Can J.R. Smith do this next season?
One of the most puzzling and polarizing players for both actual NBA teams and fantasy owners next season will be J.R. Smith, who, after signing a one-year deal with the New York Knicks, appears to be in line for a massive payday based upon his stellar late-season performance. His talent has never been in question, but he's regularly exhibited some of the most questionable decision-making abilities in the league, often settling for circus jumpers and demonstrating varying levels of effort within the course of games.
But Smith, who scored 28 points with 14 rebounds, four assists and two 3s in the Knicks' overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls on Thursday, has been fantastic since the All-Star break, averaging 21.1 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting compared to 16.2 points per game on 40.0 percent shooting prior to the break. Perhaps the most telling, and promising, statistic is his increase in free throw attempts, a tangible indicator of his increasing willingness to take the ball to the rim. He's going to the line 5.3 times per game after the break compared to 3.1 times per game before the break, including a fantastic March in which he shot 80.6 percent from the stripe on 6.0 attempts per game. Additionally, he's attempting 4.6 shots at the rim in his past 10 games after averaging just 1.4 at the rim in February, the primary reason his field goal percentage has been unusually palatable since the break.
Smith ranks 27th on the 30-day Player Rater, and his value next season will be strongly tied to which jersey he wears, and perhaps more importantly, who is coaching him and which veterans surround him. Word is Jason Kidd has rubbed off on him in a positive manner, and Mike Woodson deserves kudos for helping Smith change his game, so perhaps staying in New York is the best-case scenario. To me, however, he's too unpredictable to select in the top 50, and I want to see more than two months of solid play before taking a chance on Smith with an early pick. He'll be a high-risk/high-reward player for the rest of his career, but at least next season that's a risk I'll let somebody else take, as more dependable and well-rounded players will likely still be available around the spot where he'll typically be selected.
Jimmy Butler posted a fantastic line Thursday, posting 22 points, 13 boards, three steals, three blocks and two 3s, and he will undoubtedly be on many preseason sleeper lists next season. His season totals don't stand out because his playing time has been inconsistent, but in 16 starts, he's averaging 15.6 points on 47.3 percent shooting with 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 3s and 1.9 steals per game, illustrating his capability to contribute when getting adequate run. He boasts a solid 57.4 true shooting percentage and willingly takes it to the rim, attempting 39.2 percent of his shots in the protected area. Butler's steals are especially impressive, and the fact he could flirt with two steals per game if he starts is the primary reason he'll be on my list of players to watch next season and why he's become a must-start late in this fantasy hoops season.
After two consecutive clunkers in which he scored 11 total points, Jarrett Jack bounced back with 19 points, six assists, three 3s and two steals against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Thursday. Jack had a rough March, shooting just 38.9 percent from the floor and averaging just 0.6 3s per game, but he's upped his play this month with a solid 12.6 points on 47.1 percent shooting with 5.2 assists, 1.2 3s and 1.4 steals per game in April. Feel free to start him once again if you benched him during his rough spell, as he's putting up start-worthy numbers for most leagues down the stretch.
Andrew Bogut sprained his left ankle in the first quarter Thursday and won't travel with the team for Friday's game against the Los Angeles Lakers. He wasn't providing much anyway, but if you had Bogut in your starting lineup for his defensive stats, be sure to bench him as there's a chance he won't play another regular-season contest.
Martell Webster is unlikely to play Friday with an abdominal strain. Garrett Temple (1.2 3s, 1.4 steals per game over his past five) and A.J. Price (16.3 points, 3.7 3s per game over his past three) should get more offensive looks, and make nice spot-starts based upon potential increase in opportunity and recent solid play.
Larry Sanders is questionable Friday with a sore back, making Samuel Dalembert a spectacular spot start. In 23 starts this season, Sammy D is averaging 7.3 boards, 1.4 blocks and 0.5 steals per game, and will post helpful defensive numbers if Sanders' absence has him in line for an uptick in playing time.
Rookie Mike Scott is averaging 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in his past two contests, and in very deep leagues has surfaced as an option if you're fielding a depleted roster and need somebody who is available in virtually every format.
Dwyane Wade is expected to return Friday, although LeBron James and Chris Bosh are considered day-to-day. Norris Cole and Mike Miller have benefited from Erik Spoelstra resting his starters for the playoffs, although no player has been consistent enough to warrant must-start status, and now that D-Wade is back in the mix, I'd look for more dependable and intriguing options such as Evan Fournier and John Jenkins, who are both available in most leagues.
Both the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are fighting for home-court advantage for the playoffs, so don't expect reduced roles for their starters, and be sure to keep any fantasy-relevant players on these Western Conference contenders in your lineup.