The 2010-11 NBA season was not a banner year for rookies in fantasy leagues. In 2009-10, 16 rookies finished among the top 200 on ESPN.com's Player Rater; in 2010-11, that number dropped to 10 and included an undrafted free agent (the Spurs' Gary Neal) and a second-round surprise (the Knicks' Landry Fields).
In our final 2010-11 mock draft here on ESPN.com, we drafted six rookies out of the 156 total selections. Blake Griffin, picked 51st overall, was the only rookie to outperform his draft spot during the course of the entire season. I realize, of course, that this is an imperfect way of analyzing the performance of rookies, but the important point is that drafting rookies in fantasy leagues is usually a losing proposition, and that exceptions like Griffin (and, for example, Stephen Curry before him) merely prove the rule.
Of course, we like drafting rookies in fantasy because rookies are all about promise. It's difficult to project how their previous basketball lives will translate to the pro game, but that makes them all the more enticing. Beyond that, there is the possibility of great improvement during the season, but even this is difficult to project. For every player who steadily progresses, like Greg Monroe, there's a Landry Fields who starts out strong and levels off; every rookie season has its own peculiar trajectory.
So, in this space, we'll take a look at what we might be able to expect from this year's rookie class, but the overarching takeaway should be this: don't bet your fantasy life on rookies. It would be a mistake to try to find value in stocking your roster with rookies in the hopes that their upside will pan out quickly. Finally, if you're going to draft a rookie, find one you like more than your leaguemates, because when there is a consensus opinion on a rookie, there's a really good chance he's going to get drafted way too early.
With that in mind, here are a few rookies I'll be avoiding in fantasy drafts, a couple I'll be targeting and another few I'll be watching once the season gets going:
Kyrie Irving, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers: Irving is a strange case, in that his college career consisted of just 11 games, but the fact the Cavs selected him first overall would seem to mean that at some point this season they're going to hand him the keys to the offense. On the other hand, as it stands right now Baron Davis and Ramon Sessions are still on the roster, and given the dearth of overall talent on the Cavs, it might not make much sense to rush Irving along. He's going to go in the first six or seven rounds of most fantasy drafts, but I wouldn't be comfortable taking him until after guys like Mike Conley and Darren Collison are already off the board.
Derrick Williams, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves: Like Irving, Williams is going to go too high in fantasy drafts because he went so high in the real NBA draft. I love Williams as a prospect even more than I like Irving. He's willing to crash the boards and he shot the lights out while carrying his Arizona teammates much deeper into the NCAA tournament than anyone expected. Unfortunately, he's coming into a serious logjam, and will have to fight for minutes with Michael Beasley, Martell Webster, Wesley Johnson, Anthony Randolph and possibly even Kevin Love, depending on where the Timberwolves decide he belongs on the floor. By the end of the season, he might be a major producer, but it's going to take him some time to carve out enough minutes to be successful in fantasy.
Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves: We've all been waiting to get a glimpse of Rubio in the NBA for years, and I think that excitement is going to push his draft position much higher than his game warrants. There's a lot of talk about all the weapons he'll have around him in Minnesota, but it takes time for synergy to develop between point guards and their wingmen, and Rubio's not a good enough shooter to relieve the pressure or draw extra defenders to open up passing lanes. Am I excited to watch Rubio play? Absolutely, but he's not going to be on my fantasy team this season.
Kawhi Leonard, PF, San Antonio Spurs: Leonard is going to end up undrafted in most leagues, but I think he's got as much of an opportunity to produce as any rookie this season. For one thing, he can do a little bit of everything, and he should have every possible chance to use his improving jump shot on a Spurs team desperate for some youth in the frontcourt. He's already a great rebounder, especially for his height, and with Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan receiving most of the attention, I can easily imagine him averaging seven rebounds to go along with a steal per game. Maybe it's a reach, but I'd rather take a shot on Leonard in the final round than Derrick Williams in the eighth or ninth.
Bismack Biyombo, PF, Charlotte Bobcats: A rookie needs to have two things to succeed in fantasy: a definable skill and an opportunity. Biyombo has great potential as a shot-blocker, and he should be able to come in and do so right away. Given the lack of frontcourt options in Charlotte, I'd be surprised if Biyombo doesn't carve out some minutes early on. The best part is that he should be available at the end of just about any draft you're in. If he can get even 20 minutes per game, he'll be a valuable contributor in blocks and should be a pretty good rebounder, as well. I'd be willing to bet that he'll end up finishing higher on the Player Rater than all but a few rookies.
Norris Cole, PG, Miami Heat: Yes, Mario Chalmers showed some flashes of his promising rookie season as last season progressed, but the point guard position in Miami is still there for the taking. Cole doesn't have a lot of name recognition because he played his college ball at Cleveland State, but he's a true point guard who rebounds and scores well for his position. Considering the players around him, he should have plenty of open looks and opportunities to rack up assists, and because of the way the Heat play defense, he might be able to grab some steals, too (he averaged 2.2 per game his senior year at CSU).
Kenneth Faried, PF, Denver Nuggets: When a guy grabs rebounds the way Faried did in college, it's worth paying attention. After all, just look at what Paul Millsap has done for the Jazz these past few seasons. Faried, however, brings quite a few other skills to the table. His numbers in blocks and steals were impressive and he became a pretty good scorer during the course of his career at Morehead State, as well. I'd be shocked if Faried doesn't produce on a per-minute basis, the only question is how many minutes he'll be able to get if the Nuggets are able to re-sign Nene.
Justin Harper, SF, Orlando Magic: In Ryan Anderson, the Magic seem to already have a Justin Harper-type -- a big man who prefers to step outside and shoot 3s. On the other hand, Harper's a perfect fit in the system the Magic run, and his similarity to Anderson makes that point even clearer. I'd be extremely surprised if Harper isn't knocking down 3s in big numbers at some point this season, but he'll probably be stuck on the bench for at least a little while.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.