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Friday, July 27, 2007
Offseason Notebook: Durant, Howard, Swift

By Brian McKitish
Special to ESPN.com

Pretty slow week for the NBA, huh?

I jest, of course, as news of Tim Donaghy's alleged gambling problems has provided shock while pretty much overshadowing anything else that's going on in the world of professional sports, outside of Michael Vick and Barry Bonds.

For the purposes of this column, though, the Donaghy story has little to no impact on the fantasy world. Sure, it is possible that players who get to the line in bulk like Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson will suffer the effects of more scrutinized refereeing this season, but I wouldn't start getting worried just yet. Yes, the officials will be under the microscope this year, but things should start to calm down as the season moves along. And even if they are a little more cautious with the whistle to start the season, won't the same apply to every player? It's also important to remember that the non-calls will be just as scrutinized as the foul calls. As it stands right now, I don't see this as any reason to downgrade Wade, Kobe or anyone else who makes a living at the free-throw line.

While the rest of the world watches the Donaghy story unfold, a few other stories have gone unnoticed, or underreported. Let's take a break from the saga and get into some other NBA news, shall we?

Team USA held a minicamp in Las Vegas last weekend in preparation for next month's FIBA Americas tournament. The camp was a little more competitive than you might think, as 17 players are competing for 12 roster spots. The weekend ended in style with a hotly contested scrimmage with some high-profile names going at it.

Though the lineups looked like an All-Star game, the game itself was nothing of the sort. Just check out the box score and you can see that folks actually played defense in this scrimmage. Impressively, Kevin Durant went off for 22 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field, including two 3-pointers. He also grabbed five boards (three offensive, which is a great sign) and racked up four steals. Even better, he didn't turn the ball over once. Those are some very good numbers, to say the least. It's going to be mighty interesting to see where Durant goes in fantasy leagues this year, but for what it's worth, I'm preliminarily ranking him as an early fourth-round pick in redraft leagues, just after guys like Luol Deng and Josh Howard.

Durant wasn't the only youngster lighting things up over the weekend; Dwight Howard was a total beast, and he didn't miss a shot all game. That's right, he went 9-for-9 from the field and a perfect 3-for-3 from the line. I bring it up because one of the biggest fantasy story lines this summer will be Howard's free-throw shooting. Howard shot just 58.5 percent from the line last season, and it wasn't just the poor shooting that hurt his owners, it was the fact that he averaged 8.1 attempts per game.

Thing is, I think Howard has the potential to do much better in that area. It's not like he's throwing darts up there; he has good arc and decent backspin on his shot, so he's not a lost cause. He's reportedly done a lot of work on his free-throw shooting during the offseason, and it should be interesting to see if his hard work translates into an improved percentage from the stripe. If it does, Howard will actually be undervalued this year, because I guarantee people will shy away from him because of his free-throw shooting come draft day.

Sticking with the Magic, maybe the reason they were so willing to cut Darko Milicic loose was because they knew they would be able to sign Polish center Marcin Gortat. Gortat still has a little way to go on the offensive end, but he proved that his defense is up to par by averaging 3.2 blocks per game in the Pepsi Pro Summer League. I'm not expecting much this year, but the Magic are actually quite thin up front, and Gortat could end up getting some decent run here and there. He's definitely someone to keep in the back of your mind when you're looking for cheap blocks and your player queue starts dwindling at the end of your draft.

As long as we're on the topic of sleeper big men, how about Seattle's Robert Swift? Swift would have been a nice sleeper last season had he not torn his ACL just before the season started, but now he'll qualify as a deep sleeper because many will forget the nice promise he showed when he averaged 7.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 20 starts for the Sonics back in 2005-06. Despite the year of missed time, Swift is still just 21 years old, and he's even added some nice bulk to his previously wiry frame, reportedly weighing in at a solid 280 pounds. The 7-footer will face some competition in the form of Johan Petro, Mouhamed Sene and the newly acquired Kurt Thomas, but Swift is the guy the Sonics want to see succeed as they are priming him to be part of their future core along with Kevin Durant and Jeff Green. There is quite a bit of upside here, especially in the shot-blocking department, so be sure to keep an eye on his progress during training camp.

The Milwaukee Bucks have a lot on their plate, trying to woo Yi Jianlian and all, but that hasn't stopped them from making some big moves this summer. Not only were they able to bring back Mo Williams, they also went out and signed former Buck Desmond Mason. Some may be wary of Williams because he's coming off a career year (and a contract year), but I'm thinking last year's breakout had much more to do with increased minutes and opportunity than anything else. Just look at his splits from the 2005-06 season, when he averaged 16.9 points, 5.8 assists, 1.7 3-pointers and 1.3 steals in 12 starts. It's a small sample size, but it definitely adds weight to the argument that Williams is for real. The addition of Mason will make life harder for Bobby Simmons, as Mason should earn the starting small forward spot due to his superior defensive talents. Simmons, if he can stay healthy, will have to settle for a reduced role with Mason around. That, however, does not mean that Mason will have much fantasy value this season. Fact is, Mason doesn't provide much other than moderate scoring ability in the fantasy game.

Now that the Washington Wizards have re-signed DeShawn Stevenson, rookie Nick Young may have to wait a little while before he has much fantasy value. It looks like Jarvis Hayes may be signing elsewhere, so Young could get some run off the bench, but it will take multiple injuries for him to be considered a fantasy option this season. Stevenson's value remains unchanged. He'll be a decent fill-in when injuries strike, but cannot be counted on as a consistent fantasy producer, not with the offense flowing through Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison.

Brian McKitish is a fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for TalentedMrRoto.com and ESPN.com. He can be reached at Littlemac@TalentedMrRoto.com