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Offseason Extra: Assessing risky rookies

by | Fantasy Writer
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All the hype, the smoke screens, the trade rumors, the last-minute workouts, the relentless physical examinations of wingspan, vertical leap, hand size, foot size, standing reach -- all of it culminated June 26 when the next crop of NBA hopefuls was selected.

For many casual fans, the draft is a time of hope and a promise of new beginnings. Optimism reigns supreme. But for Fantasy players, it's a time of measured calculation. Which few among this batch of newbies inherits a situation that will yield the only thing that matters in Fantasy -- numbers?

On average 10 rookies got drafted last year among the first 200 players taken in Fantasy. Of those 10, only two -- Michael Carter-Williams and Victor Oladipo -- finished in the top 30 at their position. Trey Burke was moderately useful, but he was still outperformed by Jameer Nelson. This meant that if you drafted a rookie, there was a 70 percent chance he was utterly useless. That might speak more to the quality of last year's rookie class, but the lesson remains: Rookies are risky. So let's split up the incoming rookies to try and minimize that risk (by the way, you can listen to the audio version of this column here). This list will inevitably change as rosters start to take their final form through free agency and offseason trades, but for now here's a look at the class of 2014.

Best bets

This group represents the lowest risk by my estimation. If you're going to draft a rookie, and you want to play it safe, take one of these four.

1. Julius Randle, F
Drafted No. 7 overall by the Lakers

The Lakers have one frontcourt player currently on their roster, and his name is Robert Sacre. Otherwise, it's just Randle, Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Kendall Marshall. Nick Young opted out of his contract, and we're not even sure if Steve Nash can stay on the court anymore. That spells a total overhaul of the Lakers' Fantasy identity. Last season they were a fun band of misfits who took turns being Fantasy relevant up to the 10th guy on the roster. A lot of that had to do with Mike D'antoni's possession maximizing offense.

One thing's for certain: Their gameplan will heavily include Randle.There are questions about the health of his foot as well as how he'll deal with the length of NBA frontcourts, but he possesses the strength to hog rebounds and play with a chip on his shoulder. Worry more about a possible preseason surgery than his ability to compete with other pro big men (though latest reports suggest he won't need it). His 25.4 percent usage rate in college suggests if he comes close to the same rate with the Lakers, he'll flirt with a double-double on a nightly basis and have a good shot at scoring more than the 15 points per game he averaged in college.

We have no clue what the Lakers roster will look like once the season begins. Heck, they don't even have a coach yet. But one thing you can count on is Randle having the paint all to himself. With about $35 million committed to Bryant and Nash, the Lakers will have to be economical about filling the rest of their roster -- meaning Randle could be their second most talented player when the season tips off. And the Lakers' top dog is far from a sure-thing coming off two major injuries and a lost season.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd draft Randle ahead of Kenneth Faried, Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green.

2. Jabari Parker, F
Drafted No. 2 overall by the Bucks

Few rookies step into a situation and automatically become the best player on the floor, but that's what's about to happen for the Bucks' lottery pick. There is some overlap on Milwaukee's roster, but none of the players Parker might have to compete with match his pedigree. This guy is an alpha dog scorer with upside in peripheral stats. Even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski abandoned his team-ball philosophy to allow Parker a 32.7 percent usage rate, so it goes without saying that the Bucks should follow suit.

The ideal Fantasy scenario for Parker is playing the stretch four and doing his best impersonation of what Carmelo Anthony did in New York last season. He'll be skilled enough to work past fumbling big men in face up situations and big enough to rise and shoot when defenses switch a smaller guy onto him. The rebounds will follow just by playing near the basket on defense -- just as Anthony grabbed a career-high 8.1 boards per game last year.

The only thing that makes Parker more of a risk than Randle for Fantasy is the question of how the Bucks will use him. The Jason Kidd usurping fiasco had a silver lining for Fantasy. His most successful lineups with the Nets favored small ball and isolation. I'm not sure if that's his actual philosophy or if injuries just forced his hand, but either way Brooklyn ranked near the bottom in assists per game and fifth in unassisted two-point field goals. This bodes well considering last year Duke ranked 58th in the country in assists per game while running the offense through Parker in the post. Hopefully Kidd also plays him at the four. As a small forward, he'll still get close to 20 points per game, but the rebounds will be much harder to come by.

You also might worry about Kidd giving too much play to Ersan Ilyasova, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and John Henson -- all of whom averaged at least 25 minutes per game last season. If they stick Parker to the power forward spot, he'll have a much easier time producing blocks and rebounds as well as converting efficiently from the field. I'm not too worried about Parker separating himself from Milwaukee's other forwards. That will probably happen the first day of practice. Rather, the concern has to do with his position and whether or not he'll be able to rebound and score efficiently.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd draft Parker ahead of Amir Johnson, Markieff Morris and Tristian Thompson.

