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The fantasy hoops season doesn't start for another four months, but for many fantasy owners the preparations began with Thursday's NBA draft. Four months might seem like a lifetime away right now, but we've got a big summer of free agency on tap to keep us busy, and the fantasy season is going to creep up on us rather quickly.
For those unfamiliar with the format of this column, we'll be ranking the top 150 fantasy players for the upcoming 2010-11 season. Of course, we'll update the rankings periodically throughout the offseason once trades and free-agent signings start falling into place. Obviously, much will change between now and the start of the season, so think of this as a baseline to begin your 2010-11 fantasy campaign.
Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (24): By all accounts, Westbrook had his breakout performance with a brilliant effort against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. But those paying attention during the regular season shouldn't have been too surprised about Westbrook's dominant averages of 20.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.7 steals in six playoff games. In fact, although Westbrook took a bigger role as a scorer against the Lakers, he was just as impressive during the regular season as he was in the playoffs, finishing with averages of 16.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Still just 21 years of age, Westbrook is on the verge of becoming a household name in 2010-11.
Jason Richardson, SG, Phoenix Suns (54): Don't underrate Richardson based on his somewhat depressed season totals in 2009-10. J-Rich rebounded from an uncharacteristically slow start to post 17.8 points, 5.3 boards, 0.8 steals and 2.5 3-pointers after the All-Star break before going off for 19.8 points, 5.4 boards, 1.1 steals and 3.0 3-pointers in 16 playoff games. It became abundantly clear throughout their deep playoff run that Richardson and Steve Nash have finally built a strong rapport on the court, and with Amar'e Stoudemire likely headed out of town, J-Rich could be in line for his best season yet.
Elton Brand, PF, Philadelphia 76ers (112): Brand hasn't really been relevant in the fantasy game since the 2006-07 season, unless you count the thousands of owners he's burned during the past three seasons. I may end up regretting this, but I'm willing to give him one last chance. Once stuck in a disjointed offense under Eddie Jordan, Brand is now rumored to start at center for new head coach Doug Collins. With Samuel Dalembert out of town and Spencer Hawes in, the Sixers will have to rely more on Brand's presence in the post. If he's healthy (big if), Brand could have a nice bounce-back season in 2010-11.
Serge Ibaka, C, Thunder (125): Love me the Serge! After showing flashes of brilliance in the second half, Ibaka proved to be the Thunder's best interior defender in their six-game playoff series against the Lakers. After averaging 7.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and a ridiculous 2.0 blocks in 25.5 minutes against L.A., the 20-year-old has the look of a player who could be the next big shot-blocker in the NBA. He's still incredibly raw, so it's hard to say if he'll break out this season or next, but it's scary to think what he'll be able to do after he refines his game a bit.
Monta Ellis, PG/SG, Golden State Warriors (26): Ellis is a top-15 fantasy player when healthy, but injuries and an unsettled relationship with the Warriors' front office have me rethinking his high ranking at the end of last season. I still have lots of love for Ellis, but unless something changes, there are just too many question marks to consider him an elite fantasy player for 2010-11.
Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers (90): Will this guy's knees ever hold up? Probably not, but he still gets a decent ranking here because he is extremely productive when healthy. Unfortunately it's hard to get too excited about a guy who has missed 96 games during the past three seasons.
Ray Allen, SG, unrestricted free agent (91): Aside from his record-breaking performance in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Allen began to show signs that his age may finally be catching up to him after 13 seasons in the league. He'll still be valuable as a 3-point specialist wherever he lands, but his days as a multicategory fantasy performer are all but over at this point. And while we're on the Celtics, I'm sure you noticed that Paul Pierce dropped a bit in the rankings, as well. Pierce is another player who started to show signs of age down the stretch, and it wouldn't be surprising if he took a slight step backward in 2010-11.
Thaddeus Young, SF, 76ers (122): I've always been a Thaddeus Young fan, but with the Sixers selecting Evan Turner on Thursday night, Young and Lou Williams take the biggest fantasy hit. Turner is ready to produce in the NBA right now, and he'll get his minutes from day one. That means Andre Iguodala will likely play the 3 with Elton Brand, Spencer Hawes and Marreese Speights in the paint. Unless the Sixers make some more moves this offseason, Young could stand to lose a few minutes, and thus production, next season.
• Danny Granger may have regressed slightly last season, but he still finished sixth on our Player Rater when sorted by averages. He recovered nicely from a painful early-season heel injury and played the entire season with two struggling point guards in T.J. Ford and Earl Watson (a problem the Pacers are expected to fix this summer). That said, expect a bounce-back season for Granger in 2010-11.
• I desperately want to believe that Derrick Rose will bridge the rather large gap between his real-life game and fantasy game, but I still haven't seen much evidence that he can create steals or hit 3-pointers at the NBA level. Until he shows it, he'll remain just outside the list of elite fantasy point guards.
• Blake Griffin is a player who could move up the rankings with a strong summer, but until we see him healthy and on the court it's hard to rank him much higher than he is here (81). The same can be said for other injured players like Yao Ming, Greg Oden and Anthony Randolph (though, admittedly, he is high already).
• Other players who stand to move up in the ranks depending on what happens in free agency this summer include (free agent listed in parentheses): Paul Millsap (Carlos Boozer) in Utah, Jamal Crawford/Mike Bibby (Joe Johnson) in Atlanta, Andrea Bargnani/Ed Davis (Chris Bosh) in Toronto and O.J. Mayo (Rudy Gay) in Memphis.
• I love DeMarcus Cousins' pure ability, but it's awfully crowded in the Sacramento Kings' frontcourt with Samuel Dalembert, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and Cousins all vying for minutes. Given the questions surrounding his maturity and work ethic, Cousins might be given some time to develop considering the depth in Sacramento.
• By contrast, Derrick Favors will likely take some years to develop, but he's landed in a great spot with the Nets, who desperately needed a power forward. As we know from past experience, the fantasy value of rookies depends heavily on playing time, and Favors should earn plenty for the rebuilding Nets in 2010-11.
• Greg Monroe would be ranked much higher if he had landed with the Warriors, but falling to the Detroit Pistons isn't the worst thing in the world for his fantasy value. He has the ability to start right away for a Pistons team that needs help immediately.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.