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Thursday, May 22, 2008
Updated: May 23, 8:32 AM ET
Why most freshmen are not fantasy-relevant as rookies

By Brian McKitish
Special to ESPN.com

In case you didn't notice, the NBA age minimum rule has completely changed the face of the draft. This year, 13 college freshmen have filed as early-entry candidates for the NBA draft. Many of them are expected to be lottery or first-round selections. The 2008-09 fantasy season may seem far off in the distance, but since this is a relatively new phenomenon in the NBA, fantasy owners might want to start thinking about how recent "one-and-done" players have fared in making the jump to the NBA after just one year of college experience.

This is an exercise that some folks may have performed a few years back when drafting high school stars was all the rage, and we quickly came to realize that most kids who came directly out of high school took a few years to develop at the NBA level. Of course, there were some exceptions, but the fantasy community learned -- sometimes the hard way -- not to overrate the youngsters who made the leap directly from high school to the pros. Now we are faced with a similar dilemma, with a slight twist. Will the same trends hold true for the youngsters who now have one year of college ball under their belt?

Before we start examining recent history, let's take a quick look at the college freshmen who have filed for early entry for the 2008 NBA draft:

Freshmen who declared for 2008 NBA draft
Player School Projected Pick
Michael Beasley Kansas State Top 2
Derrick Rose Memphis Top 2
O.J. Mayo USC Top 5
Jerryd Bayless Arizona Top 5
Eric Gordon Indiana Top 10
Kevin Love UCLA Top 10
Anthony Randolph LSU Top 15
DeAndre Jordan Texas A&M Top 15
Donte' Greene Syracuse Top 15
Kosta Koufos Ohio State Top 20
Bill Walker Kansas State Late First Round
J.J. Hickson NC State Late First Round
Davon Jefferson USC Early Second Round

For those who are counting, there's a very good chance that six of the first 10 selections in the draft could be players making the jump to the NBA after just one season of college play. There's a lot of star power here, and a ton of future potential, but can we really expect these "kids" to make a splash on the fantasy scene right away? History is the best indicator we have to predict the future, so let's take a look at how last year's group of freshmen fared in the fantasy game.

Freshmen from 2007 NBA draft
Player Pick 07-08 Player Rater Minutes PG
Greg Oden 1 DNP DNP
Kevin Durant 2 49 35
Mike Conley 4 230 26
Brandan Wright 8 316 10
Spencer Hawes 10 251 13
Thaddeus Young 12 162 21
Javaris Crittenton 19 315 14
Daequan Cook 21 240 25

The first word that comes to mind when looking at the table above is "ouch." Things didn't turn out too well for the "one-and-done" rookies, did they? Kevin Durant was the only player to crack the top 100 on the Player Rater, and no one else was even close. Sure, some of these players flashed glimpses of brilliance -- particularly Thaddeus Young -- but none had much of a fantasy impact. Luckily, most fantasy owners were wise enough not to overvalue this crop of rookies, as Durant and Mike Conley were the only two who were consistently selected on draft day in fantasyland. Conley was the most disappointing of the bunch, as he was incredibly overvalued on draft day (ADP of 102.3) and failed to live up to the fantasy hype in his rookie season. After Durant and Conley, the rest of the group listed above was a complete nonfactor in fantasy leagues.

Mike Conley
Mike Conley found the NBA to be a tall order as a rookie, as evidenced by his inconsistency.
Now, before we get too negative here, I must point out a few reasons for the poor showing. Take a look at the minutes per game for each of the players listed above. Minutes make the fantasy world go 'round, and we can't expect anyone to have fantasy value if he isn't receiving ample playing time. The relative lack of minutes seems to be the biggest culprit here, but it begs the question: Were these kids ready to play at the NBA level? If they were, they would have received more minutes, no? There will always be exceptions (in this instance, Durant), but in most cases, players with only one year of college experience are either too raw or are not physically or mentally ready to contribute in the NBA. Even the players who saw 20-plus minutes per game (Conley, Young, Cook) struggled, and the same held true for most of those high school seniors who were drafted a few years back. This is in no way an indication of how these youngsters will progress during their careers (many have promising and bright futures ahead of them), but fantasy owners should know that most 19- and 20-year-old rookies will not have much of a fantasy impact right out of the gate.

These aren't the only players who have struggled making the leap to the NBA after just one college season recently. In 2006-07, first-round draft picks Tyrus Thomas (13.4 minutes) and Shawne Williams (12.1 minutes) were buried on their respective benches for most of their rookie seasons. In 2005-06, UNC's freshman sensation Marvin Williams bolted for the pros, but posted just 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in 24.7 minutes for the Hawks. In 2004, two freshmen, Luol Deng and Kris Humphries, were drafted in the first round. Deng had a nice season, averaging 11.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 0.8 steals in 27.3 minutes, but we are still waiting for Humphries to deliver on the promise he showed when he was selected with the 14th overall pick.

Carmelo Anthony
As a rookie, Carmelo Anthony was able to step right in and be a fantasy force, scoring 25 or more points on 30 occasions.
So there we have it -- in recent history, only two college freshmen (Durant and Deng) making the jump to the NBA have provided owners with viable fantasy stats during their rookie seasons. In an attempt to find more success stories, we have to go all the way back to 2003-04 when Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh, two seriously NBA-ready talents, made successful transitions despite playing just one season at the college level. Melo took the league by storm by averaging 21.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.2 steals, 0.8 3-pointers and 0.5 blocks in 36.5 minutes during his rookie year while Bosh averaged a more modest 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.4 blocks in 33.5 minutes per game. That said, even when we factor Melo and Bosh into the mix, the failure rate for the "one-and-done" crowd is quite high, and it would be even higher if we decided to add in all the players who were drafted straight out of high school during this time.

I realize that I have painted a somewhat gloomy picture here, but be sure to keep in mind that for every 10 players who do not get it done in their rookie season, there are usually one or two who can come in and contribute right away. How can we tell which players will contribute immediately? For me, it's all about how NBA-ready a player is, and how many minutes he'll be able to secure in his rookie season. Athleticism counts, but a successful rookie will need to have a refined game as well. Look at Durant, Deng, Anthony and Bosh. All had the athleticism, but they were also much more advanced than their counterparts as far as their basketball skills were concerned. And, of course, all four earned ample playing time early in their careers.

So don't go ignoring a Michael Beasley or a Derrick Rose just because some fantasy analyst told you there's a high failure rate for young players coming into the NBA. We have to evaluate each player on a case-by-case basis. It doesn't matter if they are college freshmen or college seniors. What really matters is how NBA-ready their games are, and how many minutes they'll receive right off the bat. Remember, minutes are the key to fantasy success. That said, without knowing where each player will land, it's almost impossible to project which rookies will have the most fantasy impact, so we'll have to revisit this topic over the summer to give you an idea of which rookies will make the biggest fantasy splash in 2008-09.

Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.