3. Elfrid Payton, G
Drafted No. 11 overall by the 76ers and traded to the Magic

His stock saw a meteoric rise in the days leading up to the draft, and it's easy to see why. Since 1997 (as far back as Sports-Reference's season finder will go), Payton is the only college player to average 19-plus points, six rebounds, five-plus assists and two-plus steals while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. That line gives him a world of Roto potential. We saw what Michael Carter-Williams was capable of given the keys to an offense, so it's not a stretch to assume Payton will produce the same way. At 6-foot-3 he'll be a terror in the passing lanes and in transition.

Still he's far from a finished product. He has a knack for getting to the free throw line, but he only converted 60 percent for his career. That's troubling, but not nearly as much as his 27 percent from three over his three years at Louisiana-Lafayette. But the guy only attempted 112 threes in 100 college games. Carter-Williams came into the league having only taken 137 threes in 66 games only to jack up 208 in 70 pro games his rookie year. We could see the Magic take the same "just keep shooting" approach with Payton. This makes his value tricky, because in Roto, where he'd be most useful because of his widespread production, his poor free-throw shooting and three-point totals will detract from his stellar field goal rate. His efficiency in college speaks to his ability to finish at the rim, but he's going to find the interior defenses of the NBA much more formidable than that of the Sun Belt conference.

Because the Magic waived Jameer Nelson, it will be very easy for Payton to reach double-figure scoring with at least five assists and a few rebounds playing maestro for Orlando. The key there is the five assists, because the point guard tiers pretty much follow suit with how far above five they can get. Looking at the rest of the Magic roster, scoring could be an issue, specifically in the jump shot department. Payton's upside is dependent on the Magic system using its athletes in a way that affords him assist opportunities. At worst, he's what Jordan Crawford was for Boston last season. At best, he's early season Carter-Williams.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd draft Payton ahead of George Hill, Kendall Marshall and any backup point guard.

4. Andrew Wiggins, F/G
Drafted No. 1 overall by the Cavaliers

Seem odd that Wiggins is the fourth guy I've mentioned? Not really when you look at what last year's No. 1 pick did in Cleveland. Wiggins is obviously in another realm as far as athleticism and upside, but you can't blame me for being cautious when it comes to the Cavs. Because of the hype, Wiggins will probably go in your Fantasy draft much sooner than I'm willing to take him. We talked on the podcast about how his sole season at Kansas was not an indicator of his overall talent level, but his offense does need work. He relies too heavily on a step-back jumper and a spin move drop-step. Isolation defenders will be much better equipped to force Wiggins to places he isn't quite comfortable yet.

Luckily, the Cavs just invested in some basketball IQ. If new coach David Blatt can live up to his tremendous reputation, he'll put Wiggins in spots that showcase his athleticism while contributing to the team. A big part of the Wiggins hype was his NBA-ready defensive prowess. That's why Wiggins could have better value in Roto -- especially if Blatt finds ways to use him efficiently off the ball.

Remember, this isn't your classic lottery pick scenario. Parker will get to experiment as the focal point of his team, whereas Wiggins won't be afforded that option sharing the court with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters. Hopefully Blatt comes in with a clean slate and coaches away the over-dribbling tendencies of Cleveland's lead guards. Keeping Spencer Hawes around might also encourage a constantly moving ball. Still, it's difficult to see Wiggins breaking out in Fantasy at such a young age with a team eager to finally move beyond a rebuilding phase. If Wiggins gives you Kawhi Leonard production (13 points and six rebounds per game on 52 percent from the field), then I'd consider his rookie campaign a great success.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd draft Wiggins ahead of Terrence Jones, Jimmy Butler and Shawn Marion.

High Risk, high reward

These four guys have the talent to be Fantasy gold, but they'll have a much more diffcult time reaching their potential. Because they were highly touted prospects, you'll probably have to reach in the draft to get them. But whether those leaps of faith actually pay off may be completely out of these players' control.

1. Dante Exum, G
Drafted No. 5 overall by the Jazz

The only thing we truly know about Mr. Exum is that nobody really knows much about him. On the podcast, we had the privilege of hearing from Australian hoops writer Olgun Uluc, who's been covering Exum for the last few years. One of the more interesting things he said concerned the style of basketball taught in Australia. It prioritizes structure and fundamentals, echoing scouts' claims that Exum was the smartest player in the draft. And while many tried to liken him to Michael Carter-Williams or Penny Hardaway because of his height, Uluc compared him to Tony Parker -- with a knack for navigating to the middle of the defense and making the right play under pressure.

