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Midseason fantasy rookie report

2/14/2014

This season, to a sizable extent, has been all about rookies.

Not this season's rookies, mind you. Next season's.

The dominant rookie narrative throughout this season has been that while this season's crop is perhaps the worst in 12 years, next season's will be the best since 2004.

Regardless of hype, there is only ever a small chance of having more than one or two rookies who make a season-long fantasy impact.

The Class of 2014-15 might be the exception, maybe to the tune of three to four rookies creating a season-wide statistical dent in the Player Rater.

Rookies are, year-in and year-out, a fantasy disappointment. However, relative to how bad people thought they were going to be, the Class of 2013-14 has actually been a pleasant surprise.

Most people would wager that the Class of 2012-13 was far better than this season's. Still, for last season, Damian Lillard was the only rookie to finish in the top 50. Anthony Davis finished at 60th overall. Jonas Valanciunas and Bradley Beal weren't even in the top 100.

This season? Michael Carter-Williams is currently clocking in at 49th. Victor Oladipo is next at 73rd. Not too shabby. And I think this rookie class actually holds greater late-season potential. Why? Because of "Tankapalooza." There will be more minutes available to rookies on bad teams with no expectations; maybe more minutes than any time in recent NBA history.

And in my experience, there is no rookie wall; it's more like a midseason divot. Many rookies will slump, recover and eventually improve on their early-season fantasy production.

Look at Carter-Williams over the last month. He lost his shot (35 percent field goal mark over his last 10 games) but registered a nice bounce-back game Monday night against the Warriors. I know it's hard to qualify a performance in a 43-point loss as a "bounce back," but this is fantasy, not harsh NBA reality.

Do you remember who last season's Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month was for April? Chris Copeland. He was a 28-year-old rookie, a graduate of the D-League. But it goes to show that you have to keep an open mind when it comes to prospective rookie performance.

With rookies, you want to look at players who are trending upward in the second half of the season. It's not always just a matter of adding minutes and expecting a boost in their volume-based numbers (we'll look at some of those players next week).

Rookies are climbing a steep learning curve. For some, things begin to click. The game slows down. Percentages improve. PERs uptick. In a best-case fantasy scenario, this occurs in congress with an increase in playing time.

Let's take a trip through my re-forecasted rookie rankings.

The penthouse

1. Victor Oladipo, PG/SG, Orlando Magic; 2. Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Philadelphia 76ers

I've written a lot about Oladipo and MCW lately, so I'm going to devote my word count to some less-heralded rookies.

Bounce-back candidates

3. Trey Burke, PG, Utah Jazz; 4. Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, New York Knicks

Burke (9.6 points, 4.8 assists, 30 percent FG shooting over his past five games) and Hardaway Jr. (10.2 points on 39 percent shooting) have slumped as of late. Though both players are in rookie divots, both are still getting more than enough minutes to rebuild momentum after All-Star Weekend.

I can't get too excited about Hardaway Jr. until he starts upping his steals production. Without steals, Hardaway Jr. is a bit of a one-trick pony. He's crafted a gaudy free throw percentage (81 percent), but doesn't get to the line enough (1.3 attempts per game) to make it count.

Building momentum

5. Anthony Bennett, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

Don't look now, but Bennett just posted the best five-game stretch of his career (10.8 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.0 3-pointers, 0.8 steals). I realize that's not saying much. But his struggles have been over-documented (even for a No. 1 pick), and certain factors have always pointed toward Bennett building some late fantasy value. He came into the season hurt and out of shape and was added onto one hot mess of a team.

Bennett still has special fantasy appeal, and changes are underway in Cleveland (Chris Grant's departure being the first king-sized domino to fall). As a franchise, the Cavaliers have to build some long-term potential to help convince Kyrie Irving to re-sign, and getting some return on their No. 1 pick would only help in that regard.

Will Bennett break out, or will he just go on the occasional Derrick Williams-esque hot streak? Time will tell, but the upside is still there.

6. Mason Plumlee, PF/C, Brooklyn Nets

Plumlee notched a career-best performance his last time out (22 points, 13 rebounds, 2 blocks, 3 steals, 1 3-point attempt, 1 turnover in 28 minutes). Plus, these numbers came while mostly being matched up against Anthony Davis.

Plumlee has posted some nice under-the-radar, per-40-minute numbers (16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds) and an 18.34 PER in limited action. He's showing enough to earn a longer look on a veteran squad that's missed a consistent offensive post presence since Brook Lopez's injury.

Last week, I wrote about how playing with a strong point guard can boost a player's second-half prospects. Plumlee has Deron Williams, is surrounded with savvy veterans and brings energy and a strong finishing capability to an aging roster.

