Through the first three weeks of the NBA season, we've seen plenty of unbalanced schedules, something that has made the process of writing this column pretty simple: Look for an underappreciated guy on one of the three or four teams playing five or six times this week, and go with him.
Week 4 (Jan. 16-Jan. 22) doesn't really offer that option. The Clippers are the only team to play five times, and chances are you're already starting Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and most of the rest of the rest of their Lob City cohorts. Not a lot of sleepers on a high profile team like that. Other than that, 24 teams play four times.
So for Week 4, I'm going to look back at last week's 'Sleeper Alert' at the center position, Byron Mullens out of Charlotte, who has earned himself the designation as my Start of the Week for Week 4 with his recent play. Mullens is averaging 14.4 points and six rebounds since the beginning of Week 2, a span stretching eight games.
In that time period the 22-year old, who went undrafted in most leagues, is 18th among all centers in Fantasy scoring. He is now starting for the Bobcats and is starting to see close to 30 minutes per game. While he does face two formidable defensive front lines in Week 4 at Orlando and Chicago, he also gets to go up against the hapless Nets (third in the NBA in points allowed) and Cleveland (12th in the NBA).
Mullens is currently owned in 65 percent of CBSSports.com Fantasy leagues, but he's been one of the best options at the pivot for Fantasy owners for a few weeks, so owners should feel confident rolling with him for this upcoming scoring period.
Rudy Fernandez, Nuggets (@MIL, @PHI, @WAS, @NY): Fernandez has been a disappointment since a solid rookie season in 2008-09, falling below nine points per game in the last two seasons while shooting below 40 percent from the field. However since the offseason trade that shipped him to Denver, the 26-year old has embraced the Nuggets' wide-open offense, stepping up in a playmaking role that sees him provide energy off the bench. Over the last six games, however, Fernandez is doing more than just providing a spark; he's making a difference. He is putting up 12 points and 4.3 assists per game in that time frame. The Nuggets face two below average defenses in Week 4 and the two that aren't below average (New York and Philadelphia) play at the fifth and sixth fastest paces in the league, a style that plays right into what the Nuggets like to do. Fernandez has found a comfort level in the offense, embracing a playmaking role, and should be able to continue this pace moving forward.
Kemba Walker, Bobcats (CLE, @ORL, @CHI, @NJ): It was only a matter of time before the Bobcats put their first-round pick in the starting lineup, and it came at the expense of Boris Diaw (see below) as they are trying to go for a smaller, faster-paced team with more scoring power. Through one game, it appears they certainly made the right choice, as Walker scored 23 points on Saturday in a win in which they scored 112 points against the Warriors. A backcourt with Walker and D.J. Augustin is going to get torched on defense, but that doesn't matter to you; all that matters is that Walker played 42 minutes and was given an opportunity to run with the first unit for an extended amount of time, an opportunity he took full advantage of. The Bobcats are going to roll with that lineup for as long as they can stomach the defensive hit, so Walker looks like an attractive option moving forward.
Sleeper Alert: Marco Belinelli, Hornets (POR, MEM, @HOU, DAL): Belinelli doesn't necessarily have the strongest matchups during this scoring period, but the offense-starved Hornets needs someone to score and in recent games, Belinelli has found his shooting stroke, making him the guy they have leaned on recently. With injuries to Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza and the inconsistency of Jarret Jack and Al-Farouq Aminu, the Hornets have been looking for some kind of answer for scoring on the perimeter, and over his last five games the Italian sharpshooter is averaging 13 points per game on 46 percent shooting and has topped double digits four times. He doesn't do much else besides score, but he'll give you three pointers and ranks right around the threshold for a No. 4 Fantasy guard, so consider him at least that for Week 4.
