Playing in a deeper league (14 teams or more) provides a great challenge for the fantasy owner mainly because you have to pay attention to more players. And more players should mean more fun.
For example, a 14-team league, in which each roster has 13 players, will draft 182 players overall. Including guys you'll consider on the waiver wire, you'll need to be concerned with more than 200 players. In a 10-team league, that number goes down by about 50. However, those extra 50 players aren't stiffs. For the most part, they are incomplete players who specialize in one or two things, but they are exactly the kinds of players real teams spend so much time considering, and, in fantasy, we're always looking to be more like the real thing.
Listen, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to draft LeBron James first overall. However, it takes a pretty shrewd basketball fan to figure out that he or she might not need to reach for a shot-blocker in the early rounds because Roy Hibbert probably will still be around in the final round. In a standard league, the truth is you probably don't need to know who Hibbert is; in a deep league, it's essential that you do.
In deeper leagues, you'll also need to strategize a bit more. With less chance of winning, it might make sense to take a few more chances. Should you take the upside of Kevin Durant over the sure thing of LeBron? Should you take Rajon Rondo's strange combination of assists and rebounds, or should you take the consistent Chauncey Billups? Your chances of winning your deep league will be directly related to the success of the risks you take, even more so than in a 10-team league where there is always decent talent on the waiver wire. In deep leagues, the draft can be everything, so you have to nail it.
However, don't get too caught up in draft position. You can win your league no matter where you are drafting. All leagues, no matter the size, will have peculiarities. Some years, there's one great player at the top of the draft and then a slew of guys who seem equal for the next 20 picks. Some years, like this one, there are three or four guys in the top tier, the same number in the next tier, and then probably 20 or so more guys who have similar value after that. If you're in a 16-team league, and you get the first pick, don't stress out that your second pick doesn't come until 30 players are off the board. Instead, focus on the fact you will get LeBron, Chris Paul or Durant, and then figure out who you might want when the 32nd pick comes along.
So let's look at some sleepers, which I'm defining here as guys who probably won't be drafted in standard, 10-team leagues. Then we'll take a look at some guys I think won't live up to the hype but will be drafted in all leagues. In the end though, draft with your heart and have fun.
Brandon Rush, SG, Pacers: We have Rush ranked 159th in our current 2009-10 projections, but he's got a chance to be a good bit better than that. He's behind Dahntay Jones on the Indiana Pacers' depth chart, which is tempering his value in most people's eyes, but I keep coming back to the fact Jones has never really played a lot of minutes. Jones played well enough in the playoffs to parlay being on a good team into a big contract, but most teams are not the Denver Nuggets. Last season's Nuggets, helmed by Billups and Carmelo Anthony, had the firepower to have a guy like Jones, who never scores, start at the shooting guard. The Pacers aren't so lucky, and Rush has shown enough on both ends of the floor to convince me that he'll be the starter, or at least get the bulk of the minutes, before too long. He'll make 3-pointers right away, but he's got the potential to throw in some blocks and steals, too, if he gets more than the 24 minutes per game he got last season. Rush had a rough start to last season, but really came on at the end, averaging double-figure scoring the final two months of the season, and he should be able to continue that trend this year.
Marreese Speights, PF, 76ers: Speights reminds me a little bit of Al Jefferson in that he seems to have an ability to get points in the post. He plays the same position as Elton Brand, which could pose playing-time problems, but Philly figures to go small a little more this year, which could mean that Speights will get to play alongside Brand some. Like Rush, he's more of a good basketball player than a one-category specialist, so he'll need plenty of playing time to accumulate enough points and rebounds to matter, but he'll help you a little in blocks and free throw percentage along the way, and definitely is worth drafting late in deeper leagues.
Antonio McDyess, PF, Spurs: People seem to be a bit cold on McDyess, as it stands to reason that his role will diminish going from a mediocre Detroit Pistons team to an elite San Antonio Spurs team. Respectfully, I disagree. He's the clear starter at power forward, and certainly will be able to carve out the 30 minutes per game he played last season. Last season, McDyess was a fantastic rebounder, and racked up enough points, blocks and steals to matter. He shoots a high percentage, and has enough game to play alongside any of the Spurs' other big men in any capacity. Look for him to come pretty close to matching last year's numbers this time around.
Larry Hughes, SG, Knicks: It goes without saying at this point that Hughes is a major injury risk. Ignore that for a minute, and Hughes starts looking like a pretty good fantasy option. He'll start at shooting guard for the New York Knicks, a team that plays with absolutely no conscience whatsoever. That means Hughes will probably take more 3s (probably a nightmare for basketball purists), but his low percentage from the floor will be balanced out by more points and more 3-pointers. He'll kick in a few assists, and he'll be a good source of steals, too. Plus, since he won't even be drafted in most standard leagues, you're not risking much by taking a shot on him. If he can stay healthy for a couple of months, he may even accumulate some trade value to teams who are desperate for a little more production in the steals category.