It's all hype for now, but you can count me in for a 6-foot-6 Tony Parker any day. His youth and small sample size are what make him a huge risk, but I'm willing to take it based on his situation. The Jazz are crying out for the kind of heady ball handling Exum is expected to provide. He can take the play-making pressures off of Trey Burke and Gordon Hayward, who both shot miserably with so much of the offense running through them. Exum didn't work out for the Jazz because he wants to play point guard and Utah already has one. I don't think they'd take him unless they planned to put the ball in his hands and let him prove it. He might begin the year coming off the bench, but I have a hunch Exum ends up a starter soon enough.

I'll warn you that I'm more bullish on Exum than most. As it stands right now, I'd rather draft Exum for the upside than Wiggins for the security. There's something you just can't quantify when it comes to ball handling, and I'm of the belief that Exum possesses "it." Don't judge his assist potential by his numbers in Australia, where quite often he was the best player on the floor and therefore expected to score. Instead, have some fun and take the plunge with me.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd gamble on Exum over Eric Gordon, Nick Young and Kyle Korver.

2. Marcus Smart, G
Drafted No. 6 overall by the Celtics

Sure doesn't seem like the Celtics are getting Kevin Love. The dream of landing a superstar to pair with Rajon Rondo seems to be fading, which is why I think Boston drafted Marcus Smart to replace him. It just makes no sense to surround a pass-first point guard in his prime with a bunch of raw youngsters who also need the ball. Danny Ainge is blowing smoke when he says they plan to play Smart alongside him. Rondo is too competitive to wait around for these guys to develop, and Ainge is too smart to allow Rondo to just walk away next year in free agency. Something's got to give.

So maybe it takes until the trade deadline for the Celtics to find the right price. That would only enhance Smart's value. If you snag him in one of the final rounds of the draft because everyone is worried about how he'll do with Rondo, you'll be getting mid-round value for him once Rondo's traded. With the ball in his hands, Smart looks capable of Lance Stephenson-like production across the board -- a true stat stuffer on both sides of the ball. I'm planning to grab him late instead of boring backups and declining veterans.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd gamble on Smart over Devin Harris, Nate Robinson and Ramon Sessions.

3. Zach LaVine, G
Drafted No. 13 overall by the Timberwolves

Touted as likely the best athlete in the draft, LaVine landed in a situation very much in flux. If the Timberwolves can move Kevin Love and Kevin Martin, there will be roughly 33 field goal attempts to redistribute among the group. And it's not like Ricky Rubio is going to hog the ball -- quite the opposite. That recipe could make for a pretty fun season out of LaVine, who can do a little bit of everything and in spectacular fashion. This is another wait-and-see situation, but I'm not opposed to stashing LaVine to start the season just in case. We don't know much about him because he played in a crowded UCLA lineup for just one year, but maybe Flip Saunders can unleash his explosiveness the same way Jeff Hornacek was finally able to do for Gerald Green.

Where should he be drafted?: I'd gamble on LaVine over Jarrett Jack, Marcus Thornton and Evan Fournier.

4. Noah Vonleh, F
Drafted No. 9 overall by the Hornets

The Hornets may have come away with the steal of the draft considering Vonleh was touted as a top-five talent until just hours before the draft. He fell into the waiting arms of Charlotte and could be in line for some major minutes if Josh McRoberts goes elsewhere in free agency. Young teams that barely make the playoffs are usually an injury away from rebuilding, and the Hornets center has been known to miss a few games. Al Jefferson is their present -- not their future. So if their priorities shift due to an injury, look for Vonleh to see lots of developmental action. The popular comparison is to Chris Bosh, so there could even be room for Vonleh alongside Jefferson if he proves himself a worthy shooter. The risk is great, however, because Vonleh is still a teenager and didn't get to show his true potential at Indiana.

Where should he be drafted?: You could take a flier on Vonleh in 14-team leagues and deeper, but he isn't draft-worthy as of now in standard 12-team and shallower formats. His situation could improve depending on Charlotte's roster.

Sleepers

Don't draft these guys, just wait and see.

Nik Stauskas, G (No. 8 overall by the Kings): DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Isaiah Thomas combined for a whopping 85.4 percent usage rate, meaning not much in the way of shots. But there's a slight chance Stauskas shows off some assist potential the same way Chandler Parsons has in Fantasy. He's a capable ball handler and the Kings could use some fundamental guard play.

Cleanthony Early, F (No. 34 overall by the Knicks): If Carmello Anthony moves on, a huge opportunity opens up at forward. Early has a ton of potential, and, as we saw with the Lakers last season, a shelled-out roster can make Fantasy heroes out of the most unlikely candidates.

Spencer DinWiddie, G (No. 38 overall by the Pistons): Kentavious Caldwell-Pope won the award for most minutes played while making zero impact last season. Rodney Stuckey is a free agent. Safe to say the Pistons need some guard help. DinWiddie dropped to the second round because of an ACL injury, but he's a good ball handler at 6-foot-6 and averaged 15 points per game his last two seasons at Colorado. If Tony Wroten can be a steady streaming option, then why can't DinWiddie?

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