer O.J. Mayo is, and how swell a point guard Derrick Rose has become, but are you aware neither of them is the top rookie on our Player Rater? Lopez is! I know, it's shocking, right? I think Lopez will be a top-10 center in next season's drafts. As it is, he's close to being a top-10 center on our Player Rater. None of this means he's actually more valuable in real life than Mayo or Rose, or Clippers gunner Eric Gordon, who actually ranks ahead of Rose on the Rater (Rose is fourth among rooks), but throw in the blocks and the shooting and Lopez is a lot better than people think.
I haven't discussed rookies much this season, but here's my projected top 10 for fantasy prowess for the season, which obviously includes what has happened and what will. Remember, this doesn't mean I think Lopez is a better player than Mayo, or that Rose can't win Rookie of the Year, but we're talking fantasy, for which eight statistics matter. The numbers don't lie.
1. Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers: He turned into Michael Redd in January (21.9 ppg, 2.1 3s, 90.7% FT). Trust me, this surprises me, too, but statistically, he's the one.
2. Brook Lopez, C, Nets: With his blocks and overall shooting, he'll end up a top-50 player.
3. O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies: Shows no signs of assists or steals, but he's shooting better.
4. Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder: Was better for fantasy in January than Rose, easily.
5. Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls: The 16 and 6 are nice, but no range, no steals.
6. Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves: Could average double-double from now on, but no blocks.
7. Mario Chalmers, PG, Heat: Shockingly, is top rookie on own team, with assists, steals, 3s.
8. Greg Oden, C, Trail Blazers: Someday, I think.
9. Michael Beasley, PF, Heat: Disappointing season; maybe a Marion trade will help.
10. Jason Thompson, PF, Kings: More versatile than Marc Gasol, and trending upward.
Adam (D.C.): "Eric, I held out on Mike Dunleavy and Monta Ellis all season and now that they're finally playing they're not producing. I just moved Jason Kidd, Thaddeus Young and Jarrett Jack and got Ron Artest, Corey Maggette and Sebastian Telfair in return, and now no one on my roster seems to be doing anything. Shawn Marion is there, too. Do I need to scrap the team and look to take a risk in the second half or do I just need to hold out a bit longer?"
Karabell: Dunleavy looked fine to me scoring 30 points over the weekend. His shooting should come around -- let's remember how much time he missed -- and I'd think by March he's back to his 2007-08 self. I'd wait on Ellis, too, though he's liable to hurt fantasy owners more initially because he shoots so much and can't pick up points on 3-point shooting. I'd rather own Dunleavy than Ellis. Wait as long as you can before giving up. I'm not a big fan of Artest, Maggette or injured folks you might not get consistency out of, but I'd wait longer. For all we know, Marion gets moved and starts playing great. I doubt it, but one never knows.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy baseball, football and basketball. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His new book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.
Eric Karabell discusses the top rookies, including Brook Lopez, but says the Clippers' Eric Gordon will wind up on top in fantasy.