Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we pose a question to a rotating panel of ESPN fantasy basketball experts to gauge their thoughts on a hot topic. Today's contributors are ESPN NBA Insider Kevin Pelton and ESPN Fantasy's Joe Kaiser and Kyle Soppe.
Al Horford is just 11 games into his tenure with the Boston Celtics, but he currently ranks 11th on the Player Rater based on averages. While his scoring (15.5 PPG, 50.4 FG%, 12.6 FGA) is nearly identical to what he did his last two seasons with the Hawks, his 3-point shooting (1.5 3-PPG, 39.0 3-FG%), assists (5.0 APG) and blocks (2.6 BPG) have skyrocketed. Is this just a small-sample-size anomaly or a sign of things to come?
Kevin Pelton: I've been doing some research lately into how to best predict performance the rest of the season, which yields opposing conclusions about these stats. Early-season block rates tend to not be as predictive as past performance, while assist rates tend to stabilize pretty quickly. Naturally, 3-point percentage is also fluky, though Horford's track record is strong enough at this point that I don't expect him to drop off that much.
Ultimately, the projections that combine performance to date and preseason expectations peg Horford for 4.1 assists but just 1.4 blocks per game the rest of the season, which suggests his value is probably already at a high point.
Joe Kaiser: The fact that Horford started taking 3-pointers for the first time in his career last season, shooting 34.4 percent and making 1.1 of 3.1 attempts, is an encouraging sign that his 3-point success this season isn't a fluke. Playing under Brad Stevens in Boston, he's taking and making more threes (1.5 of 3.7 per game) while shooting an improved 39 percent. I don't think this is a fluke, and at this point we have to consider the 3-pointer a key part of Horford's fantasy value. Just don't expect any style points with the form on his 3-point stroke.
As far as his assists go, clearly Boston signed him with the intent of utilizing him as a facilitator, and we're seeing that with the hike in assists this season. He has dished out at least five assists in six of his first 11 games with the Celtics, including nine in his last game, against the Rockets. It's safe to say he's going to break his previous single-season high of 3.5 APG, and I'd expect him to finish somewhere between 4.5-5.5 by season's end.
The blocks are the one stat that I think we can chalk up to small sample size. Horford is 30 years old and in his 10th NBA season -- this isn't typically a stage in a player's career when he would suddenly become a bigger shot-blocker. His previous single-season best is 1.5 BPG, set twice in the last three seasons, and I'd expect that to be his ceiling in 2016-17.
Kyle Soppe: I'm buying all the Horford shares I can get. From a basketball standpoint, the rise in Horford's unique skill set is because ... well, it's now unique. In Atlanta, he shared the front court with Paul Millsap, a player whose skill was so similar to his that I often confused the two.
Horford's skills haven't gotten any better this season, he has simply gotten smarter. The percentage of his shots taken from 16 feet or further is actually down a tick from last season (46.8 percent, down from 47.9 percent last season), but he has joined #TeamAnalytics and determined that he might as well step behind that three point line if he is going to settle from a jumper.
I also believe that the assist spike is real, for many of the same reasons. Due to his unique set of skills, he often puts the opposing center in a difficult position on the perimeter, thus allowing him to showcase his play-making abilities. I'd take the "under" on five assists per game and 39-percent 3-point shooting when all is said and done, but the Celtics are a top-10 team in offensive efficiency right now, and that is no mistake. Horford is a reliable player who can help fantasy owners across the board and should finish the season as a top-20 player.