Working the Wire: Don't hesitate to plunge into the free-agent pool

I love the first week of the NBA season. It's panic city. One bad game, and your sleeper is declared a bum; one great game, and he's the next Chris Paul. Just think, if Charlie Villanueva continues to alternate good games with bad, he probably will be added and dropped about 41 times this season. Patience is your friend, people. But it also can be your foe. Page two of my fantasy sportswriter's handbook tells me I'm bound by law to remind you not to panic early in the season. I'm typically one to follow the rules, but sometimes people take the "be patient" approach a little too far. Sure, there is plenty to be gained by sticking with your guys early in the season, but there also is plenty to be lost.

You see, contrary to popular belief, most fantasy leagues are not won on draft day. They are won by savvy waiver-wire additions well after the draft has come and gone. Unfortunately for those preaching patience, the waiver-wire game simply won't wait. Working the wire is a cutthroat business. It's first come, first serve, and if you hesitate for even a second, you might miss out on the next Mike Dunleavy or Hedo Turkoglu.

Now, this is not to say you should be reckless with your free-agent acquisitions. You drafted most of the players on your roster for a reason, right? That doesn't change after one or two games. But what about those players you weren't so sure about on draft day or those fliers you took in the later rounds? Some of them are expendable, especially if they're not getting it done in the early going (I'm talking to you, Marcus Williams). So yes, be patient, but don't be stubborn. Otherwise, you'll miss out on the free-agent frenzy that's bound to net you a few solid players during Week 1.

Almost every season, we have a few players who rise out of relative obscurity to win over our fantasy hearts (and leagues). Last season, it was Dunleavy and Turkoglu, to name two. So who will win over our hearts this season? Well, that's where I come in. Each week, I'll scour the wire looking for free-agent finds and hidden gems that might be available in your leagues. The talent on the wire is never as heavy as it is early in the season, when there's almost always a few players available who should have been drafted but weren't for one reason or another. Let's take a look, shall we?


Tyrus Thomas, PF, Bulls (35.1 percent owned): If Thomas didn't pique your interest with an impressive preseason campaign, maybe his opening night line of 15 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block did. And if that didn't, well, maybe the fact that he logged 41.2 minutes got your attention. I know, it's just one game, but the increase in minutes is more than promising, and I shouldn't have to tell you about Thomas' seemingly limitless potential, especially in the elusive steals and blocks categories. This is a kid who was incredibly inconsistent due to a lack of minutes (and foul trouble) last season but flashed glimpses of brilliance by averaging 14.4 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 2.2 blocks during games in which he saw 25-plus minutes. Now in his third season as a pro, Thomas finally is starting to put it all together by combining his raw talent and athleticism with a little bit of maturity and control. He has breakout candidate written all over him, and although he'll be inconsistent at times, he has the potential to be one of the top waiver-wire additions of the season. Get him now -- you can thank me later.

Wilson Chandler, SF, Knicks (6.4 percent owned): Given how much he's been touted around these parts, it's somewhat surprising that Chandler isn't owned in more than 6.4 percent of ESPN.com fantasy leagues. Chandler started turning heads at the end of last season when he averaged 28 minutes, 12.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 0.6 3-pointers, 0.6 steals and 0.6 blocks per game during the month of April. He continued his emergence as a sleeper candidate by dominating summer league play and hasn't disappointed thus far this season. After he dropped 17 points with nine boards in just 23 minutes Wednesday for the suddenly fantasy-friendly Knicks, one has to be quite optimistic about his prospects going forward.

Travis Outlaw, SF/PF, Blazers (14.6 percent owned): So much for the Nicolas Batum experiment. Not only did Outlaw start over Batum, but he also earned 35 minutes (while Batum saw only four minutes) and led the team in scoring with 18 points in the opener Tuesday. Outlaw surely would have been drafted in most leagues had Nate McMillan not pulled a Mike Shanahan by prematurely naming Batum his starting small forward. It now is clear that, starting or not, Outlaw is going to see the bulk of minutes for the Blazers at small forward. We've been waiting for the 24-year-old to break out for quite some time now, and while I don't think he'll break out per say, he will be a very solid point scorer and has the potential to help out in steals and blocks. In six starts last season, Outlaw averaged a healthy 18.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.3 steals and a block per game.

