Which rookies will have greatest impact in '08-09?
When fantasy draft time comes around, it's easy to get overly excited about rookies. To even the seasoned fantasy player -- especially one with both feet in deep, keeper leagues -- the rookie is an untapped commodity, a symbol of hope. Because rookies have no previous track record, it is nearly impossible to predict things like their playing time and average production. Quite simply, we're usually just going on our best guesses.
Does this vast uncertainty make the fantasy owner shy away from drafting rookies? In a word: No. In an experts' draft last year, I drafted Kevin Durant 46th. Soon after, Corey Brewer went 53rd. Mike Conley came off the board at No. 77, followed by Luis Scola at No. 87, Marco Belinelli (remember him?) at No. 97 and Al Thornton at No. 104. According to ESPN.com's Player Rater, not a single one of these guys outperformed his position in our draft. Only Durant came close, finishing at 49th on the Player Rater; the rest of them didn't even get a sniff. Even more agonizing is that players drafted after Thornton in that experts' draft included productive players like Hedo Turkoglu, Jose Calderon, Shane Battier and Tayshaun Prince.
What's the lesson here? Should we avoid rookies in our fantasy drafts as if they're a bunch of injury-prone gunners? Well, maybe. But then we might miss out on guys such as Al Horford, who went undrafted in the same experts' league but finished the season 71st on the Player Rater. I'm sure many of us could have benefited a whole lot if we took a guy who just about averaged a double-double for the season in the final round or so of our fantasy drafts.
Really, that's the whole problem: We draft rookies because we think we're getting Al Horford, but really we're getting Belinelli, who, you may recall, was drafted on the strength of one summer league game in which he was being checked by such luminaries as Adam Haluska and Milt Palacio. As you know, Belinelli's only relevance in fantasy was the fact that many owners wasted a pick on him. Sure, it's possible to get away with drafting Kevin Durant in the fifth round, but it's more likely that you'll get Corey Brewer in the sixth instead. That's the same Corey Brewer who spent summer league averaging 10 boards in 30 minutes as a small forward and was among the least-productive players in the entire NBA all season for the Timberwolves.
The lesson here is that you've got to be careful. Even though you project Jerryd Bayless to come out of the Blazers' backcourt and torch the league right away, try waiting a few rounds longer than you'd like to on draft day. If someone else drafts him, you can say, "I really wanted that guy!" Odds are he won't outperform his draft position anyway, and you can spend the winter basking in the quiet satisfaction that this time around -- just this once -- it was better that you didn't get what you wanted.
All that aside, in 10-team leagues, you'll want to look at:
Michael Beasley, PF, Heat: He's this year's Kevin Durant only with a much, much better supporting cast. He'll start the season as the second option on offense for the Heat, and as long as Dwyane Wade receives all the attention, Beasley should be able to get good looks. He struggled from the floor in the summer league but managed to put up 19.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in slightly more than 27 minutes per contest. He has the ability and he'll have the opportunity, which is all you can ask for a rookie in fantasy. However, I'm not convinced he'll have the sort of impact in the defensive categories that Durant has. As such, I wouldn't draft Beasley higher than 50th overall, but if you can get him after that, I think his scoring, rebounding and possible ability to step out and make 3s as a power forward will make him worth the risk.
O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies: As the only true scoring guard on the Grizzlies' roster, Mayo should get plenty of minutes right away. And although head coach Marc Iavaroni tries to clean up the logjam at point guard, Mayo's all-court skills should help ease some of the pressure on the promising trio of Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry and Javaris Crittenton. Even better, the emergence of Rudy Gay as an elite player means that defenses won't be able to focus so much on O.J. I can see Mayo filling a similar role in the Grizzlies' offense to the one Leandro Barbosa has had in Phoenix the past couple of years. If he can manage to average 16 points, 4 boards and 4 assists (which, by the way, is what Dwyane Wade put up as a rookie), then getting Mayo somewhere around the 75th pick seems like a good bargain. Any earlier and you're better off drafting someone a little more proven -- think Corey Maggette, Mike Miller or Jason Terry -- if you're not in a keeper league.
Jerryd Bayless, PG/SG, Trail Blazers: I know, I know. Summer league stats are always tempting first and meaningless later. Bayless, however, was consistently spectacular. He scored at least 26 points in each of the four games in which he played, and he attempted a mind-boggling 61 free-throws and made 51. His willingness to force the issue should serve him well at the next level. Getting to play alongside Brandon Roy should mitigate the fact that Bayless doesn't yet have the sort of point guard skills that the Blazers clearly hope he'll develop. Portland traded for him in the draft because he was the player it wanted, and although he'll have to share some of the load with fellow newcomer Rudy Fernandez, I think Bayless will have the more impressive rookie campaign. Expect him to settle in somewhere around 14 points and 3 assists, but if he's able to get to the line a lot, his value will go up. For his rookie season, he should be a more valuable version of Jarrett Jack, and I'd draft him anywhere after the 90th pick (or sooner if your team is already loaded with established veterans).
Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves: Unless he gets beaten out by Calvin Booth or Jason Collins (and that won't happen), Love will play plenty of minutes right away. He'll also form an intriguing inside/outside tandem with Al Jefferson, who established himself as a 20-and-10 guy last season (as well as a guy you absolutely have to double-team). Although he didn't show it in the summer league, Love could be an excellent source of assists in the right system, but it seems as if most of his value will come on the glass. Sadly, we just don't know how he'll adjust to the size and speed of the pro game. In addition, he seems to be the sort of player who is at his best when he's surrounded by other good players. With Sebastian Telfair and Randy Foye running the offense, Love may find himself frustrated and underused. If it's nearing the end of the draft and your team needs some help on the glass, he's worth a shot. Otherwise, let the guy in your league who thinks Love's the next Wes Unseld pick him up three rounds too soon.
Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls: They didn't draft him first overall to keep him on the bench, so you know he'll get some run. That said, I won't be the one drafting him in my league. It's always a bit of a liability to draft a point guard who won't hit 3-pointers, and I'm expecting a bounce-back season from Kirk Hinrich anyway. The ideal scenario for Rose would be to play alongside Hinrich so he doesn't have too much pressure to run the whole offense right away. Unfortunately, it's unclear at this point how the roster will settle itself and how new coach Vinny Del Negro will handle his young, inexperienced squad. I love Rose's talent, and I'd try to gobble him up in the middle rounds in a keeper league, but if your league is just for this season, it's probably best to let someone else take the risk. The obvious comparison for Rose, because of his size, is Jason Kidd, and although Kidd put up nearly 12 points, 8 boards and 6 dimes in his rookie season, he also shot slightly worse than 39 percent from the floor and 70 percent from the line. For Rose, those percentages sound about right, but I don't think he'll match Kidd's production on the counting stats any time soon.
Brook Lopez, C, Nets: Drafting Lopez would be all about upside. Despite the success of Al Horford last season, there isn't a great track record for rookie centers, and Lopez begins the season playing behind the promising duo of Josh Boone and Sean Williams. The thing is, Lopez is the only Nets big man with the ability to create his own offense on the block. Of course, some of us used that logic to waste a pick on the 76ers' Jason Smith last year. I wouldn't be surprised to see Lopez start the season chained to the bench, but I think he'll get more of a chance as the season wears on. Lopez has a lot of talent, and New Jersey was excited to draft him. Those things alone might be enough to make drafting him in the late rounds as a third center worth your while. I wouldn't take him ahead of the Celtics' Kendrick Perkins, but I'd rather have his upside over whatever production you'd get out of Ben Wallace or Nazr Mohammed.
Rudy Fernandez, SG, Trail Blazers: Coming off his extremely impressive showing in the Olympic gold-medal game (he had 22 points including five 3-pointers), Fernandez will earn some buzz heading into fantasy drafts. If the Blazers are willing to go small occasionally, their best lineup might be one in which Brandon Roy, Jerryd Bayless and Fernandez are all on the floor at the same time. Fernandez has a ton of upside, to the point that he probably would have been a top-five pick in this year's draft. It's hard to project his stats, but if you are coming to the end of your draft and want to look at a guard who can hit 3s in volume, he's definitely worth a shot.
Take a flier on these guys in 12-team and deeper leagues:
Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers: When the Clips drafted him, he looked like a good candidate for rookie of the year, but the signings of Jason Williams and Ricky Davis have me a little less excited. He might move ahead of Cuttino Mobley as the season progresses, but you're probably better off trying to nab him off the waiver wire.
J.J. Hickson, PF, Cavaliers: He's playing behind Ben Wallace, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, so he should see some time filling in when the Cavs have to contend with injuries. Hickson looked great in summer league play and might be the Cavs' first big off the bench by midseason.
Darrell Arthur, PF, Grizzlies: Arthur showed absolutely no rebounding ability at all during summer league play. However, he seemed like a great sleeper candidate coming out of the draft, and someone in your league will take him way, way too soon. Try using him as a smoke screen for someone you really want; it's always good to lie as much as possible during your draft.
Donte Greene, SF, Kings: I liked him as a spark off the bench before he was traded by the Rockets. Unless the Kings go small and use him at the 4, he could find himself stuck in a logjam with Francisco Garcia and John Salmons, both of whom already have shown a lot of ability at the pro level.
Danilo Gallinari, SF, Knicks: He can score, but once Jamal Crawford and Zach Randolph get their touches, I'm not sure there'll be enough left for Gallinari to be fantasy-relevant. There's some major upside, as he seems like the kind of player who will fit well into Mike D'Antoni's system, but I'll be shocked if he averages more than eight or nine points per game, and he won't rebound or pass enough to contribute in any but the deepest leagues.
D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats: He's stuck behind Raymond Felton, and until that situation is resolved, he won't get enough minutes to be worthwhile in fantasy. Still, he's a promising player, and if the Bobcats move Felton, Augustin could have a productive second half. If you can afford to stash him on your bench, he'd be a decent late-round keeper pick.
Chris Douglas-Roberts, SF/SG, Nets: I think he'll be a solid player in an NBA rotation, and he could find himself with a lot of responsibility if the Nets deal Vince Carter at some point this season. Until then, CDR won't get enough of a chance. In deep leagues, he's worth the risk if you need scoring at the end of the draft, but you're better off keeping an eye on him and picking him up when he starts getting minutes.
Bill Walker, SG/SF, Celtics: Walker was one of the top prospects in the country for a long time and would have been a lottery pick if he hadn't been injured. The Celtics went down this road with Leon Powe, but it took a few seasons for him to be worth anything in fantasy. The same likely will be true of Walker, but with James Posey gone, if Tony Allen still isn't himself, the opportunity could come sooner than people think.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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