Looking at the past 30 days rankings on the Player Rater, there are no surprises in the first four names on the list: Chris Paul, Danny Granger, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Fifth on the list, however, is Bucks forward Charlie Villanueva, which is interesting on a number of levels.
On the one hand, Villanueva played 18 games in January, giving him a serious advantage over someone like, say, Kevin Durant, who played only 14. On the other hand, Villanueva averaged fewer minutes than most of the top guys on the list. Durant played 41.6 minutes per game in January, while Villanueva played just 29.7. Durant, then, actually played more minutes during the past 30 days than Villanueva, if only slightly (and remember, Durant is the player I'm touting as the third-best fantasy option in the league from this point forward).
So clearly, Villanueva is using his minutes well, but it's important to look at where his value lies specifically. As a player, his best asset is his willingness to be the center of the offense. At times, his assist rate is extremely low, but in situations in which he's asked to carry the offense -- say, right now, with Michael Redd out for the rest of the season -- he gives the team a player willing to create his own offense and score effectively. The only forwards with higher usage rates are LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Granger, all of whom are elite fantasy options when healthy.
As great as he can be as a scorer, Villanueva also provides all-around production, making him more similar to the guys on the list than one might think. For January, he averaged 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.7 3-pointers, 0.7 steals and 0.9 blocks with 52 percent shooting from the floor and 86 percent shooting from the line. Those are impressive fantasy numbers, folks, especially when you consider that he put them up in 29.7 minutes per game and that those minutes have seen a bump since Redd went down.
So there's a lot of optimism surrounding Villanueva's prospects right now. The glass-is-half-full types will say this is the first chance he's had to really show what he can do. They'll say we knew he was super-talented, but we needed to see what he could do when given the keys to an offense. These people are not wrong, but there are some red flags as well. As talented as he is, Villanueva's overall minutes went down in each of his first three seasons, a sign those teams were finding more reasons to keep him off the floor than to play him. His defense is terrible, and it's likely he will give up almost as much production as he gets. I have major questions about whether a team with Villanueva in a major role could do any real damage in the playoffs.
These, though, are not the playoffs. Fantasy basketball, as we all are aware, is about regular-season production. It's about actual numbers, and numbers, at the moment, are being accumulated by Villanueva in a pretty significant way. If you held on to him through the rough Luc Richard Mbah a Moute days, you will be handsomely rewarded for what appears to be the rest of this season. Oh, and I hesitate to say this, for fear of how much instant Web traffic it will create, but he is still available in almost 30 percent of ESPN.com fantasy leagues. Catch him while you can.
Going up (ranking based on total stats, ranking based on average stats)
Al Jefferson, PF/C, Timberwolves (17, 22): He got jobbed out of going to Phoenix for the All-Star Game, but I defy you to find someone playing better at the moment than Big Al. These are his numbers during the past five games: 30.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 0.8 steals and 54 percent shooting from the floor. What's more, with the Wolves going 12-7 since Christmas, it seems Jefferson is the centerpiece of what might be a good team. He is ranked seventh overall on the Player Rater over the past two weeks, and while that reflects a very hot stretch for him, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest he's a top-10 fantasy player from this point forward.
Lamar Odom, PF, Lakers (125, 130): A few weeks back, I wrote that the Lakers would have to at least consider using Odom in more of a playmaking role with Jordan Farmar out and Derek Fisher playing way too many minutes. Since I wrote that, he's averaging 11.3 points, 2.4 assists, 6.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks with better than 55 percent shooting from the floor in seven games.
Now, with Andrew Bynum likely out for six weeks, Odom is going to be the major beneficiary. It is excellent timing; Odom already had worked himself back into fantasy relevance before the injury, and now he's going to get the minutes to be a major force, at least for the next month and a half. It will be interesting to see how he, and the Lakers, fare during this stretch, especially defensively.
Baron Davis, PG, Clippers (127, 55): There are lots of things wrong with Davis as a fantasy option right now. He seems exceedingly likely to get hurt again, it's unclear whether he'll be willing to put forth maximum effort for a lousy team for the rest of the season, he's shooting a career-worst 35.6 percent from the floor and his 15.47 player efficiency rating is the worst of his career, right around the league average. Still, this is Baron Davis, and if he's healthy, there aren't many guys who will get you the combination of points, assists and 3-pointers he can put up. Take advantage of his slow start coming back from his injury and see whether you can poach him from an owner who is sick of enduring that field goal percentage.
Kevin Garnett, PF, Celtics (10, 15): Last season, once February rolled around, Garnett started missing games and playing fewer than 30 minutes per night. He has the flu at the moment, and I could see it as an opportunity for the team to start thinking about getting him some much-needed rest. The Celtics' schedule opens up some in the coming weeks, as they have played a league-high 49 games to this point, but it also gets much more difficult. During the next month, they face Philadelphia, New Orleans, Dallas, Utah, Phoenix and Denver, all on the road, and have home games against the Spurs, Lakers and Pacers, who have given the C's some trouble. With Garnett playing fewer minutes already, there is the potential for his stats to take a real nosedive in the coming weeks; if you can get fair value back, it might be worth your while.
Vince Carter, SG, Nets (21, 35): As the discrepancy between his rankings shows, Carter has been benefiting from a run of health that, quite frankly, has been what most of us have come to reluctantly expect from him in the three and a half seasons he has been with the Nets. Health is a valuable commodity in fantasy; it is not something to be ignored. However, Carter just sprained his ankle Saturday night, and while he claims he'll be ready to go Tuesday, the fact that he has been playing less and less effectively each month this season (January saw a few particularly pitiful performances from Carter) would have me wanting to trade him before news of his possible demise spreads too far. It was my firm belief that this would be the season we'd see Carter really start to decline, and looking at his splits for the past two months, it's looking more and more like I might have been right.
Joe Johnson, SG/SF, Hawks (24, 29): There are few players I like more than Johnson, but even I have to admit he's putting some alarming miles on the odometer these days. Although he clearly struggled during January (shooting 37 percent from the floor and an abysmal 26 percent on 3-pointers), the Hawks continue playing him more than 40 minutes per game. With Josh Childress playing in Greece, they really don't have many other options. In fact, Johnson is averaging 43 minutes in his past five games. His raw numbers still look good -- he's averaging 20.0 points, 7.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 2.8 steals during that stretch -- but his difficulty in making shots is turning him into something of a liability overall in fantasy. Johnson is like the Dwight Howard of field goal percentage right now, and I don't see it getting better with him playing this many minutes, no matter how many times Flip Murray scores 20 points off the bench. This is one of the few examples in which you'd actually like to see a guy play fewer minutes to increase his value.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.