When a 31-year-old 12-year NBA veteran starts to see his game decline, nobody should be surprised -- even when it's someone like Indiana's Monta Ellis, a player who's averaged at least 18.9 points per game eight times in his career. The only surprise with Ellis is just how extreme and rapid the decline has been, falling from that 18.9 mark two seasons ago to 13.1 last season, and now down to just 8.9 in 2016-17.
At this point, Ellis probably only has a few years left in the league, and it's safe to say that his days as a valuable fantasy option are over. Today, however, we don't want to focus on the aging players. Instead, we want to go around the league and highlight the players in the prime of their career who -- for one reason or another -- have suddenly seen a big change to one part of their game.
These guys are rare, but season-long players can tell you that there's value in finding players who consistently outperform their perception in one way or another. So, who is a "non-scorer" that scores? Or a "selfish" player that passes? Or someone who's "allergic to rebounds" who crashes the glass?
That's our focus today, as we take a look at one player who is improving and another who is declining in each of the primary fantasy categories this season.
Thomas scored 22.2 PPG last season, his fifth in the NBA, marking a new career high. In the process, he was named to his first All-Star Game and, at the time, it seemed hard to imagine this story getting a whole lot better for the last pick in the 2011 NBA draft. Fast-forward to today, and all that seems a bit silly. Thomas has elevated his game to an entirely new level, proving to be the superstar that Boston has lacked in recent years. He ranks second in the league in scoring (29.4 PPG) behind only Russell Westbrook. More impressively, he put up 32.9 PPG in 14 games during the month of January. Thomas turns 28 next week and could very well be one of the league's top scorers in the years ahead.
We knew that the arrival of Kevin Durant in Golden State would change the dynamic of the Warriors, and it was inevitable that Durant's shot attempts would come at the expense of others on the roster. The only question was who it would impact the most. Now we have the answer -- Green. The fifth-year power forward is taking just 8.5 shots per game this season, down 1.6 attempts from last season, and his shooting has also plummeted from 49 percent to 44.2 percent. After scoring 14 PPG during the Warriors' 73-win season, Green is down to 10.3 PPG this season.
Rising: Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
Part of the rebounding improvement Bradley has made this season can be attributed to the early season head injury to Al Horford, but it is still pretty remarkable. His 6.9 rebounds per game may not seem like much until you look closer at the stats and see that only once had Bradley ever pulled down more than 3.1 RPG in a season (3.8 RPG in 2013-14). His fantasy value is now much greater than it used to be thanks to steady improvement not only as a rebounder but also as a scorer and distributor (17.7 PPG and 2.4 APG this season).
Leonard is one of the most valuable players in the league, but as much as his offense continues to improve (25.6 PPG) and his reputation as an elite defender hasn't wavered, his presence on the glass has taken a step back this season. After setting a career high with 7.2 RPG in 2014-15, his rebounds fell to 6.8 last season with the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge and is now down to 5.8 this season with Pau Gasol (though currently injured) also in the fold. Given Leonard's youthfulness at age 25, his energy and his big hands, 5.8 RPG is a pretty big letdown.
Teague has averaged 5.4 assists per game in his seven-plus seasons in the league, but in recent years that number has hovered more in the 6-7 range -- solid, but unspectacular by NBA point guard standards. The move to Indiana has changed things, though, and Teague hasn't had to share minutes as much as he did in Atlanta with Dennis Schroder. As a result, Teague is playing 4.1 more minutes per game than last season and dishing out a career-high 8.2 APG. Oh, if only he shot the 3-ball.
Falling: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Many expected Curry's scoring to fall when Durant joined the team, which it has, but the addition of an elite player like KD was also supposed to provide ample opportunity for assists, right? So far, that isn't the case, as Curry's assists are down for a fourth consecutive season, dropping all the way to 6.1 APG. That's 0.6 fewer than last season, 1.6 fewer than two seasons ago and 2.4 fewer than three seasons back.
In Drummond's first three years in the league, he was regarded much more for his blocks than his steals, and the stats backed that up. He averaged 1.6 blocks and 1.0 steals as a rookie in 2012-13. Then, 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals the next season. In his third season, the separation was even wider, with 1.9 blocks and 0.9 steals. Since then, his blocks have come down and his steals have continued to rise, leading to where we are at now with Drummond leading all centers by a wide margin in the steals department (1.6 SPG). In case you're wondering, we aren't counting Draymond Green, who plays the 5 when the Warriors goes small and is averaging 1.9 SPG this season.
There aren't a lot of players with marked drop-offs in the steals department, but Jordan is one of the big disappointments. After averaging 1.0 SPG in 2013-14 and 2014-15, he dropped down to 0.7 last season and is at 0.5 this season. That's the lowest his number has been since way back in 2011-12, when Jordan played only 27.2 minutes per game. He's averaging 31.8 MPG this season, making the lack of steals somewhat of a head-scratcher for the 28-year-old.
Rising: Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Horford is the oldest player on this list, but he's still playing as if he's in his prime and notice that we're including him in the rising section. He's not falling by any means. Amazingly, at age 30 and in his tenth NBA season, the veteran center is on pace to set a new career high with 1.7 blocks per game. His previous high of 1.5 BPG was set twice, first in 2013-14 and again last season, but not many people expected Horford to rise above that mark like he has in his first season in Boston.
Whiteside wasted no time making a name for himself as a ridiculous shot-blocker when he broke in with Miami at age 25 in 2014-15. He accumulated 2.6 rejections per game that season while averaging only 23.8 minutes in 48 games. Then, last season, he led the league with 3.7 blocks a game, becoming an even greater factor on the defensive end. That's what makes this season so shocking, as the Miami center is down to 2.0 BPG, a full 1.7 less than last season. Now 27, he ranks fifth in the league in that category, trailing Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis and Myles Turner. It's fair to wonder if this downward trend will continue into next year and beyond.
Gasol made only 12 threes in his first eight seasons in the league, and only two of them came last season, so it wasn't like we expected him to become this force from long range. Well, we can readjust that way of thinking, can't we? Gasol has made 13 threes in the last four games and is averaging 1.5 3PG this season while connecting at a 40.9 percent clip. At a time in NBA history when everyone is stepping out to shoot the three ball, nobody is a better example of that this season than the younger Gasol brother.
Wall had a breakout year from 3-point range last season, tying a career-high by shooting 35.1 percent from long range and making a career-best 1.5 treys per game on 4.3 attempts. Things have changed this season, though, and Wall hasn't been nearly the same factor from beyond the arc. He's attempting fewer threes (3.3) and making only as 31.6 percent of those shots (1.0 3PG). In fact, Wall hasn't made more than one 3-pointer in a game since way back on Jan. 16, eight games ago.