- Josh Whitling, Fantasy Basketball
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Keeper leagues are magnificent, the best format for fantasy hoops enthusiasts. It's especially true late in the season, because owners with no chance of winning can still benefit in the long-term by remaining active and bolstering their team's keeper value. This is primarily done by filling the end-of-season roster with cheap, upside-laden players whose value could take leaps forward next season. When these late-season $1 fliers pay off, they provide flexibility and value for the next draft. They can also become valuable trading chips, as teams focused on winning now often have to sacrifice keeper prospects, while other owners are inevitably looking for cheap keepers to balance their roster of expensive studs. Here are seven players who won't significantly augment your standings this season, but are worth a cheap bid in keeper leagues due to their promising future prospects:
Terrence Williams, SG/SF, New Jersey Nets: Williams is unique in many ways. In his four years at Louisville, he never scored more than 12.5 points or dished more than five assists in a season, but he shot less than 40 percent from the floor twice, and under 60 percent from the stripe in his final two seasons. Then why did the Nets draft Williams 11th overall? Here are the statistical reasons: 8.6 rebounds, five assists, 2.3 steals, 0.8 blocks per game in his senior season; 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan; two triple-doubles in college. Here are my eyeballs' reasons: solid all-around defense, versatile, physical, superbly athletic, raw with room for improvement. His shooting and decision-making need work, but he's the type of player with the potential to be better as a pro than he was in college or even high school. T-Will's 67.4 free throw percentage eclipses that of any of his college seasons, and his 9.3 rebounds per 48 minutes is tops of any guard-eligible player. That kind of statistical potential is hiding under several facets of Williams' game, and his skill set will make him an eventual fantasy darling as he'll be able to contribute in a variety of ways, demonstrated by his past five games -- 14 points, 7.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 0.8 3s on 50 percent shooting. He'll likely be a heavily praised sleeper next preseason, so having the option to keep him on your team for cheap provides flexibility and potential value.
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder: I miss my Sonics. Kevin Durant is blossoming like Katie Holmes in "Dawson's Creek" Season 3. Russell Westbrook is playing like an All-Star. Sam Presti is maneuvering brilliant minor trades (Eric Maynor, Thabo Sefolosha) and genius draft picks (Serge Ibaka, Westbrook). It's challenging to watch.
Hidden amid the buzz surrounding the Thunder's breakout campaign is a gem in Harden, who was selected third overall ahead of star rookies Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry. Despite the fact his production and media coverage have been dwarfed by those of Evans and Curry, Harden isn't considered a bust because he's been fantastic in his limited minutes and plays in a controlled, mature fashion rare for a 20-year old.
A starting five of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Jeff Green and Ibaka is dripping with potential, and with that surrounding cast, Harden's versatility would shine. Statistically, I love his combo of 1.2 3s, one steal, high frequency and accuracy from the stripe (81.5 percent on 3.2 attempts per game in just 23 minutes), scoring potential (20.7 points per 48 minutes, higher than Wilson Chandler and Andre Iguodala), and low turnovers (1.4 per game). Of the 85 players averaging at least 1.2 treys this season, only 13 play fewer minutes than Harden, and his college stats (20.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.7 3s) demonstrate his ability to be the man if necessary. If (gulp) Durant ever misses time, Harden will immediately step in and provide production similar to comparably dynamic combo guards such as Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson in their early years. Look for a big step forward next season, when Harden will likely supplant Sefolosha as the starting 2 and become a more integral part of the Thunder's rotation.
Ty Lawson, PG, Denver Nuggets: He's filled in ably for Chauncey Billups when needed, and in eight starts he has averaged 17 points, 5.9 assists, 0.9 3s and 1.8 steals on 57 percent shooting. While he might never be an every-day starting point guard, Lawson is an ideal backup/change-of-pace guy who'll provide fantasy value due to solid contribution in 3s, steals and assists. However, his best trait is incredible field goal percentage for a guard (he shot over 50 percent from the floor in each of his three seasons at North Carolina, and is shooting 51.8 percent this season), which could eventually be his biggest asset if he can maintain his efficiency if he gets more attempts. He's blindingly quick, excels in transition with solid court vision, boasts excellent handles with low turnovers (1.4 per game this season, 1.9 in college with a 3.48 assist/turnover ratio), and is a hard worker whose game should improve. He's got a bright future, even if off the bench, with the potential for immediate heavy production if Billups is ever sidelined.
