Is There Hidden Fantasy Basketball Value on the Blazers?
After a complete roster overhaul in the offseason, it was anybody's guess as to how the Portland Trail Blazers might look this season when it began. Aside from the team's lone returning starter, Damian Lillard, the leftovers from the offseason purge and the players added via trade and free agency were mostly unproven.
Much like the Cleveland Indians fans in the film Major League, fans of the the Portland Trail Blazers looking at the current squad's roster before the season had to be muttering "who are these bleeping guys?" After eight games, it's too early to say that the Blazers have stumbled upon their own versions of Willie Mays Hays and Ricky Vaughn, but given the low preseason expectations for the Blazers, a 4-4 record and a surprising 12th in our Power Rankings has to be considered an encouraging start.
There was little doubt that Lillard was going to be taking on an even bigger role this season and become a top-tier asset for fantasy owners. Lillard's backcourt mate C.J. McCollum was also expected to be a breakout candidate.
Fantasy owners and those playing daily fantasy basketball have had both of these guards on their radar since opening night, but there are some other Blazers worth keeping an eye in the coming weeks. Let's take a look at three players who have been seeing a good amount of minutes, or may in the near future, and offer some sneaky fantasy value.
Al-Farouq Aminu has emerged as easily the most consistent fantasy option behind Lillard and McCollum. Aminu is seeing a healthy amount of court time, with 33.4 minutes per game, and is third in the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game. He leads the team in rebounding at 8.1 per game. Aminu isn't a likely candidate to explode in the scoring department on any given night as his Usage Rate is just 18.7, but he does have two double-doubles on the year and is a contributor in every statistical category most nights.
Although Aminu has been solid across the board statistically, there are a few concerns.
Using our nERD metric, which indicates how many wins above or below .500 a player would make an average team over a full season, Aminu hasn't been as valuable as you might suspect. Aminu's -2.5 nERD is the lowest of all five of the Blazers starters. Also, with veteran wing Gerald Henderson now healthy for the first time all season, there is a possibility he cuts into Aminu's minutes a bit.
Still, given his strong defensive play and the fact that he's considered one of the building blocks for the future of the Blazers, Aminu's spot in the starting lineup isn't in jeopardy, and we can expect solid, if not spectacular, production from him going forward.
Third-year power forward Meyers Leonard is another player that the Blazers consider to be a key to their rebuilding efforts. Leonard came on strong at the end of the 2014-15 season and was impressive in the Blazers' first-round playoff series versus Memphis. Despite sinking only one three-point shot in his two-year college career, Leonard reinvented himself as a "stretch" forward in his second NBA season. His accuracy from beyond the arc was on full display in the playoffs last season, when he shot a blistering 77% from deep for the series.
Because of his late-season surge and a spot in the starting lineup, expectations were high for Leonard coming into the season. Through the first eight games though, Leonard has mostly disappointed. He hasn't been efficient, with a nERD score of -2.3. The three-point shooting that was Leonard's calling card last season has taken a turn for the worse and is currently under 30%. Despite averaging 26.6 minutes per game, Leonard has only scored in double figures four times, and despite being 7'1", he's averaging a paltry 5.9 rebounds per 36 minutes. He has only blocked five shots all season.
The good news for fantasy owners deploying Leonard is that he will continue to be given the opportunity to turn things around. Leonard will be a restricted free agent this summer, and the Blazers will need to decide what his worth is (i.e. if he's truly the team's power forward of the future). The last two games have been an improvement, as Leonard grabbed 9 rebounds in his last outing and scored 17 points the game before that.
Given his less than encouraging start, this could be an opportunity for fantasy owners to buy low on Leonard. On the other hand, there is also the distinct possibility that Leonard isn't going to take the leap that the Blazers hoped he would. If Leonard's primary weapon, the three-point shot, isn't going to be nearly as effective as it was at the end of last season, he's going to have to be more of a contributor in other categories to be a worthy fantasy option.
You're forgiven if you can't remember which Plumlee is which, but Mason Plumlee, another newcomer to the Blazers this season, is the Plumlee brother you need to keep an eye on for fantasy purposes this season.
After two seasons as a part-time starter with the Brooklyn Nets, Plumlee has started every game at center for the Blazers this season. Other than a dismal free throw percentage of 34.4% and the lack of any semblance of a three point shot (he hasn't attempted any), Plumlee has been a solid contributor across all statistical categories. Plumlee is averaging 10.1 points per game to go along with 7.8 rebounds per game. In the Blazers' offense, Plumlee finds the ball in his hands more than you might expect, which has resulted in his assists per 36 minutes to more than double to 3.5 from his career average of 1.6.
Plumlee isn't a particularly elite shot blocker, as he averages one per game, but he has shown the propensity for steals so far this season, averaging 1.13 per game, which ranks fourth among NBA centers. Plumlee has been relatively efficient this season, with a respectable nERD of 0.9. His field goal percentage of 62.5% is fifth best in the NBA among centers.
Aminu and Plumlee are solid, consistent performers who contribute in a variety of categories. The Blazers' offense still runs through Lillard and to a lesser extent McCollum. Therefore, Aminu and Plumlee don't offer huge upside, but a double-double isn't out of the question for either player on any given night.
Leonard may actually offer more upside than both Aminu and Plumlee. If his three-point shot comes around or if he starts using his size and becomes a more willing rebounder, he can take a big jump statistically. For now, although he will continue to receive a healthy does of minutes, Leonard offers very little consistency. Consider Leonard a boom/bust play in daily fantasy and someone to monitor in season-long leagues.