Where to draft Yao Ming?
Where is Yao Ming worth drafting, considering his minutes limit?
Let's start with the positive, because no one seems to be doing that with Yao Ming these days. At his best, Ming provides a combination of stats that is special for a center. He's a great scorer who can block shots and make free throws. Look at what has made Brook Lopez so good the past couple seasons, and you should be able to start to remember why Ming was such a great fantasy player when he was healthy.
More importantly, for whatever injuries he has suffered, Ming is 7-foot-6 and he still can shoot the ball better than just about any other 7-footer in the league. Those skills tend to hold up over time, so even if Ming isn't the player he used to be, he should still be useful.
Now to the negatives. Houston Rockets vice president and athletic trainer Keith Jones has already stated the team will limit Ming to no more than 24 minutes per game this season and likely hold him out of one game in back-to-back sets. Since the Rockets have 20 back-to-backs this season, Ming would likely miss 20 games, whether he is injured or not.
Let's handle the missed games issue first. A missed game that you know about in advance is better than a missed game that's a surprise. If you know that you need to hold Ming out of the back end of back-to-backs, you can simply plan to play another center on those nights (most of the time) in leagues with daily lineup moves. Yeah, you would like to have Ming play 82 games, but his production on a per-game basis is good enough -- especially in roto leagues -- that it's worth getting him into your lineup when you can.As for the minutes, let's take Ming's numbers from his last healthy season, 2008-09, and see what happens when we cut them down to 24 minutes per game. They look like this: 14.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game. It's worth pointing out that he may not average 24 minutes, if the team sticks to its word, because there will be games he doesn't reach that number, but those averages are just a tiny bit worse than what Andrew Bynum did in 30 minutes per game last season. You still get Ming's elite shooting from the floor and the line (52.5 percent and 83.2 percent, respectively). It's important to remember this isn't some average dude playing 24 minutes each night. It's Ming!AP Photo/David J. PhillipYao Ming's great shooting touch is a big part of what makes him so valuable at the center position.
Furthermore, being limited to 24 minutes per game could keep Ming fresher when he's on the floor. It's common to see players put up better per-minute numbers when they are playing fewer minutes per game, and it stands to reason that would be especially true for a 30-year-old giant with foot problems.
Even better, Ming's supporting cast is ideal right now. It looks like he'll be starting alongside Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier and Luis Scola. If you're keeping score at home, that's three pretty great outside shooters and a good power forward. There should be more room for Ming to operate in the post than he's ever had before.
I understand that I'm looking at all of these things in the most positive light possible, but the fact of the matter is fantasy basketball is all about finding value where other people aren't willing to look. There is definitely a chance that Ming will wind up injured and useless to your fantasy team this season, but there's a chance he will look a lot like his old self. And I'll take the old Ming over the likes of Chris Kaman, Andrew Bynum and Emeka Okafor any day of the week.
Depending on how much you like Ming's chances, he's worth drafting any time after the seventh round in standard leagues. Of course, you probably don't need to draft him quite that high. We have him 107th overall in our draft kit, and he's going 88th in live drafts. I took him in the eighth round of our initial ESPN.com mock draft, just after Marcus Camby and ahead of Nene. I think there's a good chance Nene will outperform Ming this season, but I think Ming has the higher ceiling.
The important thing to take away from that decision is it was a calculated risk. You can't just draft Ming and then say, "Welp, I guess I'm all squared away at center!" I had already drafted Al Jefferson, Kevin Love and Anthony Randolph, and I took Samuel Dalembert and Tiago Splitter later on. Dalembert, in particular, is a nice player to pair with Ming because he can replicate the rebounding and shot-blocking without killing you at the line, and he's as durable as it gets. Again, you can draft Ming, but you need to have a plan.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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