Johnson, Gay headed in right direction
Now that we're a bit of the way into the season, rather than lauding the good starts of players who aren't getting enough credit, it seems to be time to start using the Player Rater to assess the current value of players, and to speculate which players might soon be going up or going down.
To that end, what follows is a list of players who fall into those two categories. For our purposes, we'll still be using rankings based on per-game averages, rather than season totals.
Joe Johnson, SG/SF, Hawks (31): Johnson has been waiting since he got to Atlanta for a team like this. Finally, the entire scoring load isn't on him, and perhaps because of that he's averaging fewer turnovers and a better shooting percentage, and he's even racking up more steals on defense. All of those things are good, especially since he's one of the best shooting guards around in terms of accumulating assists. Where he's taken a dip and has a lot of room for improvement is in his 3-point shooting. He's making only 30 percent of his 3s, which has been good enough for 1.3 per game, but that number is down from the two per game he's averaged in the past three seasons. Johnson is an excellent shooter, and should at the very least start rebounding back toward the 37 percent he's made for his entire career. That will be enough to bump his value a lot closer to the top 20 over the coming weeks.
Rudy Gay, SF, Grizzlies (33): A couple of years ago, when Gay was knocking down 3s, grabbing steals, blocking shots and scoring 20 points per game, everyone figured he'd be a top-20 fantasy player for the rest of the prime of his career. Then last season happened, and Gay looked lackadaisical. His fantasy stats went into a tailspin. Now he's back to playing extremely well, and most importantly, he looks aggressive. He's taking almost twice as many free throws per game as he did two seasons ago, and even though it has come at the expense of all those 3s, it has been worth the trade-off. Because he's playing more than 40 minutes per game, there's not a ton of room for his stats to go up, but in the case of a player with this much talent, the fact that he's started putting it all together is worth taking notice of in fantasy.
Joakim Noah, PF/C, Bulls (47): Being in the top 50 might already seem like a stretch for a guy with the offensive skills of a young Ben Wallace, but you can throw the scoring numbers out the window, because that's not what drives Noah's value. What's more important here is that Noah's blocks and rebounds are going through the roof as his minutes go up, and based on the fact that he's his team's hardest-working player and best rebounder, those minutes have some room to jump even from the 33.9 per game he's already playing. As he gets more used to being on the floor for most of the game, it would seem as though he might have a chance to boost his field goal percentage, too. At 48 percent, he's well below his career rate of 51.
Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves (49): I know I wrote about him last week, but he deserves another paragraph now that he's been inserted into the starting lineup. He's ranked this high (based on per-game stats, again) despite actually struggling with his shot. Strangely though, he's making more than half of his 3-pointers. I'd expect both sides of that equation to even out, but the important thing Love is doing is using his hands. He's rebounding at an even better rate than he did last season, and is picking up a lot of steals, too. Those are both things that Love can do no matter what is happening with his shot, and they're going to make him a tremendous fantasy player as long as he can stay healthy.
Devin Harris, PG, Nets (95): One of the most improved fantasy players last season, Harris has struggled mightily with his shot in the early part of this season, and it's killing his value. Slowly though, things seem to be turning around. He's almost up to 40 percent for the month of December, which doesn't sound like much, but it's an improvement. More importantly, he seems to have gotten his mojo back in terms of going to the hoop, as he's taking and making more foul shots. He's going to be fine as long as he stays healthy, and that means he'll be back to being one of the better point guards in fantasy soon enough.
Chris Duhon, PG, Knicks (143): He's still owned in only about a quarter of fantasy leagues, but he's started playing pretty well of late and appears to be over the shooting woes that destroyed him in the early part of the season. That means he's back to being the point guard on the Knicks, which is a fantasy position even a player as mediocre as Duhon can take advantage of. He should provide plenty of assists and 3-pointers for the time being, making him worth picking up in all formats.
Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers (35): This is nothing against Bynum, who has exceeded my expectations to this point in the season. He just happens to be an injury-prone big man who is playing alongside the best fantasy center in the league in Pau Gasol. The Lakers have no reason to give Bynum the 35 or so minutes per game he was playing while Gasol was out. The 30 minutes he's been playing in December are probably closer to where he'll be for the rest of the season. So far that's meant fewer points, fewer rebounds and fewer blocks, and his play while he's out there has slipped a bit, too. He's a great young center, and the Lakers are lucky to have him, but he won't be in the top 40 for much longer the way things are going.
Anthony Morrow, SG/SF, Warriors (60): For those of you out there who are fantasy veterans, you know this happens from time to time when you are relying on guys who are coached by Don Nelson. Morrow doesn't have enough of an all-around game to ride it out during a slump, and once Nelson starts benching a guy like this, it's hard to know when he'll find his way back into major minutes. When Morrow was playing 35 minutes a night, he was a good fantasy player, but he's been around 20 the past two games, and that's not enough to keep him ownable. It's a situation we'll have to keep watching, but right now, even if you don't drop him, he certainly should not be in your lineup.
Beno Udrih, PG/SG, Kings (66): Udrih has parlayed some remarkably hot shooting into stats that, at first glance, look pretty good in fantasy. Looking into it a little more, though, it's just not sustainable. He's absolutely crushing his career numbers both from inside and outside the arc, and there's no reason to think he'll be able to keep it up. What's more, once Kevin Martin returns from injury, Beno will start losing some minutes, too. If you can get anything for him now, do it, because you'll probably be dropping him outright somewhere down the road this season.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.