7. Ryan Kelly, SF/PF, Los Angeles Lakers

Kelly has laid two eggs in a row, managing just 1.5 points per game over his past two games. In his previous two games? Kelly averaged 20.5 points per game. Such are the ways of an increasingly schizophrenic Lakers rotation. Still, Kelly has offensive chops and plays in a Mike D'Antoni system. As I wrote about last week, the Lakers should be lining up some deadline deals, which should open up opportunities for Kelly down the stretch.

8. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Detroit Pistons 

Caldwell-Pope's production has been all over the map this season, but there's always fantasy hope in a coaching change. John Loyer gave Caldwell-Pope 21 minutes against the Spurs on Monday night, and I'll be interested to see if he retains those minutes Wednesday night against the Cavaliers. KCP is already averaging 0.9 3-pointers and 1.1 steals per game in limited action this season. If he was given 25 to 27 minutes a night, he could be a cheap end-game source in those departments.

9. Kelly Olynyk, C, Boston Celtics

Threes from the center position. That's why I'm obsessed with The Avatar. (I call him that because he has the best Avatar photo in all of Fantasyland.) He's actually flashed some solid all-around production in limited stretches, but I always prize out-of-position production potential.

One other aspect to his fantasy portfolio: He's an underrated passer from the center spot. Posting 1.6 assists per game in just 18.3 minutes per night is very good for a rookie big man. That extrapolates to 3.4 dimes per 40 minutes. That is Gasol territory.

Olynyk's been getting extended minutes as of late (23 MPG over his past three games), and responded with his first double-double Monday night. Yes, it was against the Bucks, but it's all part of a recent upward trend for The Avatar.

10. C.J. McCollum, PG/SG, Portland Trail Blazers

McCollum had built up a lot of preseason steam in the sleeper category before going down with a foot injury. It's the Steph Curry effect; undersized combo guards with nice efficiency metrics from mid-major conferences can log some heady comps.

McCollum is finally back after a rehab stint in the D-League and has posted a couple of head-turning box scores (17.0 points, 3 3-pointers over his past two games).

11. Nick Calathes, SG (but needs to qualify at PG, too), Memphis Grizzlies

I knew that Mike Conley's ankle injury was going to boost Courtney Lee's fantasy numbers. But I didn't anticipate that Calathes would take those minutes and promptly go on a Brent Barry spree (13.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists. 1.0 3-pointers, 2.6 steals, .508 FG%, .800 FT% over his past five games).

Older rookies with international and/or D-League experience always tend to be good fantasy pickups. Calathes' problem? Conley should return right after All-Star Weekend. And with Memphis climbing up the standings, it will be hard to justify 25-plus minutes per game for the rookie.

12. Giannis Antetokounmpo, SG/SF, Milwaukee Bucks

The athletic/measurements hype surrounding the Greek Freak (I'm guilty of it, too) has Antetokounmpo on the verge of getting rare fantasy designation of Most Overrated Underrated Player. He's absolutely drooling with fantasy upside and 1+1+1 potential. But his rawness combined with the rotational turbulence in Milwaukee might make it hard for him to find enough consistency to make him a fantasy threat this season.

13. Ben McLemore, SG, Sacramento Kings

I pushed McLemore down your throats this preseason, and for that I am truly sorry. But he's still getting steady minutes and still has the best shooting mechanics of anyone in this rookie class. In terms of sheer upside, Bennett and McLemore are the best bets on this list once you get out of the top three.

14. Nate Wolters, PG, Milwaukee Bucks

Wolters is what I call a "what the hell" rookie, the kind of player who can find short-term fantasy success on a tanking team. Nothing else is working -- especially O.J. Mayo -- so why not start Wolters at shooting guard? But again, the rotational turbulence that is Larry Drew makes it difficult to get a long-range fantasy bead on the Bucks.

15. Pero Antic, PF/C, Atlanta Hawks

It was all coming together for Antic before he turned his ankle. Stepping in for Al Horford, Antic had looked like a less-disappointing Andrea Bargnani, hitting 2.0 3-pointers per game over a nine-game stretch. Antic will be back at some point, so keep an eye on his playing time. Moreover, Antic could be a great source of cheap 3s come playoff time.

16. Hollis Thompson, SF, Philadelphia 76ers

He's semi-ambulatory and plays for the Philadelphia 76ers. That's enough to land Hollis Thompson on this list.

17. Cody Zeller, PF/C, Charlotte Bobcats

In my preseason Rookie Preview, I ranked  Oladipo and Carter-Williams as the Nos. 2 and 3 fantasy rookies, respectively. Those were both relatively prescient predictions.

My No. 1 rookie? Cody Zeller. What can I say? I'm a sucker for columns that mention terms like "stretch 4" and "basketball I.Q." Not so prescient. Sorry about that one, folks. When it comes to young frontcourt families, from here on out, I'm strictly with the Plumlees.