Bliss is almost upon us -- only 20 days until the
regular reason tips off.
I've already completed a few drafts this year, testing out different strategies each time. One thing I noticed in each draft was a lack of variation. It seemed like the first 80-90 players drafted were automatic. Things didn't start to become interesting until after the top 100 players were off the board. In other sports, you can draft a 1,000 yard running back or a 30-home run outfielder, but basketball doesn't offer any 20 ppg scorers towards the end of drafts -- unless they are on the shelve for half the season, I'm looking at you Gilbert Arenas.
The key is to find players who are a lock to help you in a category or two, but also have upside to turn into a complete player. The Association is a young man's league, so most of the high-upside guys will be players under the age of 25 who are looking to take advantage of newfound run.
If you are in one of my leagues, now is the time to stop reading. Let's take a look at some sleepers that I am targeting in drafts this season:
(Preseason Yahoo! Ranks)
J.R. Smith (111): By now, all NBA fans should know the name J.R. Smith. The 22-year-old shooting guard was drafted straight out of high school in the first round of the 2004 NBA Draft by the Hornets. He is one of the only players in the Association who could compete in a slam dunk and a three-point contest. The latter contest is why fantasy owners should target Smith. He nailed 157 treys last season, ranking 16th in the league.
One knock against Smith has always been his limited playing time. In four seasons, Smith has averaged under 22 mpg. Look for his minutes to increase this season. The Nuggets gave away Marcus Camby in the offseason and will be relying on Nene and Kenyon Martin to troll the paint. The likelihood of either of those players staying healthy is slim, meaning the Nuggets with have to run out a small lineup. Smith will see plenty of time on the hardwood and a green light to launch from downtown.
Linas Kleiza (168): All of the reasons for my man crush on Smith can be applied to Kleiza as well. He will see increased run due to Denver's thin roster. At 6-8, 245, Kleiza is big enough to lineup at the four from time to time. The 23-year-old swingman can also chuck from the arc, cashing in 1.2 deep balls per game last season. The main reason to heart Kleiza is his line as a starter in 2007-08 -- 18.6 ppg, 5.4 rbs and 1.6 3pts in 11 starts. The Nuggets fragile front line will ensure more starts for Kleiza.
Rudy Fernandez (155): The Olympic star isn't going to surprise anyone this season. After his breakout performance against the Redeem Team, everyone will be targeting the Spanish star as a sleeper. Luckily, his Yahoo! rank is still low enough to get him at a reasonable price. I stole him in the last round of two 12-team drafts last week. He won't be starting for the Blazers when the season tips off, but coach Nate McMillan has already stated that Fernandez is too good to ride the pine. Look for Fernandez to help out with treys right from the get-go. Let's take a look at that monster dunk over Dwight Howard again -- just for fun:
Rodney Stuckey (143) and Amir Johnson (160): And now it's on to my beloved Pistons. The Pistons have been one of the most consistent (read: boring) teams when it comes to fantasy. Each year, the starting five would hold value, but their bench offered little production. This year will be different.
Enter Rodney Stuckey. Coined the "sixth starter" by new coach Michael Curry, Stuckey figures to see plenty of run for the Pistons this season. He has an uncanny ability to penetrate and get to the line, raising his scoring average. Nine starts last April showed that Stuckey is ready to contribute -- he averaged 14 ppg and 4.2 ast in 27 mpg. Recent reports are that he is working
on adding an outside shot to his repertoire, furthering his ability to rack up points. Look for Stuckey to be a solid source in scoring with a few assists sprinkled in for good measure.
The other breakout player for the Pistons will be Amir Johnson. The wiry, 6-11 forward is entering his fourth season with the Pistons. He will finally get his shot after dominating the NBADL for two seasons, averaging 18.1 ppg, 9.5 rbs and 2.7 blks in 40 games. The 21-year-old was just handed the starting gig at power forward and should see plenty of run right off the bat. He might struggle on the offensive end in his first season as an NBA regular, but Johnson will be throwing shots left and right on the other end of the court.
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