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Early 2013-14 fantasy rookie ranks

6/28/2013

The good news? In terms of sheer raw entertainment value, last night might have been the greatest first round ever, regardless of sport.

The bad news? In all probability, Damian Lillard is not walking through that door. (Or Kyrie Irving, for those of you who can remember all the way back to 2011)

The past two years have featured guards (Irving, Lillard) with All-Star ceilings who stepped into featured roles (with little competition at their position) on rebuilding squads.

Add in the fact that they played the position of greatest fantasy need (point guard), and provided the second most scarce fantasy stat (assists), and you had a perfectly calibrated environment for surefire rookie production (especially in Lillard's case, who managed to stay healthy while averaging an almost criminal 38.6 minutes per game).

This year? The buzz was diminished. According to Chad Ford's Tier system, this year's draft featured absolutely zero surefire future All-Stars.

But new players are always exciting from a fantasy perspective. Each new player represents a fresh set of variables to consider.

All-Stars or not, the rookie class still contains quality players. Players who are going to teams with positions of need and minutes to spare.

Give any rookie a steady diet of 30 minutes a night and you'll reap some fantasy production. (Unless that rookie is Austin Rivers, but that stat line he threw up last season was an outlier).

And thanks in part to all of the upheaval in the first round, we a saw a lot of rookies land in interesting situations.

Here's my quick ranking of rookies who could have the biggest fantasy impact next season.

I'm listing the players in order of projected fantasy value regardless of draft position. This list is all about upside and available minutes.

(I'm also listing comps I ran across during the pre-draft workouts and players who could block a rookie from getting solid playing time).

1. Ben McLemore, SG, Sacramento Kings
Comps: Ray Allen (ceiling) to Brandon Rush (floor)
Players in the way: Marcus Thornton, Jimmer Fredette, Tyreke Evans (FA Pending)

Let me give you a couple of other comps: Rudy Gay and Harrison Barnes. Like McLemore, both players boasted highly polished offensive skill sets, but slid due to questionable motors. Both eventually proved to be nice picks.

I think McLemore could prove to be the most valuable fantasy player from this draft class.

All of this "lack of assertiveness" talk and worrying about the people around McLemore contributed to some groupthink that got a little overblown, hence the slide. But McLemore all the way down at 7 is ridiculous.

In fantasy terms? McLemore is who you want, because he brings offense to the table, and he has elite upside. Last time I checked, intangibles have yet to be offered as a category (at least by any reputable fantasy site).

The Kings have a logjam at shooting guard with Marcus Smart and Jimmer Fredette (I'm assuming the pick means Tyreke Evans is gone).

But with notorious fantasy value killer Keith Smart out of the coaching picture, I think McLemore will find some early continuity and claim a starting role, maybe even by the end of training camp.

Fantasy tip: McLemore is known for his nifty array of offensive weaponry, but he also rebounds well for a shooting guard (that was a hidden strength for Bradley Beal last season, another good comp).

2. Trey Burke, PG, Utah Jazz
Comps: Kyle Lowry (ceiling) to Jarrett Jack (floor)
Players in the way: Mo Williams (FA Pending), Earl Watson

Here's the closest conflagration of circumstance to last season's Damian Lillard situation.

If (when) Mo Williams departs via free agency, Burke will be anointed as the starter, no questions asked.

Burke is undersized, and NBA observers worry about his lack of quickness, but we all know from watching Burke that he has "it." Maybe not as much "it" as Victor Oladipo, but enough of it to make up for his lack of elite athleticism.

I'm liking the Kemba Walker comparisons, and Walker became a top-20 player last season.

I'm not saying that will happen to Burke, but he's in a great fantasy situation. As long as Williams leaves, I'm looking to snare Burke in the seventh to eighth round.

3. Anthony Bennett, PF, Cleveland Cavaliers
Comps: Larry Johnson (ceiling) to Brandon Bass (floor)
Eventual Upside: 20 points, 8 rebounds, 1.5 3-pointers per game
Players in the way: Tristan Thompson

Cavs general manager Chris Grant drafts on talent, not need, and Bennett has the skill set to be a dynamic inside/outside offensive threat. Given the minutes, I think Bennett and McLemore are the biggest future fantasy threats out of this class. Owners should be drooling over Bennett's mix of rebounding and 3-point production.

Bennett has a ton of red flags: questionable conditioning, lack of defensive effort, and that case of brachial neuritis, which required surgery.

