The Atlanta Hawks have three players being drafted in the top 33 on average in ESPN live drafts: Joe Johnson at No. 24, Josh Smith at 27 and Al Horford at 33. All three are excellent fantasy players, but each has questions surrounding him regarding the likelihood of improvement this season.
Johnson is coming off a contract season and has recently experienced slight statistical declines. Many believe he has hit his peak and is on his way down. Smith's talent has never been questioned, but he hasn't taken huge statistical steps forward even though he has evolved into a better basketball player. And many believe Horford doesn't possess the natural athleticism to get much better. Let's take a look at the factors surrounding each player to determine the potential for improvement:
Johnson experienced a slight decrease in all numbers last season except for steals and field goal percentage. After averaging 5.8 assists per game in each of the previous two seasons, he dished 4.9 last season. He has logged brutally heavy minutes since joining the Hawks, averaging 40 minutes per game in his five seasons in Atlanta. That number dipped to 38 minutes per game last season, and if the Hawks plan to maximize the long-term value of his max contract, they likely will monitor his minutes even further. With Smith and Horford around to provide help on the offensive end, he's no longer needed to score 25 points per game as he did in 2006-07. And with veteran Mike Bibby manning much of the ballhandling duty, the decline in assists wasn't coincidental. Johnson should still hover around his 20-5-5 mark, but expecting more than that, or for him to put up career numbers in any category, is unwise based on his situation. If his minutes dip a bit more and both Smith and Horford become more of an offensive presence, Johnson should see a slight decrease in his numbers, although he's still in the range of the top 30 players.
Smith finally abandoned his attempts at being a 3-point shooter, which helped his field goal percentage immensely. He put up career numbers from the floor, as well as in rebounds and steals, last season, and he is learning to fully use his freakish talents. He no longer is focused on providing highlight-reel blocks on every possession, so the days of flirting with three swats per game might be over, although he still provides one of the best steal/block combos in the league, a trend that will continue. His biggest flaw is his low free throw percentage, although he did improve upon his 58.8 percent mark two years ago by posting a 61.8 mark last season. He has shown the ability to do even better, posting an almost-decent 71 percent mark in 2007-08, so predicting a slight increase here is reasonable.
He also scored 17.2 points per game that season, and he has shown the ability to be a fantastic scorer in spurts. His February numbers from last season demonstrate his potential: He put up 18.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.3 steals and 1.4 blocks per game in 12 contests. His assists increased dramatically last season, up to 4.2 per game, compared with his career average of 2.9. This exhibits the fact he's maturing and becoming smarter with the ball, a trait that should benefit his overall stats. Expect the steals and blocks to continue pouring in, and, other than 3s, Smith could be in line for his best season in many other categories, as well.
Horford came out of college polished and NBA-ready, but he didn't have Smith's athleticism. Will this limit his ability to improve? Yes and no. His ceiling is lower than that of a player with springs and freakish length, but Horford has shown consistent improvement in his first three seasons and should continue to do so as he further learns how to capitalize on his size, skills and smarts.
His points are the area where he has shown the most improvement since his rookie season, averaging a career-high 14.2 per game last season while shooting an insane 55.1 percent from the floor. He also improved his free throw percentage to 78.9 percent after shooting about 73 percent in each of his first two seasons. All this is evidence that Horford's game is still developing despite the fact he's not the most athletic power forward in the league. Plus, his superb percentages, especially those field goals, make him very valuable in fantasy, where it's hard to find a player who makes more than half his shots from the floor yet doesn't hurt you from the stripe. He also provides above-average steals for a big man, with a career average of 0.8 per game, and has shown the ability to block shots, with 1.1 swats per game last season and an impressive 1.4 per game back in his second season. Everything about Horford thus far in his NBA career points toward the fact that he's still improving. Maybe he'll never be a nightly 20-10-2 guy, but 16-10-1.5 with fantastic percentages is definitely attainable, and those are numbers that can be the cornerstone of a fantasy frontcourt.
In summation, Johnson's best statistical days are behind him, but Smith and Horford should be just scratching the surface.
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.