Darren Collison, Pacers (@SAC, @GS, @LAL): After disappointing in his first season in Indiana, expectations were high that Collison would be able to find the fast-paced style that made him such a dangerous player in New Orleans as a rookie filling in for Chris Paul. Instead of that, he has taken another step back this year, dropping to 10.5 points per game despite playing more minutes. He has failed to reach double digits in scoring in five of his 11 games this season and hasn't exactly made up for it by setting up his teammates, as he's averaging just 5.5 assists per game. Collison doesn't have a particularly tough slate of games here, but the Warriors and Lakers have been focusing more on grinding it out than running down the court, which should limit his opportunities to produce in those two games, which makes him enough of a risk to justify putting him on the bench with his struggles.
Devin Harris, Jazz (LAC, DAL, MIN): There was a time when Harris was a more-than-solid starting point guard, a versatile player who did enough of everything to help his teams both in real life and in Fantasy. However through 10 games this season he barely resembles the 21-point, 7-assist dynamo he once was. Just 28, Harris appears to have hit a wall in his second season in Utah and is showing very little in the way of turning things around. While he's played consistent 30-plus minutes over the last three games, he has combined for just 15 points and 17 assists in that time frame. At this point, benching Harris has less to do with who he's playing than who he is, though it certainly helps that he's facing two above average defenses.
Bust Alert: Steve Nash, Suns (@CHI, @NY, @BOS): The seemingly ageless point guard's 37 years finally appear to be catching up with him. Nash, in his 16th season, has seen his minutes per game dip below 30 for the first time since his second year in the league and his production has fallen with it, down to 12.5 points and 10.1 assists per game. While those numbers are still excellent for almost any other point guard, they represent his lowest and second lowest averages, respectively, since joining Phoenix in 2004. And now he is dealing with a bad back, an injury that has already cost him one game and could limit him moving forward. Suns' coach Alvin Gentry has discussed limiting his veteran players' minutes so with just three games, two against tough defensive teams, in Week 4, it's a perfect storm forming that may make benching Nash advisable if you have better options.
Nicolas Batum, Trail Blazers (@NO, @ATL, @TOR, @DET): Maybe I'm making a mistake by overstating the importance of it because it happened so close to when I was writing this, but watching Trail Blazers' forward Nicolas Batum against Houston on Saturday, he looked like a new man, freed up with a larger role in the offense in the wake of Marcus Camby's ankle injury. He dropped 29 points on the Rockets, a season high, and went wild from three-point land, hitting six-of-seven attempts from beyond the arc in a season-high 42 minutes. The fourth-year French guard has taken a small step back in this contract year, but it's largely the result of a dearth of minutes going his way. If he can keep getting into the 30s moving forward, I like his chances to up his currently solid all-around performance into start-worthy territory. Take a chance on him, especially as talks continue to progress on a long-term deal.
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs (@MIA, @ORL, SAC, @HOU): It took nine games for the rookie out of San Diego State to top 30 minutes and 10 points in a game, but now that he has accomplished both, he doesn't seem at all interested in ever failing to do so again. In his last four games, the 6-foot-7 swingman has found himself in the starting lineup by averaging 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds and two blocks per game. He has matured rapidly in his time in the NBA, and the Spurs have thrown him in the fire. If Gregg Popovich trusts him, I'll trust him, and while he faces two tough defensive teams at the beginning of the week, the other two aren't much for stopping their opponents, so he could make up his performance there and give you solid production throughout the week.
Sleeper Alert: Marreese Speights, Grizzlies (CHI, @NO, @DET, SAC): Speights couldn't find a minute with the 76ers to start the year, but after the Grizzlies acquired him, he has emerged as their starting power forward, averaging 10.3 points and five rebounds per game in his four first full games. And he's doing that in less than 23 minutes per game while learning a new system on the fly with a contender. All he needs is to see a bump in playing time and Speights would be right there as a usable low-end Fantasy option at forward. I'm not betting that he sees those minutes just yet, but if you need a replacement and take the risk, he could provide dividends as he becomes more comfortable.
