While everyone else is in full fantasy football mode, it's time for us die-hard fantasy hoops fans to start thinking about the upcoming season. Not only have I already participated in a few mock drafts, but I also have started making my preliminary rankings for each position.
One of the things that has jumped out at me is how early you will have to reach for three of my favorite youngsters -- Josh Smith, Al Jefferson and Andre Iguodala -- come draft day. There's a lot to like about the trio, but make no mistake about it, you are going to have to pony up if you want one of these three on your roster this season.
Smith is earning the most respect; I've seen him drafted as high as the end of the first round and as low as the second pick in the second round (14th overall). You really can't fault anyone for taking Smith this high. I mean, the kid did average 18.9 points, 9.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.3 steals, 3.1 blocks and 0.5 3-pointers after the All-Star break last season. It might seem like Smith has been around for a while, but he still is just 21 years old (he will be 22 in December), and he has improved his overall numbers in each of his first three seasons as a pro. Some will knock Smith because he hasn't had a full season of dominance yet, but that's not a reason to bump him from the first round. If anything, I worry more about his percentages (43.9 percent from the floor, 69.2 percent from the line) and turnovers (3.2 per game). My concern is that as J-Smoov becomes more of a focal point in Atlanta's offense, these numbers will continue to decline. Evidence of this can be seen in his per game pre- and post-All-Star splits from 2006-07:
As you can see, Smith was quite active on the offensive end in the second half. His field goal percentage wasn't terrible, but it declined when he started taking more shots. In most cases, a less selective shooter usually is a less efficient shooter. Of perhaps more concern is Smith's free-throw percentage. As he continues to grow as an offensive player, opponents will struggle to keep pace, thus leading to increased opportunities at the foul line. Given his struggles from the charity stripe, this isn't exactly the best of news for the youngster. The more he shoots from the stripe, the more he will affect your fantasy team's overall free-throw percentage. Still, Smith's ability to dominate multiple categories should overshadow his faults in the percentages and turnovers. He is not a perfect late first-round pick, but he might be a safer choice than some of the other options out there, like Yao Ming or even Dwyane Wade, both of whom have serious injury concerns.
Like Smith, Iguodala is shooting up draft boards, based largely on the strength of his breakout 18.2-point, 5.7-rebound, 5.7-assist, 2.0-steal season in 2006-07. As the main offensive weapon in Philly, we can and should expect AI2 to produce similar numbers in 2007-08. He is a tremendous overall fantasy player, but he really earns bonus points from the free-throw line. Not only can he shoot 80 percent or better from the stripe, but with his offensive arsenal, he is able to get to the line a bunch, as evidenced by his 7.3 free-throw attempts per game last season. Keeping in mind that Iguodala has missed just six games in three professional seasons, it's not hard to see why most folks are taking him in the mid-second round this year. He is about as safe as they come right now, and I could make a strong argument that he is worth an early second-round pick, given his dominance in steals and free-throw percentage, as well as his ability to fill the stat sheet across the board.
As for Jefferson, well, my man-crush on him is well documented, so you never will hear me saying that he is going too early in fantasy drafts, even if he is leaving the board in the middle of the second round. Here's the thing with Jefferson: Everyone knew he had the potential to do what he did last year (16.0 points, 10.9 boards, 0.7 steals and 1.5 blocks), but not many knew he would break out so soon. He is the real deal, and now that he is in Minnesota, he probably will be the No. 1 scoring option and a beast in the paint. I've heard some people warn that Jefferson might not be able to handle the offensive load all on his own in Minnesota. To me, that is laughable. Anyone who watched the Celtics last year knows that Big Al dominated games whether Paul Pierce was in the lineup or not. Plus, don't the Wolves have a guy named Ricky Davis, who, if I'm not mistaken, is a pretty talented offensive player? I'm not worried about Jefferson one bit, and here's why: Just look at his second-half splits compared to those of some of his counterparts:
As you can see, Big Al clearly belongs in this group. In fact, I have him ranked third among the players listed above heading into this season, behind only Stoudemire and Gasol. One also can make a case for ranking Bosh ahead of Jefferson, but Bosh needs to prove that he has completely recovered from his lingering plantar fasciitis problems before he can move up the ladder. Either way, Jefferson is without a doubt a top-5 power forward this year and well worth the high draft selection.
