With preseason games kicking off around the NBA and hype surrounding the league reaching palpable levels, that can only mean one thing: fantasy basketball season.
No, really. I mean it. It's totally a thing, you guys.
Kidding aside, while fantasy basketball doesn't have the same indelible imprint on society as fantasy football or even fantasy baseball, there remains a sect of the fandom that's rabid about their league. I am admittedly one of those people.
Basketball diehards will do anything to get their fix, and despite my tendency to favor advanced stats and film work with my study of the game, it's impossible to not take the yearly stab at being a general manager.
The hype machine works in ways similar to other sports. You can draft via traditional snake fashion or hold an auction, and NBA.com is even working with Yahoo! Sports this season on a pretty cool partnership.
The pre-draft rankings tell you that LeBron James is super-good at basketball, Kevin Durant isn't very far behind, and it also warns us that you never, ever, ever want to trust Andrew Bynum.
Glad we got that covered.
Now on to the fun part: sleepers.
There's a reason that everyone gets way more excited about landing their ninth-round sleeper than they do about nabbing their top choice: everyone enjoys thinking they're the smartest person in the room. Your sleeper is obviously better than theirs, because you're just the most special person on this planet, aren't you?
It's a feeling we all have, so it's best to just embrace it. With that in mind, here are a few wing players who may wind up making you feel like a genius on draft day.
Bradley Beal (SG, Washington Wizards)
The case for Beal can be boiled down to two factors: a full season of John Wall and the second-year leap.
Multiple studies, including this one by BasketballReference.com's Neil Pane, have shown that basketball players generally peak around age 26 or 27. That's about the case in most other sports as well, though baseball and hockey tend to have differing aging curves than that of football and basketball.
But where players most regularly make their biggest improvement is within the first three or four years of their career.
The reasons for this are obvious: you get used to the rigors of an 82-game schedule; your body begins developing from 19-year-old boy to 22-year-old man; you're working with the best and brightest training staffs in the world for the first time; etc. It's all part of a process that we're all familiar with, and it doesn't really need to be espoused with words.
Beal will be better than he was as a rookie because of...well, nature, man.
The former factor is worth exploring in depth. Wall and Beal, the Wizards' two cornerstones of the future, intersected for only 25 games last season. First, Wall missed 33 games due to a knee injury, and then Beal followed in kind with a stress fracture to his fibula.
Snakebitten throughout the entire 2012-13 season, Washington again had to pick up the pieces, just as Beal and Wall were finally coming into their own.
But the data we have (per NBA.com) with the two guards sharing the floor is incredibly promising. After struggling to find open space for jumpers and being slow to develop as a shot-creator, Beal thrived with his lessened responsibilities once Wall came back. His assists took a dip, but he shot 47.1 percent from the floor and made half of his three-pointers after being well below average in both shooting categories earlier in the season. He scored 17.1 points per 36 minutes, compared to 15.8 without Wall.
Essentially, Beal was everything the Wizards hoped he would be for a quarter of a season, and then he got injured. So we have no extended sample to tell us whether his uptick in efficiency is a mere byproduct of a hot streak, or if Wall's return to the lineup simply made that big of a difference.
I tend to think it's the latter. A.J. Price, Shelvin Mack and Shaun Livingston each made starts last season, as the Wizards had the depth of a reality television star. Wall is healthy this season, and the still-underrated Eric Maynor sits behind him as a quality second guard.
Expect big things from Beal this year in real life and in fantasy.
Jeff Green (SF, Boston Celtics)
Jordan Crawford can't possibly take all the shots, right? (Thinking...) OK, well maybe he can. But still.
I have faith in Green, if for no other reason than he'll have plenty opportunity to work as a top scoring option this season. Rajon Rondo probably won't be back until December at the earliest, Courtney Lee was ghastly last season, Kris Humphries was somehow worse, and Gerald Wallace is a tree stump.
Unless Boston simply plans on scoring 60 points per game, there should be shots o'plenty for Green this season. The weird thing is, though, I think it might be good for Green's development.
An enigmatic figure throughout his career, it seemed at times that Superstar Jeff showed up whenever he was damn well ready. He'd drop 43 points on LeBron James and the Miami Heat one night and then go right at them for another 25 points the next time they played. But interspersed between those games would be contests where Green would take five shots and go into full-Casper-mode anytime the C's had a possession.
He would get away with those disappearances because Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were there to take the brunt of the attention. When you're third or fourth option on the spotlight hierarchy, only those closest to you can see pieces of talent being blown away like fall foliage.
Green won't be able to get away with anything this season. Until Rondo returns, this is his offense.
Green will have more passing responsibilities than ever, will probably shoot upwards of 20 times per night and will probably rank among the best rebounding 3's in the league. Wallace's presence means that Green will get a ton of minutes at the 4, and he will probably wind up with dual-position eligibility by the time all is said and done—if he already doesn't have it.
Things should normalize a bit after Rondo returns—whenever that is—but it won't hurt Green's value much. Rondo has never showed a willingness to take over the offense on a nightly basis, and Earthworm Jim's passing ability will create easier shots for Green. Plus, Rondo may end up being traded before February, anyway.
Green might not be the most efficient player you add this year, but he'll bring a smorgasbord of counting stats. Oh, and he's 27. Twenty-seven!
Gordon Hayward (SG-SF, Utah Jazz)
If a quiet, polite kid scores 20 points per game in Utah but no one's around to see it, did it really happen? We may find out this season.
Much like the aforementioned Mr. Green, Gordon Hayward will benefit this season from a complete dearth of talent around him. High-usage big man Al Jefferson has taken his $23,000 bed to Charlotte, and Paul Millsap has moved on to be underrated in Atlanta.
The Jazz responded in kind by using their treasure trove of cap space to acquire Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins.
No, we did not transport back to 2008. Believe me, I checked. Like...six times.
The Utah Jazz are indeed paying Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson more than $20 million this season. They're also relying on Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter to pick up the scoring load formerly carried by Jefferson and Millsap.
And while I agree with the club 100 percent on that decision, it also comes with the knowledge that the Favors-Kanter duo has been a trainwreck on offense.
That leaves—you guessed it—our old buddy Gordon Hayward and rookie point guard Trey Burke to carry the offensive load. (Jazz fans here will likely request that I mention Alec Burks. Just...no. Just no.)
Burke looked completely lost in summer league and hasn't looked much better from the field in the preseason. However, I have faith that things will normalize for him, to the point that he'll be a Rookie of the Year candidate this season before developing into a third guard somewhere down the line.
But we're here to talk about Hayward.
Heading into his fourth year in the league, the former Butler standout has quietly developed into an all-around smart offensive player and dead-eye shooter. He made 44 percent of his threes and shot up his points per game to 15.1 after the All-Star break last season. He's really developing into a solid passer who understands spacing concepts and where to go with the ball.
Still only 23, Hayward was at nearly four assists per game post-All-Star break last year, and he may fool around and drop a quiet 18-5-5 on everyone this season.
It's certainly plausible. We'll have to see how Hayward adjusts to not having Big Al drawing double teams on the left block, and we'll also have to see whether or not he's comfortable taking three or four more shots per game. Even in college, Hayward never took more than 11 shots a night.
So while this is another situation over substance pick, that doesn't really matter for fantasy purposes. All that matters is the stats, baby, and Hayward should be a pretty good mid-round pickup.
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