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Hoops Lab: Quenching the Thirst for Hoops, Finally

Andre' Snellings

Andre' Snellings is a Neural Engineer by day, and RotoWire's senior basketball columnist by night. He's a two-time winner of the Fantasy Basketball Writer of the Year award from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

End of the Desert

Baseball season is like being stuck in a desert. It's long, hot and dreary. The 162-game schedule seems never-ending. And unlike the other major sports, baseball gets to be a solo act with no other competition for MONTHS. I actually like baseball in general, and my Reds were strong all year, which helped, and I have fun with my baseball fantasy teams as well ... but by the time September rolled around I was dying of sports-excitement-thirst.

When football started last month, it was like a sip of cool water. I love football, and fantasy football is outstanding. And again, both my Bengals and my fantasy squads are off to strong starts ... but even so, football by itself isn't enough. After the drought of the baseball season I need a few gallons of water, while for me football is more like a Big Gulp. It's great, but I need more.

But over the last few weeks, slowly but surely, I've seen basketball on the horizon like a mirage in the desert.

On NBA TV the other day I came across a marathon of the best postseason games from 2012.

Then camp opened, and we got outstanding one-liners from some of the biggest personalities in the game from Kobe Bryant's, "The Lakers are MY team," to Kevin Garnett's, "I don't have Ray's number anymore."

I was at Chili's eating lunch, and at the table next to mine there was a father with his teenaged son talking hoops. The teenager was all over the NBA, talking dad's ear off about how the Lakers were set to dominate this year but the Heat were just getting better as well. I yelled over that he should watch out for the Celtics too, and he was ready to speak on them as well. The father told me that if basketball were a class at school, his son would get all A's. The boy even knew the preseason schedule. Made my day.

Last week I did my first mock draft of the year. I'll talk more about that later, but suffice to say, when I start drafting it REALLY starts to feel like basketball season.

And in the last week preseason games started showing up on my DVR. Imagine my joy when I hit my "list" of recorded shows and at the top was a preseason game featuring real NBA players.

NOW, my summer-long thirst is starting to be satisfied. But it's not quite there yet ... I'll still be thirsty until Oct. 30, when the REAL games start. Of course, between now and then we have the little detail of drafting our fantasy teams to attend to. And as we all know, your fantasy championship is MUCH more important than whoever wins the paltry actual NBA title. So without further ado, let's get down to the business of preparing you to take it home this year.

Around the League:

Coming off the offseason, this section is pretty much the entire story. And it could be 50 pages if I covered everything that I'd like to. I'll take a crack at a bunch of the interesting storylines today, then come back for more in next week's Lab.

Howard's back: One of the biggest stories of the offseason was Dwight Howard joining Steve Nash on the trek to play on Kobe's team. But what can we expect from the new Superman in LA this season as he comes off back surgery? This is the first major injury of Howard's career, which can be taken two ways: 1) he's usually an iron man, which is a good thing, but 2) he's not used to rehabbing or having to work through the mental issues of re-trusting an injured part. When you put the injury uncertainty with the role uncertainty of him fitting in with three other stars, I'm not as high on Howard this season as I usually am. Especially when you consider that even when he was the focal point of his offense, his terrible free throw shooting was still enough to hurt his fantasy production. All in all, I'm unlikely to draft Howard this season because someone else will before I'm comfortable. His rehab seems to be going well, and in a perfect world this season he gives all of the rebounds and blocks of his peak while making high percentage shots from Nash assists and not taking as many free throws because his offensive role is smaller ... I'm just not quite ready to spend a high draft pick on the risk that the world is that perfect.

Bargnani's increased size: Andrea Bargnani was on his way to a career season as a scorer last year before a calf injury derailed him ... but he still was a weak rebounder for a big man, pulling down fewer than the 6.2 rebounds per game that marks his career high. All of the buzz on him entering this season is that he gained the infamous "15 pounds of muscle" that seem to be the hallmark claim of many a big man over NBA offseasons, and that this added size (which, in fairness, you can see as he looks visibly bigger) will help him be more rugged on the inside and stronger on the boards. I'm a bit skeptical of this claim, as rarely do the "15 pounds of muscle" seem to fundamentally change a player's game. Plus, in some cases, the added muscle on a perimeter or speed player works to slow them down instead of helping them. All of that said, I'm still high on Bargnani as a pick this year ... just not because I'm expecting him to suddenly start crashing the boards. He should be an excellent scorer with strong treys and free-throw percentage for a big man, and he'll still contribute SOMETHING on the boards. He's 26 and reaching his physical peak, so I expect his best season to date ... just not anywhere near 10 boards per game.

