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Tuesday, October 16, 2007
30 Questions: Is Haywood primed to break out?

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NBA team. Be sure to check out the 30 Questions Index to see them all.

With Etan Thomas likely out for the season following open-heart surgery, will this be Brendan Haywood's breakout season?

Since 2004, Haywood has teased fantasy owners -- and Washington's real-life owner Abe Pollin -- with brief bursts of solid production. Unfortunately, he's supplemented those bursts with periods of prolonged on-court invisibility, a reputation for being "soft," and the occasional fistfight with Etan Thomas (in an apparent response to being referred to as "soft").

By the time the Wizards' injury-addled first-round defeat at the hands of the Cavaliers commenced, Haywood had been buried so deep in coach Eddie Jordan's doghouse that the doghouse had been hermetically sealed from the outside and placed in an undisclosed location. Despite only having two or three healthy players available for Game 4, Eddie Jordan displayed a willingness to play 4-on-5 for 48 minutes rather than allow Haywood onto the court.

Haywood's reaction was predictable -- by June, his trade demand became the talk of the NBA, leading to rounds of seemingly endless speculation and prognostication regarding possible destinations. Or maybe that was someone else. Anyway, all signs pointed to his exodus from downtown D.C.

Times have changed. Fast-forward to this fall. General manager Ernie Grunfeld wasn't so quick to part with his only true center, a center with a nice cap number to boot. Then (thanks to the NBA's aggressive screening program) Thomas was diagnosed with a heart ailment. Thomas will be fine, but he's probably out for the season.

What about the breakout question?

I suppose the answer lies in your definition of "breakout." If you agree with ESPN's projection -- 7.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.3 blocks -- which I do, then "breakout" probably means "draftable in deep leagues."

There is some upside potential here. It's just that Haywood has burned owners so many times in the past that it's hard to recommend him. I'd say his ceiling is his 2004-05 output. That season averaged a career high in minutes, so at best maybe expect 10 points, 8 boards, and something close to two blocks per game. Those are acceptable numbers for a No. 2 center in deep leagues.

That's as far as I'd go, because coach Jordan has some other options that are very intriguing. His perennial disenchantment with Haywood, coupled with Thomas' absence, has already led him to try some new combinations in the frontcourt.

Fantasy owners and columnists alike all know that outside of Washington's own big three of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, the Wizards have had precious little else to offer in recent years. Thanks to Washington's potent "hurry up and score so we can get the ball back" defensive philosophy, those three have become top fantasy performers. But unless injuries struck, no one else was worth owning beyond the occasional hot streak.

It's terrible when your heroes let you down. I once had a 15-second experience with Lou Reed that scarred me for life. But it's been two weeks, and I still can't fathom how my statistical hero John Hollinger projected something like an 8-74 finish for my beloved Wizards.

Why do I disagree, enough to put my Dave Feitl jersey where my mouth is? For the same reason that I believe that the Wizards are going to bear more attention from fantasy owners in 2007-08 -- the emergence of an actual bench.

Why do the big three break down so much? Bad luck, and a staggering lack of depth. This season, the Wizards have several players that could become fantasy factors by the end of the season.

In fantasy, you always follow the minutes.
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And even though DeShawn Stevenson will get a lot of them, he's not going to mean more than double-digit points and the occasional 3-pointer. On top of that, rookie Nick Young could end up taking some of those minutes away from Stevenson by midseason. If Arenas goes down, Antonio Daniels will become an immediate waiver-wire pickup. Until that happens, he's not worthy of a roster spot.

The actual intrigue lies in who else is going to be logging minutes at center. In Thomas' absence, Jordan is prepared to go all D'Antoni on teams this season and play Darius Songaila at center. Songalia is a great offensive option in the high post, runs the pick-and-roll to perfection, and has shown real signs of fantasy goodness if he ends up qualifying at center.

Another rookie (he spent last season playing overseas), Oleksiy Pecherov, could earn decent minutes this season. He's a nice addition to the Wizards bench and could be fantasy-worthy at some point in the future. It's just hard to see him jumping ahead of Songaila in the rotation.

For me, the real sleeper on this team is 2005 second-round pick Andray Blatche. Still only 20, he's already had more ups and downs than George Jones. He's been shot in the chest and been arrested for ... well, this is a family column ... let's leave it at "an extreme love of the nightlife."

Once projected as a first-rounder, Blatche entered the draft right out of high school and slid right into Grunfeld's lap, mostly due to a pronounced lack of quality decision-making (see the previous paragraph). It certainly wasn't due to a lack of athleticism; you can't read more than a paragraph or two about him before seeing the phrase "poor man's KG." There was even talk of the Mavericks making a run at him this past summer as a restricted free agent.

Blatche re-signed with Washington instead, and has been making noise this preseason with several nicely diversified stat lines. Jordan seems to want to give Blatche a real shot at center, to go along with time at power forward. There's real double-double potential here, to go along with a nice dose of blocks and assists. If he gets into the 25-30 minutes-per-game range this season, look out.

So, outside of the big three, I'd consider Haywood as a reasonable endgame gamble in the center-starved world of fantasy hoops. Beyond him, monitor Blatche closely as the preseason closes out and the regular season progresses.

Thomas' ailment is one of those situations that quickly projects way beyond basketball, let alone fantasy basketball, so let's just wish him the best and hope he makes it back out on the court in 2008.

John Cregan is a fantasy basketball writer for ESPN.com.