Fantasy basketball is a fickle game. You can draft what you perceive to be a perfect roster—poised to score an incredible volume of points, snag a bounty of rebounds and dish out a multitude of assists—but perhaps that squad also commits a heinous amount of turnovers, doesn’t convert a lot of three-point attempts and struggles at the charity stripe.
Crafting a dominant fantasy basketball roster is tough, but we’ve already witnessed a few performances from role players that could be worthy of waiver-wire pickups. A handful of underrated players have the potential to be difference-makers in a variety of categories, so let’s break down some fantasy sleepers this season (admittedly with a small sample size at our fingertips).
The Trail Blazers’ 23-year-old center started all seven of Portland’s preseason games. He averaged just 25 minutes of court time in those contests in order to stay fresh for the regular season, but he still made a meaningful impact in a variety of ways.
Leonard will be an interesting fantasy prospect and perhaps even a viable Most Improved Player candidate this season. His ability to both rebound the ball efficiently and knock down three-pointers as a 7’1” center provides a unique skill set that has plenty of value in fantasy (and NBA trends in general).
He also sports solid passing chops that date back to his time in college at the University of Illinois. He’s changed his game more now to hit spot-up threes, but he certainly has the ability to keep his head on a swivel to find open shooters on the perimeter.
One drawback may be that the hulking center doesn’t block many shots (just 0.4 per game in his career). But he sent away at least one attempt in four of the seven preseason games and in the home opener against New Orleans. It’s early, but Leonard’s contributions are very fantasy-friendly.
Jae Crowder, SF, Celtics
Looking to Boston’s overcrowded frontcourt for reliable fantasy production night in and night out may prove a fool’s errand, as just about anyone could have a big night depending upon the rotation. But Crowder is worth monitoring after he rewarded head coach Brad Stevens’s faith to start him in the season opener.
Amir Johnson was seen as a more attractive option for fantasy owners entering the season. And while he made the most out of his 20 minutes off the bench against the lowly Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, Crowder got more minutes and is owned in less than 5% of ESPN fantasy leagues as of Oct. 29.
He can rebound, pass and defend, but if he’s able to find consistency with his three-point stroke—he’s knocking down 53.8% of his treys dating back through the preseason—he’ll definitely be worth a roster spot in fantasy formats.
According to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, former MVP Dirk Nowitzki said of Pachulia, “I don't think I've played with a smarter center than he is. Just making smart plays, setting good picks, getting guys open. He's a good passer for his size and just makes really, really smart plays.”
That’s incredibly high praise coming from one of the NBA’s all-time great players.
Pachulia shot just 2-of-10 from the field in the season-opening blowout over the Phoenix Suns, but he made all six of his free throws, had a 10-point, 10-rebound double-double and added three assists, two steals and a block to the box score in 25 minutes.
He was just 2-of-8 from the floor in a loss to the Clippers on Thursday night, but he hauled in eight rebounds in only 18 minutes of court time.
Through opportunity alone as Dallas’s only viable center, Pachulia should at least be a reliable source of rebounds. It would be wise, however, to see if his field-goal percentage bounces back some before adding him. But as a career 46% shooter, he’s not likely to move the needle much in that category.
C.J. Miles, SF/SG, Pacers
Miles, objectively speaking, did not perform well during the 2014-15 season. Typically a reliable sharpshooter, he shot just 39.8% from the field and 34.5% from beyond the arc in his first season with Indiana.
Perhaps the only saving grace from a fantasy standpoint was that Miles made the highest amount of threes per game (2.2) of his career—the efficiency just wasn’t great.
But through two games this season, he appears far more comfortable with his supporting cast in Indy.
The former second-round pick of the Jazz has scored 18 points in back-to-back games while making four triples in each contest. He’s been a sharpshooter for Indy and has even added four steals in those two games. If your fantasy team is desperate for some three-point shooting chops, Miles appears to be a strong bet to bounce back to form following a down year a season ago.
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