One year ago the Fantasy Lab debuted its top 25 fantasy basketball keepers of players 22 years old and younger. The column was a smashing success (I got more e-mails than ever before) despite a numbering error that actually brought the list to 26 players (surprisingly, no e-mails about this). The people wanted more keeper advice. So the Lab is back with grades on last year's list and a new top 25 in what promises to be an annual tradition.
But why focus on player 22-years old? It's explained best in the intro in last year's column, but to summarize: When players used to play four years of college ball, they were 22 when they entered the league; now rookies are younger and more varied in age and their development on draft day, making it harder to accurately project a player's career arc using the conventional wisdom of the last century. Over the last 15 years (since Kevin Garnett went from preps to pros), we've learned that if a player can establish he's for real before he hits 22, the odds of becoming a superstar are heavily stacked in his favor.
Using real players to illustrate the point, Memphis Grizzlies rookie Sam Young, entering the NBA at age 24, is extremely long in the tooth for a rookie. Comparably, his teammate O.J. Mayo is still only 21, three years his younger. Mayo is already a better player and has three more years to develop both his body and his game, while Young is already close to his physical peak and is years behind the NBA learning curve. The future certainly looks a lot brighter for Mayo, even if Young miraculously matches Mayo's rookie numbers, no matter how many times the homer announcers are mistakenly impressed by the "young rookie."
Before getting to this year's list, let's grade last year's rankings and see how well the Lab prognosticated. Keep in mind it can be difficult to judge rookies just two months into the season, but you gotta do what you gotta do to create this list. The four players listed in italics were eligible for this year's list based on their age, but did not make it.
1. Kevin Durant, SG/SF, Thunder, 20, A2. Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls, 20, A3. Andris Biedrins, C, Warriors, 22, B4. Rodney Stuckey, PG/SG, Pistons, 22, B5. Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers, 21, B6. O.J. Mayo, PG/SG, Grizzlies, 21, B7. Rajon Rondo, PG, Celtics, 22, B8. Michael Beasley, SF/PF, Heat, 19, A9. Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder, 20, A10. Brook Lopez, F/C, Nets, 20, B10(b). Rudy Gay, SF/PF, Grizzlies, 22, B11. Al Horford, F/C, Hawks, 22, B12. Tyrus Thomas, SF/PF, Bulls, 22, B13. Thaddeus Young, SF/PF, Sixers, 20, C14. Spencer Hawes, F/C, Kings, 20, C15. Greg Oden, C, Blazers, 20, B16. Wilson Chandler, SG/SF/PF, Knicks, 21, A17. Jeff Green, SF/PF, Thunder, 22, A18. Amir Johnson, SF/PF, Pistons, 21, F19. Kevin Love, F/C, T-Wolves, 20, B20. Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers, 20, C21. Mario Chalmers, PG, Heat, 22, B22. D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats, 21, D23. Louis Williams, PG/SG, Sixers, 22, C24. Mike Conley, PG/SG, Grizzlies, 21, D25. Andray Blatche, PF/C, Wizards, 22, D
Breaking down the grades
A: Durant, Rose, Beasley, Westbrook, Chandler, Green
When you put out a list like this, it's important to nail the No. 1 ranking, and Durant is delivering with flying colors. But that should have been a no-brainer for everyone reading the column. Rose still looks like he's on the path to superstardom. It took courage to rank Beasley, the NBA's youngest player last year, at 8, but he's proving to be right around there with the potential for more in the future. The Westbrook pick was aggressive for what he had done at the time, but it looks dead on, while Chandler and Green are ranked exactly as they should be.
B: Biedrins, Stuckey, Bynum, Mayo, Rondo, Lopez, Gay, Horford, T. Thomas, Oden, Love, Chalmers
Biedrins and Stuckey were solid picks with nice futures, but they look a little too high now. Bynum could have been an A, but the reality of his situation with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol around for a while dampens the enthusiasm. Rondo should have been higher but No. 7 is still pretty good. Same deal with Lopez at 10, Gay at, um, 10, too (that's the aforementioned numbering issue), and Horford at 11. Love should have been higher on talent, but injuries are causing problems, so the lower ranking is actually appropriate. Thomas should be busting out, but Vinny Del Negro is messing with him and his playing time. The B for Chalmers may seem curious given his demotion to the bench in Miami that's rendering him unrosterable in standard leagues, but remember how strong his rookie season was and how many people were expecting better things this year. Having him outside the top 20 looks very good in hindsight.
