NBA enthusiasts typically view the Christmas Day games as the conclusion of the early part of the season, when rotations are still solidifying and player roles becoming defined. Now we're in the heart of the season, and there is one primary way that value emerges from the waiver wire. Sadly, it's centered on the misfortune of others, as the top free-agent options at this point are those who benefit from other players' injuries.
Pouncing upon the beneficiaries of injuries, whether weeklong or long-term, is an integral strategy for fantasy hoops success. You hear Mo Williams is out? Determine who is starting in his place, then add Jamaal Tinsley. Big Baby is sidelined for a month or more, and Gustavo Ayon gets the starting nod? Jump at the opportunity to add a player with improved opportunity. Several of these have surfaced recently, as well as some under-the-radar players who are capable of helping teams in deeper leagues. Let's examine these widely available options:
Jeff Green, SF/PF, Boston Celtics (17.3 percent owned): Green has unique gifts and retains his upside, but his talent overlaps with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and he doesn't fill the Celtics' need of a big body who can protect the rim. Still, he's rounding into form after missing a year due to heart surgery, flashing his multifaceted aptitude in limited minutes. He's averaging 11.8 points, 0.9 3-pointers, 0.5 blocks and 0.9 steals per game in December, registering double-digit scoring in eight of his past 12 games. That's what he does: no immense rebound numbers or especially notable statistics in any specific category, but an effective combination of 3s, steals and blocks as well as ability to score in the teens when getting run. He's much more suited to playing small forward, especially defensively, so his long-term success directly correlates with how quickly Pierce's play diminishes. Green's numbers should steadily rise as he grows more comfortable in his role for the team, although there's a low ceiling this season as long as Pierce and Garnett are both healthy.
Gustavo Ayon, PF, Orlando Magic (14.7 percent owned): Ayon was a surprisingly effective rookie last season (4.9 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 1.0 steals in 20.1 minutes per game) that seemed like a legitimate chip in the Dwight Howard trade, but he's been stuck on the Magic bench for most of the season. As mentioned, the injury to Glen Davis endows Ayon with a starting job and a month to post improved statistics and carve out a better role for himself. He was fantastic for stretches last season, like in February when he averaged 7.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 1.3 steals per game. He's athletic, crashes the offensive glass, and is solid in pick-and-roll situations. Statistically he provides mostly defensive numbers, but he boasts a nice field goal percentage, primarily due to the fact that he attempts 50 percent of his shots at the rim and converts 66.7 percent of those attempts. He had 12 rebounds and played 37 minutes in his first start and has the potential to put up 8 to 9 boards with a steal and a block and an excellent field goal percentage while Davis is out.
Jose Juan Barea, PG/SG, Minnesota Timberwolves (6.8 percent owned): Perhaps the most maddening category to fill through waiver-wire acquisitions is points, as effective contributors are rarely available. Barea has hit double-digit scoring in every game in December, including Wednesday's 18-point effort, and has scored at least 10 points in 12 consecutive contests. His steals are historically lackluster, but Barea can contribute in 3s and assists, as he's averaging 1.3 3s and 4.5 assists in December. He's attempting a career-high 39 percent of his shots at the rim, and making 59.3 percent of those shots, so as his mid-to-long range percentages trend toward his career stats, both his field goal percentage and 3-point totals should improve. With the bevy of guards in Minnesota, this is another low-ceiling option, but he is dependable for points, 3s and assists.
Dorell Wright, SF, Philadelphia 76ers (5.8 percent owned): He broke my heart by grossly underperforming for my longtime keeper league last season, but Wright's fantasy skill set shouldn't be questioned: He can drain 3s with the best of them as well as provide some steals and blocks. I'm slowly becoming whole again, and Wright is starting to make up for last season by ranking 59th on the 15-day player rater, with three 20-plus point efforts in his past five games. His career averages of 1.1 3s, 0.6 blocks and 0.9 steals represent his statistical floor, and although he'll never replicate his incredible 2010-2011 campaign in which he averaged 16.4 points, 2.4 3s, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks, he's giving teams 1.6 3s per game in his first season in Philly, and contributes nicely in 3s and steals with decent blocks and low turnovers. Wednesday proved he still has it, as Wright dropped 28 points with six boards, five 3s, two blocks and a steal. He could provide huge value to fantasy teams if he has more games in which he starts and earns 35 minutes.
