- Brian McKitish, Fantasy Basketball
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Take one look at Dwyane Wade during Team USA's exhibition games and you might just think you're looking at D-Wade circa 2005-06. It was only two years ago that Wade was the golden boy of the NBA, but after missing 31 games due to injury in each of his past two seasons and showing a human side to his seemingly heroic persona, most folks have soured on D-Wade.
Needless to say, the broken-down version of Wade we saw in 2007-08 simply didn't cut it for fantasy owners. The fantasy crowd is a fickle bunch, and as unforgiving as we are, Wade will have a lot of making up to do for the mental pain and anguish he put his owners through the past two years. Still, if his performance in international competition is any indication, the real Wade is back, and it might be time for us to forgive and forget.
Back in early July, the fantasy basketball staff here at ESPN ranked their top 60 players for the upcoming season. Wade finished with a composite ranking of 10th, which I thought was optimistic at the time. I ranked him 9th, but I've always been higher on Wade than others in the industry. I feel a lot better about that ranking now than I did then.
Look, I know this is a small sample size, but it's clear that Wade's explosiveness is back. And I'm not just talking about the stats. Yes, Wade is averaging a dominant 17.3 points in just 18.7 minutes per game through three exhibition contests, but it's how he looks that has me salivating. He has his bounce back in his game, and his first step is as explosive as ever. He's using that explosiveness to get into the lane almost at will, just like he did two years ago for the Heat. The way he's looking now, Wade could easily revert to his pre-injury numbers during the upcoming season. And just in case you need a reminder, let's check out these pre-injury stats:
Those, my friends, are the stats of a top-5 fantasy player. A lot of folks will complain about the lack of 3-pointers, but not me. There's something to be said for a player who knows his limitations on the court and does not drag down his field goal percentage by chucking 3-pointers all game long. Wade is dominant in five fantasy categories (field goal percentage, free-throw percentage, points, assists and steals), and he's well above average for a guard in two categories (rebounds and blocks). The fact that he takes so many shots from the floor and the free-throw line makes him all the more attractive for fantasy owners. Statistically speaking, if we assume Wade can stay healthy for a full season, he should be the fifth pick in upcoming fantasy drafts, behind only LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Amare Stoudemire. Of course, the same can be said for a guy like Yao Ming, who has the talent to be a top-5 pick but can't seem to stay on the court enough to make it happen.
That is the big dilemma for fantasy owners heading into the season. Early mock drafts will tell you that Wade isn't the only high-risk, high-reward player that's flying off the draft board in the first two rounds. For my money, however, Wade offers the highest return of all the risky investments. That includes players such as Gilbert Arenas, Baron Davis, Marcus Camby, Yao and Elton Brand. When assuming full health, Wade is, in this writer's opinion, the best fantasy player of the bunch.
Don't get me wrong, there are no guarantees with Wade. He's going to be a high-risk investment no matter how he looks during Olympic play. That's just the nature of his game. He has no regard for his body when he's on the court, will put himself in danger to get to the rim. That style of play inevitably leads to injuries -- just ask Gerald "Crash" Wallace or even Allen Iverson. Even so, I honestly believe that he'll make it through the season relatively unscathed.
Now, before you decide to write an angry note in the conversation field about how dumb I am, realize that there is a method to my madness. First, I'm going on the viewpoint that Wade is 100 percent recovered from the shoulder and knee injuries that sidelined him during the past two seasons. I am not a doctor, of course, but I do not suspect these injuries are chronic. He has a fresh start now, and it will take another freak injury to derail him. Second, I think the Miami Heat will be an improved team this year, and while they still have a lot of holes, I suspect they'll at least be in the running for the final playoff spot in the East. If this is the case, Wade is much more likely to work through any nagging injuries that pop up throughout the year rather than shutting it down like he did last season.
