This time of the year is a welcome break for many around the NBA – a time to watch the playoffs and be a spectator outside of the daily grind. Naturally, it’s a good time to reflect and start looking at next season from 30,000 feet above the ground.
And what better way to start than with a look at a group of guys that show up on draft cheat sheets highlighted in bright green, with multiple stars, exclamation points, pirate flags, you name it. We’re not talking about a top-10 or 20 list of players, but rather a group of players that are young, durable, and on the upswing.
In no specific order, here are the guys with an up-arrow next to their names.
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Russell Westbrook: 23.6 points, 0.94 threes, 4.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.70 steals, 0.30 blocks, 45.7% FGs, 82.3% FTs, 3.6 TOs
The preview for next year is occurring right before our eyes in this year’s playoffs, though I’d caution folks not to forget that his first two series featured Mavs and Lakers teams that were dead in the water defending the pick-and-roll. What we can count on, however, is continued growth, better decision-making, a red-hot midrange game, and games played out of a guy that hasn’t missed a game in four NBA seasons. A top-5 pick in next year’s 8-cat formats that could go as high as the top-3. I could list Kevin Durant here and he has room for improvement – but he needs no such analysis.
Kyrie Irving: 30.5 minutes, 18.5 points, 1.43 threes, 3.7 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.06 steals, 0.39 blocks, 46.9% FGs, 87.2% FTs, 3.2 TOs
The only complaint about Irving is that America hasn’t seen enough of him. He’s a tad bit light in the steals department, but there should be absolutely no concern about the Rookie of the Year. He’ll see corresponding bumps across the board as his playing time heads north of 35 mpg. Conceivably there could be concerns about durability, but Irving is a year removed from his toe injury and his shoulder injury doesn't appear to be an issue heading into next year.
Ty Lawson: 16.3 points, 1.20 threes, 3.7 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.34 steals, 0.10 blocks, 48.8% FGs, 82.4% FTs, 2.4 TOs
Lawson missed five games due to a nagging ankle injury and was spotty at times, but his role is only going to increase and the deferring issues will decrease, accordingly. He’s definitely a gamer, and while the nagging injuries are a bit worrisome he’s still on the right side of the durability ledger. His shooting numbers are what fantasy titles are made of.
James Harden: 31.4 minutes, 16.8 points, 1.84 threes, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.00 steals, 0.24 blocks, 49.1% FGs, 84.6% FTs, 2.2 TOs
Harden isn’t the greatest defender, and it’s fair to wonder if Scotty Brooks will give him the extra five minutes per game he deserves because of that. But still, drafting him based on these numbers is about as safe of a play as there is. Harden is a No. 1 on more than half of the teams in the association, but his bench/No. 3 designation on the Thunder might keep him in the affordable range on draft day.
Mike Conley: 12.7 points, 0.97 threes, 2.5 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.18 steals, 0.18 blocks, 43.3% FGs, 86.1% FTs, 2.0 TOs
Conley was a hot pick heading into last year’s drafts and he didn’t disappoint, as the only blemish on his record this past season were some shaky crunch time moments in the playoffs. Overall, he fits the profile of a guy you want to draft. He’s young, unchallenged for his job, plays solid defense, and has room for improvement in his shooting, scoring, and even his assists totals. After all, Zach Randolph isn’t getting any younger.
Marc Gasol: 14.6 points, 8.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 0.95 steals, 1.86 blocks, 48.2% FGs, 74.8% FTs, 1.9 TOs
I think we’re seeing the top of Gasol’s bell curve as in terms of overall effectiveness, but the rules for centers are a bit different in that utility trumps athleticism – especially in fantasy leagues. Gasol, who can both facilitate and score, will continue to expand his game even as the rigors of being a large person start to erode his physicality. Even if he begins to decline physically, which is something I’m not overly worried about next season, it’s likely that Memphis continues to increase his utilization. Again, Zach Randolph isn’t getting any younger.
John Wall: 16.3 points, 0.05 threes, 4.5 rebounds, 8.0 assists, 1.44 steals, 0.86 blocks, 42.3% FGs, 78.9% FTs, 3.9 TOs
One would have thought that his field goal percentage was worse after some particularly bad stretches, and now that offense-killing Nick Young and JaVale McGee have been replaced by Nene – an improvement in efficiency is all-but guaranteed. From there, the sky is obviously the limit.
Greg Monroe: 15.4 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.27 steals, 0.70 blocks, 52.1% FGs, 73.9% FTs, 2.4 TOs
Monroe started to slow by season’s end, putting up a small yellow flag next to his name heading into next year, but on the whole he proved he belonged in the fantasy top-50. The concerns are about his toughness, whether or not the league caught up to him, and whether or not he performed at his fantasy ceiling last season. Overall, I’m going to defer toward being optimistic about a third-year center that posted third and fourth-round value in 8- and 9-cat leagues last season, respectively.
Serge Ibaka: 27.1 minutes, 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 0.50 steals, 3.65 blocks, 53.5% FGs, 66.1% FTs, 1.2 TOs
For a player like Ibaka, whose strengths are his supreme athleticism and his feathery outside jump shot, he needs experience to smooth out the rough edges. He struggles on the perimeter against stretch four and fives, and he lacks confidence on the interior offensively. That’s not to say he isn’t a game-changer when on the floor. Asked to block shots at all costs by Scott Brooks, which is a fantasy owner’s dream, he is often out of position to rebound – which is a fine trade-off in reality when the Thunder can gamble on the outside and wreak havoc. Unfortunately, Brooks has pigeon-holed him into a blocking specialist role to justify the team’s commitment to Kendrick Perkins, who along with Nazr Mohammed gobbled up the extra eight minutes that Ibaka should have received every night. The good news is that we’re looking at Ibaka’s fantasy floor next season, and the only direction he can go is up.
DeMarcus Cousins: 30.5 minutes, 18.1 points, 11.0 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.45 steals, 1.17 blocks, 44.8% FGs, 70.2% FTs, 2.7 TOs
There is so much to like, and so much to hate about Cousins’ game. Looking down his stat line, he did his damage in just 30 minutes per game, which is all but certainly going to go up. Most glaringly, his high-volume 44.8 FG% is also going to increase as his shot selection improves, and it would see a 5-10 point increase if he simply stopped flailing up every single offensive rebound he gets. The steals are a reflection of the garbage-time atmosphere found in many Kings games, and overall the atmosphere around the team has the potential to be explosive – as the Maloofs continue to drag the city of Sacramento through the dirt while they try to leave town. Back to Cousins, he is an absolute beast that will join Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard in the great center debates this upcoming season. When he puts it all together the field goal percentage issues should become less pronounced and the chance for a truly special fantasy season exists.
Ricky Rubio: 10.6 points, 0.78 threes, 4.2 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 2.22 steals, 0.20 blocks, 35.7% FGs, 80.3% FTs, 3.2 TOs
Rubio was everybody’s darling during the Rookie of the Year voting and more-than answered the questions about his ability to play in the NBA and in fantasy leagues. But the bugaboo for him that the media gave him a pass on was his shooting, which was pathetic by any standard. The good news is that bad shooting is fixable in many cases, and it will be hard for Rubio to shoot this badly again, or ever. Knee issues aside, and knowing that he’ll need to be drafted with a close eye on his rehabilitation, there is no doubt about Rubio’s abilities to see the game and play the game.