Every season in fantasy basketball there are players who vastly exceed even the most outrageous expectations and players who get drafted in the first few rounds and fizzle out almost immediately. One of the best things about fantasy sports is that we get to make wild speculations and have undeniable, concrete evidence that we were right all along. Sometimes it's pretty obvious. When I drafted Raptors point guard Jose Calderon in the 12th round of my 13-team keeper league last season, I recall a few of the more savvy owners in my league groaning. A lot of people liked Calderon as a sleeper, but I liked him enough to take him ahead of other popular sleeper picks like Marco Belinelli, Yi Jianlian, and Acie Law. The truth is there is no good way of knowing how long to wait to nab your favorite sleeper pick just before someone else gets him, but when you do, the gloating and ribbing of your leaguemates can last a lifetime.
What we don't pay as much attention to is the fact that it's just as easy to screw up and draft someone you like way too soon. I took Luol Deng with the first pick in the fourth round of that same draft. The details are important here: I was debating between Deng and Danny Granger, but Granger was ranked much lower on most people's boards, and I figured I could hold off and maybe get him at the end of the fifth round (which, if you'll remember, was still a bit of a reach at the time). He didn't last. Now Granger is a clear second- or third-round pick and Deng is more like a seventh-rounder. Was I an idiot for thinking Deng would turn into a stud? It's hard to say, but I know a lot of people agreed with me at the time.
So here are my predictions for what I'll call this year's Grangers and Dengs. Remember: I'm an expert.
Kevin Durant, SG/SF, Thunder: We know Durant is going to improve this year; the only question is how much. His situation in Seattle this past season was terrible. He was the only reliable offensive player on his team and he had to deal with teams keying on him on defense right from the beginning as a rookie. Accordingly, he struggled at first, shooting just 40 percent from the floor -- and taking a ton of bad shots -- before the All-Star break. Durant, however, is an extremely intelligent player, and he figured it out. He realized he wasn't a good 3-point shooter yet, so he stopped taking so many of them. By the time April rolled around, he had made 36 percent of his 3s over an eight-game period. Overall, he shot nearly 48 percent from the floor after the All-star break, a terrific number for a guy carrying an offense largely by himself. Even better, he has great hands and instincts, and as he gets used to the physicality of the NBA, he has the chance to become a great defender. He's already good for a steal and a block per game. Add that to the improvements we can expect him to make on his post-All-Star numbers of 21.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists, and we have an elite fantasy monster on our hands. He's going to turn the ball over a lot, but at this point that might end up being his only weakness. In keeper leagues, I really think there's a case to be made that he's a first-round pick. No one will draft him there though, so you don't need to, either. From where I'm sitting, his upside seems too high to let slide till the third round. Proceed with caution here, but if you are in a keeper league, he's a second-round pick for sure.
Pau Gasol, PF/C, Lakers: This is the sort of case in which less is more. After being a first- or second-round pick in most leagues last season, Gasol is being seen as a third- or fourth-round pick right now. His raw numbers dipped a bit in his 27 games with the Lakers -- he averaged just 18.8 points and 7.9 rebounds -- and with a healthy Andrew Bynum coming back, I wouldn't expect those numbers to go up. However, Gasol is an extremely well-rounded big man in the prime of his career. He's a great passer, takes only good shots, and is playing with other gifted offensive players in an efficient system. He shot a ridiculous 59 percent from the floor with the Lakers, up from 50 percent with the Grizzlies before the trade, and decreased his turnovers from 2.1 to 1.6 (and down from 2.7 the previous season). Those differences are more important than a point and a rebound here and there. Like Andrew Bogut (see below), he'll be a solid source of assists for a big man as well. I think he's still a clear late-second-round choice, in line right after Chris Bosh and ahead of Al Jefferson and Tim Duncan on my board.
