Player Rater: J.R. Smith has huge upside as starter
One of the more significant moves in the NBA this past week, in terms of fantasy value, happened when Nuggets coach George Karl inserted J.R. Smith into the starting lineup and indicated that Smith would remain there for the foreseeable future. There are quite a few things that could go wrong with this experiment; the Nuggets lost to the Kings on Sunday and Smith compiled a team-worst minus-15 during Smith's 36 minutes of action. What's more, we've seen for years that Smith drives Karl nuts with his lack of focus during games, so even though Smith, on talent, is the obvious choice to be the starter at shooting guard, Karl has been playing lesser talent at that spot all season and could start again at any moment.
Even considering all of that, Smith is one of the best bargains around at the moment. He's available in more than 61 percent of ESPN.com fantasy leagues. A player like Smith, as a starter, should be good for 20 points and two 3-pointers a night for the rest of the season. Chances are that, with increased minutes, he'll throw in three or four assists and rebounds as well, making him a decent contributor across the board. Starters with this kind of fantasy potential are not generally available at this point of the season, so you'll probably want to grab him while you still can. Remember, Smith was a hot sleeper pick at the start of the season because he was so good at scoring in limited action last season. The ceiling, for the immediate future, has been removed from the playing time part of that equation, and there is some major potential for fantasy value during the next few weeks.
Rodney Stuckey, PG/SG, Pistons (123, 135): Lost in all the hubbub surrounding the Pistons' recent play and Richard Hamilton's return to the starting lineup has been the fact that Stuckey is still starting. He's been playing quite effectively of late, averaging 16.4 points, 4.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals and shooting 53 percent in his past five games. Remarkably, he's available in 56 percent of ESPN.com fantasy leagues. Pick him up immediately if yours is one of them.
Thaddeus Young, SF, 76ers (102, 124): I was extremely high on Young when the season started, and at first it seemed as though I was right. He was making 3-pointers with regularity, scoring a lot, getting a ton of minutes and rebounding enough to be relevant in that category. For the first few weeks of the season, in the midst of their worst struggles, the Sixers counted Young as their top scorer. Then he stopped making 3s and his fantasy value dried up entirely. He's still playing a ton of minutes and recently has started scoring with a little more regularity. He's averaging 17.2 points and 2.0 steals in his past five games. The 2.0 steals per game actually holds up during his past 15 games, too. Based on his solid contributions in that category and his raw potential everywhere else, I can see his stock taking a major leap for the rest of this season. Expect a few huge games out of him down the stretch and solid production aside from that.
Since the trading deadline has passed in most fantasy leagues, rather than coming down on players I think are going to drop in the rankings in the coming weeks, I thought it might be more helpful to scour the Player Rater for some more guys who are likely available in your league on the waiver wire.
Larry Hughes, SG, Knicks (196, 131), owned in 16 percent of ESPN.com leagues: He's playing close to 40 minutes per night in his past five games for the Knicks, averaging 16.2 points, 4.0 assists, 2.4 steals and 2.4 3-pointers. If you can find a player getting this many minutes at this point of the season on your waiver wire, it's probably worth adding him. It's hard not to produce when you are playing almost the entire game.
Raja Bell, SG, Bobcats (140, 146), owned in 48 percent of ESPN.com leagues: Bell was hurt for a while, and understandably was dropped in many fantasy leagues. Frankly, I was way down on Bell when he was traded to the Bobcats, despite the lingering suspicion that Larry Brown was going to play him until his legs fell off. Well, Bell has been healthy for a few weeks now, and plays 40 minutes on more nights than he doesn't. He's a fantastic source of 3-pointers, and accumulates enough points, rebounds, assists and steals that he's worth owning in all formats. Pick him up immediately if you can.
Matt Barnes, SF, Suns (148, 152), owned in 9 percent of ESPN.com leagues: In his past five games, Barnes is averaging 16.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 3.2 3-pointers. The 3s alone make him worth owning in most leagues. He's playing a ton of minutes on a team everyone pays attention to, and yet nobody owns this guy in fantasy. People, pick him up! It's guys like this who can win you a championship down the stretch.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
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