Toward the end of every season, we see a number of young players who suddenly get increased playing time due to a range of factors. Stars may be shutdown or rested (i.e. Carmelo Anthony), and coaches may give greater opportunity to younger players to see if they will be in the team’s future plans.
Last season’s prime example of this was Gorgui Dieng, who over the final 18 games of the season averaged 12.0 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.5 blocks, and 1.0 steal. Consequently, Dieng helped many an owner take out their championship in head-to-head leagues and would have been a crucial addition in rotisserie leagues too.
With the All-Star Weekend over and the last two months of the season upon us, here are some young players who may receive increased opportunity. Put them on your watch list, and keep them in the back of your mind as we get closer to the end of the fantasy season.
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Ray McCallum (SAC): McCallum briefly showed his potential at the end of last season. In the final 12 games of last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.9 three-pointers in a whopping 42 minutes per game. This season, McCallum has been buried behind Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions on the depth chart, until recently. With Collison out with a hip flexor strain, McCallum has played 21 and 26 minutes over the last two games, scoring 10 and 11 points respectively and handing out four assists on both occasions.
With George Karl the new coach of the Kings, Karl may very well give increased opportunity to McCallum to see what he has in the 23-year-old, second-round draft pick.
Nikola Mirotic (CHI): Mirotic is undoubtedly talented enough to play significant minutes in the NBA. Unfortunately for him, he is on a team with one of the deepest – and most talented – frontcourts in the league with Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, and Taj Gibson. Unlike tanking teams that can give their rookies lots of playing time, the Bulls are preparing for a deep playoff run that has limited Mirotic’s playing time this season. However, this could change in the final weeks of the season. Gasol and Noah, both have substantial wear and tear on their bodies and could see periods of rest down the stretch if the Bulls can lock up a top-four seed in the East.
If coach Tom Thibodeau lets Mirotic play, he should become an instant add for all standard leagues. In the four games in which he has played 30 or more minutes, Mirotic has averaged 18.0 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 3.2 three-pointers. If you start hearing murmurs that Gasol or Noah will be rested, be prepared to make a move on Mirotic.
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Tim Frazier (Philadelphia 76ers): The 76ers signed Frazier on February 5. The next day, he played 35 minutes off the bench and posted five points, five rebounds, 11 assists, and two steals. The following two games, he started at point guard and totaled 15 assists. With Michael Cater-Williams dealing with a foot issue and Tony Wroten out for the season with a torn ACL, Frazier could see a lot more playing time going forward if the Sixers sign him for the rest of the season. These three games have already made him fantasy relevant in deeper leagues, and if the news is not positive about Carter-Williams over the next week or so, Frazier could be useful in standard leagues sooner rather than later.
Cory Jefferson (Brooklyn Nets): The Nets are on the verge of missing the playoffs with Charlotte and Miami in front of them in the standings and Boston, Detroit, and Indiana just behind. (Yep, that’s how strong the East is.) If, or maybe that should be <i>when</i>, the Nets are officially out of playoff contention, it should be time for coach Lionel Hollins to let the youngsters play. Mirza Teletovic is out for the season and Kevin Garnett is, well, old, which should leave tons of minutes available.
Cory Jefferson is an athletic 6-9 power forward who has played very little in the NBA. In his final two seasons at Baylor, he averaged 13.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks. In the five games of 18 minutes or more Jefferson has played for the Nets this season, he has averaged 7.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks. Despite being a small sample size, it gives us some idea of type of the production Jefferson could provide if he is given a chance to play extended minutes over the remaining two months of the season.
Tyler Johnson (Miami Heat): The Heat have signed Johnson for the rest of the season after two initial 10-day contracts. The coaching staff and management have been impressed with the 21-year-old shooting guard out of Fresno State. Johnson made a splash with 13 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two steals, two blocks and one three-pointer against the Celtics on February 1 but has had minimal opportunity since. With the Heat in a similar predicament as the Nets – ageing, injury-prone stars, and a playoff spot that is slipping away – coach Erik Spoelstra could opt to prepare for next season. If so, Johnson could be well and truly on the fantasy radar.
James Young (Boston Celtics): Young was drafted with the 17th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft but has had little opportunity despite coach Brad Stevens employing a deep rotation. Boston fans are frustrated at the continual playing time of guys like Tayshaun Prince and Gerald Wallace at the expense of young talented players like Young. In a positive sign over the past five games, though, Young has averaged 15 minutes per game. Hopefully this is a trend that continues as the season wears on, and Young can see some consistent court time. In his one year at Kentucky, he averaged 14.3 points and 2.5 three-pointers per game.
Cleanthony Early (New York Knicks): Early, a 6-8 forward, was drafted by the Knicks with the 34th overall pick at the start of the second round and has had a tough rookie season floating between the NBA and D-League. However, he did have a stretch of six games at the beginning of January which saw him play between 15-30 minutes. He averaged 8.1 points, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 three-pointers during that stretch. With Carmelo Anthony’s season literally hours away from concluding, it opens up a significant chance for a number of players, including Tim Hardaway Jr, Lance Thomas, Travis Wear, and Early. All four will exchange fantasy relevance, but if I had to choose one to add to my roster over the last couple months of the season, it would be Early.