Kawhi Leonard a steals monster
The spotlight for Thursday night's Spurs-Thunder matchup focused on the Thunder, and how the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook would look without their third amigo in the picture. But arguably the most notable aspect of the night for fantasy owners was the fact that second-year Spurs swingman Kawhi Leonard racked up five steals in his second consecutive game. Leonard was a popular late-round addition, with an average draft position of 104, because of his varied skill set after averaging 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks and 0.6 3-pointers as a rookie in just 24.0 minutes per game. I liked him to improve statistically this season but didn't reach for him beyond the ninth or 10th round in any drafts because it seemed like he might be the type of player who is better in the actual game than in fantasy. Looks like I was wrong. After two games, he's averaging 12.5 points, 5.0 steals and 1.5 3s in 33.0 minutes per game, and looks in line to put up some staggering defensive statistics coupled with offensive improvements in increased minutes. As I noted in my draft kit article about the differences between roto and head-to-head, which examined the standard deviation numbers on the Player Rater to identify difficult-to-find stats, steals is one of the hardest categories in which to find dominant players, with just five players notching a 3.0 rating or better on the Rater, compared to 10 players who did so in both blocks and assists. Leonard appears primed to dominate in this category, so if you drafted him feel free to bump up your projections for your team in this category and evaluate accordingly, as Leonard is already getting buzz about being one of the most-improved players in the league.
• Russell Westbrook finished with a mediocre night, scoring 18 points with eight rebounds and five assists, but this included six turnovers and 6-for-21 shooting from the floor. With James Harden out of the picture, Westbrook's counting stats will likely increase, but his efficiency could suffer since Harden took the pressure off Westbrook by helping handle the ball and acting as a calming presence who slowed down the offense and Westbrook's frenetic tendencies. Westbrook is such a physical marvel that he'll be able to handle the likely bump in minutes with no problem, and he could easily average 25 points with increased assists, but the steps forward he took in field goal percentage and turnovers last season are unlikely to continue with Harden in Houston.
• Boris Diaw's post defense earns him minutes, and he started at center for the Spurs, scoring 10 points with seven rebounds, four assists, a steal and a block. He averaged just 20.3 minutes per game for the Spurs last season after pouting for the first part of the season in Charlotte, and appears primed to become relevant on the fantasy landscape once again, providing a helpful combination of assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers from the center position. He's worth a roster spot in deep leagues, although be sure to surround him with excellent rebounders at your other positions, as he's incapable of providing the type of boards you'd typically expect from a center.
• Kevin Martin is a career 18.4 point-per-game scorer who will provide nice punch off the bench in OKC and fill aspects of the role Harden left behind. On Thursday, he played 33 minutes, scoring 15 points with five assists and three 3s. Despite the supporting role, Martin should be a nice source of points and 3s and shouldn't see much of a dip in value as the leader of the Thunder's second unit.
• Danny Granger will sit indefinitely with a sore knee, opening up playing time for the talented Gerald Green, who played 37 minutes in the Pacers' first game. He's worth adding if you need some points, 3s, steals and blocks; he has the ability to contribute in multiple categories with high upside due to his impressive athleticism.
• We get our first glimpse at the new-look Magic on Friday, who will start Nikola Vucevic in the middle and feature Glen Davis and Arron Afflalo on offense. Vucevic averaged 4.8 rebounds, 0.7 blocks and 0.4 steals in 15.9 minutes per game as a rookie, and should post nice defensive numbers with increased opportunity. Be wary of his 52.9 percent from the stripe, however, as he's likely to get more attempts in his new role and will do some damage to your team's free throw percentage.
• A battle of dominant rebounders will ensue in Cleveland, as Anderson Varejao and Joakim Noah go head-to-head in the Bulls-Cavs matchup. Both are incredible defensive players with spotty injury histories, but they will exceed their draft positions if they can stay healthy, and have the ability to anchor a fantasy team in defensive statistics.
• Amare Stoudemire had knee surgery Tuesday and could miss two months, so be prepared to monitor who benefits from his absence.