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Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Late-rising rookies

By John Cregan
Special to ESPN.com

All these years of blindly following a numbingly woebegone franchise in the Washington Bullets/Wizards have made me a better fantasy owner.

Why? Because by Thanksgiving, I've already given up any hope of the team advancing to the preseason.

And I start counting the days. The days until Chad Ford's Lottery Mock Draft goes live on ESPN.com.

On average, I play the Mock Draft five to 10 minutes a day. It's good for me, both as an NBA fan and as a fantasy basketball enthusiast.

If you start reading Ford's articles, and start following draft coverage in general, you'll begin to accrue data on how certain players might perform by the end of the following season.

In real-life NBA terms, rookies represent hope. (Nerlens Noel would look awfully nice running the floor with John Wall and Bradley Beal.)

In fantasy terms, rookies represent upside.

Every season, multiple rookies suddenly start leaping up the Player Rater after All-Star Weekend. And it's not just the marquee top picks, all of whom are usually scarfed up in the draft. Rookie risers can come from any stage in the NBA draft (or from overseas).

Plucking a soon-to-be hot rookie off the wire is your best chance at making a late-season improvement to your team. And coming off the wire, those rookies don't cost you anything but a roster spot.

Last January, Klay Thompson averaged 7.7 points, 1.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.4 3-pointers per game. In April, he averaged 18.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 3-pointers. He doubled his production in two months.

Kenneth Faried went from 6.0 points and 5.0 rebounds to 11.6 points and 9.1 rebounds.

Isaiah Thomas went from 7.6 points, 1.0 3-pointers, 2.6 assists and a 41 percent field goal percentage to 14.7 points, 1.7 3-pointers, 5.4 assists and a 47 percent field goal percentage.

And Chandler Parsons went from 7.0 points and a .211 3-point percentage to 11.0 points and a .396 3-point percentage.

You get the picture. Let's throw out the obvious names (Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Dion Waiters) and take a look at some other non-top picks who look primed for a late surge.

Harkless
Harkless

1. Moe Harkless, SF, Orlando Magic (Player Rater number over the past 15 days: 5.21): Harkless is an example of how deadline trades (and banned-substance suspensions) can open up opportunities for promising rookies. Harkless is riding a string of nine straight double-digit games, but his fantasy appeal goes way deeper than points.

Harkless possesses what I call 1+1+1 potential: He's capable of averaging a 3-pointer, a steal and a block per game. With Hedo Turkoglu out until the end of the month, Harkless should get every opportunity to build some numerical momentum and grow as a fantasy factor.

Nicholson
Nicholson

2. Andrew Nicholson, PF, Orlando Magic (PR15: 2.90): Nicholson also has benefited from the J.J. Redick trade. With Gustavo Ayon shipped off as a throw-in, and Glen Davis' injury, Nicholson suddenly holds a pathway to major minutes. A steady diet of minutes is an essential condition for a late-season rookie bloom, and Nicholson should average 23 to 27 minutes per game until Davis returns.

I've been following Nicholson since he came to Orlando, because his scouting report brimmed with Ryan Anderson potential. Nicholson hit 43 percent of his 3-pointers at St. Bonaventure last season, and my hope was that Nicholson would eventually be called upon to fill Anderson's role.

The problem is that Nicholson has been following more of the David West playbook: lots of offensive efficiency, a good midrange game, but no 3-point attempts. There's nothing wrong with being the next David West. But if Nicholson starts to stretch out his range and improves his rebounding, he'll become a fantasy forward to be reckoned with.

Kidd-Gilchrist
Kidd-Gilchrist

3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Charlotte Bobcats (PR15: 1.36): I know, I know, we said no top picks. But MKG is a special case, a high lottery pick who specializes in intangibles. Unfortunately, most fantasy leagues don't feature "likability" as a category. His season averages of 9.1 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.7 steals and a block don't scream "No. 2 pick overall."

But Kidd-Gilchrist is getting a lot of one thing: minutes. And I do believe that over time, MKG will develop into a more than serviceable fantasy player. As for this season, I like Kidd-Gilchrist because of his defensive numbers and rebounding. He could easily average a steal and a block per game in March and April. The key will be if he logs more lines like the double-double he posted Monday night (17 points, 10 rebounds).

If MKG starts to edge into 13-point, 7-rebound territory, he'll start to look like a smart endgame pickup as long as the defensive numbers stay put.

Barnes
Barnes

4. Harrison Barnes, SF, Golden State Warriors (PR15: -0.62): Barnes' seasonal averages (9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 0.7 3s, 0.7 steals) aren't too far off from Kidd-Gilchrist's. Like MKG, Barnes is getting steady minutes (25.7 per game), but we're all sort of waiting for a light to go on. With Barnes, the issue is passivity on offense and an overwillingess to pass up his own shot.

Barnes has the potential to bring points, 3s, steals and the occasional block to the table. He's probably the victim of being on an offensively loaded squad that doesn't need his production to arrive ahead of schedule. But Barnes is in a good spot to go on a late-season mini-tear. If he starts to heat up, don't hesitate to grab him.

Robinson
Robinson

Motiejunas
Motiejunas

5. Thomas Robinson/Donatas Motiejunas, PF, Houston Rockets (PR15: -2.71/-4.66): As I've mentioned before, the power forward slot in Houston is fertile fantasy territory thanks to the Rockets' high-pace system. I'd been excited about Robinson's post-trade upside, but it's been the other rookie, Motiejunas, who has really flashed major fantasy chops as of late.

Motiejunas is sort of the rookie I thought Andrew Nicholson could be: a stretch 4 with solid 3-point production and rebounding. Over his past five games, he has posted 11.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, shooting a crisp 58 percent from the floor.

Robinson looks like he will be worked in slowly, but if he keeps putting up numbers like he had against the Dallas Mavericks on Monday (10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals), this could turn into a time-share.

For now, I'm hoping Motiejunas retains the upper hand in this rotation.

Drummond
Drummond

6. Andre Drummond, PF/C, Detroit Pistons (PR15: N/A): Don't forget about this guy. I guarantee you won't be able to come next fall, when Drummond will be one of the most-hyped sleepers in next season's drafts. As for now, Drummond's projected return from his back injury is all over the map. It could be within a week, it could be mid-to-late March.

Drummond could be the late-season addition who wins a fantasy playoff series or two because of his mega-elite blocks potential. By the time he comes back, the Pistons will be firmly ensconced in pingpong ball territory, so Drummond should step into decent minutes as soon as his conditioning returns.

And Drummond isn't just about blocks. Don't forget Drummond had already racked up eight double-doubles before he went down in early February. The only question is if he can play his way back into 22 to 24 minutes per night.

Other rookies with late-season potential: Jonas Valanciunas, C, Toronto Raptors; Tyler Zeller, C, Cleveland Cavaliers; Kyle Singler, SF, Detroit Pistons, Alexey Shved, PG/SG, Minnesota Timberwolves; Brian Roberts, PG, New Orleans Hornets; John Henson, PF, Milwaukee Bucks; Nando de Colo, PG, San Antonio Spurs.