C: Young, Hawes, Gordon, Williams, Oden
The Lab is still excited for Young and Hawes to deliver on their potential, but they haven't yet met this year's lofty expectations. It took a while for the Lab to warm up to Gordon (by late last year, there was an occupied seat on his bandwagon), so he should have been much higher. Williams should have been ahead of the two players ranked directly in front of him.
Last year at this time, Oden was making a successful comeback from microfracture knee surgery and looked like he could become an interior force, but then the former No. 1 overall pick got hurt again. Many others would have had him much higher, and they would have been justified with how he played out of the gate, but two years of injuries factored into the rankings. Then he fractured his left patella so an even lower ranking would have made more sense.
D: Augustin, Conley, Blatche
All three players showed promise late last year and excelled when starting in place of an injured player, but for various reasons, it hasn't worked out for them this year. Blatche is still too immature, and the Wizards imported a lot of talent this offseason. Maybe it will be exported again soon. Augustin had the confidence verbally beaten out of him by Larry Brown, but those players typically emerge better off for it down the road. Conley's had a slow progression stymied by an influx of talented players around him and some injuries. The light switch still hasn't clicked on. And it might never will.
I overrated him the way Joe Dumars has overrated so many players through the years. The Lab will not be an Amir apologist again.
Before moving on to this year's list, it's worth noting the omission of Anthony Randolph from last year's list. He's the only player who wasn't on the list that really should have been. He didn't even crack 14 mpg in November or December, and the Lab barely remembers seeing him play, but the per 36 mpg averages should have been a dead giveaway: 15.9 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 1.3 spg and 2.4 bpg. Amends were made for this year's list.
Also, 10 players "graduated" from last year's list since they aged from 22 to 23 years old. We lost the likes of Andris Biedrins, Rodney Stuckey, Rajon Rondo, Rudy Gay, Al Horford, Tyrus Thomas, Jeff Green, Mario Chalmers, Lou Williams and Andray Blatche.
Now, onto this year's list ...
1. Kevin Durant, SG/SF, Thunder, 21
Still only 21-years old, Durant is a bona fide NBA and fantasy superstar. Hopefully you listened last year when the Lab ranked Durant No. 1 and ordered you to "break the bank to land him in a trade." If not, the same advice applies right now. Durant has shown marked improvement in each season and is now fourth in the NBA in scoring at a gaudy 28.9 ppg (47.8 FG%), including knocking back the second-highest total free throws at a category-dominating 86.4 percent clip. Even with his 6-foot-10 frame, he's drilling 1.4 3PM, too. But scoring isn't all Durant can do. He's also averaging 6.9 rpg, 3.0 apg, 1.5 spg and 0.9 bpg, making him an elite fantasy talent who will dominate for the next decade, easy.
2. Brook Lopez, F/C, Nets, 21
Lopez has followed up an outstanding rookie year with an even better sophomore campaign, as he's become the offensive focal point of the Nets with Vince Carter no longer in town. Lopez gives you everything you could want from a franchise fantasy center: he scores (18.6 ppg) at a strong clip (48.3%, down from last year's 53.1%, proving he's capable of more), rebounds (9.6 rpg) and blocks shots (1.9 bpg). That's not all he does, though, showing a deft touch and savvy understanding of the game at such a ripe age, helping him to accumulate 2.1 apg and 0.8 spg, while also showing off a feathery touch from the stripe with an 82.9 FT% -- top-notch from the C spot. Factor in his durability (never missed a game in his career) and it's easy to see him replacing Jay-Z as the man in Brooklyn over the next decade when he averages 20 and 10 with 2 blocks and excellent percentages.
