For the past couple of weeks, Paul Millsap has been the top fantasy story, replacing Carlos Boozer in the starting lineup and starting a streak of double-doubles in the process, a streak currently at 13.
If you've been paying attention the past couple years, though, Millsap is no secret. Right from the start, he was one of the best sixth men in the league, and whenever he saw extended minutes, he played well. The problem was he rarely saw heavy minutes, in large part because of Boozer's presence but also because he fouled too often to stay on the court. Millsap was 9th in fouls per 48 minutes his rookie season, and was fourth his sophomore campaign, with the highest foul rate of any player averaging 20 or more minutes. This season, though, Millsap has gone from averaging 7.6 fouls per 48 minutes to 6.0, still a high number but low enough to where playing through foul trouble is a possibility.
Millsap's emergence can't be solely credited to his lower foul rate -- that Boozer guy getting hurt sure helped -- but in general, a player is more productive when he fouls less often. A similar paragraph on Nene's improvement would have been just as apropos, for example. At the least, it allows a player to gain more minutes, to say nothing of a player's comfort and confidence level when he's on the court for more than a couple minutes at a time. It also begets another question: Could we find other potential sleepers by looking at big men who have improved their foul rates this season? Sifting through the statistics, a small handful of candidates do present themselves:
Craig Smith, PF, Timberwolves: It's tough to buy into the long-term viability of Smith -- I'm a huge Kevin Love fan, and Ryan Gomes is around, too -- but just last week, T-Wolves coach Kevin McHale promoted Smith to the starting job. Smith has started the past six games, and has shown some offensive potential by averaging 14.5 points and 5.2 free-throw attempts in those games. In reality, he's a stopgap until Love takes over, but who knows when that will be? Smith was in the top 10 in fouls per minute last season but has shaved nearly a full foul off that rate this season, giving him the opportunity to flirt with pure starter's minutes.
Andray Blatche, PF/C, Wizards: Fool me once, JaVale McGee, shame on me. But it seems I'm not the only one to learn my lesson about McGee, as Blatche has started the past two games at center, replacing the ineffective McGee, who had made 13 consecutive starts. Blatche is still just 22, so inconsistency will be a way of life with him, but with that youth also comes talent, and he scored 19 points in his first start and grabbed 11 boards in his second. He has lopped off 0.4 fouls per game from last season, and could lower that rate even more as the season progresses, considering last season he went from averaging 3.3 fouls per game before the All-Star break to 2.8 after.
Matt Bonner, PF/C, Spurs: Bonner has posted a career-best foul rate, and that has truly allowed him to emerge this season. Bonner's previous personal best (not including 2006-07) still had him averaging more than six fouls per 48 minutes (in other words, fouling out), which makes this year's 4.8 per 48 minutes particularly impressive. The Spurs rarely foul as a team, and with Tim Duncan able to handle the toughest frontcourt assignment, it seems reasonable that Bonner can continue to stay out of foul trouble. He's averaging only 2.6 fouls in 28 minutes per game in eight games in December, and Bonner's role in the offense might continue to expand. He already has reached double figures in shot attempts the past two games, the only times all season he has shot that many times.
Comings and goings
When Raja Bell was traded to the Bobcats, my initial thought was that it seemed like it would be a stretch to for Bell to see the same minutes on a rebuilding team that he received on the Suns. Three games later, he's yet to top 30 minutes once, and he's averaging just 2.3 3-point attempts per game, killing his only value in fantasy leagues. Since taking over for Morris Peterson at shooting guard for the Hornets, Rasual Butler is averaging 1.8 3-pointers and 1.07 blocks in 13 games, not bad for a one-trick pony. Speaking of one-trick ponies, Bobby Simmons is quietly averaging 2.0 3-pointers per game in December, shooting a robust 42.1 percent from beyond the arc. He has shot better than 40 percent in two previous seasons, and should continue benefiting from the attention given to Devin Harris (10.5 free-throw attempts) and Vince Carter (6.3). Both Jason Kapono and Jamario Moon have been beneficiaries of the Raptors' shakeup in the starting lineup. Kapono has fit right in at shooting guard, attempting 33 3-pointers in five starts and converting 14 of them. If the career 46.4-percent 3-point marksman continues to chuck it from long range, watch out. Moon, meanwhile, has grabbed at least eight rebounds in his five starts, combining for 10 steals and eight blocks as well.
Jarrett Jack, PG, Pacers (12.5 percent owned): Why is a player shooting below 40 percent from the field, and with one of the highest turnover rates at his position, threatening T.J. Ford for playing time? Threatening might be a bit strong, but Jack is definitely making Ford owners nervous, and he's making the best of an increase in minutes this month, averaging 10.7 points, 3.1 assists and 1.1 steals per game, and shooting 85.4 percent from the line on 4.6 attempts per game. With Ford out with a groin injury, Jack only strengthened his case for more playing time Wednesday, scoring 24 points on 50 percent shooting in 37 minutes versus the Warriors, adding six boards, two 3s, two assists, a block and a steal. I can't say I'm the biggest fan of Jack, but beggars can't be choosers in deep leagues, and with Mike Dunleavy confirmed out until sometime in January, Jack is an intriguing option on an up-tempo team.
Marco Belinelli, SG, Warriors (0.9 percent owned): Of course the typical Don Nelson caveats apply, but Belinelli is teeming with upside. There's no point in overanalyzing the situation because Nelson changes his lineup all the time, but Belinelli has qualities that Nelson craves: versatility, ball-handling ability and long-range shooting. So far, 82 percent of his shot attempts have been jumpers, so expect the field-goal percentage to fall, but the 3s are here to stay. He also has dished out 10 assists his past two games, providing a dimension that Corey Maggette and Kelenna Azubuike can't, and as a former first-round pick, he should be squarely in the team's long-term plans. One time, Don Nelson, one time
Mike James, PG, Wizards (0.4 percent owned): It took all of four games for James to bring his veteran goodness to the table as a starter on the worst team in the East. Even playing alongside Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, James threw up 15 shots and scored 16 points, a sign that James will remain true to his roots as a chucker. For fantasy, though, a chucker on a bad team -- starting, no less -- is a sure-fire way to gain some value. Did I mention that those 16 points actually led the team in scoring and accounted for more than 20 percent of the team's total? It might not be pretty, but it's worth having him on your team.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.