Amar'e bounce-back?: Last season Amar'e Stoudemire entered training camp coming off a back injury and having added "15 pounds of added muscle" that ultimately slowed him down. He then went on to have arguably the worst season of his career. This year Stoudemire entered camp saying he feels great coming off a new offseason training regimen that included time training on post moves with Hakeem Olajuwon, and Knicks coach Mike Woodson said he plans to emphasize Stoudemire more as a post scorer. Potential bounce-back year for Stoudemire? Well, perhaps a bit, but I really don't think that all of the problem last season was him ... a lot was his situation, and that hasn't really changed. Amar'e was having a great season in 2011, and then Carmelo Anthony arrived and suddenly Stoudemire's numbers fell off of a cliff. Melo is still there, the Knicks' offense will still run through him, there's still no Steve Nash-level point guard there to facilitate ... so even if Stoudemire really is at top physical shape this year, I still don't see how he approaches either the scoring volume or the scoring efficiency he once had. And since those are his claims to fame (he's not particularly strong in any other fantasy category), even a bounce-back for him doesn't land him anywhere near the top of my personal draft sheet.

Blake's knee fine: Blake Griffin had to leave the Olympic team this summer after aggravating a knee injury that he originally suffered in the postseason. He had offseason surgery, and all signs are that he is fine for this season. Blake's game is built around his athleticism, so when that declines it will really limit his game ... but this knee injury doesn't seem to be a threat to that, so he can be expected to have another typical season for him this year.

Favors battling with Millsap for starting PF: The Utah Jazz have one of the most unique problems in the NBA: too many good, relatively young big men. When I did my original projections for this season based on last year's numbers and trends, both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap ended up in the top-10 in our rankings. I had to go back and adjust it, though, because of the legitimate threat that Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter could muscle their way into larger roles that eat into Millsap's or Big Al's opportunities. Kanter has looked great so far this preseason, but he's battling with Jefferson and barring a trade has a more difficult climb to get legitimate playing time. Favors, on the other hand, could legitimately beat out Millsap. Favors is still only 21 in his third NBA season, and he has increasingly shown the talent that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. Millsap is in a contract year, and despite his consistently strong production he just isn't the athlete and doesn't have the upside of Favors. I'm keeping a good eye on this situation, because Millsap really does have top-10 roto potential this season if he can hold the job ... but these days that's a pretty big "if."

Dragic in Phoenix: Goran Dragic is one of the more popular names in fantasy basketball these days, and for good reason. He has the legitimate potential to move into the roto elite, as he looks to fill the big shoes that Nash left in Phoenix. Dragic averaged more than 18 points, 8-plus boards, almost two treys and almost two steals and was 50 percent/80 percent shooting the final two months of last season once he moved into the starting line-up in Houston. In Phoenix, as the unquestioned man, he could legitimately challenge for 20 and 10 with great peripherals. It'll feel weird drafting him in the first few rounds, but it certainly looks like a strong value play.

Curry's health: I just don't know what to do with Stephen Curry. The health of his tricky ankles is so ridiculously questionable ... for those old enough to remember trying to decide whether to draft Grant Hill when he was in Orlando, that's about where my confidence is in Curry's health these days. It's impossible to build a strong fantasy squad around that kind of uncertainty. But yet ... yet ... I still just love his upside if he ever COULD get through the year healthy. He legitimately has the ability to finish a season as the No. 1-ranked player in roto rankings, and you just don't find that kind of upside everywhere. I probably won't end up with Curry on my team because I'm just too nervous to jump for him early ... I mean come on, he's already sitting out preseason games due to ankle soreness (even if it's precautionary). But man, if I pass on him and he ends up putting it together this year I'll be pretty bummed.

Monroe, Young big man making the leap, part 1: In the mock draft I did last week I chose Greg Monroe with my early second-round pick, and there was legitimate question whether I should have taken him with my first. It felt strange to draft him so early because he's not a big named superstar, but the numbers warrant it. He has 20-10 potential, he shoots well from the field and the line, he will get you more than two combined steals/blocks per game, he's always healthy and it sounds like this season the Pistons might start using some of his high-post passing ability to make him more of an offensive hub. It may have felt strange to draft him in the second round this year, but after this season it will probably feel a lot more natural to draft him there.

Cousins, Young big man making the leap, part 2: Another talented young big guy stepping onto the big stage this year is DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins was already an 18/11 player with almost three combined steals/blocks last season, and all of the offseason buzz is that he should be significantly better this year. The talent was always there with Cousins, the only question was attitude. After having a bad start to last season on the attitude front (eventually leading to his coach getting fired), Cousins was much better in the second half of the season, and by all reports had an excellent summer of working on his game. Word out of training camp is he has a much bigger defensive focus this year, and if he improves his rebounds/blocks/steals at all, that puts him into elite defensive big category. And oh-by-the-way, he can give you 20 ppg with that as well. He needs to work on his percentages, but it certainly looks like he's starting to realize his potential.

