Batum a legit keeper candidate
Blazers' SF among a handful of players improving quickly
Nicolas Batum, the multitalented wing currently in the process of locking down the starting small forward job for the Portland Trail Blazers, has played in only 18 games this season. He has played slightly more than 23 minutes per game in those contests, minutes that would, for most players, be right on the threshold of frustration for fantasy owners. Those minutes, it stands to reason, are simply not enough to put up the sort of robust numbers we look for in a fantasy player.
Still, it's getting pretty hard to ignore just how productive Batum has been the past few weeks. His Player Efficiency Rating of 19.39 is extremely impressive, and it reflects just how good Batum has been from a fantasy perspective. Forget the fact that he'd probably be averaging right around one steal and one block per game if he was seeing the 30 minutes per game most starters get, and just look at the offensive numbers. He's averaging 10.1 points per game, and nearly half of his field goal attempts have been 3-pointers. He's connecting on 46.3 percent of his 3s and 57.1 percent of his field goal attempts overall. He's also shooting better than 91 percent from the line (though, admittedly, he's taken only 23 free throws in 18 games).
The bottom line here is that, when you add it all up, Batum has been a top-100 fantasy player since he started playing on Jan. 25 (he's currently ranked 80th based on per-game averages). He should, therefore, be owned in all fantasy leagues; and yet, sadly, Batum finds himself a fantasy afterthought, owned in just 2.5 percent of ESPN.com leagues.
Here are some things to consider. First, Batum has played 25.6 minutes per game in his past five. That's not a big change from the 23.3 he's averaging on the season, but it's enough of a bump to matter. Secondly, Batum is on fire lately. He's averaging 14.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 2.4 3-pointers per game in that same five-game stretch (he's 26-for-42 from the floor and 7-for-7 from the line). Finally, he's put up 21 and 31 points, respectively, in his past two games, both Blazers road wins (though one of them was against the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves).
Clearly, Batum's got game, and the Trail Blazers' coaching staff knows it. That makes him more than just a great waiver-wire candidate for the rest of this season; it makes him a keeper candidate for next season, too.
Here are some other players who are improving right before our eyes as the season winds down (their Player Rater ranking, based on per-game averages, is included):
Andray Blatche, PF/C, Washington Wizards (109): Just a quick look at Blatche's numbers would tell you that: (1) He's been absolutely great lately, and (2) he's an obvious keeper candidate for next season, given the Wizards' roster and talent. Blatche has been frustratingly inconsistent for a long, long time, so it's nice to see him finally start to put it all together. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out the fact that his monster games in recent weeks have come against rather flighty defenses: the New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Toronto Raptors and the Timberwolves, to name some. On the other hand, any player who can put up 36 points and 15 rebounds immediately following a game in which he put up 26 and 18 deserves our full and undivided attention. He's also passing, blocking shots, racking up steals and knocking down 81 percent of his free throws for the month of February. The talent is undeniable, and if you're lucky enough to own him, he's liable to be this good for quite some time.
Spencer Hawes, C, Sacramento Kings (125): With Hawes, it's always a matter of opportunity, but with Jason Thompson's recent injury, he's getting another chance to show what he can do in extended minutes. In his past two games -- wins against the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers -- Hawes has found himself in the starting lineup, and has averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 blocks. Only two centers playing as many minutes as Hawes have higher assist rates (Ben Wallace and Nene), so there's some real potential here for all-around fantasy numbers if Hawes can find himself 30 minutes per game. He has also made 23 3-pointers this season, so there's some potential for him to be one of the rare players who gets rebounds, blocks and 3s without hurting you much at the foul line. These next two weeks -- with Jason Thompson out of the lineup -- will go a long way toward determining Hawes' viability for the rest of this season and the next one, so pay careful attention.
Jrue Holiday, PG, Philadelphia 76ers (214): Holiday has gotten a bit lost in the shuffle of this season's rookie class, because to this point in the season there has been what feels like an army of great rookie point guards. Holiday, however, might be the most talented of all of them. At 6-foot-4, he's a bit in the Russell Westbrook mold, and his 41 percent shooting from the field on the season is certainly a Westbrook-like blemish on his résumé. Still, he's only now really getting a chance, and Holiday has the benefit of being the only true point guard on his roster (no disrespect to Lou Williams, who is more of a 2-guard). Check out Holiday's numbers in his past five games (which, to be honest, have been a bit up and down): 11.6 points, 4.0 assists, 1.6 3s and 1.0 steals. Those are useful numbers, and with the recent news that Allen Iverson won't return to the Sixers' lineup this season, Holiday will certainly get the chance to keep being productive. Almost no one owns him (1.0 percent of leagues), so he's probably available in yours, and if he keeps improving, he's going to be an awfully tempting keeper possibility for next season.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.