We're nearing All-Star weekend, and for fantasy owners, the return on investment for the NBA's rookie class of 2009-10 is becoming clearer.
But now, it's all over for the class of 2009-10. Because it's midseason, and the newbies are staring straight into the teeth of an impenetrable edifice.
The rookie wall.
The rookie wall is one of the NBA's great mythical concepts. It says a player just out of college takes a several-month mental-health break sometime around the 30-game mark that extends until about the next summer league. This is supposedly because he has been conditioned for a collegiate-sized season. A promising November and December inevitably lead to a petering-out in January to be followed by the invariable crash and burn by All-Star weekend.
Now, I'm sure that on some far-reaching existential level, the rookie wall exists. (I've played on a couple of rock-and-roll tours in my time, and the road can be a lonely, unforgiving place, especially around Fresno, Calif.).
But in fantasy, we're concerned only with one pure level: the statistical level. And I'm here to tell you that not only is there no statistical basis for a rookie wall, you should actually covet certain rookies heading into the second half of the season because from what I've seen over the years, the rookie wall actually resembles more of a rookie divot.
A worthwhile rookie's production is slightly U-shaped. That means a solid start, a midseason bump in the road, then a general trend back upward in the latter part of the season.
What do I mean by "worthwhile" rookies? I mean that every year, there are five to 10 rookies who land firmly on the fantasy radar. Some are names you'd expect, but then there some surprises. For instance, no one is surprised that Hasheem Thabeet, despite his high draft choice, has been a total nonfactor in fantasy this season. Omri Casspi? A bit of a surprise, but definitely a worthwhile rookie.
They also tend not to be centers. This is in part thanks to their two-year learning curve and, to be precise, foul trouble. Once a big man -- say, Roy Hibbert -- learns how to stay on the court, his minutes and value go up.
So, let's take a look at last season's worthwhile rookies. I'll list them by final Player Rater rankings, then list their average draft positions (ADP).
(ADP is very important when measuring a rookie's trade value because it's a good indicator of a rookie's most underrated attribute: hype. If a rookie comes in with a relatively high ADP -- anything below 100 -- it means enough owners have bought into the hype surrounding said rookie. This inflates his value in trade discussions.)
Worthwhile rookies: 2008-09 season
Brook Lopez, C, New Jersey Nets (Player Rater: 26, ADP: not drafted): Started steady, got better as season progressed. One of the great fantasy rookie seasons by a center. A total statistical aberration and a freak of nature.
Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies (Player Rater: 65, ADP: 112): Huge start, dipped, solid finish.
Michael Beasley, PF, Miami Heat (Player Rater: 137, ADP: 56): Started strong, dipped, big finish.
Of these nine players, six of them hit a rookie divot in January, adjusted and regained value during the final two months of the season. And of these nine players, only three had an ADP in the top 100. Those three (Mayo, Rose, Beasley) were players heavily hyped by the fantasy basketball brain trust (guilty) during the preseason. As you see, two of them (Mayo and Rose) had their draft stocks inflate. One (Rose) had his stock inflate so high that what would have been a strong rookie season for most owners ended up being a mild disappointment. But, save for Westbrook, if you acquired any of these rookies at midseason, you wouldn't have been outright disappointed.
Now, let's apply this discussion to this season's slightly less promising crop of rookies and take a look at who might be in for a fantasy-worthy second half.
Worthwhile (and possibly worthwhile) rookies: 2009-10 season
Tyreke Evans, PG/SG, Sacramento Kings (Player Rater: 47, ADP: 56): Strong start, currently in slight divot.
Brandon Jennings, PG, Milwaukee Bucks (Player Rater: 55, ADP: 57): Strong start, currently in deep divot.
Jonny Flynn, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves (Player Rater: 89, ADP: 113): He's been what I like to call "steadily inconsistent" all season.
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder (Player Rater: 131, ADP: not drafted): Plays on a very fantasy-unfriendly team but is growing into a bigger role.