I don't, however, believe that the rest of the fantasy population will be as optimistic as I am about Wade's return. I'm going to start looking for "Flash" midway through the first round, but he is likely to drop into the late first or even the early second round in fantasy drafts. That will present us fantasy owners with a fantastic buying opportunity if he continues to look as explosive as he has thus far this summer. And if you are going to keep tabs on one player during Olympic competition, Wade would be the guy.
Flash isn't the only player you'll want to keep your eye on when Olympic hoops tips off August 10. Let's take a look at some of the other players in the Games, and what to look for in terms of their fantasy prospects for 2008-09:
Team USA: Team USA is filled with safe, high-impact fantasy talent. We don't need to watch these games to know that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are the two best players in the world, and we don't need to watch to know that Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams are fantasy studs. What I'm saying is that while the real-life intrigue will be high, the fantasy storylines aren't all that dramatic here other than Flash and perhaps Jason Kidd.
Kidd fell off the fantasy map when he moved to Dallas last season. He averaged just 9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.2 3-pointers in 29 games with the Mavericks, well below his averages of 11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.6 3-pointers in New Jersey. Kidd's poor showing in Dallas hurt his fantasy stock, and he finished 34th overall in our ESPN composite rankings back in early July. He could significantly improve his stock if he proves that he still has "it." Judging by his play thus far, I don't think he'll do much to move up the rankings. At his age, Kidd can't hold a candle to the likes of Chris Paul and Deron Williams anymore, and I fear that we could be looking at a serious drop-off in statistics for Kidd in his 15th professional season.
Team Argentina: Led by Manu Ginobili, Argentina has four current NBA players on the roster for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and Andres Nocioni fill out the roster, but the real story here will be Manu and his balky ankle, which limited him during the playoffs last season. The San Antonio Spurs sometimes go to great lengths to keep their studs on the court come playoff time. Gregg Popovich has proved that he'll sit Manu down during the regular season to preserve his health, and it's not a coincidence that Manu had not averaged more than 30 minutes per game until last season. It's also not a coincidence that Manu had his best professional season when he did get more than 30 minutes per game. The Spurs are not happy about Ginobili's decision to play in Beijing despite the fact that he claims that his ankle is 100 percent. Coming off a year in which he averaged 19.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals and 2.1 3-pointers, Manu is going to be a hot commodity come draft day. The last thing we want is to have Ginobili's minutes limited to 27 per game during the regular season, so let's just hope that his ankle makes it through the Olympics without any more problems.
Team China: I'll keep this short and sweet. Yao Ming's health will be on full display in China, and we'll get a chance to see how he's recovering from the broken foot that ended his 2007-08 season. Yao's lower-body injuries appear to be chronic, though, and I'm not going to get too excited about his play in Beijing, even if he does show perfect health. The other player on Team China to keep an eye on is Yi Jianlian. Yi has a fantastic opportunity to earn quality minutes for the Nets this season, so let's get a good look at him to see if he has matured and refined his game after his rookie season in the NBA.
Team Australia: It's Andrew Bogut's world; we're just living in it. At least that was the feeling I got in the second half of last season. Bogut was quite simply "the man" after the All-Star break, averaging a cool 16.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor. He'll get a chance to prove that his second half was no fluke in Beijing as he'll have to go up against some quality big men like Germany's Chris Kaman, China's Yao Ming, Spain's Pau Gasol and Team USA's Dwight Howard. I have already tabbed Bogut as one of my favorite breakout candidates this season, and you can be sure I'll be watching the Olympics closely to see if he is going to be for real in the upcoming season.
Team Spain: If Spain is on the tube, be sure to tune in. Not only will you get a chance to see proven fantasy stars like Pau Gasol and Jose Calderon, but many of you will get your first look at two newcomers in Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez. Both are highly touted prospects, but the jury is still out on how they'll adjust to the NBA. Now is the perfect time to get a good look at the two youngsters, and while you're there, you'll also be able to catch one of my favorite NBA point guards in Calderon. If you don't already know how good Calderon is, you will after Beijing.
Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
22hBrando Simeo Starkey, The Undefeated staff writer