Apologies for this year’s abbreviated sleepers list. With the limited time in the preseason and the ongoing free-agent frenzy, this is the best I could do. So right off the top of my head:
Jrue Holiday: A great player who has the confidence of his coach and is taking his team over. Took the game-winning shot in the last preseason game. May make a bigger than expected jump in production.
Darren Collison: Collison struggled at times last year, after being ridiculously good the year before. The difference? David West, with whom Collison worked the pick and pop in New Orleans, and now has reunited. How can this not work? Indiana’s offense will benefit greatly from the growth of Paul George and the addition of West, and I expect Collison (and the guy below) to be beneficiaries. Collison could be a real steal this season because many expect George Hill to potentially take away his starting job. Trust me, that will never happen.
Roy Hibbert: Hibbert has struggled against the double teams and packed lanes created by Indiana’s non-shooting power forwards. That’s gone now with the addition of David West. Indiana’s high-low action should be impressive, and this could be Hibbert’s breakout year.
Mike Conley: Did anyone surprise more in last year’s playoffs than Conley and Marc Gasol? They earned a lot of respect, which means Conley will be free to call their number more often. A very efficient scorer, I look for Conley to make jumps in points and assists.
Ricky Rubio and Jimmer Fredette: I put these guys together because I think they may both be undervalued for the same reason: they face logjams at their position, but will get more playing time than people realize. The reason is this: Both the TWolves and the Kings are desperate to sell tickets and jerseys, and Ricky and Jimmer sell tickets and jerseys. And they both can play. I think I like Jimmer more, because Ricky will bring down your points and shooting percentage. But count on ridiculous assists from him in Adelman’s offense.
Paul George: Remember that 6-8 rookie? Well he’s a 6-10′ sophomore. The Pacers have discarded Mike Dunleavy and Brandon Rush, and George is set to get starters minutes. Worked out all summer with Granger, who loves his game. Should go up from his 1 steal a game, and may also become a sneaky source of blocked shots. He blocked 10 shots in his last 5 games last season! Hmm….
Nic Batum: Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez are gone. I expect Batum to own his SF position. Something else that is little understood about Portland: With the loss of Roy, and the additions at the point of Raymond Felton and Jamal Crawford, the once slowest team in the league is set to push the tempo! Hard to believe, under coach Nate McMillan, but I saw it with my own eyes in the preseason. Batum is a gazelle in the open court. I look for his production to increase across the board.
Marcus Thornton: Despite his impressive showing for Sac at the end of last season, Thornton may still be underrated simply because his season averages were terrible. This guy can really light it up, and the big contract he got shows that Westphal is going to take the ball out of Tyreke Evans’ hands more often than people expect.
Aaron Afflalo: Big contract, no J.R. Smith, no Wilson Chandler, no Raymond Felton. I’m guessing Afflalo gets more shots. What do you think?
Josh McRoberts: Strictly a flyer, but when Bynum and Gasol get traded for Dwight Howard, who is left standing? You also get the first 5 days of the season, while Bynum sits out his suspension, as a bonus.
Ekpe Udoh: A deep sleeper only, recommended for your last pick if you need blocks. I’m a little hesitant to name Udoh, because although he projects to improve in the points and rebounds categories, how much remains unclear. What makes The Nightmare interesting is one single category: blocks. If he manages to get his minutes up to 25 (quite possible), he could average over 2 blocks a game. Potentially this year’s Serge Ibaka.
For those interested in my general approach to finding sleepers, check out last year’s preview. And something to bear in mind as the NBA attempts this crazy compressed schedule, full of back to back to backs: When you’re facing a close call between two players, say goodbye to the vet and hello! to the young fella.