The immediate issue regarding Bennett's fantasy value will be finding minutes behind Tristan Thompson. I think it'll be a tough call (defensively speaking) to give him extended minutes at the 3. That all but guarantees Bennett will come off the bench behind Thompson to start. This could be a timeshare that hurts both players in 2013-14.

I'd look for Bennett to start in the 20-to-24 minute per game range and push for more minutes in the second half of the season. But the potential is there for Bennett to become a special fantasy player. I'd start thinking about him in the eighth round.

4. Cody Zeller, PF/C, Charlotte Bobcats
Comps: LaMarcus Aldridge (ceiling) to Tyler Zeller (floor)
Players in the way: Byron Mullens, Bismack Biyombo, Josh McRoberts

From a fantasy perspective, I like Zeller for this season more than the other two bigs (Len, Noel) taken in the top 10.

One, he's healthy. Two, he only has to beat out Byron Mullens and Bismack Biyombo for playing time. Mullens had some low-end value last season, a testament to what a fantasy big man can do on a bad team with a weak front line.

Zeller is skilled, athletic, and sports a more polished offensive game than Noel or Len. If he starts, he'll be worth a gamble after the 10th round.

(One hidden factor; his positional eligibility will be key. If he's a PF/C, his value increases by a couple of rounds. If he's just a PF or just a C, it will prevent owners from maximizing his fantasy value.)

5. Victor Oladipo, SG, Orlando Magic
Comps: Dwyane Wade (ceiling) to Tony Allen (floor)
Players in the way: Arron Afflalo

Don't worry about Afflalo. Odds are he gets traded, maybe to the Los Angeles Clippers for Eric Bledsoe. I'm more worried about another player: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

MKG had a lot of the same kind of hype last year: coach's dream, gym rat, great competitor, intangibles galore, sick athletic upside, a defensive stud, will maximize his talent. But like MKG, Oladipo's offensive game is still a work in progress. I think he's a little further along than MKG, but Oladipo made only 30 3-pointers last season.

You watch Oladipo in interviews and see why GMs fell in love. Heck, he seems more GMish than most actual GMs. But Oladipo in the short term could be a player whose value lies in areas that don't really help fantasy owners (defense, motor).

Orlando is going to be in Andrew Wiggins Lockdown Mode all season and will have no problem giftwrapping Oladipo a starting role. But long-term, I wonder if Ben McLemore will haunt Orlando.

More than any other lottery pick, I think Summer League and training camp will be crucial in gauging Oladipo's fantasy value. Right now, he's a 10th-round pick at best.

6. Otto Porter, SF, Washington Wizards
Comps: Kawhi Leonard (ceiling) to Tayshaun Prince (Just a lower ceiling, more than a floor. By the way, I read Scottie Pippen's name in a couple of places, and I'm a Wizards fan, but come on.)
Players in the way: Martell Webster (FA Pending), Trevor Ariza

A large part of me wanted to see Washington nab Noel. I couldn't tell if it was my heart or my head. But the vision of the fade running on the break with John Wall and Bradley Beal was very seductive.

Noel just has sizzle, while Porter is the least sizzling top-3 pick of the lottery era. You don't want your team's number three pick to be hailed as a "great glue guy."

But I get it. Porter is safe as milk. The Georgetown Princeton Offense pedigree means something. It produces skilled, multifaceted fantasy producers, but it also tends to hide upside.

Here's a comp I didn't see as much, but I think could apply; Jeff Green. It may take a couple of seasons for Porter to develop more of a killer instinct on offense, but the potential is there. I think his outside shooting was a little undersold, and he should find his NBA 3-point shot fairly quickly.

The Wizards fan in me wants to believe Porter will break out once he's out of the Princeton scheme, but that's a bit of a reach. I'm feeling something like 25 minutes, 11 points, 5 rebounds, with a 3-pointer and a steal per game.

With or without Martell Webster, I believe Porter will be starting for the Wizards by Valentine's Day.

The key to his early fantasy value will be his ability to hit the 3. If he can average a 3 and a 1-to1.5 steals a game, he could hold some late-round value, with the potential to develop into a mid-round player after the All-Star break.

7. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, SG, Detroit Pistons
Comps: Michael Redd (ceiling), Rashad McCants (floor)
Players in the way: Rodney Stuckey, Brandon Knight (possibly)

Based on predraft chatter, I thought Detroit was going to draft a PG and shift Brandon Knight to the two. But it looks like Caldwell-Pope is on the fast track to becoming Detroit's starting shooting guard on opening night, provided Knight sticks at PG. I think Detroit is quietly putting together a sneaky-good fantasy lineup (with the exception of whoever starts at SF).

