NBA Offseason Notebook: Rookies in summer leagues
Any analysis of the NBA summer leagues should be taken with a grain of salt. For evidence, I point to some of the best performers last summer; Marcus Banks, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson. These guys put on some nice shows last summer, but once the regular season rolled around they barely even made a blip on the fantasy radar. Let's face it; summer leagues are not the greatest indicators we have for determining how a player will perform once the regular season begins.
That, however, doesn't mean that the fantasy crowd should ignore these games completely. There's still plenty to learn from summer-league action, and it's not all about the statistics. It's about getting a chance to see how these players are progressing, and getting a closer look at how their skills match up against players of similar talent levels. With that in mind, let's take a look at the action thus far:
Michael Beasley, F, Heat: Other than one off game (where he struggled against the Nets), Beasley was a beast at the Orlando Summer League. After five contests he finished with averages of 19.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks and a 3-pointer in 27.1 minutes per game. Since I'm not too worried about his ability to score and rebound in his rookie season, it was nice to see that he could also create some steals, block some shots and knock it down from downtown. He will, like any rookie, be inconsistent, but outside of Greg Oden (who will be considered a rookie this season), Beasley will likely be the most consistent of the bunch.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City: Westbrook was the "buzz" player in Orlando this year, as many were left in awe of his speed and athleticism. Finishing the week with averages of 16.5 points, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals in 26.2 minutes, Westbrook, who was already considered a great defender, impressed most on the offensive end. His quick first step and athleticism allowed him to get into the lane almost at will, and that's a quality that is often overlooked in the NBA. Given the way he's progressing, and considering that he'll likely earn 30-plus minutes in Oklahoma, he's quickly turning into my sleeper pick for the 2008-09 fantasy rookie of the year race.
Brook Lopez, C, Nets: Most analysts look at Lopez's tour in Orlando as a successful one. He showed a well-rounded and refined offensive game in the post, which allowed him to score 19.6 points per game while shooting 60 percent from the floor in 24.5 minutes per game. Lopez won't win any awards for his defensive abilities, but he was able to block 1.8 shots per contest as well. Unfortunately, he also registered 26 fouls in five games, and he won't be able to be as aggressive in the shot-blocking area when the fouls actually count (remember, fouls are not an issue in the summer leagues). The biggest and most glaring weakness that surfaced in Orlando was Lopez's inability to pull down rebounds. He averaged just 4.8 boards per game, and that's not exactly what we're looking for in a big man in the fantasy game. Lopez did look solid enough in Orlando to be considered the front-runner for minutes in the Nets' crowded frontcourt this season -- Nenad Krstic, Josh Boone and Sean Williams -- but will he get the minutes he needs to be a fantasy force? I don't think so, at least not in regular-sized leagues.
Jerryd Bayless, G, Trail Blazers: Possibly my favorite player in the entire 2008 NBA draft, Bayless has been tearing it up in Vegas averaging 27.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in two contests. Bayless still has a little ways to go before we can consider him a viable fantasy prospect, because he will be in a crowded backcourt situation in Portland, but also because he still needs to refine his game before he's ready to make it big time. One thing is for sure though; we can't doubt his pure skills. The kid is lighting quick and super athletic, and he can do a lot of things on the offensive end that many cannot. I'm probably not going to have him all that high on my cheat sheets for the upcoming season, but you can be sure I'm ranking him high in keeper league formats.
Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers: I have already gone on record stating that I do not think all that highly of Gordon's future fantasy prospects. I think, in a best case scenario, he will turn into a type of player like Ben Gordon. He will score lots of points, knock in some 3s and little else. And while that's not such a bad thing, it also puts a cap on his upside, at least in terms of fantasy. Unless he shows an ability to create steals in bulk, I'm afraid we're looking at a player who won't be a multi-category producer. I will say this however: Gordon upped his fantasy stock before a hamstring injury shut him down in 2007-08. Sure he had some terrible shooting games from the floor, but he also got to the line 10.5 times per game, which shows me that he's aggressive and quick enough to get into the lane to draw fouls and can be a big fantasy contributor from the line.
Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls: Speaking of Rose, his summer has been quite the disappointment thus far. He was shut down, not only by tendinitis in his right knee, but also by Chalmers in his first game. It's not that big of a deal, but I already had my concerns about Rose's fantasy prospects prior to the poor showing. For all of the great things Rose can do, he still doesn't have a great jump shot, and is not a tremendous free throw shooter for a point guard. Add in the fact that he's a rookie (rookie PGs tend to disappoint) and he still has Kirk Hinrich to compete with in the Chicago backcourt, we have a recipe for a less than stellar first fantasy season. This outlook will change if the Bulls move Hinrich prior to the season, but for right now, I won't be looking at Rose in fantasy drafts as anything other than a high upside gamble in the later rounds. Of course, if we're talking about a keeper league, you can throw everything I just said out the window because he's going to be a good one down the line.
