- Brian McKitish, Fantasy Basketball
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Rookies are typically overrated in fantasy leagues, but this season is a little different. In fact, aside from Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, most of this year's rookies are outperforming even our wildest expectations. It's not the 2003 draft class by any stretch of the imagination, but the depth of the 2008 draft is really starting to show, and the number of players that have been able to contribute right away has been impressive.
That said, we're still waiting for a few rooks to hit their stride. It's not unusual for a rookie to struggle initially before breaking out in the second half. Think Thaddeus Young and Al Thornton last season, or Rudy Gay in 2006-07. Many rookies won't hit their strides until they start earning extended minutes, and that typically doesn't happen until January or February. The fact of the matter is, the rookie landscape changes dramatically after the new year, and what we're really interested in is how these rookies will fare from this point going forward. Here's how I see things shaking out the rest of the way for fantasy purposes:
1. O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies (100 percent owned): Forget about the "rookie wall;" Mayo is operating at such a high level it won't matter much if his numbers slip a little. He has already seen his production dip slightly from his torrid pace earlier in the season but is still averaging 19.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.9 3-pointers while shooting 45 percent from the floor and 87 percent from the line. I could see some other rookies closing the gap on him in the fantasy rookie of the year race, but Mayo should still be the best fantasy rookie going forward.
2. Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder (42.7 percent owned): That's right, I just ranked Westbrook ahead of Derrick Rose, and that's not a knock on Rose. Westbrook is just that good. The thing is, since Westbrook cracked the starting lineup in Oklahoma City, he has been more valuable. Averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.5 3-pointers in 15 games as a starter, Westbrook brings more statistical diversity to the fantasy game than his counterparts.
3. Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls (100 percent owned): Rose will make a run at the real ROY race, but he'll fall behind both Westbrook and Mayo for fantasy ROY due to his surprising lack of statistical versatility. We knew Rose wouldn't be a great 3-point shooter, but how is a guy with this much quickness and athleticism averaging less than a steal per game? It doesn't make sense, but it looks like it's simply a lack of focus. That will come with time, but probably not for another year or so. Still, Rose is an offensive superstar, and he should have no problem maintaining his 17.4 points and 6.1 assists per game.
4. D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats (27.8 percent owned): Augustin is struggling right now, but he'll get another opportunity soon enough, and wow, was he impressive as a starter earlier this season. In those six starts, Augustin averaged a cool 18.8 points, 7.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.8 3-pointers per game. A lot of folks are considering dropping the rookie, but he's exactly the type of player that we talked about in the intro that will take off in the second half. Hold him if you can, and grab him if he's dropped.
5. Brook Lopez, C, Nets (34.4 percent owned): Lopez has been slightly inconsistent at times, but he's had enough big games to average 10.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in December. With numbers like that, we'll learn to live with the occasional off night. He should continue to improve in the second half, with more minutes likely headed his way.
6. Mario Chalmers, PG, Heat (25.7 percent owned): Chalmers offers fairly pedestrian stats in points (10.3) and assists (4.6), but most of his value comes from his ability to contribute in two of the rarer fantasy categories. With 2.0 steals and 1.6 3-pointers per game, we'll overlook the other deficiencies. He's an important part of what Miami's doing right now, so there's no reason to think he'll slow down anytime soon.
7. Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves (67 percent owned): He's still not getting enough minutes to offer much consistency, but does anyone really think the 6-25 Wolves won't give Love 30-plus minutes in the second half? Love's per-minute numbers suggest he'll break out once he gets consistent playing time, particularly in the rebounding department, where he's averaging 7.7 boards in just 22.6 minutes per game.
8. Marc Gasol, C, Grizzlies (78.8 percent owned): Gasol gets a big boost with Darko Milicic out for 4-6 weeks, and he might not relinquish his starting spot once Darko returns. Gasol has averaged 14.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in three games since Milicic's injury. It helps that the Grizzlies are looking at a 10-22 record and view Gasol as their center of the future.
9. Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers (11.4 percent owned): Gordon would be a lot higher on this list if he could offer anything in the way of rebounds and assists. He figures to continue to earn plenty of minutes for the 8-23 Clippers, and has already proved to be a more-than-capable contributor in points, 3-pointers and steals. With 14.2 points, 1.3 steals and 1.8 3-pointers in 17 starts this season, Gordon is still a fantastic option at shooting guard despite his lack of boards and assists.
10. Greg Oden, Trail Blazers, and Michael Beasley, Heat (both 93 percent owned): It's a shame, but neither Oden nor Beasley is playing well enough to be owned in anything other than deeper fantasy leagues. We know Oden can rebound, but he isn't even blocking shots anymore, with just 0.9 per game this month, and Beasley's minutes have dried up (19.4 per game in December). Still, we all know how much potential these two offer, so it's hard to write them off completely. If I had to choose between the two, I'd take Beasley, because his per-minute numbers have been pretty solid since his minutes dropped off the table.
Pickups: Shallow formats
Paul Millsap, PF, Jazz: Just a friendly reminder that Carlos Boozer will likely be out until mid-February, and Millsap is expected to suit up Friday. I don't need to tell you how valuable he is with Boozer out, so go grab him ASAP if someone dropped him due to the injury last week.
Anthony Parker, SG, Raptors: Jason Kapono missed the Raptors' game Wednesday due to a quad injury, but rumor has it that he was going to come off the bench behind Parker anyway. Kapono wasn't getting it done in the starting lineup, and Jay Triano might be inclined to start Parker the rest of the way. Parker has limited upside, but he has averaged 10.2 points, 1.8 3-pointers and 1.6 steals as a starter and was a great second-half pickup last season.
Hakim Warrick, PF, Grizzlies: Marc Gasol isn't the only one who will benefit from Milicic's injury. Warrick should see some extra minutes with Milicic out, and has averaged 18.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.8 steals and a block in his past five games.
Grant Hill, SF, Suns: Don't look now, but Hill has seen a big bump in playing time since Boris Diaw and Raja Bell left town. With 31.8 minutes per game in December, Hill averaged 12.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game while shooting 56.2 percent from the floor and 83.3 percent from the line. If you need help in steals and the percentages, Hill just might be your man.
Pickups: Deeper formats
Kyle Lowry, PG, Grizzlies: Lowry is still splitting time with Mike Conley, but he's earning a bigger chunk of the playing time lately and is starting to look like a solid pickup in deeper leagues. With 10.8 points, 7.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game in his past five, Lowry can provide short-term relief for anyone looking to boost their steals and assists.
Nenad Krstic, C, Thunder: Krstic still needs his visa before he can play for the Thunder, so he won't be ready for at least another week or so. And even then, there's no guarantee that he'll earn enough minutes to make a difference in fantasy leagues. Krstic is probably the most talented of the Oklahoma City big men, but he'll still have to compete with Chris Wilcox and Nick Collison for minutes. If it all works out, Krstic could be a decent addition for points and field goal percentage, while contributing modestly in rebounds and blocks.
Jared Jeffries, SF, Knicks: I'm not a big fan of Jeffries' fantasy game, but anyone who's earning 30-plus minutes in New York is worth a look, right? With Mike D'Antoni looking to shake up the lineup, Jeffries has seen 33.7 minutes in his past three games and is averaging just 7.0 points and 5.3 rebounds with 2.0 steals and a block per game during that time. Don't expect any miracles, but it's possible he'll start putting up decent numbers under D'Antoni.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Brian McKitish ranks his top 10 rookies the rest of the way and provides the top pickups in deep and shallow formats.