Sleepers are an important but dangerous part of any preparations for fantasy basketball drafts. After all, what fun is it strictly adhering to the automated or “expert-based” rankings you’re spoon-fed? Not only is taking that route lame, it can also blind you to players whose true value is hidden from lists too-heavily based on numbers or past performances. The hazard is getting caught up in the self- or media-generated hype for your sleeper picks and moving too early to grab them. All that said, here is a list of the Top 10 sleepers that you should keep an eye out for in the latter rounds of your drafts (with target rounds in 12-team leagues in brackets), in no particular order.
Included here are what I’d call “true” sleepers – players who are really flying under the radar this summer and have a good shot at outperforming their currently perceived values. This means that you won’t find the likes of Anthony Randolph, J.J. Hickson, Raymond Felton, Leandro Barbosa, Andrei Kirilenko or Rodrigue Beaubois (whose appeal took a dip when he broke his foot) here, since they’re among the fantasy players whose sleeper statuses have nearly caught up to them, making them borderline non-sleepers this fall. Get your rose-colored glasses and read on.
1. Linas Kleiza (G/F – Raptors): Forgot about him? You’re not alone. Kleiza played ball in Greece last season but is making his NBA return in Toronto, where he’s set to command sufficient minutes in a shallow Raptors frontcourt. He did plenty with around 25 minutes a game for Denver in 2007-08, and it’s not difficult to imagine that he’ll leave his mark on fantasy leagues again this season with his versatility. [Target: Rounds 12+]
2. Robin Lopez (F/C – Suns): Let’s table the discussion about why his parents chose to christen their two sons with gender-ambiguous names – this half of the Lopez Bros. is in line for a breakthrough season. He was hindered last year by injuries but made significant contributions whenever he did play, averaging 11/6 and 1.1 blocks, along with 60 percent from the field and 74 percent from the free-throw line in 24:30 per game as a starter. His tough defense guarantees him a spot as the starting center for the Suns and he could be this season’s version of a mini-Marc Gasol. [Target: Rounds 8-10]
3. Nicolas Batum (G/F – Trail Blazers): Batum was an all-around stud last season, slapping up 10.1 points, 1.5 threes, 3.8 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.7 blocks in fewer than 25 minutes a night, all while shooting 51.9 percent from the field and 84.3 percent from the line. He’s got little to no competition at the starting SF spot in Portland this season, which means 30+ minutes are coming his way. He doesn’t hurt you anywhere and has a serious shot at finishing the season in the Top 50. [Target: Rounds 7-9]
4. Jeff Teague (PG – Hawks): This is a classic case of schadenfreude – “glee at another’s misfortune,” according to Webster’s. Mike Bibby’s value is dropping faster than prices for anything with the number 23 in it in Cleveland. Take a look at the Hawks’ depth chart and who’s next in line? Teague, who showed flashes of promise last season (24/5/15 in the final regular-season game) and played well during the Summer League. He’s set to earn a timeshare at point guard in Atlanta. [Target: Rounds 12+]
5. Anthony Morrow (G/F – Nets): Morrow was known as one of the streakiest players in fantasy land while he was on the Warriors, making him an ever-appealing waiver-wire pickup throughout the past couple seasons. However, with Courtney Lee out of New Jersey, Morrow will see more consistent court time, something that was hard to come by under coach Don Nelson in Oakland. He should be a steady source of threes and absent from waiver wires in all but the shallowest leagues this season. [Target: Rounds 8-9]
6. Reggie Williams (G/F – Warriors): This dude was a straight-up beast for flashes of his 24-game stay with the Warriors last season, and he helped many fantasy owners who were savvy enough to pick him up. He’s back for the Warriors in 2010-11, this time with a contract and a shallower roster. While he still has to compete for minutes, Williams’ performance last year should earn him plenty of minutes this season, along with the right to be drafted in most leagues this fall. [Target: Rounds 8-10]
7. JaVale McGee (F/C – Wizards): There’s always been a good deal of hype about McGee, whose athleticism makes him easy to like – and overrate. Nevertheless, the starting center job in Washington should be all his this season, making him a solid source of blocks (he averaged 1.7 blocks while playing just a shade more than 16 minutes a game in 2009-10). He’s still a bit unpolished, which could limit his minutes and effectiveness for stretches of the season, but the alluring potential is there. [Target: Rounds 8-10]
8. Chase Budinger (G/F – Rockets): The red top and facial hair make it easy to compare him to Brian Scalabrine, but make no mistake – Budinger can play. He only averaged around 20 minutes a game last season but still showed that he can put up great all-around numbers. In four games as a starter, Budinger averaged 17/6/3 along with 2.5 threes, 53 percent from the field and 88 percent from the line. With Trevor Ariza out of town, the second-year forward should benefit from a timeshare with Shane Battier at the SF spot and could benefit from the post presence Yao Ming brings to the floor. If you still can’t get over the comparison, think of Budinger as Scalabrine 9.0. [Target: Rounds 13+]
9. Amir Johnson (PF – Raptors): The competition at PF for the Raptors is pretty weak (unless you’re bullish about Ed Davis’ development this season), which means Johnson should receive plenty of playing time this year. He’s always shown promise but has never gotten quite enough minutes to capitalize. This season should be a different story. He’s an inconsistent rebounder and shot-blocker, but at just 23 years old, getting more playing time will only help his development. And if Andrea Bargnani moves over to PF, Johnson will probably get center eligibility, which only helps his value. [Target: Rounds 13+]
10. Darko Milicic (F/C – Timberwolves): If reading his name here makes you angry, I and most other fantasy owners are with you. But before you rip this page out and set it ablaze, let’s take a sober look at Milicic’s situation this season: no Al Jefferson, a starting job at center and a $20 million investment from the living tragicomedy that is David Kahn. The Human Cigar, who’s always been a good shot-blocker, could be in line for around 30 minutes a game in 2010-11, which means he could feasibly approach 11/7 along with around 1+ steals and 1.5+ blocks per game. You could do a lot worse than picking a center with Milicic’s (dare I say it) potential for relevance this season. That said, if you still refuse to consider drafting him out of spite, I find it hard to blame you. [Target: Rounds 13+]
Throughout the season, be sure to leave your questions, comments, concerns, trade offers, roster problems and more in the comments below.
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