Rudy Fernandez, SG, Blazers (22.3 percent owned): Despite the name recognition, Fernandez still is available in far too many leagues. Nate McMillan is going to find ways to get him on the court (think 30 minutes per game), and Fernandez will not disappoint, particularly from behind the 3-point line. He drained three 3-pointers while adding 16 points, four rebounds and two steals in the opener, and there figures to be more where that came from as the season progresses.

Mario Chalmers, PG, Heat (15.4 percent owned): When I called the Knicks "fantasy-friendly," I meant it. And their friendliness isn't limited to those suiting up in Knickerbocker blue. Just ask rookie point guard Chalmers. He lit up the Knicks to the tune of 17 points, seven rebounds, eight assists and two 3-pointers in 36 minutes Wednesday night. After an outing like that, he likely will be one of the most added players in fantasy leagues by the end of the week, and with good reason. Chalmers had sleeper stamped on his forehead prior to the season, and you're in luck if you missed him on draft day, because apparently a lot of other folks did, too. He won't be this dominant every night, but he figures to play a prominent role for the Heat and should provide a bundle of assists and steals on a nightly basis.

Kelenna Azubuike, SG/SF, Warriors (3.6 percent owned): Meet the new sixth man for Don Nelson's Warriors. That statement alone should have you running to your wire to check his availability, especially considering that this so-called sixth man earned 43 minutes en route to a 17-point, three-steal performance in the team's opener Wednesday night. Azubuike proved to be a viable fantasy option last season when he averaged 12.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 0.8 steals and 1.5 3-pointers in 17 starts, but he figures to be much better this season with an inevitable increase in minutes due to the lack of depth in Golden State. There is no doubt Nellie-ball is a fantasy owners' dream, and Azubuike is destined to reap the benefits as the first man off the bench for the Warriors.

Darrell Arthur, PF, Grizzlies (1.5 percent owned): Well, that 11-point, 15-rebound, one-steal, two-block performance came out of nowhere, huh? That was pretty impressive for a rookie in his first game as a pro, but even more impressive was the fact that he did it against a tough Rockets club that typically stymies opposing fantasy players. Look, I'm not going to tell you Arthur is a safe investment. He's not. In fact, he's probably the riskiest player on this list. But with high risk comes high reward, and Arthur has all the ingredients that can make a young player successful in this league. Not only is he ultra-talented, but he also has an incredible opportunity to earn heavy minutes in a thin Grizzlies frontcourt. No offense to Darko Milicic or Hakim Warrick, but coach Marc Iavaroni already has taken a liking to Arthur, and there's a good chance he could be starting and earning 30 minutes per night by this time next week.

Spencer Hawes, C, Kings (5.5 percent owned): Forget about Brad Miller's return for a second and just marvel at the line Hawes put up against the Timberwolves on Wednesday night: 12 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks. No, that's not a misprint -- that's six blocks, folks! You might be thinking this is a small sample size, and you'd be right, but Hawes did look great in limited action as a rookie last season, averaging 12.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in eight games as a starter. Miller will be back soon so we can't expect this every night out, but Hawes is progressing so quickly it's going to be hard for the Kings to keep him off the court this season, especially when they turn to the youth movement later in the campaign.

Other Pickup Options to Consider: Udonis Haslem, Andray Blatche, Luke Ridnour, Jason Thompson, Joel Przybilla, Roger Mason, Louis Williams, Amir Johnson, Chris Wilcox and Jordan Farmar.

Brian McKitish is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN. He can be reached at bmckitish@yahoo.com.