Coming back from an injury is a rough process for any NBA player, and it is usually best to avoid using them right away in your Fantasy lineups. Some players, like Blake Griffin, can undergo two separate knee operations and never miss a beat, while others need time to get back into the swing of things.
With that caveat noted, I am going to go ahead and tap Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard as the Start of the Week for Week 9 (Dec.24-30), despite having watched him play just one game in about a month due to quad tendinitis. Leonard made his return to the floor Friday against the Hornets, scoring eight points and filling up the box score in just 20 minutes off the bench.
Prior to his injury, Leonard was filling the stat sheet every night, averaging 10.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.0 three-pointers per game, while building off an already solid rookie season. The Spurs have the luxury of easing Leonard back into the rotation thanks to their depth, but they will not keep the franchise's supposed future centerpiece in the awnings for long. San Antonio has a nice schedule for Leonard in his first full week back from injury, as they face Toronto, Houston and Dallas on alternating days. Each of those three teams ranks in the bottom 10 in the NBA in points allowed per game, with Toronto setting the pace at 100.7 points per game, the seventh-highest mark in the league.
Leonard's youth (he is just 21) and the nature of the injury bode well for him making a return to full-time minutes quickly, as he was not dealing with a joint issue or something that might prove to be degenerative if he takes too much of a pounding. The Spurs have no back-to-backs this week, so the temptation to rest him is not great. He could return to being a viable starting Fantasy option.
Marco Belinelli, Bulls (HOU, @IND, WAS): Belinelli has played a solid role for the offense-starved Bulls, scoring 15.9 points per game in his first nine games in the starting lineup since Richard Hamilton's injury. Belinelli does not give much else in the box score beyond his scoring, but he has reached the point where he is certainly worth starting in more than the 35 percent of CBSSports.com leagues he is starting in. The Bulls play against the league's second-worst scoring defense to begin Week 9, so Belinelli should have no problem keeping his strong production up.
Jason Kidd, Knicks (@LAL, @PHX, @SAC): Kidd's shooting stroke has been nonexistent in recent games, and yet he has still managed to not be a total non-factor for Fantasy owners. He is playing at the kind of level where, even if he shoots just 22.9 percent and averages 5.2 points per game over a five-game stretch, he still has plenty of value. That is because Kidd is also adding 6.2 points, 4.8 assists, 1.4 three-pointers and 1.6 steals per game in that time. Kidd can really hurt you in Rotisserie formats right now with his shooting, but his overall production remains useful. Especially heading into a week against three teams that rank in the bottom 11 in the NBA in points allowed per game.
Sleeper Alert: Isaiah Thomas, Kings (@POR, NYK, BOS): Thomas has been a major disappointment this season, as he has fallen victim to coach Keith Smart's questionable lineup decisions. The diminutive second-year guard might be forcing the issue for Smart with his recent play however, as he has scored in double figures in three of the last four games heading into Friday's game against the Clippers. Thomas' play last season should have earned him a longer leash than the eight starts Smart gave him, but he is averaging 13.8 points in just 19.0 minutes per game over the last five, and is making it harder for Smart to leave him on the bench. The upside in starting Thomas is considerable, as his back-to-back 20-point games last Friday and Sunday showed, however there is considerable risk involved due to Smart's rotations. However, two of the Kings' Week 9 opponents rank below the league average in points allowed per game, so take the risk on him.
Danny Green, Spurs (TOR, HOU, @DAL): Green has struggled recently, scoring in double figures just once in the last four games entering Friday's play, while averaging 8.9 points per game overall in the month of December. He is unlikely to see his play improve moving forward, as the Spurs welcomed Leonard back Friday. Green will likely remain in the starting lineup upon Leonard's return, but he will likely see a reduced role, as Leonard remains the better long-term bet for the team at small forward. The Spurs have some nice matchups in Week 9, but implementing Leonard back into the starting lineup may end up proving costly for Green, at least in the short term.
