If You're Hardcore : Fantasy hoops sleepers
I have nothing against the shallow fantasy leagues, but to me, every real-life championship team has a few role players. Jeff Foster types who do the dirty work and contribute in multiple areas, without fanfare, so the same should hold true in our line of work. If You're Hardcore isn't merely a column you will see on these ESPN Fantasy pages across multiple sports in some form or another; it's reality.
Sure, it's always fun to have seven of your 10 active players in fantasy average 20 points per night, and count the All-Stars come February, but I choose the deeper leagues. I want to be the guy who takes offensively challenged center Foster, for example, when nobody else wants him, because I see he has opportunity and he's going to own the boards. Yes sir, I will take those many double-digit rebound nights, and find me some scoring elsewhere, just like those NBA teams do it.
So it is that we approach this new fantasy basketball season, and I have some names in mind that aren't likely to be drafted in most leagues, mainly due to circumstance. All of them could play significant roles in real life and fantasy, and really, while I love Kevin Garnett, I enjoyed the complementary play of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins in the Finals just as much. That's hardcore.
Here are eight players to watch in those deep leagues for this season.
Marcus Williams, PG, Warriors: He's probably moved a bit past this status now, since everyone knows Monta Ellis is hurt and opportunity has opened up, but Williams was going to be in this spot regardless, before that injury. Check out the Golden State roster: Do you spot a natural point guard anywhere? Nah, me neither. Williams was acquired from the Nets for a first-round pick. When Jason Kidd was dealt out of New Jersey this past season, I thought Williams would get more run, and the UConn product did average 11.1 points and 6.3 assists when starting. Is Ellis really a true point guard, anyway? I don't think so. Williams has opportunity now, and if he plays well -- 12 and 6 per night is all we ask, with the hope of more -- then Ellis can resume his shooting guard duties when he comes back. While I'm waxing poetic about a Warrior, don't sleep on Ronny Turiaf; the former Laker will block shots and will play significantly more minutes. You can do worse for a reserve center in deep formats.
Yi Jianlian, SF/PF, Nets: The Bucks never did seem enamored with their first-rounder last season, so they shipped him East in the Richard Jefferson deal. I'm not expecting 15 and 10 from Yi, but there are skills here, and he did show them off at times. Hey, he was a rookie adjusting to a totally new culture; he deserves a break. Last December, when he was given proper playing time, he averaged 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds, he blocked a shot per game and made more than half his field-goal attempts. I want to see this over numerous months, not 30 days, and I think it's possible with 30 minutes per night. What else do the Nets feature in the frontcourt? Well, there's Josh Boone, Brook Lopez, Stromile Swift and Sean Williams lurking. Hello, opportunity will knock, and you can get Yi very late, if not as a free agent. Speaking of the Nets, it seems like it's Vince Carter and Devin Harris scoring all the points, so I kinda like Keyon Dooling to man the point a bit, pushing Harris to the 2-guard, but there's little upside there. Chris Douglas-Roberts can play alongside Harris in the backcourt, too.
Jason Maxiell, PF/C, Pistons: I liked what I saw from this strong bruiser in the playoff-series victory against the 76ers -- well, I wanted my team to win, but I thought Maxiell was emerging, anyway -- and now that he's in his fourth season and Antonio McDyess is 75 years old, I could see his minutes rising to the 25-28 range. Maxiell is a high-percentage shooter who needs to work on his offense, but defensively he's ready to break out into eight or more rebounds and two blocks. The Pistons have given him 15 starts the past two seasons, and the energetic Maxiell should get even more chances this season as McDyess misses games and Kwame Brown plays, well, pretty much the way Kwame Brown normally does. I could see 14 and 7 from Maxiell, with those oh-so-coveted blocks from the forward position in fantasy, if he starts half the season. That he's center-eligible in ESPN leagues doesn't hurt, either.
Marc Gasol, C, Grizzlies: No, the Lakers are not going to regret shipping this guy as part of the deal to acquire his brother Pau, which of course worked out beautifully and helped spur the team to the NBA Finals. However, little bro Marc has skills, too. One can tell only so much from watching a player in the Olympics, where the rules aren't the same, but this Gasol is a wide-bodied 7-footer who was viewed as a project a year ago, but not really anymore. He averaged around 16 and 8 with two blocks in the Spanish league, and while those numbers might be a bit much to ask for in his NBA rookie campaign, note that Memphis is planning to start Darko Milicic at center. Now, I do think Darko can block a shot and score on occasion, but he's a poor percentage shooter from everywhere but under the basket. Gasol is more raw, but the gap has closed. I'd take a shot on Gasol late in a deep league, because he could move quickly into the starting lineup.
Luke Ridnour, PG, Bucks: I've already seen a few drafts in which the owners felt the de facto point guard in Cheeseland was Ramon Sessions -- and sure, if you look at what he did the final month, you have to love the potential. Sessions came from nowhere to pick up starts when Mo Williams was hurt, and he averaged 11.5 points and 11.3 assists in 10 April games. The only problem with Sessions being a breakout star, or the next Jose Calderon, is Ridnour currently sits atop the depth chart. There isn't much upside with Ridnour, but the former Sonic does get the ball to the right places, can garner steals and doesn't turn the ball over much. I pay a lot of attention to point guard situations, because I'll be the one drafting all the scoring/rebounding forwards I can and hoping to steal an effective point guard late for my assists. It's like fantasy baseball with stolen bases. I'll grab them late. Last season, I lucked out on a few point guards late, like Jamaal Tinsley and Rafer Alston, and it worked out. Ridnour is capable of 12 and 7, and Sessions is no lock to begin the season as the starter. Remember, we're talking hardcore here, so it should be players few are expecting.
Boris Diaw, PF/SF, Suns: And we finish up with someone whom fantasy owners really enjoyed three seasons ago, but not so much since. The Suns figure to go with Raja Bell and Leandro Barbosa next to Steve Nash, and Grant Hill with Matt Barnes at the small forward spot, but Diaw can guard bigger players, and as constructed he's the top backup for big men Amare Stoudemire and Shaquille O'Neal. Even as half the player he once was, Shaq is still very likely to suffer some kind of injury and miss many games, or he'll just decide he's tired and sit some out. Amare can man the middle, but that leaves the Suns -- even if they run all the time -- lacking size. Diaw is a solid all-around contributor, especially if you need assists and need them in addition to point guards. Diaw was second on the team in assists, and if your league uses turnovers, it's nice to have a power forward who doesn't kill your team in that category. I just think Diaw is underrated at this point.
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. You can e-mail him here.