Donte' Greene, F, Rockets: Say hello to this year's Marco Belinelli. I saw some people getting all giddy over Greene's 40-point outburst against Phoenix on Monday, but we have to realize that this kid, while a special player, is still long ways off from realizing his potential at this level. Don't get me wrong, I love Greene's game and his upside, but he would have been better served sticking at Syracuse for another year or two before making the jump to the NBA. Here's the thing: Greene can't score 40 in a game while riding the pine in Houston, and that's exactly what he'll be doing in 2008-09. So keep his name in the back of your mind for future seasons, but don't bother this season because he's not likely to make much of a fantasy impact.
Joe Alexander, F, Bucks: Aside from Rose, Alexander has been the biggest disappointment in the summer thus far. To some extent, Rose gets a pass because of injury. Alexander, on the other hand, has simply played poor basketball. To his credit, he did improve after his 2-for-13 stinker on Monday night, going 5-for-9 from the floor for 11 points in his second outing. Still, his game has looked far too raw to expect much of anything from a fantasy perspective this season. If you were thinking about Alexander as a deep, late-round flier, you might want to consider other options, like the next player on this list.
Danilo Gallinari, F, Knicks: Gallinari has played in only one contest out in Vegas, and while he didn't put up a huge line, I was still impressed with his skill and fluid style of play. Aside from his YouTube clips, this was the only time I've really been able to see him on the court, and he looked every bit as talented as advertised. Sure he struggled mightily in the first half (0-for-5 from the floor) but really turned it on in the second half, scoring all 14 of his points and finishing with six rebounds and a block on 5-for-1. I still need to see him play more before I'm completely sold, but unfortunately we might not get that chance until training camp as Gallinari has been sidelined with a back injury. I'll be honest, at this point in time it's hard to tell how coach Mike D'Antoni will set his rotation, but I'll be ready to pounce on Gallinari in the last round of fantasy drafts if it's looking like he'll get a shot at 20-25 minutes per game for the Knicks.
O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies: Mayo has shown some serious fantasy skills (not to mention highlight-reel dunks) in Vegas thus far, averaging 18.8 points, 1.4 steals and 2.4 3-pointers in 31.2 minutes per game. I believe that Mayo has enough talent to contribute in Memphis right away, especially in points, steals and 3-pointers, but his shot selection has been poor, and while that's expected from a rookie, he will likely be a major drain on your field goal percentage category if he's earning enough minutes to be on active fantasy rosters. Speaking of minutes, Mayo's spot in the Memphis rotation is far from clear at the moment. My guess is that the Grizzlies will struggle to win games this season and will turn to Mayo and the youth movement pretty quickly. But I feel as though Mayo is going to be one of those rookies that are drafted, then dropped when he doesn't get the minutes we expect, then scooped back up again once the youth movement hits and his minutes start creeping up. It's a cycle that many rookies go through in fantasy, and my recent strategy has been to stay away from most rookies on draft day while keeping an eye on their playing time as the season progresses. It's a strategy that has actually worked out pretty well for me in recent seasons, because most rookies tend to turn it up a notch when they mature in the second half of the season.
All this talk about rookies has got me thinking, what about the second-year players that have come out to play this summer? Some are having their way with the rooks, and I'd argue that these players are more likely to have a fantasy impact than the rookies anyway. If you've been a diligent reader of my work, you probably already know that I find rookies to be vastly overrated in the fantasy game, and I'd rather take my chances with high-upside second- or third-year players. With that being the case, we're going to take a deeper look into all of the summer league veterans like Thaddeus Young, Al Thornton and Wilson Chandler in the next installment of the Notebook.
I'll leave you with one final thought. I am a huge proponent of not just pouring over the statistics, but actually watching the games in order to form fantasy opinions. There are many things that a box score cannot tell you just by looking at it, and I feel that the fantasy crowd sometimes gets too caught up in the statistics to realize a good player when we see one on the court. Watching the games brings balance to our stat driven world and brings a human element to the computer-like statistics that we spit out day after day. Unfortunately, some folks are unable to catch the summer league on the tube, and if that is the case, you'll have to take the next best thing. And the next best thing would be Henry Abbott's True Hoop. Maurice Brooks has been doing a fantastic job breaking down the action over on TrueHoop, and die-hard fantasy fans should make it a part of their daily internet routine.
Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.