Andrew Bogut, C, Bucks: Bogut far exceeded his projections last year in terms of player efficiency rating (from 15.99 to 17.55) by increasing his usage and rebound rate. Basically, he became a more essential part of the offense. This is very important, because this year's version of the Bucks looks like it may be an extremely potent offensive unit with the additions of Richard Jefferson and Luke Ridnour. So while Bogut will always kill your free-throw percentage -- he shot just 59 percent from the line this past season -- he might turn into a pretty good source of assists for a big man in addition to giving you 15 points and 10 boards a night. Remember, he might be one of the best passing big men in the league already. Even more importantly, he went from blocking 0.5 shots per game two years ago to 1.7 last year in roughly the same amount of minutes. That, my friends, is a gargantuan leap. As such, I think you need to be ranking Bogut ahead of other centers like Al Horford, Greg Oden, and Emeka Okafor because of the potential for assists and because he'll be part of what could be a considerably productive offensive attack. If you can get him in the sixth round of a 12-team league, that's a major steal; I'll be taking him either at the end of the fourth or at any point in the fifth.
Kenyon Martin, PF, Nuggets: As it stands right now, the Nuggets don't have much along the front line. Right now Martin's backup is Linas Kleiza, a player much more suited to playing on the perimeter, and the starting center is Nene, who, as we all know, has one of the most sordid medical records in the business. Of course, K-Mart does too. He's totally unreliable and is just two seasons removed from major knee issues. The 71 games he played this past season were his most since 2003-04. Still, we're talking about a guy who we have ranked 125th on our top-190 rankings in the ESPN.com Draft Kit, so the rewards outweigh the risks. Coming off major knee surgery, K-Mart put up 12.4 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals and shot a career-high 54 percent from the floor. To get those numbers in the 10th round of your fantasy draft is absurdly fortunate, and even to get them in the eighth or ninth would be a pretty shrewd move. Sure, he might get injured two games into the season, but then you can just pick up The Birdman, Chris Anderson, on the waiver wire. Players who average better than a block and a steal per game aren't exactly easy to come by. Again, the rewards far outweigh the risks here; don't be afraid to pounce on K-Mart a little early to make sure you get him.
Thaddeus Young, SF, 76ers: I wrote about this in my Atlantic Division previews, but I think people are making a major mistake if they are sleeping on Young. Young's ability to make "The Leap" to fantasy stud is dependent on two things: minutes and 3-pointers. The minutes should handle themselves. He proved last season that he deserves to be the Sixers' starting small forward, posting the second-highest PER among rookies last season at 16.58. At 6-foot-8 he's got prototypical size for the position and proved he could be a defensive force, grabbing 1.0 steals per game in just 21 minutes. In 22 games as a starter he shot better than 55 percent from the floor and averaged 10.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and just one turnover in 29 minutes per game. The minutes should go up this season, and so should everything else. As for his 3-point shooting, I'm making a leap of faith. He was a 41 percent shooter from long range in college, and I see no reason why he can't begin to make the adjustment to NBA range in this, his second season. Even if he doesn't shoot a high percentage, the 76ers are desperate for someone to spread the floor, and the presence of Elton Brand should help get Young open on the perimeter. I think it's worth reaching as high as the late sixth round for him in keeper leagues, and I have him ranked as a seventh-round pick in standard 12-team leagues.
Matt Barnes, SF, Suns: Under any circumstances, playing alongside Steve Nash is a good thing. With the recent news that the Suns will limit Grant Hill's minutes this season, it's looking like Barnes is going to get a chance to really produce for the Suns, maybe even as a starter. He struggled a bit for the Warriors last season, but has shown in the past that, given the chance, he can make open 3s, accumulate steals, blocks and rebounds, and even play power forward in a pinch. For a team relying on Shaquille O'Neal and Hill to play major minutes, that's of major importance. I think he'll get most of his run at small forward, but he'll play some shooting guard and power forward from time to time as well. The ceiling here is that Barnes becomes one of the very rare players who averages better than a steal, a block and a 3-pointer per game. My slightly more tempered prediction is that he goes for 10 points, five boards, two dimes, 1.5 3s, a steal and 0.5 blocks. For that sort of production, you should be getting him before the last round. Once word gets out that Barnes might start, people are going to jump on the bandwagon. Late in the draft, rankings can get very subjective. If he's the starter, I'd have him ranked as an 11th-round pick in standard leagues, but you should decide how valuable he is to you and pick him if he's available when that number comes up.
