We find ourselves today at a strange point in the season, in which many teams have played seven or eight games and yet the Pacers and Bucks have played only five. As such, in analyzing which players are moving up and down on the Player Rater, we'll stick to average stats for the time being.
What follows is a list of players exceeding expectations and a list of players failing to live up to them. There is no category to explain Kevin Martin, the Kings shooting guard who was crushing even the most optimistic projections before suffering a hairline fracture in his wrist that will keep him out of action the next two months.
(ranking based on average stats)
Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Mavericks (3): A quick glance at Dirk's line so far this season doesn't reveal much that would explain why he's moved from a top-10 player to a top-3 player, right after Chris Paul and LeBron James. Then you realize that his 1.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per game are obliterating anything he's done in those categories the past few seasons. For all the talk in Dallas about going small with Dirk at center this season, Erick Dampier is having a fantastic start to the season, and while Dallas is playing a bit faster this season, it's not like they're breaking any land speed records. Rather, Nowitzki simply seems to be a bit more active in the early going, and given how well the Mavs are playing (especially considering how terrible they looked at home against the Wizards on opening night), that activity could continue all season.
Josh Smith, SF/PF, Hawks (12): For Smith, the 2.9 blocks and 1.6 steals per game he's averaging merely constitute a return to form, as he put up these numbers for two straight seasons prior to last season. He's shooting the lights out right now (57 percent from the floor), and that won't likely continue all season. But with the offensive firepower the Hawks have, I don't see any reason why he can't keep averaging more than four assists per game. He seems to have firmly planted himself back in the top-20 discussion in fantasy, which makes a lot of sense given the fact he'll turn just 24 in December and had just one bad season.
Larry Hughes, SG, Knicks (19): We'll just reserve this space as the weekly "Pick up Larry Hughes" paragraph. I don't need to tell you the minefield of risks you're walking into by putting a lot of faith in Hughes, but even bearing that in mind, he needs to be owned in more than 45 percent of leagues right now. He's playing an astonishing amount of minutes (36.7 per game so far) on a team that is basically fantasy gold for anyone who gets consistent playing time (we can refer to that as the Chris Duhon factor), and as long as that continues, he's going to get you points, assists and steals in big numbers. Go ahead and drop the lousy player on the end of your bench, and ride the Hughes hot streak while it lasts.
Tyreke Evans, PG/SG, Kings (106): He didn't start out very strong, and struggled even more after tweaking his ankle, but Evans has put together three really solid games in a row. OK, they were against the Thunder, Warriors and Jazz, not exactly the stoutest defenses on the planet. Still, Evans is showing a serious ability to score, and he's doing fine with the passing, too. This team is his for the next few weeks with Martin out and Francisco Garcia still out as well. Evans is going to get a ton of minutes and do the best he can with them, and given his talent, it seems as though his ranking of 106 will be a lot higher real soon.
Brendan Haywood, C, Wizards (87): There he is, right ahead of popular sleeper Emeka Okafor on the Player Rater. The Wizards have been bad, but Haywood has been terrific in the early part of the season, averaging a double-double and throwing in 2.4 blocks per game for good measure. His numbers, especially in rebounds and blocks, are huge improvements on his previous career highs, but then again his 34 minutes per game is a career high as well. Amazingly, he's owned in only 21 percent of ESPN.com leagues at the moment. People, he's the starting center. He's not going anywhere unless he gets hurt. Haywood needs to be owned in all leagues unless something changes.
David West, PF, Hornets (80): This is definitely not what even I expected when I wrote that West would be a bust this season. I was thinking he'd be hovering just outside the top 50, not the top 80. I definitely didn't think he'd be averaging only 6.1 rebounds per game. That number seems like such a red flag, in terms of effort, that I'd be terrified to try to even buy low on West right now. If he starts rebounding, all is forgiven, but at this point I'd actually be pretty surprised to see things turn around any time soon.
O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies (74): Mayo's not doing as well as many people thought in terms of fantasy in the early going simply because he's not hitting 3-pointers with any sort of efficiency at the moment. Other than that, his numbers are pretty even with last season's, which means that Mayo remains a guy who puts up mediocre numbers while playing a ton of minutes. Even for a player this talented, I don't see a ton of room for improvement, especially playing on a roster with this much dysfunction.
Gilbert Arenas, PG, Wizards (57): It's hard to call anything Arenas does after the past couple of seasons a disappointment; the fact he's even playing seems like a major victory. However, considering the fact many people used a second-round pick on Gilbert in fantasy drafts, he's falling short of some expectations at the moment. He's averaging only 1.1 steals per game (far fewer than the 1.9 steals he averaged the last season in which he was healthy). He's also making just 74 percent of his free throws, and when you take into account the fact he's getting to the line 8.5 times per game, that's a huge problem. Normally, I would write these things off as anomalies and be confident that he'd turn it around, but we're dealing with a guy who hasn't put together a healthy season in three years, so I suppose it's best to temper one's expectations.
Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls (119): With the memory of the havoc Rose wreaked against the Celtics fresh in our collective basketball consciousness, many of us thought Rose would start taking steps toward being an unstoppable force this season. Seven games in, he's shooting a worse percentage from the floor and from the free throw line, and he's turning the ball over way too much. I'm not sure exactly what the problem is, but it's important to remember that Rose is not your prototypical fantasy point guard, even if he is your prototypical point guard in real life. He doesn't make 3s, and doesn't get a lot of steals, either. He's going to need to start racking up a lot more than 5.6 assists per game if he's going to justify his average draft position (ADP) of 35.
T.J. Ford, PG, Pacers (134): Well, my worst fears have come true: T.J. Ford is healthy and not producing. On top of that, Pacers head coach Jim O'Brien is giving Earl Watson 26.6 minutes per game. People, you're not going to believe this, but Ford is playing the exact same amount of minutes as Watson. I'm just going to type the name again to drive the point home: Earl Watson. Against the Wizards last Friday night, Ford finally played big minutes (40), and finished with a double-double, but it was in points and rebounds. He had a season-high four assists, and is now averaging a whopping 2.2 dimes per contest. These numbers will not do, especially when he's killing your field goal percentage and his minutes are all over the place. I'd bench him until 40 minutes seems like a bankable possibility rather than a weird outlier.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.