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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 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 2011-12 season. Of course, we'll continue to update the rankings periodically throughout the offseason once trades and free-agent signings start to fall into place. Obviously, much will change between now and the start of the season, so think of this as a baseline to begin your 2011-12 fantasy campaign ... and bookmark this column, so it's easy to come back for the updates.
Tyson Chandler, C, free agent: Many won't realize it, but Chandler actually had a better regular season than he did postseason -- at least statistically speaking. Despite averaging 10.1 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 65.4 percent from the floor and 73.2 percent from the line during the regular season, Chandler was vastly underrated in most fantasy circles. You can forget about getting him at a discount this year. Not after he posted 8.0 points, 9.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks and was instrumental as a defensive presence during the Mavericks' title run. Teams will be lining up to get their hands on the unrestricted free agent, but his fantasy value should remain constant as a double-double threat with around a block per game regardless of where he ends up.
James Harden, SG, Oklahoma City Thunder: Every year, we see a few players make great strides in the playoffs and ride that confidence into a breakout in the following season. This year it was Harden, who posted averages of 13.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 3-pointers in 17 postseason games. More importantly, the Thunder were at their best when Harden was on the court as the third scoring option behind Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. His playoff numbers were no fluke. In fact, Harden posted 15.8 points with 1.7 3-pointers and 1.2 steals in 28 games after the All-Star break last season. Look for a bump in minutes in 2011-12, and do not be surprised if Harden is one of the season's biggest breakouts.
Serge Ibaka, PF/C, Thunder: This should come as no surprise to anyone who watched any basketball in the second half last season. Ibaka was a monster after the Jeff Green trade, averaging 10.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and a ridiculous 3.0 blocks in 28 games after the All-Star break. Ibaka followed that up by posting 9.8 points, 7.3 boards and 3.1 blocks in 17 playoff games. After showing marked improvement on both ends of the floor in his first two seasons, Ibaka should be primed to break out in a big way in 2011-12. Remember, at just 21 years of age (he'll be 22 by the time the season rolls around), he is only beginning to touch the surface of his potential.
Ricky Rubio, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves: Maybe I shouldn't say moving up as much as moving in. Rubio was a big topic of conversation during the Beijing Olympics in the summer of 2008 and an even bigger topic of conversation when he was selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft. After he spent a few years overseas, the Rubio hype machine has died down considerably and many scouts have commented that he has not progressed the way they hoped he would. But Rubio still has the passing skills that made him a prodigy, and he'll have some scoring weapons in Kevin Love, Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley to fill the lanes. Given how long the Wolves held off waiting for him, he should earn plenty of minutes in his rookie season and will be a fantasy asset for assists and steals immediately.
Carlos Boozer, PF, Chicago Bulls: I've never been a big fan of Boozer's fantasy game due to his lack of defensive presence and inability to play through nagging injuries, but he didn't even give us his typical scoring and rebounding this past season. At times during the postseason, the Bulls looked like a better team when Taj Gibson was on the court instead of Boozer. After he averaged just 12.6 points and 9.7 rebounds in 16 playoff games, following 17.5 points and 9.6 boards during the regular season, it's time that fantasy owners drop Boozer into the third tier of fantasy power forwards.
Tim Duncan, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs: Duncan did a solid job of producing on a per-minute basis despite averaging just 28.4 minutes during the regular season, but he managed only 12.0 points, 10.0 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 35.0 minutes in a losing effort against the Grizzlies in the playoffs. Is Duncan's ride as a top fantasy option over? Probably. He'll still be an above-average fantasy forward thanks to his shot-blocking ability, but with his minutes and stats on the decline, we can no longer consider him a top-tier option.
Rodney Stuckey, PG/SG, Detroit Pistons: The first person I thought of when I heard Brandon Knight's name called Thursday night was Stuckey. How does Stuckey fit now that the Pistons have Knight? Detroit extended a qualifying offer to Stuckey last week, so he seems to still be in the team's long-term plans. Both players are combo guards, although Knight appears to be more of a point than Stuckey. Since he doesn't hit many 3s, Stuckey is far less intriguing as a fantasy player as a 2-guard, especially if his assists dip from the 5.2 he averaged last season. And with Knight in town, Stuckey's assists and value are almost sure to decline.
D.J. Augustin, PG, Charlotte Bobcats: Augustin had his best season as a pro in 2010-11 with 14.4 points, 6.1 assists and 1.4 3-pointers per game, but he is a streaky type of player and now will have to fend off Kemba Walker for minutes in the Bobcats' backcourt. Walker might not be able to win the starting job right away, but he certainly will cut into Augustin's 33.6 minutes per game. With that said, we'll have to drop D.J. quite a bit in the rankings.
• As if you haven't heard it enough, this year's draft class is considered one of the weaker classes in recent memory. Rookies have had a lot of success in the NBA in recent seasons, but as you can tell from the rankings, it's hard to get too excited about anyone not named Kyrie Irving or Derrick Williams having an immediate impact in the 2011-12 season. Irving should immediately step in as the starting point guard for the Cavs and will be a fantasy factor right from the start. Williams is a bit more tricky, but he is already one of the Wolves' most talented players and should be targeted in the mid-to-late rounds in drafts this fall.
• Brandon Knight has a pretty good chance of starting at point guard for the Pistons. I like Knight's game and think he'll be a serviceable fantasy player this season, but he might need a year or two before we get too excited from a fantasy perspective. I have him ranked below fellow rookie point guards Irving and Rubio.
• Marcus Thornton looked like the big winner of the trade that sent Beno Udrih to Milwaukee, but then the Kings went ahead and grabbed Jimmer Fredette with the 10th overall pick in the draft. I think Thornton, who averaged 21.3 points, 1.7 steals and 2.0 3-pointers in 27 games with the Kings last season, will retain his value, but we'll have to keep a close eye on how Fredette fits in during preseason action.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com and was recently named the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @bmckitish.