I have a tendency to fixate. One fixation I've allowed to develop has been a sort of positional radar.
What I mean by this is that over the course of an NBA season -- or sometimes several seasons -- I begin to pay extra attention to certain roles on certain teams.
Power forward in Milwaukee. Small forward in Cleveland (post LeBron). Not because the players occupying these roles are dominant fantasy players, or even serviceable ones. I pay attention to them because they are specific positions that could develop into a 28-32-minutes-per-game role for a young player with high fantasy upside.
Those are the spots that can, with patience, pay out big late-season dividends.
Here are the conditions that must exist for a specific position to land on my radar:
1. The team is lottery bound
An established playoff team is going to be less likely to give starter's minutes to unproven players. Look at how long it's taken Tiago Splitter to play his way onto the fantasy radar in San Antonio. I guarantee you that if he had been drafted by, say, Charlotte, he'd have been averaging 15 and 9 for the entire season, and not just over his past five games.
2. The team must have a certain position that has not been held down by an established player for multiple seasons
Does a team feature one or more time-shares? Have they drafted multiple saviors, acquired numerous long-term solutions to anchor a certain role … only to have that savior flame out within the confines of his rookie season?
That's what you want, because those teams are dying to have someone come in and lock down that position. They want to give someone 30 or more minutes per night. And those are the teams, like lottery teams, that are willing to give younger, unproven players the benefit of the doubt. Because, dear reader, they're as sick of the uncertainty as you are.
Think of the shooting guard slot in Minnesota. Minnesota has lacked a shooting guard with elite upside ever since J.R. Rider was traded to Portland. In 1996.
Why is the recently vacated starting point guard spot in Boston so unappealing for fantasy owners? Because Rajon Rondo owned that lineup spot. Boston had no impetus to go after a young point guard -- heck, any point guard -- to back him up. There's an opportunity there, I suppose, for an Avery Bradley or Courtney Lee, but there's no heir apparent to Rondo, no line of succession.
3. Said team must stock young talent without an established ceiling
This is related to item No. 2. When Lou Williams went down in Atlanta, it wasn't as if the Hawks had Bradley Beal waiting in wings. They had Kyle Korver. They only had Korver because over the past few seasons, they've been a dependable playoff team.
4. (Bonus) This isn't necessary, but some trade rumors would be nice
You know whom my favorite GM is right now? Bryan Colangelo of the Toronto Raptors, because he's got some lottery-level young upside and an urge to blow up a chunk of his roster. That's a potent combination, which could spell fantasy opportunity down the road for multiple teams. Maybe Andrea Bargnani leaves. Maybe Ed Davis leaves. Maybe Jose Calderon leaves. Maybe all three leave.
Another team that would become a heck of a lot more interesting with one or two trades? The Sacramento/Seattle Kings/SuperSonics. Perennial lottery team.
Take a look at Thomas Robinson. A high-motor power forward who was rumored to go as high as No. 2 overall in last year's draft. He's been inconsistent, but still averages a double-double with a steal and a block … per-36 minutes. In reality, Robinson is stuck behind Jason Thompson, averages 15.7 minutes a night and his Basketball Reference page is sponsored by Widget the Jayhawk Dog.
5. (Super Bad Karma bonus) As much as I hate to say it, look for time-shares where one player has a rich, detailed injury history
I never, ever try to plan around another player getting injured because there's zero roto honor in the exercise, but an injury history is always something to consider.
So with all this mind, let's take a look at a few lineup spots that could bear fruit in the near future.
1. Shooting Guard, Minnesota Timberwolves
Ridnour has been one of fantasy's most underappreciated combo guards of the past few seasons, but he's not going to turn any statistical heads.
The real potential here lies with Shved.
He possesses the size and range that provides for a good fantasy makeup. He can provide assists and rebounds and the occasional steal. Shved's issue is his shooting.
He's shooting only 38 percent from the field and posts a middling true shooting percentage of 49.8%. Simply put, he needs to become more efficient (12.17 player efficiency rating) if he's going to translate his opportunity for minutes into real production, he has to hit more shots and cut down on turnovers.
This is also a spot where a trade could help matters. Minnesota is willing to deal Derrick Williams, and maybe he gets flipped for another shooting guard.
2. Power Forward/Center, Detroit Pistons
Who's going to get to partner up with Greg Monroe? Over the past couple of seasons, Detroit has flailed at that answer with a depressing mix of Maxiell, Villanueva and the occasional dose of Jonas Jerebko.