Thompson's upside: While I'm conflicted about Steph Curry due to his injury concerns, I have no qualms about being bullish on Klay Thompson. His shooting stroke is ridiculous (side note, I wonder who wins when Thompson and Curry have 3-point shooting contests in practice), he averaged more than 18 points and more than two treys per game in 29 starts as a rookie last season despite being primarily a spot-up shooter, and word is he spent all summer working on his ball-handling and creating off the dribble. Thompson looks like a strong roto starter this season with very nice upside.

Lowry vs. Calderon in Toronto: For the second season in a row, Kyle Lowry finds himself battling a good European point guard for playing time. This time Lowry is expected to have the clear upper hand, though he has had some ouchy injuries this preseason that may be slowing his acclimation to the team. Nevertheless, in Houston, Lowry surprised everyone by posting elite fantasy numbers whenever he got to start consistently. If he can replicate that in Toronto, he is likely one of the last point guards on the board that could be a legitimate primary option on roto squads. Jose Calderon had a few strong roto seasons several years ago, but all indications are that he is nothing more than a backup at this stage in his career.

Dirk's knee: Last season, Dirk Nowitzki got off to a very slow start by his standards and eventually had to sit out several games with a balky knee. Once he got healthy, he quietly finished the season playing at a similar level to the year before, which earned him his first championship and Finals MVP. It is concerning, though, that he is once again facing a balky knee going into this season. He has missed preseason action, and word is that he is considering arthroscopic surgery that could keep him out several weeks. That isn't the end of the world, but Nowitzki is 34 and in his 15th NBA season. He's at an age where nagging injuries can quickly become bigger deals, so draft him with caution.

What about Evans?: Tyreke Evans had a historic rookie season, joining LeBron James and Oscar Robertson as the only rookies to average 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game. But he regressed after that, seeing his scoring, rebounding and assists drop in each of the next two seasons. Now, in year four, it is hard to know what to make of him. I projected him to bounce back last season, only to have him turn in another meh campaign. But just like I was a year early in projecting Brandon Jennings to make the leap, my gut says I was a year early on Evans' bounce back as well. Evans has moved to full-time small forward, a position that lets him use his ball-handling and passing as a strength without limiting him the way he was when miscast as a point guard. Evans has looked more comfortable since the change, and I think he'll be better than expected this season.

Draft thoughts from Mock

As mentioned, I participated in a mock draft with other RotoWire authors last week. I picked 11th out of 12 teams, and here are my 13 draft picks:

1. Carmelo Anthony
2. Greg Monroe
3. Chris Bosh
4. Tyreke Evans
5. Roy Hibbert
6. Manu Ginobili
7. Ricky Rubio
8. Jeff Teague
9. Derrick Williams
10. Andre' Miller
11. Ray Allen
12. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
13. Jason Richardson

I've mentioned a few of these players above, but here are some of my impressions of other picks of mine that I thought were interesting.

I like Bosh at the end of the third round, because I think that he will thrive in the "new order" of the championship Heat. Having won the title, the suffocating pressure is off. Coach Spoelstra feels more willing to experiment, which means lots of small-ball with Bosh at center and LeBron at the 4. I think this helps Bosh's production, and also might just get him center eligibility.

Manu is one of my favorites whenever he is healthy, but health is always a concern. He was so limited by health last year, though, that a bounce back seems in order ... especially with how well he played in the Olympics this summer. There are some rumors that Manu might consider hanging them up after this year, and I also think he'll want to go out with a bang.

Rubio was an intriguing pick, because he was legitimately battling for the Rookie of the Year last year before he tore his ACL. He is still recovering from that surgery, but if he can still return at or above the level he showed last year I think he was good value as one of the last true point guard options on the board.

In that vein, I also really liked Teague in the eighth. He seems poised to improve this year, and though Devin Harris and Lou Williams are in town, Teague has the ability to take that position by the throat if he plays to potential.

I also thought that Allen was good value in the 11th. He won't start in Miami, but as I alluded to with Bosh, I expect a lot of small-ball this year. Thus, I think Allen gets in the upper 20s of minutes even off the bench, and playing with that lineup that translates to lots of treys for the all-time king.

Finally, MKG at 12 ... the Bobcats will rely on him, he should start from day one, and he has a unique combo of skills that should lead to solid contributions in several categories, including the hard to fill defensive stats.

All told, even though I didn't love my draft slot I thought my team ended up pretty solid. My squad is balanced across the board, with a good mix of young upside and proven production. I missed out on the mega-stars because I was drafting so late, but on the whole it didn't go too badly for the first one. Over the next few Labs, I'll go over some of the other teams I end up drafting, as well.

Keeping up with the Professor

If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on Rotowire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.