Vince Carter, SG/SF, Nets: His decline is about to be in full swing. I wrote about this extensively in my Nets preview, but I'm worried about Carter (even more than I usually am). He started getting to the line less often this past season, which is really troubling for a player who has had trouble staying aggressive in the past. It's likely the Nets are going to be pretty bad this year, and it's hard to imagine him having the fortitude to stay motivated. He'll still produce, but he's turning 32 this season, and there's no way he's improving at this point with a guaranteed $49 million coming his way over the next three seasons. You could draft Carter in the third round, but you'd be much better off taking someone without the sort of historical baggage he carries around. Carlos Boozer, Jason Richardson, Caron Butler, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Martin, Durant and a whole slew of other great players are ranked behind him on our Top 190 right now. Just think how much happier you'll be with one of them.
Al Jefferson, PF/C, Timberwolves: I started thinking a lot about my unconditional love for Big Al after I heard about his mild MCL sprain in his right knee on Sept. 18. Supposedly it's not serious and he'll be ready to go to start the season, but it made me take a deeper look at his numbers. He's a terrific post player, and besides Dwight Howard there aren't really any better places to look for his combination of points and rebounds. The problem is he's not great at anything else. He blocks shots, but not at an elite level. He gets a lot of steals for a big guy, but not enough that it bumps him up much in the rankings. He shoots 50 percent from the floor, but when you consider his position, that's more average than it seems at first. And finally, it seems highly unlikely that he plays 82 games again this season after suffering minor injuries pretty often during his first three seasons. The fact that Big Al's knee is a question mark heading into this season is enough to bump him down to the third round in my opinion -- I'd rather have Bosh, Duncan or Boozer -- which means Jefferson won't be on my team because someone else will nab him first.
Mike Dunleavy, SG/SF, Pacers: If you owned Dunleavy last season, you are probably still reveling in how wonderful the experience was. You probably drafted him in the later rounds on a hope and a prayer that coach Jim O'Brien would have the whole team bombing away from long range whenever they felt like it, which is what happened. I know. I owned Dunleavy too. It was great. And now it's over. He spent last season absolutely crushing his career highs in nearly every important category. Sadly, his numbers now have nowhere to go but down. For you to get value for him, he has to match his production from last season (he's ranked right alongside Gerald Wallace, Brandon Roy and Lamar Odom on our Top 190). So let's say he does match his numbers from last year. Well that's great; you got what you paid for. But there's no upside, and the better bet is that his numbers go down slightly since it's hard to continue improving on a whole slew of career highs when you are 28-going-on-29 years old. If you buy on Dunleavy this season, it's like buying on Deng last year. You are purchasing the ceiling, and there's nowhere to go but down.
Michael Redd, SG, Bucks: While I think the Bucks' new additions will improve their offense quite a bit this season, I think that will end up hurting Redd's value. That's because his value is almost completely tied to his scoring, and I think the scoring will be more balanced for the Bucks this season. He's 29 years old, at the tail end of his prime, so there's not much room for improvement anymore, and after posting a PER of better than 21 for two straight seasons, he was down to less than 19 last year. It would seem that the decline is already starting for Redd. If you are looking for 3s, you can probably find his 1.8 per game elsewhere, and I'd be extremely surprised if he matches the 22.7 points he averaged (and that was already a drop-off from his previous season's average of 26.7). If it comes down to Redd or Jamal Crawford, I'd take the latter, and I think if you draft Redd before the fifth round, you're making a big mistake.
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.