Maxiell is what he is; a high-motor player who'd slot in nicely into the back end of a rotation for a contending team. Villanueva used to be intriguing for a couple of seasons (especially his last one in Milwaukee) because of his ability to hit the 3-point shot.
Enter Drummond. As soon as he slid to the Pistons in last year's draft, he shot to the top of my rookies-to-watch list. Because he matches the perfect mix of skills, size and upside to the perfect lineup situation. As soon as the Pistons slide out of contention for the eighth spot (which might be a while post-Rondo injury), Drummond is going to command at least 23-28 minutes a night.
As opposed to Shved, Drummond already has evidenced sky-high efficiency (22.35 PER, and he's 19). He's got top-40 fantasy potential and is in a good position to earn consistent minutes sooner than later. Consistent, night-in, night-out minutes are what young players need to establish a rhythm … both in their on-court play and in their box scores.
3. Shooting Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers
Cleveland is a hotbed of young fantasy upside. It took an unfortunate injury up front to show what Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller are capable of. Small forward minutes are there for the taking, but Cleveland lacks elite potential at that position. Point guard is obviously occupied. Which leaves the 2-guard spot.
As an Orange alum (I'm also a Trojan alum, but people who glom onto their grad school teams are, in my opinion, dirty carpetbaggers), I've seen a ton of Waiters over the past couple of years. And I've become obsessed with finding what he could do when finally presented with an everyday starting role … because he hasn't had one since high school.
It's a very similar situation to Drummond's. The explosive athleticism is there. The minutes are there. His team is tanking. His road blocks have more to with maturity. He could easily be a 20-point scorer. And not just empty points; Waiters has already shown he can dish while hitting 3s and grabbing steals. It's just a question of minutes and consistency.
Waiters' development should be a paramount concern for the Cavaliers during the second half of the season, especially when you consider what they gave up to get him. If he's available in your league, he's worth a flier, because I think he's close to becoming a full-time player.
4. Power Forward, Houston Rockets
Patterson's got the inside track in Houston. I like Morris better from a fantasy perspective. But in reality, I don't like either of them.
Patterson's got more of a classic power forward's makeup, but he's a poor rebounder and anemic shot-blocker. He's more of a poor man's Carl Landry, a power forward who needs to score to provide real fantasy value. Morris has many of the same issues, but he's more intriguing because he can hit the 3. But the likelihood is that neither player will ever develop into a fantasy starter.
The potential in Houston lies in a future trade.
They've got a general manager who is the hero to numerical shut-ins the world over. And said general manager is ahead of schedule in his current rebuild. Houston's fertile fantasy territory because of its high-pace style of play. Think of what Splitter would do in the Rockets' 4-spot; I guarantee you general manager Daryl Morey has.
My point is that Morey's not done dealing, and power forward is the obvious area that needs improvement. Look for this lineup slot to percolate around the trade deadline.
5. Small Forward, New Orleans Pelicans
Current Starter: Al-Farouq Aminu
Primary Backup: The Field
(I just typed New Orleans Pelicans for the first time, and I gotta tell you, it didn't go as badly as I'd feared.)
I'll tell you the real reason I've been following this spot; I sat next to Aminu on a plane once, while he was still in college. He seemed like a nice young man, and as a result I've sort of been tracking him ever since.
Aminu's obvious issue, even then, was size. At that point, I probably weighed as much as he did, and I am a Lombardi-esque 5-foot-9. Aminu didn't look like a power forward, or someone who would ever be a power forward. So with his athleticism and plus intangibles, the question was going to be whether or not he could produce as a small forward at the NBA level.
Then Aminu surprised me; he starting jacking up 3s in his rookie season. Didn't make a lot of them (32 percent went in), but his willingness to stretch his game showed me some fantasy potential. If he could develop an outside shot to go with his rangy rebounding and defensive prowess, he could have the makings of a special fantasy player.
After he got traded to New Orleans, he seemed like an afterthought in the deal. But Aminu has started to come on this season. The irony is that his ascent occurred as soon as he gave up on 3-pointers. In his rookie season, he hoisted 143 3-point attempts. This season, with expanded minutes, he'll be lucky to crack 50.
My point is that Aminu has shown he can adjust his game to the situation. New Orleans has Ryan Anderson. They don't need another tweener who can hit 3s. They have the best one of those in the entire NBA. So Aminu has evolved into an energy guy who can get you a double-double with a couple of steals and an occasional block. And he still hasn't hit his ceiling.