Joakim Noah, we all assumed, was going to have a big year this season. For one thing, his game had gotten better every year of his career, and since he's only 26, he should be just about to enter his prime years. Just as importantly, the Chicago Bulls are a great team, and Noah has -- rightly so --been seen as one of the essential members of that team. Missing 34 games to injury last season, he still managed to set a career-high in minutes per game at 32.5, and there was reason to believe those minutes would go up even more assuming he could stay healthy.
Of course, that's not how it went; at least, not at first. Noah struggled to start the season, and found himself -- justifiably -- sitting for large chunks of games while Omer Asik held down the fort at center. Noah's numbers were all down from last season and there was little reason to think they would improve with the Bulls already playing about as well as could be expected. It would have been very easy to justify cutting bait with Noah and trading him for a more productive, less heralded center.
Noah sat out of the Bulls win over the Charlotte Bobcats 11 days ago, and since then everything's been different. He's put up five straight double-doubles, averaging 13.2 points, 12.6 rebounds, and 64 percent shooting from the floor in 34.2 minutes per game over that stretch, and while the Bulls faced a couple of cupcakes in there, they also had tough games against the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks, and Indiana Pacers. Part of this is that he's been picking up the slack for an injured Luol Deng, but over the past week, Joakim Noah has been one of the 20 most valuable players in fantasy according to the Player Rater.
That got me thinking about the nature of this season and the condensed schedule. The truth is, we're not really sure yet (and we probably won't be all season) how the altered schedule is going to change the numbers players are putting up. The one thing we do know is that each player's response likely will be unique and unpredictable.
With that in mind, here are some other players who got off to disappointing starts but still have a good chance of turning it around.
(Current ranking based on per game averages in parentheses.)
John Wall, PG, Washington Wizards (44): One of these days, Wall is going to start putting it all together, but that day still feels like a long way away. What's encouraging? He's raised his free-throw percentage from 76.6 to 79.5 while raising his free throw attempts from 5.7 per game to 6.3. He's declined a bit in steals, but I'm expecting that number to bounce back, and even if it doesn't he's replaced it with a unique ability to block shots (1.0 per game) from the point guard position. He's totally given up taking 3-pointers, and while it's discouraging that he's not improving that area of his game, when you consider his improved stroke from the free-throw line, it does end up making him a more dangerous player (see: James, LeBron). Even with all that though, the big reason to expect Wall to get better is that his teammates can't possibly continue to be this awful all season. The Wizards are a young team, and as they improve, so should Wall's overall numbers as he gets more and more comfortable with the guys around him.
Josh Smith, SF/PF, Atlanta Hawks (61): This one's pretty simple, as Smith has actually been quite good this season. The Hawks, in fact, are currently the fifth best team in the league according to John Hollinger's power rankings, and Smith is leading the team in PER (if you discount Al Horford, who will be out for the foreseeable future). Smith has done a nice job of cutting down on his 3-point attempts, which is a positive because it means he's attacking the basket where he's better-equipped not just to score, but to find teammates. In addition, he has actually boosted his rebounding and shot-blocking numbers. His shooting percentage is down a little, but that's mostly the result of his shooting only 28 percent on shots between 3-and-9 feet -- his worst percentage ever from that distance by a wide margin according to hoopdata.com. All in all, the reason Smith's been a disappointment in fantasy is his abominable free-throw shooting. He's shooting 51.5 percent from the line for the season, but that number is up to 57.9 percent over his past five games, and his career number of 66.9 percent leaves plenty of reason for hope. He doesn't have to be good in this area to be a great fantasy player, but he needs to be better than guys like Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin. I'd assume Smith won't be out of the top-50 much longer.
Tyreke Evans, PG/SG, Sacramento Kings (64): I am not a fan of Evans in fantasy in large part because I think his combination of points, rebounds and assists makes him overvalued. He's never been all that efficient, he doesn't make 3s; essentially he's just not a player with a skill set that translates obviously to big fantasy value. However, he's becoming a pretty darn good free-throw shooter. Evans is currently at 76 percent for the season, but if you take out a horrendous showing in his first four games, he's actually sitting at 85 percent. This is very important, because Evans gets to the line quite a bit (he's in the top 20 in the league in attempts per game), and shooting 85 percent turns a category in which he was a bit of a liability into a big strength. Add to that the fact that his midrange game seems to have left him entirely (I think it will come back), and it starts to look like Evans is a good bet to jump into the top 50 before too long. Over his past five games, he's averaging 17.4 points, 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 91 percent shooting from the line, and while those numbers are pretty high, they're not too far off from his expected level of play.
Dorell Wright, SF, Golden State Warriors (93): For Wright, the big issue this year has been playing time. His fantasy success last year was based largely on the fact that he was playing 38.4 minutes per game. Those minutes gave him a chance to make a ton of 3-pointers, but just as importantly they gave him a chance to rack up a lot of steals and blocks as well. Wright has fallen off in all these areas this season because he's playing fewer than 30 minutes per game, but it's worth noting that he's still a fairly productive player on a per-minute basis. He's also on a little bit of a hot streak. Over his past five games he's averaging 14.8 points, 3.0 3s, and 1.2 steals per game in just 27.8 minutes. If he can regain his stroke on 3s and keep making around two per game for the rest of the season, he's going to climb quite a ways up the Player Rater by the time the season is done (even if he never quite catches the top-50 status his draft slot suggested).
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.