As the NBA continues to evolve into a more athletic and fast-paced league, so have the players who used to camp out in the paint at the power forward position. It's a trend that has been growing for the past five or six years, and we now have a whole host of power forwards who can run the floor and extend the court past 15 feet on the offensive end.
The fantasy effects of this growing trend have been subtle but certainly not nonexistent. First, take a look at all the players with dual eligibility at both power forward and center this year. Center isn't so thin anymore, is it? Now, try to find a player who doesn't have center eligibility but can block shots. Go ahead, take a look at the tiered rankings to the right, and good luck. Can't find many, can you? As fantasy's most elusive category, it is more imperative now than ever that we find blocks out of our PF/C spots. And if you decide to go with a non-shot-blocking power forward, you'll need to find a way to get your blocks somewhere else.
Now, I'm not saying that you should ignore the ever-growing list of power forwards who cannot block shots, but the scarcity of the category is something that needs to be in your mind when preparing for fantasy drafts this year. Personally, I like to place a premium on bigs who can block shots, and this year that means that I'll likely have to get at least one or two of those types of players early in the draft. Luckily, there seems to be a large crop of high-upside but unproven power forward options in the mid-to-late rounds this season.
McKitish's power forward tiers
Dirk Nowitzki isn't your typical big rebounding and shot-blocking power forward, and I really wish I could play him at small forward, but he's still one of the safest fantasy investments out there. Not only is he one of fantasy's most efficient players (48.1 percent from the floor, 91.5 percent from the line), but he rarely misses games and has been a dominant fantasy force for the past decade. I always give bonus points for consistency in the first round, and given his history, Nowitzki might be the lowest risk of any of the players in the first round this season. There are so few players in the league who can both block shots and hit free throws (right, Dwight Howard?), and that is exactly what makes Pau Gasol such a valuable commodity in fantasy leagues. Granted, it helps that he can put up 18 points and at least 10 rebounds per game, but it's the combination of shot-blocking and the percentages that really separates him from the pack.
This is a growing group of power forwards who remain valuable thanks to superior scoring, rebounding and shooting percentages, headlined by David Lee, whom I somehow don't hate even though he's never blocked more than 0.5 shots per game in a season. It probably has to do with how he can put up 20 points and 11 rebounds with a steal per game and shoots lights-out from both the floor and the free throw line. Lee gets a change of scenery this season, but rest assured, Golden State is as fantasy-friendly as New York, even with Don Nelson out of town. It seems strange that I don't mind Lee, but have a hard time selling myself on a similar player like Carlos Boozer. Part of that is because Boozer likely will see a decrease in production in Chicago (Joakim Noah will see to that), and the rest is because Lee shoots free throws at a much higher clip than Booz. Don't get me wrong, I think Boozer will have a fine season in Chicago provided he comes back strong from his broken hand, but we're probably looking at something more like 18 and 10 rather than the 19 and 11 he averaged last season. Zach Randolph is another guy who posted nearly identical stats to Lee's (minus the percentages) whom I just can't seem to pull the trigger on in fantasy drafts. As with Lee and Boozer, I'm willing to look the other way on the lack of blocks as long as I can find them elsewhere, but Z-Bo carries some additional injury and character baggage that always scares me away. Still, Randolph stayed out of the headlines in Memphis last season, and all signs point to another 20-and-11 season in 2010-11.
As one of the league's best (if not the best) pure rebounders, Kevin Love is only a few minutes per game from becoming a fantasy star. His per-minute production is simply off-the-charts, and with Al Jefferson out of town, the Minnesota Timberwolves will be forced into giving him the 30-35 minutes he deserves on a nightly basis. For now, I am ignoring Kurt Rambis' preseason comments that Love may not be a starter this season, mostly because there is no scenario that I can envision that doesn't put Love in that starting lineup. The only things that have been able to hold Anthony Randolph back from fantasy stardom have been injuries and a lack of consistent playing time. Mike D'Antoni will take care of the playing-time piece, and it will be up to Randolph to stay healthy. If he is able to remain on the court, he will be without a doubt this season's big breakout player. A top-50 player after the All-Star break last season, Andray Blatche will get an opportunity to be a full-time starter from day one, as long as he's fully recovered from offseason foot surgery. Blatche may not be as productive as he was in the second half last season, but he'll be close, and there's no denying the talent that the 24-year-old brings to the table. Perhaps the only question standing in the way of Blake Griffin's fantasy value is the health of his surgically repaired knee. With big-time upside as a scorer and rebounder, Griffin is a very nice high-risk/high-reward investment for the 2010-11 fantasy season. J.J. Hickson will be a popular sleeper candidate after LeBron James' departure, and for good reason. He was very productive in limited minutes last season and had a dominating summer league season. With the Cavs looking to rebuild, expect to see Hickson on the court for 30-33 minutes per game. For years, we've been waiting for Tyrus Thomas to make good on his potential, and this just might be the year, as he's developed a strong rapport with head coach Larry Brown. Given his history, we don't know whether T2 will break out this season, but with upside like his, we almost have to take a chance on him in the later rounds.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.