3. Tyreke Evans, PG/SG, Kings, 20
If the Rookie of the Year voting were to occur right now, Evans would be your winner, hands down. That's an impressive feat considering Brandon Jennings dropped 55 in a game, but the thing with Tyreke is, he gets it done every single night. In fact, since Kevin Martin went down and Evans was forced to shoulder the load, the Kings are a .500 ball club when he's in the lineup, despite many pundits' expectations that they'd be among the league's worst teams. Then again, how many rookies have ever averaged over 20 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists in a season, as Evans is doing now? Just four, and they're all legends of the game: Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James. If that fact doesn't scream "keeper" to you, then you might as well stop reading this article now. How have we not even mentioned the 1.5 spg yet? Make no mistake about it, Martin might be averaging over 30 ppg in the few he's played this year, but Tyreke is Sacramento's franchise player already.
4. Derrick Rose, PG, Bulls, 21
Despite being slowed by a severe ankle sprain to start the year, Derrick Rose has come on strongly and is solidifying himself as one the league's elite young point guards. Building on last year's award-winning rookie campaign just two years removed from high school, Rose is a potent scorer at the rim who still has room to improve his jump shot, something that will happen over time given his work ethic. He also needs to work on his three-point range, but that's typical of a player so young whose quickness has allowed him to never need that shot in his repertoire before. As it stands now, there's a lot to like about a 21-year old who averages 18.6 ppg, 5.8 apg and 3.5 rpg while being the unquestioned leader of his team.
5. Blake Griffin, SF/PF, Clippers, 20
Nary a single NBA game under his belt with a stress fracture in his left knee after a shoulder injury this summer, it shouldn't be possible that Griffin is ranked this high on the list and yet here he stands, checking in at No. 6. The No. 1 overall pick in the draft this year after obliterating the NCAA the year before as a sophomore, Griffin's combination of strength, speed and basketball IQ are dangerously potent. He has freakish athleticism (37-inch vertical, 22 bench-press reps at 185 pounds), an unparalleled work ethic and a non-stop motor on the court that will make the NBA game easy for him once he gets accustomed to it. The show will be delayed until next season, but with Marcus Camby likely to be dealt this season, the Clippers' front court is reserved for Griffin, which obviously bodes well for Griffin's value.
6. Kevin Love, F/C, Timberwolves, 21
The Lab loves Love. He's a ferocious rebounder who has the potential to lead the league in boards. In fact, he lead the league in rebound percentage last year, so it makes sense that his 9.1 rpg last year stood to grow with the increased minutes he's earned this year. Now Love is corralling 12.3 caroms per night in just 31.8 mpg. And he's managing to do this while playing alongside Al Jefferson, one of the NBA's top rebounders as well. The biggest difference this year for Love is that with his outstanding basketball IQ (his dad was an NBA player, his middle name is "Wesley" in honor of family friend Wes Unseld, and he regularly sought the advice of John Wooden and BillWalton while at UCLA), he's a perfect fit for new coach Kurt Rambis' Triangle Offense. A summer spent working on his mid-range J allows him to operate effectively out of either the high or low post and find the open man leading his assist total to nearly triple from 1.0 to 2.7 per game. Plus, he's allowed to shoot the three this year and is hitting 0.8 3pg at a tasty 46.4 percent. The only hole in his game is his shot-blocking, but he still manages a swat every other game. If that's all that's missing, there is still a lot to love about Love.
7. Russell Westbrook, PG, Thunder, 21
Westbrook is like a lump of clay waiting to be sculpted into a top-flight, two-way point guard, except that instead of being a ball of clay, he's a 6-3 concoction of fast-twitch muscle fibers and jet fuel. Westbrook's desire is his strongest trait, and right now, he desperately wants to transform from the shooting guard role he played at UCLA (where he was Love's teammate) into a do-everything PG. It's been a simultaneously beautiful and ugly process as Westbrook flirts with triple-doubles or pours in 30 points, while also leading the league in turnovers last year and shooting 39.8 FG% for his short career. He's already learning to finish better at the rim (and a noticeable portion of his missed shots come from missed tips as he ferociously attacks the offensive glass), and the turnovers will drop as he matures. If he can ever gain some consistency on his outside shot, there will be no stopping him, however; he will lock down opposing PGs with his 1.3 spg and 0.5 bpg.
