When I look at the NBA draft, I like to break the players into two groups: those that can contribute now and those that might take a few years to develop. Let's be honest, rookies are rarely able to step right in and make an immediate contribution. Sure, a handful of players each year will come in and put up some serious numbers, but there's not a great track record for instant success. Most of your rookies will take at least half of their inaugural season to get their feet wet, and even more will take at least a year or two to develop. Oh, and let's not forget some of these players might never realize the potential that made them draft picks in the first place.
Needless to say, there's a whole lot of uncertainty when it comes to dealing with rookies in fantasy leagues, but that doesn't mean that we won't be able to find a few players that will pay dividends now and in the future. With that in mind, here are my top 10 fantasy prospects for the 2008-09 season, in which you'll be introduced to our brand new, free, full-featured fantasy basketball league manager.
One caveat before we start; these rankings are for the 2008-09 season only, and remember, minutes make the fantasy world go round.
Top 10 fantasy rookies for next season
Michael Beasley, PF, Heat (No. 2 pick): I wrote a full breakdown of Beasley and Rose a few weeks back, and since my thoughts haven't changed much, I'll keep it short and sweet here. There is no doubt in my mind that Beasley is going to be a fantasy stud this year and in the future. I see him putting up Dirk Nowitzki-like stats -- with more rebounds -- a few years down the line. This year? He should post somewhere around 15 to 17 points, 10 rebounds, 0.7 steals, 0.9 blocks and 0.6 3-pointers in his rookie season, numbers that would make him the easy choice for fantasy rookie of the year.
Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls (1): Rose is freakishly athletic and has an NBA-ready body, so he should be able to contribute right away. With his explosiveness, he'll be able to get into the lane almost at will, which should lead to plenty of point scoring opportunities. He'll also rebound very well for a guard and should see his assist totals skyrocket in the NBA. Another fantasy plus should be his ability to create steals on the defensive end. Unfortunately, he will need to work on his outside jumper before we can consider him a 3-point threat and he struggled to hit his free throws consistently at the college level.
There are two major problems facing Rose in his rookie season. First, how will the Bulls fit him into the rotation with both Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon around? I'm sure they will find him the minutes he needs, but there's a bit of a logjam there, and timeshares never work out well in fantasy. Second, it usually takes point guards at least a season to develop at the NBA level; I mean if Deron Williams struggled with the adjustment, isn't it possible that Rose will as well? He should still post solid numbers (think around 12 to 13 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game) but he strikes me as the kind of player that's going to go through some growing pains his rookie season, but then break out in a big way in his second or third season.
Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves (5): A divisive prospect for sure; Love is bound to have many critics. I'm not one of them. I think this kid is going to be a terrific basketball player at the NBA level, and while he doesn't have the pure upside of some of his counterparts, he is one of the more NBA-ready players in this draft. I would be happier if he had stuck in Memphis, but Minnesota is still a very good spot for him given its lack of frontcourt depth. Love should be a starter from Day 1 in Minnesota, and he has the skills to be a more than an adequate scorer and rebounder in his rookie season. He might struggle to create steals and block shots initially in the NBA, but he does have the talent to average a steal and a block per game later on in his career. He'll also benefit from playing alongside Al Jefferson, as Big Al will command double-teams in the post, leaving Love free to roam. The biggest problem for Love is that his upside isn't tremendous, but in the future I still see him as a solid double-double player that is much more valuable in real life than he is in fantasy.
O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies (3): I'm hoping that Memphis will make a little room for Mayo by trading one of its guards for an inside presence. If they do, we can flip Mayo and Love in these rankings, as Mayo will be able to secure big-time minutes right away. If Memphis does not make another move, he might drop down a spot due to the logjam in the Grizzlies backcourt. Let's assume for a second that the Grizzlies will make a deal. Mayo is likely to receive 28 to 30 minutes per game in his rookie season, which is enough to make him a very attractive fantasy gamble, especially given his upside. He's talented enough to make an immediate contribution in points, 3-pointers, steals and free-throw percentage, but I fear that he (like many rookies) will struggle with his shooting percentage from the floor in his first season as a pro. Still, Mayo very well might average 13 to 15 points to go along with a 3-pointer and a steal per game, and he's the type of player that you're going to want to get your hands on in keeper leagues. He could be a legitimate stud two or three years from now.
Russell Westbrook, G, Sonics (4): Westbrook shot up draft boards in recent weeks, largely due to his quickness and defensive skills on the perimeter. Seattle has a few point guards on the roster, but I'm expecting them to give Westbrook every chance to win the starting job coming out of training camp, and I do not think he will disappoint. At the very least, we can expect Westbrook to be one of those rookies that turns it up a notch in the second half of the season. The Sonics are going to be stuck near the basement for much of the season and they'll quickly turn to Westbrook and their youth movement. Westbrook still needs to refine his point-guard skills if he's going to be the floor general in Seattle, but he's a hard worker, and I have a pretty good feeling about this kid. Expect Westbrook to struggle initially on the offensive end, but pay immediate dividends on the defensive side due to his steals. Think Rajon Rondo, with less distribution skills, but more explosiveness in the lane.