Thabo Sefolosha, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder (4.9 percent owned): If you're one of those owners with luxury problems and have no need for points, Sefolosha is a helpful option, although he is attempting a career-high 3.0 3s per game. He's locked in as the starter for the Thunder, averaging 1.1 3s, 1.5 steals and 0.8 blocks per game in December. He also rebounds well for his position, as his 4.4 per game ranks 18th among all guard-eligible players. The absence of James Harden and his continually developing comfort level in Scott Brooks' offense means he's playing more minutes, taking more shots and providing fantasy-worthy stats if you're set in points.
Jamaal Tinsley, PG, Utah Jazz (2.8 percent owned): When he's on the floor, Tinsley drops dimes, and that's about it. His 12.1 assists per 48 minutes ranks fifth in the league, and now that Mo Williams is out indefinitely with an injured thumb, he's starting at point for the Jazz. His scoring is nonexistent, but his 3s should inch toward one per game with increased minutes, and he's already providing 4.9 assists and 1.0 steals per game in just 19.4 minutes. He could legitimately average 6-8 assists per game while starting, which makes him worth owning in any format if you need assists. The rest of his stats are pedestrian, but he should be a top-10 assist guy while starting. Additionally, keep an eye on Alec Burks, as his value should also rise with Williams out.
Tyler Zeller, PF/C, Cleveland Cavaliers (1.1 percent owned): His recent improvement in production will be short-term, as he's benefiting from Anderson Varejao's knee injury, averaging 12.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 0.8 steals per game in four starts. Zeller boasts more of a finesse game than a banging game, so I don't expect incredible rebound or block numbers, but he has a nice touch and gives good enough effort to avoid being a liability in those categories. His field goal percentage will likely stay in the mid-40s until he stops taking 32 percent of his shots from between 16 to 23 feet, but that should eventually be offset by his free throw shooting, as he hit 80.8 percent of his shots from the stripe last year at North Carolina and overall has a nice stroke. His numbers will shrink once Andy returns, but Varejao is historically injury prone and constantly involved in trade rumors, so there might be some long-term value for Zeller to complement what he's providing in the short term.
Avery Bradley, PG/SG, Boston Celtics (0.5 percent owned): Bradley is close to returning and is a game-changer on defense, which will earn him immediate playing time in Doc Rivers' system. He doesn't hit the 3s you'd want from a starting fantasy guard, although his field goal percentage is fantastic because he doesn't attempt too many long-range shots and regularly looks to finish at the rim (43 percent of his shots came at the rim last season). He's more impactful in the actual game than in fantasy, although at just 22 years old he's still developing; right now he'll give you efficient scoring and some steals when he returns. But long term, as his playmaking and shooting skills improve, Bradley should be a nice across-the-board type guard due to his high talent level and already excellent percentages.
DeSagana Diop, PF/C, Charlotte Bobcats (0.1 percent owned): This is only for deep-leaguers desperate for blocks, but with Byron Mullens out for up to a month with a sprained ankle, Diop is in line to get run. Any time he has been on the floor throughout his career, he's blocked shots at an excellent rate, except for last season when he was out of shape. He showed up 30 pounds lighter this season, and is blocking 4.62 shots per-48 minutes, good for fifth in the league among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. He proved his swatting ability Wednesday, rejecting four shots in just 12 minutes. Don't expect anything else, but if he secures minutes in the 20s, 1.3-1.8 blocks per game is realistic while Mullens is out.