In basketball more than most sports, players can make big leaps in statistical production as their careers progress. In baseball, for instance, a starting pitcher or hitter who's a couple years into his career but already a regular might have room for improvement, but he's already getting about as much playing time as he's going to get and as many opportunities to succeed as he's going to see.
Not so in the NBA. Since it's a team sport, young players usually have to work to gain the confidence of teammates and coaches, to ensure more passes are thrown their way, more minutes are given on the floor, and eventually, more plays are drawn up for them in the huddle.
Here are three players who fit that mold this year, and thus qualify as potential sleepers in your drafts.
Thaddeus Young: Not only does Young get dinged for his youth and lack of big seasons on his resume to date, he's also a player who gives you a little bit of everything, such that he gets overlooked when the late rounds fly by and you're looking for a shot-blocking specialist or a three-point bomber. He should see a bump from last season's 34 minutes per game, which combined with a jump in his responsibilities, will yield some nice number. Pencil him in for 18 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1 3pg, and a big 1.5 spg at the small forward spot.
Al Horford: When you're a talented player entering your third season, your coaching staff is making lots of noise about getting you the ball more and you're already a productive fantasy force, there's a lot to love. But even with Horford getting plenty of mid-round attention, he might be undervalued in your league. Center-eligible in Yahoo leagues and already banking about a block and a half per game and more than nine boards per contest, Horford has the potential to jump from fantasy asset to minor fantasy star if he starts scoring more. The scouting reports rave about his improving step-out jumper, and Horford's strong enough and aggressive enough to get to the line a lot. Look for him to average a double-double this season with an increased role, and don't be surprised if his ppg jumps from 11.5 last season to better than 15 this year.
Greg Oden: There's nowhere to go but up, right? In Oden's case, it's been injuries more than lack of confidence from others or lack of a prominent role that's curtailed his production. He may never play 35 minutes a game, given both his fragile body and propensity for foul trouble. But even at 25-28 minutes a game, Oden could become a prolific shot blocker and efficient rebounder, with enough scoring to make things interesting. He's still getting no respect in the drafts I've see.