- Brian McKitish, Fantasy Basketball
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Regardless of whether you're still in the hunt or already looking ahead to next season, the end of the hoops season is critical to your future fantasy success. This is where we usually get a chance to take a look at some younger players who have tremendous upside, but didn't necessarily get a chance to prove their worth this season. What's great about this time of year is that we get to kill two birds with one stone. You see, these players are not only potential sleeper and breakout candidates for next season; they're also fantastic pickup candidates for the rest of this season.
Not everyone can step in and produce in the NBA right away like Derrick Rose. Often it takes at least half a season, or multiple seasons, before things start to click. For younger players, things usually start coming together as they gain more experience and confidence. That typically happens at the end of the season when coaches begin planning for the future. Remember, in years past, the end of the hoops season gave us a chance to catch a glimpse of what the future would hold for players like Josh Smith, Deron Williams, Al Jefferson and Jeff Green before they became stars.
Green, for example, struggled mightily as a rookie before blowing up for 15.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and a steal in 37 minutes last April. I doubt people would have been so surprised by his breakout this season (16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.3 3-pointers and a steal per game) had they paid more attention to his progression as a rookie.
And that, my friends, is why we need to pay particular attention as the season winds down. To make it easier on you, I've put together a list of my favorite potential breakout candidates for next season who are also getting it done right now for fantasy owners.
Brandon Rush, SG/SF, Pacers: Is Rush the next coming of Danny Granger? That statement might be jumping the gun a little, but there is no denying that Rush has fantasy superstar written all over him if he continues to progress the way he has during his rookie year. After posting solid per-minute numbers for much of the season, Rush has taken his game to the next level since joining the starting lineup. In 12 games as a starter this season, Rush has averaged a versatile 15.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks and 1.8 3-pointers. Those numbers look awfully similar to Granger's second season, in which he posted 14.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 0.9 steals, 0.8 blocks and 1.5 3-pointers in 57 starts. With that said, Rush is not only a fantastic pickup option the rest of the way; he's also a serious breakout candidate heading into the 2009-10 season.
Tyrus Thomas, PF, Bulls: You wouldn't know it unless you owned him, but over his past 15 games, T2 ranks eighth on ESPN's Player Rater. Say what you will about the merits of the Player Rater (or any ranking system for that matter), but realize that not many can match Thomas on the defensive end in steals and blocks. Thomas has always had upside, but has had a hard time bringing any consistency to his game during his three-year career. Until now. Something clicked for Thomas right around All-Star Weekend. His foul problems all but disappeared, and he has averaged 12.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 2.1 blocks in 23 games after the All-Star break. Good luck finding steal and block numbers like those from anyone not named Josh Smith in next season's drafts. Thomas is going to be an interesting gamble next season. His potential is off the charts, but he might drop in drafts as many owners might be wary of his past inconsistency.
Wilson Chandler, SF, Knicks: Chandler struggled initially after the Larry Hughes acquisition, but with the Knicks out of the playoff race, Mike D'Antoni decided he wanted to get an extended look at his future talent. Chandler's minutes jumped from 30.1 per game in February to 37.4 in March, and his production has followed suit, with 15.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 3-pointers per game. Fantasy owners have to love the multi-categorical goodness Chandler can bring to the table, and while he's probably already owned in your league (48.8 percent owned), he fits in this discussion as a breakout candidate for next season.
Julian Wright, SF, Hornets: Injuries to Peja Stojakovic and Tyson Chandler have given us an opportunity to get a good look at the second-year man in New Orleans. So far, fantasy owners have liked what they've seen, as Wright has averaged 12.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 0.8 blocks and a steal over his past five games. With Peja and Chandler expected to miss more time, he should see around 30 minutes per game the rest of the way, and he'll help fantasy owners in rebounds, steals and blocks. Wright, who has a freakish 7-foot-2 wingspan, can really get after it on the defensive end, and the experience he's getting now should help turn him into a sleeper candidate heading into 2009-10.
Anthony Randolph, SF/PF, Warriors: With Stephen Jackson out for the season, and Corey Maggette and Brandan Wright hurting, the rookie Randolph has been forced into action. Not even Don Nelson can mess this one up. Looking at his numbers over his past five games (11.6 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.4 blocks in 28.6 minutes), it's easy to see why so many NBA scouts and GMs were drooling over this kid heading into last season's draft. Randolph has seemingly limitless upside (particularly in rebounds, steals and blocks), so be sure to add him for the stretch run and keep him high on your sleeper watch list for next season's drafts.
Jason Thompson, PF, Kings: I have been talking about Thompson for what seems like months and he's finally starting to pay dividends for guys like me who picked him up just before the Kings traded Brad Miller to the Bulls. He still fouls too much, and I'd like to see more blocks, but Thompson has come on strong of late with 14.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.8 blocks over his past five games. With numbers like those, Thompson clearly needs to be owned by anyone who's still in the hunt. The future is certainly bright here, so get a good look at him the rest of the way as the Kings will continue to run him out on the court for 30-35 minutes per game.
Thaddeus Young, SF, Sixers: OK, Young doesn't really fit into this discussion because he could be done for the season with a sprained ankle, but I have to mention him as a breakout candidate for next year after he averaged 20.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 0.7 3-pointers in March. It's scary to think that the 20-year-old Young is still improving, and keeper leaguers should be all over this kid heading into next season.
Pickups -- Quick Hits
Kelenna Azubuike, SG/SF, Warriors (38.2 percent owned): With 17.2 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.2 3-pointers over his past five games, Buike needs to be owned in all fantasy formats.
Anthony Morrow, SG, Warriors (8.8 percent owned): Morrow isn't as attractive a pickup as Azubuike or Randolph, but he's still putting up a cool 15.6 points and 2.0 3-pointers over his past five games.
Lou Williams, PG, Sixers (6.9 percent owned): Williams figures to see more minutes with Thaddeus Young out and could provide a boost in points, steals and 3-pointers the rest of the way. Owners should also keep an eye on Marreese Speights with Young out.
Javaris Crittenton, PG/SG, Wizards (0.7 percent owned): A back injury and the return of Gilbert Arenas has put a damper on Crittenton's recent surge, but Arenas isn't playing in back-to-back games, and the back injury isn't considered too serious. Crittenton offers some upside if he's on the court, but he's only an option in deeper leagues at the moment.
Kyle Korver, SG/SF, Jazz (4.8 percent owned): Anyone in need of a 3-point specialist to make a late run in the category should give Korver a look. He won't do much else, but he is hitting on 2.1 3-pointers over his past five games.
Rodney Carney, SF, Timberwolves (0.7 percent owned): If Randy Foye continues to sit out with a hip injury, it will be Carney who steps it up for the Wolves. Carney is fairly two-dimensional, but he has averaged 14.4 points and 3.0 3-pointers per game over his past five.
D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats (18.9 percent owned): Augustin has caught fire of late and is averaging 15.0 points, 0.8 steals and 2.4 3-pointers over his past five games despite seeing just 21.0 minutes. The lack of minutes are disturbing, but owners should run Augustin out there while he's hot.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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