Perhaps the most intense and influential time for working the waiver wire is at the beginning of the season. Oftentimes, players who end up as top-50 contributors (such as Dorell Wright and Serge Ibaka last season) go undrafted. These players, with such a high return-on-investment value, win fantasy championships when snatched up by shrewd and opportunistic owners early. In order to capitalize on early- season opportunity, however, owners must make a decision to drop a player they deemed draft-worthy, and it is difficult to cut bait after just a few games. The key is identifying which players have high upside and could break out for the entire season, as opposed to those who are simply performing well due to circumstances such as increased playing time or better fit with the team.
Both types can be worth adding, but it's those high-upside guys who are worth the risk of dropping a valuable bench player. Those playing well due to circumstance, who might be worth a spot start or as an injury fill-in, are also worth adding, but only if they will clearly outperform the player you'll drop for them.
A method of measuring this has to do with a player's past production. Has he gotten significant minutes in the past, and if so, what has he done with them? For example, both Wright and Ibaka had excellent per-minute stats leading into the season but had never played big minutes. When given the opportunity, those per-minute stats stretched out into fantastic aggregate production. On the other hand, some players have produced steadily in the past when given opportunities do so, and we have an adequate sample size to base their projections, but a change in situation is giving them an opportunity to produce once again.
So far this year, most of the waiver wire standouts are the latter type of player, as there are few players who have come out of nowhere and look positioned to dominate. Let's take a look at some players who are available in most formats, separating them into potential breakouts and safe bets:
Spencer Hawes, C, Philadelphia 76ers (23.8 percent owned): He's never averaged 30 minutes per game and has seen his opportunities dwindle in the past two seasons: His 21.2 minutes per game was his lowest average since his rookie campaign. He's just 23 years old, having played one year of college ball, and is just beginning to enter his prime as a legit 7-footer. His career per-minute stats average out to around 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 0.7 steals if given the 32 minutes per game he's averaging now, and he has the tools to surpass that. He can even knock down half a 3-pointer per game and is an adept passer for his size, as shown by his six assists per contest so far this season. Hawes is worth adding in all formats and has the size, tools and potential to finish the season as a fantasy starter.
Al Harrington, PF, Denver Nuggets (12.4 percent owned): We've been down this road with Harrington before. When he's getting minutes in the right offense, he can put up some pretty nasty offensive numbers. Just look at 2008-09, when he put up 20.7 points, 2.4 3s and 1.2 steals per game for the New York Knicks. The fact that half of the Nuggets are in China, including Wilson Chandler (his biggest competition for minutes), bodes well for Harrington, as he'll provide scoring punch off the bench. His field goal percentage is painful for a power forward, but if your team needs 3s, Harrington could average two per game with a steal and points in the upper teens.
Robin Lopez, C, Phoenix Suns (7.4 percent owned): Like Hawes, he regressed last season but has legitimate size and promising per-minute stats for his career. He's had stints of productivity, like in February 2010, when he averaged 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks with 59.3 percent from the floor in 25.8 minutes per game. If he can average minutes in the mid-20s, he could easily put up eight boards with a block and a half while making over half of his shots from the floor. And if somehow he earns starter's minutes, the returns would be better.
Terrence Williams, SG/SF, Houston Rockets (1.4 percent owned): Williams is brimming with talent but has been unable to put it together to earn consistent minutes. His per-minute stats indicate the ability to average over a 3 and a steal per game, with good rebounds and assists for a wing player. It appears as if he'll be a more significant part of the Rockets rotation than he was after last season's trade from the New Jersey Nets. He's got a skill set that translates to 13-15 points with over one three and steal with five rebounds and four assists if he can put it together, making him a nice glue-type player from the shooting guard or small forward position. He'll have to keep his head on straight and fend off Courtney Lee for minutes, but his potential is intriguing. He's not worth adding in most formats yet but is definitely worth monitoring as he etches out his role with the Rockets.
Marcus Camby, PF/C, Portland Trail Blazers (23.1 percent owned): Sure, he's injury-prone and ancient. But he's also a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker, and his veteran presence is critical for the Blazers. The key to his success is the ability to stay healthy, which is always in question, but he's good to go right now and puts up start-worthy numbers in most formats. If you need center help, ride him till the wheels fall off, as you're guaranteed double-digit boards with about two blocks and a steal per game.
Chuck Hayes, PF/C, Sacramento Kings (22.1 percent owned): Hayes was fantastic for the Rockets last year, especially after the All-Star break, when he averaged 10.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks in 25 games as the shortest starting center in the league. His contributions are atypical -- no points and few blocks for a center with great steals and assists for his position -- and he likely would have been drafted in far more leagues if not for a heart issue that almost hindered his joining the Kings. He's starting for them now and has averaged 10 rebounds per game in the first three contests. He looks primed once again to be a fantasy contributor in his own special way.
Ramon Sessions, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers (8.6 percent owned): Lost in the hype surrounding No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving is the fact that the Cavs have a decent fantasy point guard already in Sessions, who averaged 15.4 points, 4.9 assists and 0.6 steals while shooting 79.9 percent from the stripe with 5.9 attempts per game after the All-Star break last season. His glaring weakness is the fact he hasn't hit 3s in the past, which is almost always a deal-breaker for fantasy point guards. But he's already attempted four 3s per game in each of the Cavs' first two contests, which is more than half of what he attempted all last season. Sessions has said that he knew it was something his game was lacking. Now that he's added it to his repertoire, if he can knock down one per game, his fantasy value increases significantly.
Brandon Rush, SG, Golden State Warriors (6.7 percent owned): Rush is one of those players who has been on and off fantasy squads throughout his career, as he can be a sniper from downtown when he's on. Last December, for example, he averaged 13.1 points and 2.1 3s per game in 31.7 minutes for the Indiana Pacers. He now finds himself in the Bay, playing alongside Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis, so he won't crack the starting lineup unless an injury occurs, but he looks primed to get minutes in the upper 20s. With that, he can flirt with two 3s per game, and he has the uncommon ability to get some blocks from the shooting guard position, as he's averaged 0.6 swats per game in 27 minutes for his career. He's especially helpful in turnover leagues (1.1 turnovers per game for his career, with 1.3 3s, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks). Although there's not insane upside, he's entering the prime of his career in a potentially fruitful situation as the Warriors' sixth man.
Mike Dunleavy, SG/SF, Milwaukee Bucks (1.2 percent owned): It's easy to forget the days when Dunleavy averaged 19.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.0 3s, 1.0 steals and 0.4 blocks per game for the Indiana Pacers back in 2007-2008, as injuries and mediocre play have hampered his production since then. But he's in line for significant run and has a fresh start in Milwaukee, where he should provide plenty of 3s, nice assist numbers for a forward and around a steal per game. He's not especially flashy but provides enough in multiple categories to be worth a steady roster spot in deeper leagues, especially for teams in need of 3-point assistance.
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.