In keeping with last week's Player Rater column about players who have been improving into keeper candidates, this week provides us with a chance to take a look at the future prospects of this season's surprisingly impressive rookie class.
Any discussion of this season's rookie class has to start with Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry. Although he likely will finish the season second in scoring among rookies behind Tyreke Evans, Curry's improvement during the course of the season has put him head and shoulders above all his fellow rookies in terms of total fantasy value.
In Tuesday's PER Diem column, John Hollinger pointed out that Curry's rookie season, extrapolated over a career, puts him on the same level as Larry Bird and Ray Allen in terms of his shooting percentages across field goals, 3-pointers and free throws. This is even more impressive when you consider that this is Curry's first season shooting from NBA 3-point range. As he gets stronger physically, he'll become a better finisher around the basket as well.
Shooting, of course, is how Curry gets a lot of his fantasy value, so the fact that he stands to keep improving bodes well for his future fantasy prospects. However, it's worth noting that his team's fast pace helps him out tremendously in two other area in which he has made a huge impact, steals and assists. He'd be a great source of steals and assists on any team, but not quite at the level he is at now.
Looking at Curry's fantasy value heading into next season, the Player Rater makes clear that he's been the 11th-most valuable player in fantasy to this point of this season. He falls to 20th when you take per-game averages into consideration, which is certainly worth paying attention to. Assuming he doesn't improve at all, that's probably enough to make him worthy of a second-round pick in most leagues, especially considering how well-rounded he is.
Here are some other rookies worth looking at heading into next season. This week I'll focus on guards (excluding Jrue Holiday, only because I wrote about him last week), and next week on forwards and centers.
Tyreke Evans, PG/SG, Sacramento Kings (46): Evans has been more effective in fantasy this season than most people had expected, largely because of a preternatural ability to get into the lane and finish around the basket. Most observers believed there would be some sort of transition period for Evans, but in watching Kings games, it has become abundantly clear that Evans is just really good at scoring. He is not, however, so great at the other things one might want to see a point guard do well. His assist rate is comparable to that of players such as Nate Robinson and Allen Iverson, so he doesn't appear to be the pure distributor, a quality that many seek in a point guard. He's a great rebounder from the guard spot, but that statistic is easy to make up elsewhere. He doesn't have 3-point range on his shot and isn't a great free throw shooter, and although he manages 1.5 steals per game, there's not much room to go up from the 37 minutes per game he's been averaging.
Despite Evans' phenomenal talent and my belief that he'll be an even better all-around scorer next season, it seems pretty clear that at some point the Kings will have to shift him over to shooting guard if they're going to encourage any sort of team success. As a result, his assists will drop off a bit, and he won't be quite the all-around player he's been to this point. The way things stand, I think I'd want to wait until at least the fifth round to draft him in a 12-team league, but given his name recognition and promising rookie season, I don't think he'll be around that long.
Brandon Jennings, PG, Milwaukee Bucks (79): Considering the way Jennings started the season, it's hard not to see what has happened since his 55-point explosion against the Warriors in November as a disappointment. I want to point out here, though, that there's a lot of promise in Jennings as a fantasy prospect down the road, so don't expect him to continue slipping forever. The first thing to notice about Jennings' numbers on the Player Rater is that he is, to this point in the season, the worst player in the league in terms of value based on field goal percentage. He's killing you in that category if you own him, and a quick look at his splits will tell you that it's only getting worse. His shooting percentage, in fact, has decreased in every month this season as defenses have learned what he does well and what his weaknesses are.
On the other hand, through February, Jennings decreased his turnovers in each month while keeping his assist rate relatively high. In fact, among players with a higher assist rate than Jennings, only a handful have a lower turnover rate, and none of them plays more minutes per game than Jennings, save Chris Paul. Basically, Jennings is in the process of becoming a very good point guard. He also has been increasing his steals as the season has progressed, and his 38 percent shooting on 3-pointers and 81 percent shooting from the line are respectable by any standards. I think he's a great bet to keep improving into next season, and I wouldn't hesitate at all to take him in the sixth round of a 12-team fantasy draft.
Jonny Flynn, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves (129): For Flynn, who has had plenty of opportunity this season with little fantasy success, the question is whether he can add some efficiency and assists to his capable scoring from the point guard position. Right now, he's a decent 3-point shooter who doesn't take enough 3s. He's averaging only 4.4 assists and 1.1 steals per game. Flynn is a good scorer, but because he's playing just 29.1 minutes per game, he's averaging only 13.7 points per game. In the aggregate, he's just not worth enough in any category to matter much in most fantasy leagues. His other problem is that his backup, Ramon Sessions, is another promising player who needs minutes as well.
Basically, until I see some evidence that some of these problems are fixing themselves, it'll be pretty hard to consider Flynn any better a prospect that the 129th ranking he has right now. Next season, if nothing changes, he'll still have Sessions behind him, still turn the ball over way too much and still won't make enough 3-pointers to matter in your fantasy league. Nothing I see in his monthly splits leads me to believe he's a much better player today than he was at the start of the season.
Marcus Thornton, SG, New Orleans Hornets (157): I love everything about Thornton's fantasy prospects, especially his situation heading into next season. The Hornets are currently a completely capped-out team, and Thornton happens to already be the best shooting guard on the roster by a healthy margin. He's third among rookies in player efficiency rating, largely on the strength of his average of 22.7 points per 40 minutes. He's shooting 40 percent on 3s, 45 percent from the floor and 80 percent from the line -- all pretty impressive numbers for a rookie. He doesn't do much else at the moment (he's nothing special in steals, and he's not a great rebounder, either), but anyone who can score this well as a rookie deserves your full and undivided attention.
Most importantly, this is not an example of a player performing well in limited minutes. For all of February, Thornton averaged 18.8 points per game in 29.1 minutes, and in four games in March, he's averaging 25.0 points in 28.0 minutes. Clearly, Thornton can score. It's hard to say exactly what that means in terms of his prospects for next season, but assuming he has the starting shooting guard role alongside Chris Paul, I think 18 points, two 3s, one steal and similar percentages to this season are well within reach, and I would certainly have no qualms with anyone who drafted him after the sixth round in standard leagues.
Darren Collison, PG, Hornets (125): It's undeniable at this point that Collison is an extremely good NBA point guard, and although we're still waiting to see how long he can continue playing at this level, it's already entirely clear that he deserves to be a starter. He does not, however, deserve to be a starter ahead of Chris Paul, and therein lies the rub. The Hornets already have an extremely promising guard to pair with Paul in Thornton (see previous paragraph), and Thornton fits that role far better than Collison does.
So, the question becomes one of fantasy value. How valuable can Collison be next season when he's playing behind the best point guard in the league? Unless he gets traded or Paul's injury somehow extends much longer than anyone expects, Collison has to be ranked behind even the more mediocre fantasy starters at the position such as Mike Conley and Andre Miller.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.