8. Michael Beasley, SF/PF, Heat, 21
Following a record-setting All-American freshman season at Kansas St., Beasley left school early to become the youngest player in the NBA last year at 19-years old (and just turned 21 last week). Drafted second overall, he had an up-and-down rookie campaign that saw him start the team's first 15 games then not start again until the final four games of the year (when he had three straight efforts of at least 23 points and 13 rebounds). His off-the-court transgressions and maturity have been called into question more than once, but those generally improve with age, so it's not too much of a concern right now. Beasley isn't dominant in any categories yet, but his skill set projects him becoming a top scorer and double-digit rebounder in the next few years -- a pace that will be accelerated if Dwyane Wade leaves this summer.
9. Brandon Jennings, PG, Bucks, 20
It's been amusing to see so many media members who are paid to cover the NBA exclaim: "Where did this guy come from?" and then will often follow that up by reeling off some less than impressive numbers from his season in Europe last year. Did they forget about his winning every major high school player of the year award two years ago while leading his team to a 45-1 record and the top ranking in USA Today's Super 25 list of team, or are they just ignorant to everything that occurs outside the NBA, from high school accolades to European clubs poor treatment of young prospects who aren't in their long-term plans? Whatever the case may be, his 55-point game was an eye-opener and the world is taking notice. Jennings has his team in playoff position on the strength of his 19.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.9 3pg and 1.1 spg with limited turnovers (2.8) for a rookie playing 35 minutes a night. Only 20 years young, Jennings has plenty of room for growth and nothing but time to work on his shot. The Bucks know they have a franchise cornerstone in Jennings; hopefully you realize that as well.
10. Anthony Randolph, F/C, Warriors, 20
This pick is sure to be a little controversial given some of the other names on the list, Randolph's limited minutes thus far in his career, and his recent ankle injury that will sideline him for most of the year; however, there's a pretty good chance that Randolph ends up being one of the transcendent players in NBA history with his size and skill set. The Lab doesn't say that lightly either; Randolph simply oozes superstar potential. Nearly 7-feet tall with the handle and speed of a point guard, it's a shame that Don Nelson is insisting on the tough love process with Randolph instead of letting him learn by playing through his mistakes on the court, of which he has had a few. But there's no denying the supreme talent when he gets his minutes. In the six games that he's seen at least 30 minutes, Randolph is averaging 17.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 2.2 apg, 1.8 spg, and 2.7 bpg with an 82.7 FT% on just under 5 FTA. Those are right in line with his per 36 minutes stats, too. Also of note is that he's just the seventh youngest player in the NBA. Nelson is relenting, too, finally inserting Randolph into the starting five at PF after making him play out of position at C since the start of the year due to injuries. A monsoon of fantasy goodness will rain down upon the league in the coming years. Nab him on the cheap while he's injured if you have some roster space to stash him.
11. O.J. Mayo, SG, Grizzlies, 22
Mayo's second season is a carbon copy of last year's rookie campaign, which is great, but not excellent. There's nothing wrong with 18.2 ppg, 1.6 3pg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg and 1.2 spg, but the future looked so much brighter last year with an underperforming Rudy Gay, no Zach Randolph and an overweight Marc Gasol.
12. Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers, 22
It's a combination of lingering concerns about his knee problems, the massive contract that Pau Gasol inked to stay in L.A. and the influx of young talent into the NBA over the last two years that have dropped Bynum from No. 6 to 12 for this year's list. He's a FG% monster who blocks shots and rebounds, but he'll always be the No. 3 option at best with Pau and Kobe around.
13. Eric Gordon, SG, Clippers, 21
It might not seem ideal for a shooting guard, but Gordon has a powerful frame at 6-3, 222 pounds, which allows him to finish inside and get to the line over 5 times per game. But his greatest assets are his smooth outside stroke 2.0 3pg on 39% shooting and his improved defense (1.6 spg compared to 1.0 spg last year).
14. Danilo Gallinari, SF/PF, Knicks, 21
Mike D'Antoni called him the "best shooter he's ever seen" and we're starting to see why this year as he leads the league in 3PM. The back surgery he had last year gives us pause, but it's a good thing he corrected the problem ASAP instead of letting it become a possible distraction throughout this career, right? The 0.8 spg and bpg each show he's not one-dimensional.
