Rajon Rondo PG BOS – Arch nemesis and former teammate Ray Allen is now in Miami and Rondo is coming off a playoff run that saw him average 17.3 points, 6.9 rebounds, 11.9 assists and 2.4 steals in 19 games. Yes, he’s been a better player in the postseason than during the regular one, but he’s been given the keys to the Celtics (much to the chagrin of Allen) and is going to get better as long as he can stay healthy. He won’t hit many threes and isn’t a great free throw shooter, but I think he’ll show a lot of improvement over last year’s regular-season averages of 11.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 11.7 assists and 1.8 steals. The key is where you draft him. If you can get him after Round 3, which is entirely possible if your fellow league members take a look at his Basketballmonster.com rankings from last season, he should be a value pick. Just beware of the poor free throw shooting, potential for injury, as well as the potential to score less than 14 points per game. But he’s only 26 years old, and could put it all together this season in Boston.
JaVale McGee C DEN – You guys knew McGee would be on my list, as usual. Any time a guy has the potential to triple-double with blocks and is fun (and funny) to watch, I’m in. He saw his minutes cut once he was traded to Denver last season, but still averaged 10 points, six boards and 1.6 blocks in 20 games for the Nuggets. I don’t see any way he doesn’t start this season after getting paid, and 13 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks are well within reach, if not an expectation. Just beware that he shot 37 percent from the line in Denver last season, and isn’t the one of the more court savvy guys in the league.
Mike Conley PG MEM – Conley quietly posted great numbers all season last year and should do so again. He’s not flashy, nor a guy you need to draft too early, but should return excellent value and be a solid starting fantasy point guard. According to Basketballmonster.com, he was worth a second-round pick due to his low turnovers and quality production across the line last season. If you spend the early part of your draft getting flashy studs that will score a ton of points, getting Conley in Round 4 or 5 should pay very nice dividends.
J.R. Smith G/F NYK – Landry Fields is in Toronto and Iman Shumpert is going to miss time after knee surgery, clearing the way for Smith to (hopefully) start at shooting guard. He’s a tough guy to get a read on and has been highly inconsistent throughout his career. But he appears to have found a home in New York and could finally be ready for a full breakout season. In 13 April games for the Knicks last year, Smith averaged 16 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.7 3-pointers per game. And if he can come anywhere close to that to start this season, he could be very fun to own for a fairly low price tag.
Nicolas Batum G/F POR – Batum will be back in Portland after doing his best to get to Minnesota over the summer. He was worth a 3rd- or 4th-round fantasy pick last season despite failing to live up to the hype and playing inconsistently. But he is clearly one of Portland’s best players and will have more expectations after signing the big contract in July. He only started 34 times in 59 games last season, averaging 15.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.9 3-pointers in those games, to go along with just 1.8 turnovers. He also shoots it very well from the floor, downtown and the line, and he should be ready to fully break out this season.
Isaiah Thomas PG SAC – Despite being taken with the final pick of the 2011 draft, Thomas started 37 of the 65 games he played in last season for the Kings, averaging 14.8 points, 3.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.6 3-pointers in those starts. He was a key pickup off the waiver wire and should have every chance to succeed again this season, although Aaron Brooks will be there to try to steal some of his point guard minutes, which makes me a little nervous. But Thomas is another potentially strong point guard who should come with a fairly cheap price tag, especially when compared to the big names.
Kyle Lowry PG TOR – Lowry was a monster at times for the Rockets last season before going down early with an abdominal injury that required surgery after becoming infected. In his 38 starts he averaged 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 3-pointers for Houston, along with 3.2 turnovers. He is now in Toronto where he should start over Jose Calderon. They’re thrilled to have him and he should be healthy to start the season. He’s another point guard that could fly under the radar and have a huge season, if he can stay healthy and avoid a timeshare with Calderon.
Mo Williams PG UTA – I’m not a big Mo-Will fan, but the simple fact is he was traded to Utah and will be their starting point guard, as Devin Harris was traded to Atlanta. Williams should have plenty left in the tank, but could also have some injury concerns while clocking in at 30 years old (in December). He should easily play in front of Earl Watson and Jamaal Tinsley and still has the ability to score, assist, steal and three, making him a nice value target in your draft.
Glen Davis PF ORL – Ryan Anderson signed with the Hornets, clearing the way for Davis to start at power forward in Orlando. I’m not going to pretend to know what kind of damage the Dwight Howard situation has caused for the Magic, but this could be the year we see Davis turn into a beast. In his 13 starts for Orlando last season he averaged 15.5 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks. Yes, more blocks would be nice, but Davis should be primed for the best season of his career, unless Gustavo Ayon is better than I think he is.
Damian Lillard PG POR – Despite being a rookie, Lillard is set to start at point guard for the Blazers and he looked fantastic in Summer League. I’m thinking he could average 14 points, four boards, five assists, a steal and a 3-pointer per game in Portland. When I need a point guard after the middle rounds of my draft, Lillard is going to be high on my list. And if you’re worried about a veteran unseating him, Nolan Smith and Ronnie Price shouldn’t strike much fear in your heart. This job belongs to Lillard.
Royce White PF HOU – White is the rookie I’m now most excited about, if he can win the starting power forward job in Houston. Luis Scola was amnesty waived and White will compete with Patrick Patterson for the starting gig. He’s a sneaky passer and should contribute in nearly all categories for one of the worst teams in the league. I can’t think of a reason White won’t start, but then again, this is Kevin McHale we’re talking about. If he does start, expect him to be a finalist for Rookie of the Year, and a good value pick in fantasy leagues.
Serge Ibaka F/C OKC – Despite not getting consistent minutes in OKC, Ibaka still put up fairly sensational numbers last season, averaging 9.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 0.5 steals and a whopping 3.7 blocks per game. If you draft Ibaka, chances are you’re going to win blocks every week (in H2H) or on the season (in Roto scoring). Add in the fact the 27 minutes he’s gotten per game over the last two seasons could actually rise, and he looks like a can’t miss fantasy player again this season. Just know that if you take him in Round 1 or 2, you might have a scoring issue unless your draft goes perfectly the rest of the way. According to Basketballmonster.com, Ibaka was worth a first-round pick last season, but I’m not sure I’m feeling him that much. You have to get guys who score early in the draft, and taking Ibaka that early could leave you behind the 8-ball.
Feel free to tell me who is on your list, who I missed, and anything else on Twitter.