Jerryd Bayless, G, Blazers (11): Meet my newest man-crush, Jerryd Bayless. He kept dropping and dropping in the draft and I kept scratching and scratching my head. He might not be the most NBA-ready of all the rookies, but he has the potential to be as talented as any other player on the board. In a few years we could look back at this, and he might end up being the third-most productive fantasy player to have come out of this draft. Bayless might go through some growing pains in his rookie season, but he'll have an opportunity to secure approximately 25 minutes per game now that Jarrett Jack has been shipped out of town. He will back up Steve Blake at the point initially, but expect him to make a serious run at the starting gig, especially later on in the season. Bayless' offensive game is well-rounded and he's explosive enough to at least provide a few stretches of solid fantasy play this year. One thing to really keep an eye on as his career progresses: his steals. Bayless does not rack up steals the way one would expect given his quickness and athleticism, but he has the potential to be dominant in this area. I'm betting that he can realize his potential on the defensive end and become a major steal threat for fantasy owners down the line.
Eric Gordon, G, Clippers (7): Last night I had a conversation with my colleague, Guy Lake, about Gordon's fantasy abilities. We both came away somewhat lukewarm on the kid, and here's why: He's a scorer, and that's about it. Sure, he can light it up from all over the court, but is he going to be a well-rounded fantasy option? I think not. Basically we're looking at a younger version of Ben Gordon here, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does put a cap on his fantasy upside. He's your prototypical fantasy shooting guard: points, 3-pointers, free-throw percentage and a few steals. Still, with all of that said, Gordon found himself in a pretty good spot in Los Angeles with Corey Maggette likely on his way out and only the aging Cuttino Mobley in front of him on the depth chart. He should be able to earn ample minutes right away, and that alone will make worth drafting a rookie in the late rounds.
D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats (9): I absolutely love Augustin's game, and I think he's going to end up being the second best point guard in this draft behind Rose. He can score, dish, hit the 3 and create steals at a high rate. What's not to like? I know some folks get on him because of his height, but that doesn't mean anything to me because he more than makes up for it with his quickness and high basketball IQ. I'm just not sure how he fits in Charlotte this season. This is one of those wait-and-see situations that we will have to reevaluate as we get closer to the season. Some rumors have been floating around about a possible Raymond Felton trade, and that would move Augustin way up this list. If Felton stays, he could be moved to the 2-guard, making Augustin the starting point, which would also bode well for his fantasy outlook. Let's put this conversation on hold for a bit and revisit Augustine later on in the summer when we have a better idea of how he fits in Charlotte.
Courtney Lee, SG, Magic (22): Lee is not your typical high-upside, first-round selection, but he is an underrated talent and he does have the potential to make an immediate impact in the league. He has good size, an NBA-ready body and a very nice outside jumper. He's also a shooting guard, and we all know the Magic need one of those. There's a very good chance that he'll step right in and take that chunk of minutes that was reserved for Keith Bogans and Maurice Evans in 2007-08.
Brook Lopez, C, Nets (10): Lopez has been touted as a player that can help right away, and he does have an advanced low-post game on the offensive end. The Nets seem to like him which is a plus, but the Nets also have a ton of young big men now, so it's hard to say how the minutes will be split. If he can receive enough playing time over Josh Boone, Nenad Krstic and Sean Williams, he could be effective as a scorer and shot-blocker, but I'm not sure about his ability to rebound at this level. My biggest problem with Lopez is that I feel as though he has already peaked. He's a good player no doubt, but will he get any better than he is right now?
Sleepers: Long-term value
Mario Chalmers, PG, Heat (34): The Heat didn't get their man in Rose, but they did find themselves a very nice point guard, via trade, later in the draft in Chalmers. As of right now, Chalmers might just be the best point guard the Heat have. If everything stays the same with Miami's roster, Chalmers is a good bet to begin the season as a starter. As a fantasy player, Chalmers projects to be a big time steal threat, and he should be able to hand out plenty of assists with Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion and Beasley filling the lane.
Danilo Gallinari, F, Knicks (6): We might have to wait a few years for him to realize his potential, but why do I get the feeling that this kid is going to be special in New York? Maybe I just trust in Mike D'Antoni's ability to pick out solid European-style players. I might eat these words later, but I think the future is very bright for the Italian.
Anthony Randolph, PF, Warriors (14): I shudder when I starting thinking about Golden State's front line in a few years. That is, if Randolph and Brandan Wright can realize their seemingly limitless potential, of course. Randolph is a good two to three years away from making a splash in the fantasy game, but be sure to tuck his name away for future use.
Joe Alexander, F, Milwaukee (8): A lot of folks don't believe in Joe Alexander, I'm not one of them. This kid is a super athlete and he will make his mark in the NBA at some point. Unfortunately it probably won't be this season as he likely won't receive enough minutes unless injuries hit the Bucks.
Marreese Speights, PF, Sixers (16): The Sixers need a power forward that can do more than just rebound (Reggie Evans, are your ears burning?), and Speights is just that type of player. So even though Speights is a little bit of a project, he might see some minutes right away, and the kid has some serious potential. He averaged 14.5 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game at Florida in 2007-08, numbers that are much more impressive when you add in the fact that he saw only 24.3 minutes per game.
Darrell Arthur, F, Grizzlies (27): Forget about all the kidney talk, Arthur is a special talent and we might look back at this and realize that several teams made a big mistake by letting him drop so much. He'll have a hard time breaking into the Rockets lineup initially, but I like his outlook a few years down the road.
Brian McKitish is an award-winning fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.