Peja Stojakovic, SF, Hornets: It's pretty hard to believe that just a few seasons ago, people were talking about Peja as an MVP candidate. It's especially hard to believe it when most fantasy owners have pretty much left him for dead. Still, the Hornets will look a bit different this season, and perhaps with Emeka Okafor requiring a bit more attention in the post than Tyson Chandler, Stojakovic will have a little more room to operate. Last year, in what was the worst season since his rookie year, he managed to contribute 2.4 3-pointers per game for 64 games. Folks, if you are in a deep league, that's nothing to turn your nose up at. He's a specialist, as he doesn't help in the other categories, but if it's the final round of your draft and you still need 3-pointers, there's no better option than Peja.
Hedo Turkoglu, SF, Raptors: For some reason, people seem to be under the impression that Turkoglu is an elite player. In reality, he's not. For the past two seasons, he's been put into a position in which he was his team's best playmaker, and as a result he had control of a ton of possessions. In those possessions he put up more points and assists than he ever had in his career, but he didn't do it with any great efficiency, as his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) was under 15 (below the league average). While he provides a nice combination of points, rebounds and assists, he contributes zilch in steals and blocks, and totally kills your field goal percentage. What's more, in Toronto, he's not going to have the ball in his hands as much. The Raptors already have a fantastic point guard in Jose Calderon, and a big man in Chris Bosh who can create for his teammates from the post. Turkoglu likely will return to the role he had early in his career with the Kings -- a great outside shooter who doesn't really do much else. If you use a third-round pick on him, even in a deep league, you might be making the mistake that kills your season before it starts.
O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies: I don't feel great about putting a guy who had what seemed to be a promising rookie season on this list, but in this case it has to be done. Mayo did a great job of trying to be a go-to guy on a terrible team that really needed one last season, but he might not be suited to the role. He'll score, and he'll make 3s and free throws, but frankly, there's not much room for statistical improvement here. He played a ton of minutes last season (38 per game for 82 games) on a team that let him pretty much shoot whenever he wanted. Sadly for O.J., that's just not going to be the case this year. He's going to be sharing the ball with Allen Iverson, Zach Randolph, and Rudy Gay, with AI and Randolph able to dominate the ball from the perimeter and the post, respectively, like few others have in the past decade. Add to that the fact O.J. doesn't contribute much in any other categories, and you'll see why I'm more down on him than most people.
Richard Hamilton, SG, Pistons: Rip finished well outside of the top 100 on the Player Rater last season, and that's only the first cause for concern. His games played declined for the third straight season, his field goal shooting and 3-point shooting both took massive hits, his steals went down even though his minutes didn't, and his PER dipped below 18 for the first time in four seasons. Rip is still a good player, but his relevance in fantasy is entirely dependent on his shooting a high percentage from the floor, which he might not be equipped to do anymore. Looking at the sleepers listed above, I actually wouldn't be surprised if Larry Hughes outperformed Hamilton this season. In the final tally, I don't think Hamilton is worth drafting in the top 100.
Lou Williams, PG, 76ers: Williams is coming into this season with a lot of hype as the Philadelphia 76ers' starter at point guard, but his game, quite simply, is not fantasy friendly. He doesn't make 3s, he turns the ball over a lot, he's not anything special in the steals category, and he's not a great free throw shooter. All in all, he contributes points without contributing much else. He'll run into some assists simply because he'll have the ball in his hands a lot, but as with Rip Hamilton, I'd be surprised if Lou finishes the season in the top 100 fantasy players.
Not a bust, but ...
Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers: Bust is way too strong a word, and I don't want to make too much of this, because I think Kobe will -- without question -- be one of the seven or eight best fantasy players in the league at season's end. However, he's quite simply not a top-four fantasy guy at this point. If you take him ahead of Durant, Danny Granger, or even Dirk Nowitzki, prepare to be disappointed. The Los Angeles Lakers, in case you need reminding, are loaded, and added even more offense when they replaced Trevor Ariza with Ron Artest. There are only so many shots to go around, and Kobe, more and more, is starting to let other guys take them. Yes, he's durable, but based on what they did last season, 75 games of Dwyane Wade will be worth more than 82 games of Kobe. The biggest issue, however, is that taking Kobe in the top four means you are passing on either Wade or Durant, and I can't see any scenario in which that would be advisable.