Jeff Teague, PG, Atlanta Hawks: Although Teague possesses many point guard traits, he's a natural combo guard like teammates Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford. He makes up for his diminutive stature with athleticism and hops, and isn't afraid to take it to the rack or shoot off the dribble. But his real potential lies in the steals category: He averaged 1.9 steals for his college career, and his 2.88 steals per 48 minutes this season ranks third among players who have played in at least 20 games. If Johnson leaves town, Teague will slide nicely into a mini-version of Johnson's role, and pair nicely with his Seattle homeboy Jamal Crawford, as both can distribute as well as create their own shot. His 3-point attempts and accuracy should improve; he wasn't afraid to gun in college (45-for-102 from downtown his senior season), and with his quick release I expect him to excel from behind the arc eventually. Like Lawson, it'll take an injury to a starter or a roster shakeup for him to have serious impact, but the potential payoff if that happens makes Teague a fun, cheap late-season gamble.
D.J. Augustin, PG, Charlotte Bobcats: This season has been a disaster for the speedy sophomore, who averaged 11.8 points, 3.5 assists, 1.5 3s and 0,6 steals in nearly 27 minutes per game as a rookie, including 18.6 points, six assists, 2.8 3s and 1.2 steals in eleven starts. Those marks have plummeted this season, although I saw enough from Augustin as a rookie to believe he'll bounce back and be a solid fantasy player, especially in the 3-point department. He's recently established slight momentum by providing a scoring spark off the bench, hitting double figures in each of his past five games (12.6 points, 3.4 assists, 1.2 3s), and perhaps more importantly he's averaging 23 minutes per game compared to his season mark of 18. I'll give Augustin a mulligan for this season and expect him to re-emerge as a fantasy threat next season. With Raymond Felton a free agent, there's a chance Augustin could start for the Bobcats next season, making him worth the cheap roster spot.
Wesley Matthews, SG, Utah Jazz: The majority of these featured players are raw, but Matthews brings a well-rounded, polished package after playing four seasons at Marquette. He should have the opportunity to start for the Jazz next season, especially with Ronnie Brewer gone, not to mention his cheap price tag as an undrafted rookie. He's already demonstrating consistency, scoring in double figures in eight of his past 10 games, but my favorite facet of his game is his efficient percentages (48 and 80 percent from the floor and stripe this season, 52.7 and 87.9 percent over the past 30 days). Despite his lack of a "wow" factor, Matthews is primed to be an ideal fantasy-glue player capable of providing a little bit of everything with low turnovers and high percentages, atypical of a guard who still provides decent 3s and steals. His upside isn't insane, but he's a nice, cheap, total package whose outside shot has been a work in progress since college and should continue to improve. His fantasy value will be heavily tied to his ability to be consistent from downtown, as playing alongside Deron Williams provides the potential for Matthews to get tons of open looks and become a major 3-point threat.
Donte Greene, SF, Sacramento Kings: Love this stat combo Greene boasts: 0.9 3s, 0.6 steals and 0.8 blocks in just 21 minutes per game. Don't love the unpredictability of the frontcourt minutes in Sacto next season with Jason Thompson, Carl Landry, Spencer Hawes, Omri Casspi, Jon Brockman and others fighting for minutes, but Greene's fantasy value per minute is delightful due to his nearly unparalleled 3s/blocks combo. It's entertaining to ponder the ceiling for this combination, and I think 1.5 3s and 1.0 blocks is attainable if Greene averages 25 minutes per game, which would put him in rare company: of the 59 players averaging at least one block this season, only LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Shane Battier and Andrea Bargnani drain 1.5 treys or better, and just 10 of them average at least half a 3 per game. This prestigious company illustrates Greene's tremendous potential, which makes an addition with the solid potential for future rewards.
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.
3hSam Khan Jr.