Omri Casspi, SF/PF, Sacramento Kings (Player Rater: 145, ADP: not drafted): Showed top-50 potential when Kevin Martin's injury freed up minutes. Has a bright fantasy future.
Darren Collison, PG, New Orleans Hornets (Player Rater: 201, ADP: not drafted): Incredibly hot pickup, his long-term value is tied to Paul's knee.
Terrence Williams, SG/SF, New Jersey Nets (Player Rater: 258, ADP: not drafted): Very intriguing fantasy potential.
Jon Brockman, PF, Sacramento Kings (Player Rater: 286, ADP: not drafted): Like Gibson and Tyler Hansbrough, his hustle factor could carve out 25-30 minutes per game given the right set of circumstances.
Tyler Hansbrough, PF, Indiana Pacers (Player Rater: 302, ADP: not drafted): Potential is now turning into a lost rookie season thanks to a propensity for injury.
Jordan Hill, C/PF, New York Knicks (Player Rater: 309, ADP: not drafted): Makes this list because he's a top-10 selection and a Knick. If trades occur and the Knicks go further south, he could start getting minutes down the stretch.
Not as inspiring as last season, is it?
Fantasy owners understandably displayed a lot less faith in the 2009-10 rookie class in this season's drafts. Only three players (Curry, Evans, Jennings) had an ADP higher than 100.
You'll also notice this season's list is longer than last season's. That's because the second half tends to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to rookies. By the time April rolls around, this list will compact to five to 10 players.
So, how can we predict which rookies will make the final cut? To help you, I've prepared a brief questionnaire.
1. Team trajectory
Is this rookie's team threatening to tank, thereby opening minutes for the players of tomorrow?
Players to watch: Stephen Curry, Tyreke Evans, Jonny Flynn, Omri Casspi, Jonas Jerebko, Terrence Williams, A.J. Price, Jon Brockman, Tyler Hansbrough, Jordan Hill
2. Draft position
Did a general manager expend a high draft pick on this rookie, meaning his reputation is on the line?
Players to watch: Curry, Evans, Jennings, Flynn, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Hill
3. No time-shares
Does this rookie have a clear path to 30 minutes per game?
Players to watch: Curry, Evans, Marcus Thornton, Williams, Darren Collison, Jerebko
4. Hustle factor
Is the player known for hustle, which will endear him to his coach down the stretch?
Players to watch: Flynn, DeJuan Blair, Taj Gibson, Hansbrough, Brockman, Casspi
5. Athletic upside
Does this rookie have great physical gifts that could translate into production if/when he puts it all together?
Players to watch: Evans, Jennings, DeRozan, Hill, Williams
6. Across-the-board production
Does this rookie show he doesn't live and die by his shot and can contribute in other areas?
Players to watch: Flynn, Jerebko, Gibson, Collison, Blair, Brockman
You'll have to give up the farm to snare Evans or Curry at this point. I'd leave them alone in trade discussions, because you'll have to deal a proven starter for a less-proven newcomer.
But Jennings and Flynn are both in situations that should set them up for strong finishes. They're both in divots as of this writing and are nice buy-low candidates. It's hard to see Flynn losing minutes to Ramon Sessions beyond the trade deadline (if Sessions isn't dealt).
I want to plug Harden, but I don't see him being more than a bench player in deeper leagues because of a logjam at his position. The same goes for Brockman and Casspi. However, I love the Hornets' backcourt situation. If Chris Paul remains on the shelf and the Hornets fade, Collison and Thornton could both be top-80 players in the second half.
If you're looking for deep sleepers, I'd stick to players on lottery-bound teams. Jerebko and Williams aren't going to be very sexy pickups but are in line for big minutes come March and April.
Finally, I'm keeping a close eye on DeRozan when he returns. His team is making a playoff push, but he has more athletic upside of anyone on this list save for Evans.
John Cregan is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.