Strong starters

Will J.R. Smith, Jeff Teague, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist stay atop Player Rater?

Updated: November 14, 2012, 3:45 PM ET
By Seth Landman | Special to ESPN.com

As usual, the beginning of the season has produced some pretty wild results on the Player Rater (as well as other systems of rating NBA players; would you believe that Jimmer Fredette is in the top five in PER?). Last week, I took a look at players who were outperforming their draft position in ways that seemed to promise a certain amount of permanence. Other players find themselves in situations far more tenuous, either because of external or internal factors (or both). This week, I'll look at some of those players, with an eye on what we can expect from them over the course of the season.

(Ranking based on per-game averages in parentheses)

J.R. Smith, SG/SF, New York Knicks (9): Smith has been the best possible version of himself, shooting with deadly accuracy and trading a bit of usage for a slight uptick in assist rate. That version of Smith can be a star, and he is averaging 18.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists to go along with 2.6 3-pointers and 2.2 steals through his first five games. After Carmelo Anthony, Smith has been the Knicks' best scorer, which is going to need to continue with some consistency all season if the team is going to be successful. Smith's ability to move between shooting guard and small forward is of particular help to the Knicks, but it's going to be interesting to see what happens when Amar'e Stoudemire returns. Even if Stoudemire comes off the bench, as many have speculated, his presence in the lineup against other teams' backups will cut down on some of Smith's most bountiful opportunities. You can also consider the fact that we have seen this kind of production from Smith from time to time over the years. He has greatness in him, but it reveals itself in fits and starts. If he can keep firebombing from the 3-point line and hovering in passing lanes on the other end, he is going to be a fantasy stud all season; if not, you'll wish you traded him while you had the chance.

Jeff Teague, PG, Atlanta Hawks (25): Among the guys ahead of him on the Player Rater at the moment, only Anthony Davis is playing fewer minutes per game. I point that out for a couple of reasons. First, Teague has been remarkable this season on a per-minute basis, which bodes well for his future. Second, Teague is on a team with Louis Williams and Devin Harris, so it's not always going to be easy for him to rack up minutes no matter how well he's playing. In the early part of the season, it has been an advantage, as Teague has been extremely efficient in his limited action. He is sixth in the league in assists per minute and is right outside the top 20 in steals. When you add those factors to his hot shooting, he has been extraordinarily valuable. I like Teague as a player, but I have my doubts. My guess is that he hovers right around 30 minutes per game all season. That's a nice number, but not enough to make him an elite fantasy option unless he continues playing over his head. Beyond that, his percentages are not going to stay this high forever. Teague is an improving shooter, but one still wouldn't claim that as one of his strengths. He is going to destroy his Average Draft Position of 83.4, but crashing the top-50 party for the season is going to be a reach. It might be time to consider selling high.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Charlotte Bobcats (39): I'm not exactly breaking news that the Bobcats are not a deep squad. They don't have a talented squad either. As usual, the Cats are devoid of promise and potential -- as well as ability -- at most positions. Kidd-Gilchrist (as well as another early fantasy success-story in Kemba Walker) is a glaring exception. Among rookies, only Davis and Andre Drummond are ahead of MKG in PER, and MKG is playing more minutes than either of them. Those minutes are increasing too. He played just 20 minutes in the opener, but since then he has played at least 27 minutes in each game, including 41 against the Dallas Mavericks. I usually don't like arguing for rookies in fantasy leagues, but his potential in the defense categories is just too hard to ignore. He'll probably go through his share of slumps, but he's a good bet to keep producing in those categories for a long, long time. Last week, I wrote about how Al-Farouq Aminu reminded me of a young Gerald Wallace, but Kidd-Gilchrist has a chance to be a much better version of the original.

George Hill, PG/SG, Indiana Pacers (45): Any question about whether Hill was going to lose minutes to D.J. Augustin appear to have been answered in the negative, at least for now. Augustin has made just seven field goals on the season and seems to be remaining in the tailspin of terrible shooting he started last season. In the meantime, Hill has been one of the rare bright spots on a Pacers team that has major problems. After an 18-point performance against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday in a game in which just 146 points were scored by both teams combined, he is averaging 15.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.4 3s, and 1.3 steals. Those numbers won't blow you away, but when you couple them with great free throw shooting, he starts to look like a player capable of remaining in the top 50 all season if things break right. If Augustin finds his stroke, all bets are off; Hill isn't good enough to warrant the heavy workload he is getting at the moment. It's far more likely, though, that Augustin continues to sputter and Hill puts up these modest-but-valuable numbers all season.

Thaddeus Young, SF/PF, Philadelphia 76ers (56): At first glance, it appears that Young has improved his game (especially as it pertains to his fantasy stats), but pretty quickly some serious questions arise. He has coupled a career-low usage rate with a career-high True Shooting Percentage, and while he's not scoring as much as he probably could, you're not going to find many other players capable of shooting 55 percent on more than 10 field goal attempts per game, and none of those guys get as many steals as Young gets. So he's a valuable fantasy option, but the reason he is just outside the top 50 instead of being outside the top 100 (as he's been in previous seasons) comes down to minutes. The 35.4 minutes per game he is averaging would be a career-high, as would his 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals. I'm skeptical as to whether he can keep it up if and when Andrew Bynum makes his way back onto the court. In the meantime, Young will be an important player in your league, but one you'll have to wonder whether it's worth cutting bait on before things change.

Seth Landman

Fantasy Basketball
Seth Landman is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.

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