As mentioned last week, there are two types of fantasy hoops readers at this point in the season. There are those who are still looking for pickups and strategy advice, and those who are already starting to prepare for next season's drafts. This week, we'll give both groups a little something to chew on as we'll take a stab at an early first-round mock draft for the 2008-09 season before getting into the pickups a little later. Before we get into the mock, keep in mind that these rankings are always up for debate, and many things can change between now and the start of next season. If you think I ranked someone too high, too low, or not at all, be sure to take me to task on the conversation boards below.
2008-09 first round mock draft
Overall, I don't think this list will cause too much controversy, at least it shouldn't. I really don't think the top slot is up for debate. Chris Paul has had a fantastic season, and like LeBron James, there's almost no limit to his upside, but I can't see taking him over James just yet. LeBron gets the slight edge, mostly because he can contribute in more areas than Paul, particularly blocks.
Amare Stoudemire may be found hanging around after the fifth pick next season, but only because some folks will still call him an injury risk going in. I realize that microfracture surgery is a serious deal, but he's now two years removed, and it's not as if he has a lengthy history of injuries to merit being called "injury prone." Here's the thing: Stoudemire has missed only three games in the past two seasons, and is now playing the best basketball of his career. My favorite aspect of Amare's game is not his point-scoring ability, nor is it his rebounding or shot-blocking skills. It's his ability to knock down nearly 80 percent of his free throws. There aren't many big men who can accomplish such a feat, and that is exactly why I rank him so high on the list.
Deron Williams and Josh Smith may seem slightly high, but of all the players listed, these two are the ones who have the upside to outperform even their optimistic rankings here. Remember, Chris Paul was a late first-round pick back in October, and look where he is now. I predict similar growth from Williams and Smith in 2008-09. Just for reference, and so you don't think I'm out of my mind, Williams currently ranks ninth on the Player Rater, while Smith comes in at 11th due to his incredible steal and block numbers.
Projecting next season's first round got me thinking: Where do we take some of this season's injured stars? Gilbert Arenas was a consensus top-five pick coming into the season; Elton Brand would have been in the top seven or eight; Yao Ming was a borderline first-rounder, as were Dwyane Wade and Pau Gasol. Obviously, all of these players have first-round talent, but are they too risky to take in the first round? For me, they are. I'd much rather reach for an Al Jefferson, Allen Iverson or Tim Duncan before heading down the risk/reward road in the first round. In fact, if you're going to travel that path, why not take a shot with Baron Davis or Marcus Camby, as both are similar risk/reward types with first-round potential, if healthy. I will say this, someone is going to get a major steal in the late first/early second round if any of the above mentioned players can play a full season. Still, I'm going to have to wait to see how these guys progress during the summer before I can fully endorse a high draft pick.
Joakim Noah, PF, Bulls (10.7 percent owned): Drew Gooden is scheduled for an MRI on Monday to determine the severity of his strained lower abdomen. With just nine games remaining, Gooden's injury could be season-ending, and Noah will benefit greatly from the extra space down low. Noah went off for 18 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks in Gooden's absence on Saturday night, and should be a double-double threat with one-steal, one-block potential the rest of the way. And since we're on the subject of Chicago post players, Gooden's injury could open up time for Tyrus Thomas (12.9 percent owned) as well. Thomas, for all his faults, still has the potential to have a dominant month of April, but it's more likely that he'll continue to be his regular inconsistent self.
Kelenna Azubuike, SG, Warriors (20.0 percent owned): Anyone in Golden State can have value provided that he is earning ample minutes. Azubuike himself proved that much last season when he averaged 15.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.7 steals and 2.2 3-pointers in nine starts. He hasn't been quite as productive as a starter this season (13.0 points, 5.2 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.4 3-pointers in 15 starts), but he's been a solid fantasy role player at times. With both Mickael Pietrus (groin) and Al Harrington (hand) nursing injuries, the Warriors have little choice but to turn to Azubuike. And turn to him they have in their past four games. Azubuike has averaged 11.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 0.5 3-pointers in 30.2 minutes per contest in those games. Look for him to continue to provide solid fantasy numbers for as long as Pietrus and Harrington are out.
Travis Outlaw, SF/PF, Trail Blazers (27.7 percent owned): Brandon Roy is expected to miss the remainder of the season with hip and groin injuries, and like many of our target acquisitions this week, Outlaw should be the primary beneficiary of the injury. Outlaw has been streaky this season, and you've probably already owned him at one point or another, but this time should be different. With Roy out, Outlaw should become the second offensive option behind LaMarcus Aldridge for the Blazers. Though he is still just 23 years of age, Outlaw is reaching a point in his career where he needs to step up his game or become just another player who couldn't capitalize on his upside. Hopefully he will be up to the challenge, but I'll be expecting only modest contributions of around 15 points, 4-5 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 0.8 blocks and 0.5 3-pointers the rest of the way.
Steve Blake, PG, Trail Blazers (14.8 percent owned): Sticking with the Blazers, Blake has very quietly averaged 7.2 assists per game in his past five. That's 7.2 assists per game, folks, and anyone who remembers his stint in Denver last season knows that the dimes are for real. For those who don't recall, Blake averaged 6.6 assists in 49 games for the Nuggets last season. Blake is going to have to be more of a playmaker with Brandon Roy out, which will inevitably lead to increased assist opportunities. The only downside here is that Blake still has to split time with Jarrett Jack, but there may be enough room for both to be productive with Roy out.
Josh Boone, PF/C, Nets (18.4 percent owned): If you're not in a tight race for free-throw percentage, there's absolutely no reason not to pick up Boone right now. Perhaps extra motivated by the Nets' playoff race, Boone has been getting after it on the glass, averaging 13.0 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in his past five. He's still shooting around 50 percent from the free-throw line, however, so if you are close there, you'll want to consider other options.
Chris Quinn, PG, Heat (40.4 percent owned): Quinn is proof that just about anybody can have value if he lands in the right place at the right time. Due to injuries, the Heat have been forced into a virtual D-League lineup with players such as Earl Barron, Kasib Powell, Joel Anthony, Blake Ahearn, Stephane Lasme and Quinn all logging meaningful minutes in the past week. Who? Exactly. The only noticeable name among the group is Quinn, but that has a lot more to do with his run at Notre Dame than with anything he's done at the NBA level. Of course, the Heat still have Ricky Davis and Mark Blount, who are both healthy, but that's only two players. One has to think that someone else would put up some viable fantasy stats, right? Thus far, that someone has been Quinn, who has averaged 12.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.6 steals and 0.8 3-pointers per game in his past five. With this roster, anything is possible, and Quinn should be able to provide modest stats the rest of the way for the NBA's worst team.
Brian McKitish is a fantasy baseball and basketball analyst for ESPN.com.