Dorell Wright, Warriors (@CLE, @NJ, IND): Wright has played 10 games this season, scoring 78 points total. Twenty of those points, more than a quarter, came in one majestic overtime matchup against his former team the Heat. Too bad for Wright (and his owners) that the condensed schedule this season doesn't have the Warriors and Heat matching up again, so I don't feel comfortable at all about Wright's chances to return to Fantasy stardom. He seems ill suited for Mark Jackson's offense, and hasn't been able to find his shot. Coming into the season, he was considered a No. 2 Fantasy forward, but at this point, I'm not sure I would rely on him as even a fourth option.
Boris Diaw, Bobcats (CLE, @ORL, @CHI, @NJ): Facing three strong defensive front courts would normally be enough to suggest keeping Diaw at arm's length from your starting lineup, but with his recent benching for frustrating coach Paul Silas, you'll want to do everything you can to keep the hefty French forward away from your starters. After a surprisingly strong start that brought back memories of his all-around excellence in Phoenix, Diaw has combined for 16 points in his last four games, earning the demotion and reduction in minutes. He was already a borderline starter, mostly for his ability to fill up a stat sheet, but coming off the bench, he serves no purpose in your lineup.
Bust Alert: David West, Pacers (@SAC, @GS, @LAL): It's been nice to see West make a fairly quick recovery following his season-ending knee surgery last year, but the Pacers have been very careful with his minutes to keep him fresh and healthy this season. A good idea from their end as they have good depth in the front court, but it's wreaking havoc on West's Fantasy value. He's no longer the 18-20 points per night guy he was in New Orleans as his scoring has dropped off to 10.9 points per game, his lowest total since his second season in the NBA. While he's still a useful Fantasy option in most weeks, with only three games on the slate for Week 4, he likely won't see enough opportunities to contribute to your cause.
DeAndre Jordan, Clippers (NJ, @UTA, DAL, MIN, TOR): It's been a very slow start for Blake Griffin's running partner, as the Clippers have played the fewest games in the NBA and Jordan's personal production has tailed off considerably in what was expected to be a breakout year. His per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers are both down by two per game, and while he's blocking shots like an absolute madman, it hasn't been enough to keep Fantasy owners pleased. Well, this is your week to lean on the big man. A plethora of weak front courts combined with a five-game schedule makes Jordan a very nice option for your No. 2 center slot.
Sleeper Alert: Zaza Pachulia, Hawks (TOR, POR, @PHI, CLE): Pachulia hasn't been a useful Fantasy option since the 2006-07 season, when he was a fresh-faced 22 in his second season with the Hawks. Still just 27, he has managed to maintain essentially identical per-minute production over the last handful of seasons, but he doesn't get nearly enough opportunities to be useful. That's because Al Horford has been a rock for the Hawks; but now they are without Horford, so the starting spot has been handed to Pachulia, who made quick work showing he deserved it by getting his first double double of the season in his first start. He fell off a bit in his second start on Saturday, scoring just six points with five rebounds against the Timberwolves, but that kind of inconsistency is to be expected from a guy who hasn't started regularly in six years. Keep the inconsistency in mind, but consider him a potentially useful option in some deeper leagues with how shallow the center position is.
Marcus Camby, Trail Blazers (@NO, @ATL, @TOR, @DET): Camby has been a useful source of rebounds and blocks this season in limited minutes, making up the younger half of a center combo that averages 38 years old. However anytime a 37-year old crumples on the floor clutching his ankle like Camby did on Friday against the Spurs, you have to worry about how long he'll be out. We haven't heard much about his diagnosis and he is considered day-to-day as of writing, however it doesn't seem likely that he'll be able to give it a full go for Week 4, so you have to get him on the bench if you've been relying on him.
Bust Alert: Marcin Gortat (@CHI, @NY, @BOS): Gortat has turned his season around after a slow start, picking up three straight double-doubles and leading the league in field goal percentage. So why is he here? Take a look up at Steve Nash's entry for a hint. I don't like the Suns' schedule this week, facing three of the NBA's top-12 defenses on the road with a gimpy Nash feeding him. Gortat isn't a must-start option even with the current streak he's on and with a shortened batch of games against some tough opponents, you might want to keep him in reserve if you have a better option.