I flew out to San Antonio in April of 2004 to go watch the NCAA Final Four live. My best friend Jamal was able to get tickets to all of the games, and my alma mater Georgia Tech had made a surprising run through the tournament to get there. Tech was playing Oklahoma State, and Jamal had gone to school in Oklahoma, so the whole first night I had to hear trash talk about how the Yellow Jackets were going to get swatted with people carrying around cans of bug spray to troll me. I got the last laugh in that particular battle, though, when Tech beat Oklahoma State to make it to the finals.
I had no expectation that Tech would actually win those finals, though, because waiting for them was by far the most dominant player in college basketball at that time: Emeka Okafor. Okafor fought through foul trouble to help UConn take out Duke in the semis, then led the Huskies to a demolition of my Yellow Jackets for the championship. Still great memories for me.
I thought about that Final Four trip on Monday, when I saw that Okafor was starting at center for the New Orleans Pelicans. After being out of the NBA since 2013 due to injury, Okafor was recently signed by the Pelicans after DeMarcus Cousins went down, and on Monday, he made his first start. He played only 14 minutes but scored 8 points (4-10 FG) with 7 rebounds and 1 blocked shot, and more importantly, he leaned on Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond to help slow him down in the middle.
Okafor doesn't project as a big-minutes player moving forward, but he and Nikola Mirotic have been added to the team since Cousins' injury and, together, they have helped change the team dynamic and outlook for the Pelicans.
Anthony Davis is clearly the MVP for the Pelicans, and he showed that again on Monday with 38 points, 10 rebounds, 3 3-pointers and 2 blocked shots. Davis seems to own the Pistons, having scored 30 or more points against them in eight of his past nine meetings, and everything that the Pelicans do is built off his ability to lead the way.
However, Davis has a tendency to wear down and pick up minor, though persistent, injuries over the course of a season when he has to do all of the heavy lifting. Okafor can help keep Davis fresher by taking his turn banging on opposing bigs, and helping lock down the paint when he's on the court.
Meanwhile, Mirotic provides another volume scorer in the frontcourt who can score from inside and out, while also helping on the glass himself. On Monday, Mirotic turned in 21 points (7-16 FG, 3-3 FT) with 12 rebounds, 4 3-pointers, 1 assist, 1 steal and 0 turnovers in 29 minutes off the bench.
Together with perimeter MVP Jrue Holiday (21 points, 12 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, 1 block) and the mercurial Rajon Rondo (8 points, 8 assists, 5 rebounds, 2 3-pointers, 1 block), the Pelicans have put together a dynamic team with solid defensive potential that can score in different ways around Davis.
They've won two straight games, averaging 128 points (including two overtime periods), and if they can find a balance with their new frontcourt talent, the Pelicans have a chance to be strong producers in both real life and in fantasy for the rest of the season.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: 38 points (14-24 FG, 7-7 FT), 10 rebounds, 3 3-pointers, 2 blocks, 1 steal, 1 assist
Josh Jackson, Phoenix Suns: 8 points (4-18 FG), 4 rebounds, 1 assist
Payton put together his second straight strong game to start his career with the Suns. The big question is what will happen when Devin Booker returns? Will Payton move to the bench with Booker back at the point, or will Josh Jackson instead move back to the bench with Booker shifting over to the 2 and Payton still at the point? This is a decision that will have big fantasy ramifications, as Payton could be a top-35 player in Phoenix if he continues to start.
McConnell (93 percent available) turned in the first triple-double of his career, and the fact that it came off the bench with more than five steals is an NBA rarity (only accomplished three times in the past 30 seasons). McConnell has been productive when healthy and given minutes, and this type of performance could get him back to a strong, contributing sixth-man role for the 76ers.
Augustin (84.5 percent available) has started the first three games of the post-Elfrid Payton era, but he has been battling with Shelvin Mack (95.3 percent available) for playing time. Augustin was outstanding in the first game, while Mack thoroughly outplayed him off the bench in the second game. Augustin struggled on Monday, but his saving grace was that Mack (5 points, 2-8 FG, 1-2 FT, 6 assists, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, 2 TO, 26 minutes) was almost as bad. The starting point guard slot in Orlando has some value, so it is worth keeping an eye on them to see who comes out on top.
The San Antonio Spurs started Pau Gasol, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, Danny Green and Dejounte Murray on Monday, fielding a thoroughly competitive team, which had all five starters score in double-figures and came within a last-second shot of stopping the Jazz's now 10-game winning streak. It almost doesn't even matter who plays in Greg Popovich's system, he's going to make them competitive. With LaMarcus Aldridge joining Kawhi Leonard on the sidelines, Gasol was the big winner statistically with 15 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, 2 blocks and 1 steal.
The Jazz won their 10th straight game, despite playing their second straight without Ricky Rubio. Donovan Mitchell was struggling with his shot on Monday (25 points, 9-28 FG, 4-6 FT, 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals, 1 TO) but otherwise had a strong all-around game. Joe Ingles (55 percent available) was the unsung hero again, scoring 20 points for the third straight game. He ended the night with 20 points (7-13 FG, 2-2 FT), 7 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 steal and 2 TO in a team-high 39 minutes.
There's no fantasy relevance to this, but the Golden State Warriors were coached by players on Monday night. Steve Kerr let Draymond Green, David West and Andre Iguodala take turns coaching the Warriors during timeouts on Monday. Their opponents, the Suns, weren't happy about this ... but the Dubs won by 46 points, so I guess they had to try something new to keep themselves from getting bored.
Injury of note
Leonard remains out "indefinitely" and has been since January 17. However, on Monday it was announced that he is still expected to return "sometime before the season ends". This isn't exactly a ringing fantasy endorsement, but at least it's word that he hasn't been secretly shut down and that he is still perhaps worth keeping on your roster.
Analytics advantage for Tuesday
The Rockets also play at a relatively high pace (98.4 possessions per game, eighth in the NBA), while the Timberwolves have a relatively weak defense (110.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, 25th in the NBA).
Put it all together, and all signs point to a game in which some big points will be put on the board, likely from both teams.
Top players to watch tonight
The new-look Cleveland Cavaliers try for an encore to their exciting Sunday debut against the C's, staying on the road against a tough Oklahoma City Thunder squad that dropped 148 points on them less than a month ago. Russell Westbrook is the unknown factor, as he's missed two straight with an ankle injury. If he plays, this could be an exciting game and a real test for where the Cavs are right now.
As noted above, the Rockets at the Timberwolves projects to be an absolute track meet, featuring four of the top-15 fantasy players all going in a very fantasy friendly environment.