8. C.J. McCollum, PG/SG, Portland Trail Blazers
Comps: Stephen Curry (ceiling) to Ronnie Brewer (floor)
Players in his way: Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews

I know people will be tripping over themselves to anoint McCollum Damian Lillard Part 2. But the minutes may not be there for that scenario to take shape. McCollum projects at best to be the third guard in the rotation behind Lillard and Wesley Matthews.

But McCollum has enough potential to force his way into heavy minutes as early as this season. A lot of his fantasy value will be determined by his ability to defend the 2. If he shows he can defend the position, we might see the drool-worthy pairing of Lillard and McCollum on a full-time basis.

9. Michael Carter-Williams, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Comps: Pre-Knee Injury Shaun Livingston (ceiling) to Post-Knee Injury Shaun Livingston (floor)
Players in his way: Absolutely no one

I love what Philadelphia did last night. They transformed from an Andrew Bynum-less also-ran with one real asset (Jrue Holiday) to a stealth analytics-driven machine that's going to gather a lot of ping-pong balls this season (they'll join Boston, Orlando and Charlotte in full Wiggins Lockdown Mode).

I watch a lot of Syracuse basketball, and the key for MCW is consistency. If Carter-Williams had a reliable outside shot, he'd be another candidate for a Lillard-type breakout. But predraft reports did talk up Carter-Williams' improved stroke.

If he can develop any semblance of a bankable 3-point shot, Carter-Williams becomes a real fantasy sleeper. Again, he has no competition whatsoever at point guard. He should rack up assists regardless of his scoring output. Based on that alone, he's worth an endgame gamble.

10. Alex Len, C, Phoenix Suns
Comps: Zydrunas Ilgauskas (ceiling), Darko Milicic (floor)
Players in his way: Marcin Gortat

For all the talk of his offensive polish, Len's potential as a shot-blocker (2.1 blocks per game last season) gets undersold. But even if Len were healthy, he'd still be something of a fantasy project for this season based on the presence of Marcin Gortat.

If Gortat is dealt, I like Len as an end-game sleeper. Otherwise, he's waiver-wire material.

11. Nerlens Noel, PF/C, Philadelphia 76ers
Comps: Larry Sanders (ceiling) to Tyrus Thomas (floor)
Players in the way: Just Dr. James Andrews at this point

The good news is that when Noel returns from rehabbing his ACL (probably around Christmas), he'll have the center spot in Philadelphia to himself. Fantasywise, Noel will be elite right out of the gate in blocks, making him worth a roster spot in deeper leagues.

It's going to take 2-3 seasons before we find out Noel's true fantasy ceiling, but I see a lot of Tyson Chandler in his roto potential. I know Noel's offensive game is next-to-nonexistent, but I think he'll be one of those guys who eventually refines some scoring capacity, a la Serge Ibaka.

If Noel only misses the first two months of the season, he could be worth an endgame grab in deep leagues based on the blocks potential alone.

12. Shabazz Muhammad, SF, Minnesota Timberwolves
Comps: Nick Young (ceiling)
Players in the way: Andrei Kirilenko (FA Pending)

If Oladipo was the beneficiary of NBA groupthink, Muhammad was the victim. By the time draft analysts got through with him, you would have thought Muhammad had invented bird flu and was hiding Edward Snowden in his garage.

But if Andrei Kirilenko leaves via free agency, Muhammad could be Minnesota's starting small forward come opening night. And like Burke and Noel, Muhammad should sport a post-draft-slide Lake Minnetonka-sized chip on his shoulder.

There are many NBA players over the past 10 years who slid due to bad reputations and ended up becoming fantasy steals.

Muhammad could be the kind of player who is better in fantasy than in reality. And, yes, I mean that as a compliment.

13. Sergey Karasev, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers

Barring what the Cavaliers do in free agency, there's an opportunity for a polished prospect like Karasev to earn some early playing time.

14. Kelly Olynyk, PF/C, Boston Celtics

I don't know if you heard, but there's this pending trade that just might open up some time in a gutted Celtics lineup.

15. Tim Hardaway Jr., SG, New York Knicks

Just in case, there's a chance J.R. Smith could leave via free agency.

16. Archie Goodwin, PG/SG, Phoenix Suns

Here's a guy who draws a lot of different opinions, ranging from warily optimistic to the first half hour of "2012." But anyone who lands on the Suns is going to have a puncher's chance at carving out a role in the rotation, and some draftniks whisper very complimentary things about Goodwin.