15. Stephen Curry, PG/SG, Warriors, 21
Curry is posting some useful numbers for a rookie: 12.2 ppg, 1.4 3pg, 3.7 rpg, 4.5 apg and a prolific 1.8 spg, but how much of it is a product of Nelson's system? Does that even matter in the grand scheme of things with his pedigree and pure shooting stroke?
16. Yi Jianlian, PF, Nets, 22?
Is he really 22? Regardless, the Chairman's upside is being realized right now despite two underwhelming seasons to start his career. Yi bulked up and is deserving of the nickname Muscle Shark -- even if its origin stems from a misinterpreted translation -- as he's bullying his way in the paint and spending less time on the perimeter. He's got an all-around game the whole world will recognize.
17. Thaddeus Young, SF/PF, Sixers, 21
Even though the Sixers gave $80 million each to Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand, it's Young who represents the team's best chance of escaping mediocrity. An aggressive and natural scorer, Young should be a 20-plus ppg scorer and top option for the team next year after a slow start to this year. He'll also give you steals, boards, threes and more consistency next year.
18. Wilson Chandler, SF/PF, Knicks, 22
With a Shawn Marion-lite kind of game, Chandler contributes across every category and is a legit threat to average a triple-single (1 three, 1 block and 1 steal). After the Knicks' disastrous start to the season, Chandler has really poured it on in December and in the new year demonstrating marked improvement for the second consecutive year -- something that bodes well for his future.
19. Marreese Speights, PF/C, Sixers, 22
Speights has a dangerously soft outside touch for the Sixers' center of the near future. It's no secret the team wants to move incumbent Sam Dalembert, and if nothing gets done this year, he becomes a great bargaining chip next year with his massive expiring contract. His 36 mpg averages are 20.1 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 1.2 spg and 1.1 bpg.
20. Spencer Hawes, PF/C, Kings, 21
The anticipated breakthrough hasn't materialized for Hawes yet, but the opportunity is there and he has all the tools. Hawes has legit three-point range to complement his traditional back-to-the-basket low-post game and he'll get dirty grabbing boards and blocking shots on the defensive end. The maturation process will continue as he works to stabilize a starting role.
21. James Harden, PG/SG, Thunder, 20
Playing time and stats are going to be an issue since Thabo Sefolosha is the team's defensive stopper and Harden will have to play alongside Durant and Westbrook, but the talent is definitely there.
22. Omri Casspi, SF/PF, Kings, 21
The Kings are loaded with young talent, but the Israeli-born Casspi has already established himself as a talented glue guy with a potent inside-outside game.
23. Ersan Ilyasova, SF/PF, Bucks, 22
He was talented enough to crack the NBA at just 19 years old. After some desperately needed overseas seasoning, Ilyasova is showing he can hang at the NBA level by hitting threes and grabbing boards.
24. Ty Lawson, PG/SG, Nuggets, 22
A recent eight-game spurt with Chauncey Billups sidelined has shown that Lawson is more than one of the greatest college point guards ever, he's a legit pro -- and is being groomed to replace Billups.
25. Jonny Flynn, PG/SG, T'wolves, 20
Struggling with the Triangle Offense, Flynn hasn't lit the court afire in the same way as a few other rookie PGs. His size detracts from his attractiveness, but not in the same way as having wunderkind Ricky Rubio waiting in the wings to steal his spot in a couple years.
The following players just missed the cut, but are worth watching their development. Remember, this list last year didn't contain Anthony Randolph because he barely registered any playing time to this point and couldn't be properly evaluated. Some of these players could emerge as soon as the end of this year.
Jrue Holiday, PG/SG, Sixers, 19Serge Ibaka, C, Thunder, 20Terrence Williams, SG/SF/PF, Nets, 22DeMar DeRozan, SG/SF/PF, Raptors, 20DeJuan Blair, SF/PF/C, Spurs, 20Mike Conley, PG, Grizzlies, 22JaVale McGee, F/C, Wizards, 21Donte Greene, SG/SF, Kings, 21Jerryd Bayless, PG, Blazers, 21