Jerryd Bayless, Grizzlies (PHI, DEN): Bayless continues to be a disappointment, as his production has completely cratered in the month of December. Instead of playing the combo-guard role many envisioned of him in his first year in Memphis, Bayless has been relegated almost exclusively to a backup point-guard role. He is averaging just 3.8 points and 3.7 assists in 16.2 minutes in the month of December. With just two games on the schedule for the Grizzlies, Bayless should be taken out of the starting lineup in all formats for Week 9.
Bust Alert: Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves (HOU, PHX): Rubio dazzled in his first game back from knee surgery, but reality set in shortly after. Rubio's court vision remains unparalleled despite the extensive layoff while recovering from a torn ACL, however he is clearly not 100 percent physically. The Timberwolves have stagnated on offense with Rubio on the floor, and he has just seven assists in his last two games, while shooting just 10.0 percent from the field. He should still be able to show flashes of the ability that made him such an exciting player before the injury as a rookie, but the road to being a consistently-reliably Fantasy option looks like it still may be a long one. With just two games on the schedule, Rubio's upside is not enough to make him worth starting for the upcoming period.
Amir Johnson, Raptors (@SAS, @NOH, @ORL): The Raptors are riding a five-game winning streak despite losing their opening day front court pairing of Jonas Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani to injuries. The play of Johnson has helped them roll through the injuries, as he has played at least 25 minutes in four of the last five games, all wins. Johnson's production in those games has not been stellar, averaging 8.8 points and 7.4 rebounds, however he is filling up the box score with 1.8 blocks and 1.6 steals. With some more minutes opening up, Johnson has a chance to cement himself as a major part of the rotation. The Raptors don't have great matchups in Week 9, as none of their opponents rank in the bottom 10 in points allowed this season. Still, if he keeps seeing around 30 minutes per game, Johnson could be a useful Fantasy option.
Marcus Morris, Rockets (@CHI, @MIN, @SAS, OKC): Morris has also benefited from an injury to the starter ahead of him in the rotation, as he has started three games in a row since Patrick Patterson went down with a foot injury. Morris has scored in double figures in each of those three games, averaging 15.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game in that span while playing 32.3 minutes per game. The Rockets have one of the league's best offenses, and they have been able to plug pieces in and out whenever the need has arisen. Houston plays at by far the fastest pace in the league, averaging 96.4 possessions per game, which gives Morris plenty of opportunities to put up solid numbers all around. Morris has put in the work to make himself a strong offensive option this season, shooting 44.7 percent from the field and 38.9 percent on 3.0 three-point attempts per game, so Fantasy owners should consider him a decent start why Patterson remains out.
Sleeper Alert: Gustavo Ayon, Magic (NOH, @WAS, TOR): It will be interesting to see what the Magic do without Glen Davis for the next month-plus, as Davis provided volume scoring at the power forward position, while ending up as a negative on the glass and defensive side of the ball. After the first game without Davis, who suffered a left shoulder strain and will likely miss at least a month of playing time, it looks like Gustavo Ayon would take on Davis' minutes, as he played 28 minutes against the Raptors Friday. The fact that Ayon had a double-double (12 points, 13 rebounds) in the game probably helped keep him on the floor, but it has been surprising that he has not been able to find more playing time this season. Ayon averaged 5.9 points and 4.9 rebounds per game a year ago as a rookie with the Hornets, despite playing just 20 minutes per game. If Ayon can get close to 30 minutes per game, he might be able to get close to a double-double on a nightly basis, while adding solid totals on the defensive end. With three solid matchups, Ayon has some value as a desperation play for Davis owners.
Gordon Hayward, Jazz (GSW, LAC, @LAC): Hayward has improved his game this season, but he has not taken the big leap we were expecting. The third-year player out of Butler has seen his production fall in the month of December, as he is averaging just 12.1 points in 23.9 minutes per game. The Jazz are going with more big lineups this season, with Hayward ending up as the odd man out when Paul Millsap shifts to small forward. Hayward has scored in double figures just once in the last four games, with a high of 11 on 3 of 8 shooting last Saturday against the Grizzlies. He is an incredibly talented offensive player, but the 22-year-old is still looking for consistency in his game. While Golden State, Utah's first opponent, ranks in the bottom 10 in points allowed this season, the No. 4 Clippers' defense looms in back to back games. Hayward is useful when he is rolling, but don't plan on putting him to use this week.