Drafting this early in the season can be tricky because there are a lot of position battles that need to be ironed out during the preseason. Still, mock drafts this early in the season can give us a pretty good idea of how others are ranking their players. Next week, I'll start to unveil my tiered rankings, but in the meantime, take a look at a few players who I thought went either too high or too low in the three mocks I participated in:
Mike Miller, SF, Grizzlies: I wrote about him a few weeks ago, but now that I see Miller being drafted based on last year's stats (fourth round), I feel that it's important to give another heads up. I love Miller's ability to hit 3s while keeping a high field goal percentage, but I don't see him repeating his career-high numbers from 2006-07. Not only will Miller's minutes drop slightly (he saw a career-high 39.1 per game last season), but he also will lose some shot attempts to Gasol's buddy Juan Carlos Navarro. He still is a very nice draft pick, but I won't be taking him ahead of guys like Luol Deng or Josh Howard.
Rajon Rondo, PG, Celtics: Thanks to Bill Simmons' heavy man-crush, I don't think Rondo will ever be a true fantasy sleeper. Sure, he will be tabbed as a sleeper, but not many will really be sleeping on him. Case in point: In the three mocks I've participated in, I've seen him go as early as the sixth round and as late as the eighth. Don't get me wrong, Rondo will be a nice point guard, but he only will really be useful in two categories: assists and steals. Sounds like more of a guy who should be drafted in rounds 8-10, doesn't it?
Eddy Curry, C, Knicks: Do yourself a favor; don't even entertain thoughts of drafting Curry. He is a two-category wonder, and he will end up hurting you more than he helps, especially in leagues that count turnovers. Yes, he will put up some nice scoring numbers (albeit not as nice as last year with Zach Randolph around), and he will be highly efficient from the floor, but there are way too many negatives about his fantasy game that can't be overlooked. Not only does he not rebound well for a man with his size (7.0 per game), but he barely blocks any shots (0.5 per game), doesn't create many steals (0.4 per game) and doesn't hit his free throws (61.5 percent on 8.1 shots per game). Add that to the fact that he turns the ball over at a high rate (3.6 per game), and you have yourself a highly inefficient fantasy player who belongs nowhere near the top 10 rounds of your fantasy draft.
Mike Bibby, PG, Kings: By all accounts, Bibby had a terrible 2006-07 fantasy season, but that's only because he had high expectations. You see, as bad as Bibby was, he still was a solid fantasy point guard, averaging 17.1 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals and 2.1 3-pointers per game while shooting 83.0 percent from the line. The main gripe against Bibby was his career-low shooting percentage from the floor (just 40.4 percent). Bibby is a much better shooter than that, as his career shooting percentage (44.1 percent) suggests. Bibby's poor showing last season seems to have dropped him into the sixth round in fantasy leagues, which is a great spot to be able to grab a player of his caliber.
Jason Richardson, SG, Bobcats: Like Bibby, J-Rich didn't produce typical J-Rich numbers in 2006-07. Fantasy owners seem to have soured on Richardson after last season, because he currently is looking like a late fifth- or early sixth-round fantasy pick. Richardson's abnormal season can be blamed on a broken hand and lingering knee injury that set him back from the beginning of the season. Due to the injuries, he registered a career-low 32.9 minutes per game and saw his scoring output drop more than seven points per game (23.2 PPG to 16.0 PPG). Now that he is fully healthy and away from the shooting guard logjam at Golden State, J-Rich should return to prominence as the No. 1 scoring option in Charlotte. When healthy, J-Rich is a lock for 20 points per game, to go along with 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 2.0 3-pointers per game. To be able to get that kind of production in the fifth or sixth round is pure thievery.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for TalentedMrRoto.com and ESPN.com. He can be reached at Littlemac@TalentedMrRoto.com.