What is the ceiling for Russell Westbrook in his third season?
Russell Westbrook: Humble, hard-working -- and just starting to harness his freakish talent. If you're any sort of NBA fan, you have to like this kid.
Still, I'm not planning on him being a part of any of my fantasy teams this season.
Don't get me wrong, I like Westbrook. Of course I do. Admittedly, his shooting struggles as a rookie made me skittish about his fantasy value, but that breakout performance in the NBA playoffs last spring spoke volumes -- as did that breakout performance in the FIBA World Championship last month. (Seriously, that's two breakout performances in six months. Unreal.)
Heading into his third NBA season -- and three weeks from his 22nd birthday -- Westbrook's potential seems boundless. The scary thing is he's still learning the point guard position. With his quickness and explosiveness, he'll score more points. And with that Kevin Durant fellow ready to own any game, Westbrook will absolutely keep dishing.
But as far as the fantasy game this season, I think you should temper your enthusiasm for Westbrook by reminding yourself of two things:
1. There are other point guards out there. A handful of them are still better than Westbrook; a few others offer far greater value.
2. There are other owners in your league. At least one is bound to love Westbrook even more than you do.
Compared to other point guards, I feel Westbrook is just short of elite for fantasy. His pluses are obvious: high assists and steals. I consider these the two toughest stats to get in fantasy. Westbrook should be good for at least 8.0 dimes and 1.5 steals in 2010-11 (I base the latter on his 1.5 steals over the second half of 2009-10 plus his 1.7 thefts in the Lakers series). Last season, only Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Jason Kidd, LeBron James and Baron Davis were as good at both giving and taking away. And don't forget about rebounding -- Westbrook averaged 4.9 boards last season, a rock-solid contribution by point guard standards.
Of course, Westbrook's downsides are his low shooting percentage, high turnovers and lack of 3-pointers. Honestly, I don't sweat the 3s. I feel like I can find 3-pointers at any point in the draft. And really, the turnovers don't bother me that much, either. There are plenty of leagues that don't track turnovers, so Westbrook's value certainly gets a big boost there. But even in turnover leagues, if Westbrook is making 3.5 turnovers a night, that's not that wildly out of line with what you'd endure from Steve Nash, Deron Williams or Rondo.
What bothers me about Westbrook is the shooting. His supporters will point out that in the second half of last season, Westbrook shot 44 percent from the field. But even if you project that level of accuracy for the whole of the season ahead, remember that players like Paul, Stephen Curry, Williams, Nash and Rondo -- and even Tyreke Evans and fantasy lightning-rod Derrick Rose -- will all likely shoot in the 46-50 percent range. That's a significant step up from what Westbrook will give you.
Not that I'll put anything past Westbrook. He could dial it up to 18 points and 10 assists this season and force his way into fantasy's top 20. Still, I'm pretty comfortable in rating Paul, Curry, Williams, Nash, Kidd and Rondo ahead of him. Plus, I love the potential point guard value available in the later rounds with Rose, John Wall or, especially, Jrue Holiday.
No question, it's easy to like Russell Westbrook. I just fear it'll be a bit too easy to overpay for him on draft day.
Neil Tardy is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.