Elton Brand, Mavericks (@OKC, DEN, SAS): Brand has fallen on hard times in a big way, as he seems to have completely tumbled off the cliff in his 14th NBA season. Brand is averaging just 6.8 points per game on the season, and he might be looking at a reduced role this week, as Dirk Nowitzki gets ready to return from knee surgery. Chris Kaman will likely remain in the starting lineup at center upon Nowitzki's return, which could push Brand to a full-time bench role. Brand is dealing with a groin injury heading into Week 9 as well, so keep him out of the starting lineup in all formats.
Bust Alert: Ersan Ilyasova, Bucks (BKN, MIA, @DET): The bad Ilyasova is back, as his Jekyll-and-Hyde act continues. Ilyasova was a breakout Fantasy star a year ago for his ability to mix three-point proficiency with strong rebounding on both sides of the floor, however he has been just as big a disappointment this season as he was a surprise a year ago. Ilyasova is has failed to score in double figures in four games in a row as of Friday night, after topping double figures in five consecutive games prior. We were hoping Ilyasova would be able to build on his breakout performance from a year ago, but he has struggled with consistency all season long. At this point, he has become a player you only want to rely on during his hot streaks.
Ed Davis, Raptors (@SAS, @NOH, @ORL): Davis was featured here last week as a forward, but his production is much more fitting at the center position, where he maintains dual eligibility. Davis is averaging 9.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game over the last 10 games, production more befitting a starting center than a forward. He has scored in double figures in five of the last seven games, and has seen at least 23 minutes of playing time in each of those games. He and Amir Johnson figure to make up the starting frontcourt for the Raptors for the time being, and both should be worth using this week, as detailed above. Toronto does not have many great matchups in Week 9, but the team's lack of depth should create opportunities for Davis' production to make up for that.
Sleeper Alert: Tyler Zeller, Cavaliers (@WAS, ATL, @BKN): Zeller has found himself in the starting lineup over the last two games, and, while he obviously cannot make up for Anderson Varejao's absence, the rookie has held his own. He has scored 32 points on 14 of 28 shooting over the two games, while snagging 10 rebounds. Varejao might be back in time for Week 9 from a knee injury that has cost him the last two games, however the floundering Cavaliers might not be in any hurry to bring him back until he is 100-percent healthy. If Varejao is forced to miss time during the week, Zeller has the ability to provide decent numbers as a desperation fill in.
Kevin Seraphin, Wizards (CLE, ORL, @CHI): Seraphin has been useful in stretches this season, however he seems to be taking a back seat in the team's offensive plans as Nene has gotten closer to full strength. The fact that Seraphin is mired in a slump recently has not helped his cause, as he is shooting just 38.2 percent over the last five games. As a result, he is scoring just 8.4 points on 11.0 shots per game, as his inability to get to the free-throw line continues to keep him from reaching his full offensive potential. The Wizards face a pair of top-six defenses in Week 9, so don't expect a matchup against the Cavaliers to prop his numbers up. Seraphin could struggle this week.
Bust Alert: DeMarcus Cousins, Kings (@POR, NYK, BOS): Cousins' attitude finally seemed to get the better of him this weekend, as he spent the entirety of the second half of a loss to the Clippers Friday in the locker room. Coach Keith Smart told reporters that he benched Cousins for "conduct detrimental to the team" and would not commit to played Cousins in the team's upcoming games despite Cousins' official apologies. Even if Cousins does play, it would not be a surprise to see Cousins keep him on a tight leash, as his play recently has not demanded big minutes anyways. Cousins is shooting just 31.6 percent from the field over the last five games, despite averaging 14.2 points per game. Cousins' considerable talent has trouble shining through due to his personality, and if the situation devolves, it might be time to keep him on the bench and avoid the risk.