Who's the Next Rubio?

Matt Stroup
Who's the Next Rubio?
Matt Stroup considers some injured players who could return to make a major impact, just like Ricky Rubio last year

Last year at this time, Ricky Rubio was sitting on someone’s bench in your league. He was five weeks away from making his season debut, and almost three months from making a significant impact. (After returning from his torn ACL in mid-December, Rubio posted just 5.1 ppg and 5.2 apg – on 27.7 percent shooting – through his first 17 games).

In other words, he was somewhere between useless and frustrating for a very long time.

But for fantasy owners who did their breathing exercises and waited patiently, Rubio’s roster spot eventually turned into a major asset. With the rust finally removed from his rebuilt knee by the end of January, Rubio went on to post 13.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 8.2 apg, 2.7 spg and 0.7 3s over his last 40 games.

The takeaway here is simple: As we all sit here eating our turkey paninis, there are valuable players on other people’s rosters who are injured, leaving their value (and price in trades) as low as it will be all season. And at least a few of those players have a good chance to make a major impact.

Today, in the Roundball Stew special report Searching for This Year’s Rubio, we’ll look at a few of those injured players, and consider their outlook the rest of the way.

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First up in our breakdown of sidelined players…

Tobias Harris (ankle): He’s actually been dropped in a decent number of leagues (61 percent owned in Yahoo) due to an ankle sprain that’s been annoyingly slow to heal. I’m gonna assume he hasn’t been dropped in your league, but whether he’s owned or not, the message is the same: go get him. After landing in Orlando last year, the 21-year-old posted 17.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.1 apg, 0.9 spg, 1.4 bpg and 1.0 3s in 27 games. Those are dynamic, difference-making stats, and even if Harris is still several weeks away from peak form, showing patience in this case should be worth it.

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Rajon Rondo: Will he be the next Rubio (comes back toward the end of the calendar year, returns to peak form around the All-Star break) or this year’s version of last year’s Derrick Rose? Honestly, this investigative reporter has no idea. I can understand having concerns given that the Celtics are in full-blown tank mode, and given that coach Brad Stevens has recently said “There’s no need to rush back and not be fully ready and be fully healed.” So if you waited on Derrick Rose last season, this may not be the situation for you. With that said, my gut (which knows nothing about Rondo’s situation other than what it has read) says this won’t be a lost season for the Celtics PG, and patience should pay off in the second half for owners who can afford to wait it out.

Kobe Bryant: We already know that he’s sprinting, and apparently has a good chance of playing this month, so he may not come at much of a discount in a trade. But if another owner is willing to deal him at any sort of reduced rate, I’d pursue a trade aggressively. To be clear: Normally I wouldn’t feel confident about a 35-year-old coming back from a torn Achilles, but Kobe’s not normal. It’s logical to expect a slow start, and he may not quite reach last season’s lofty stats in a comeback year (27.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 6.0 apg), but I fully expect Kobe to get back to putting up elite numbers relatively quickly.

Trey Burke (broken finger): I know he struggled in Summer League, but I still have a lot of faith in Burke’s ability, and in his situation, as there’s no major competition for minutes once he returns (unless you consider John Lucas and Jamaal Tinsley major competition, which I don’t). I’d expect Burke’s FG percentage and turnovers to be shaky, but the opportunity is there for 13-15 ppg and five-plus apg once the No. 9 overall pick hits his stride.

And, on a less optimistic note…

Andrew Bynum: In what I saw of Bynum on Wednesday night, he didn’t pass the eye test so much as fail it horribly. He looked slow and immobile, lumbering around the court like a giant man plagued by chronic knee injuries – a player who admits he may not get his explosiveness back. Furthermore, he still can’t play in every game, and is shooting just 28.0 percent (7-of-25) on the season. Another way of putting it: At one point on Wednesday night he got the ball in the post, lost it and ended up on the perimeter, then put the ball on the floor and fired up a runner as the shot clock wound down. It was a bizarre sight from a once-dominant post player, and a microcosm of how out of sorts Bynum is at the moment. I’d try to be patient with all the players I mentioned above, but personally I think Bynum is droppable in 10- and 12-team leagues.

Footnote: After I published this, a reader emailed to point out that I omitted Danilo Gallinari. It wasn't intentional, just an oversight. As for Gallinari's outlook, he's obviously a valuable source of points, 3s and free throw shooting when healthy, but it's worth noting that his knee injury happened in April, so he's just seven months removed from his ACL tear. (For frame of reference, Rondo is more than nine months removed from his injury, and Rubio was around nine months when he returned last year.) Everyone heals differently of course, and this is far from legitimate medical analysis, but it could make a difference that Gallinari's knee injury happened more recently. For now, I'd advocate staying patient until there's a more definitive timetable, but there may come a point when you need to determine how badly your team needs Gallo's points and 3s.

A few other observations…

Barnes is back. It didn’t rattle the typeface off of any box scores, but Warriors sixth man Harrison Barnes made his season debut last night, finishing with 14 points, two boards, one assist, two steals and a block in just 14 minutes. After a strong playoff run last year (16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 1.6 3s in 12 playoff games), I’m expecting good things from Barnes – even in a bench role. And even though it was just one game, it was encouraging to see him post some defensive stats given that they were his clear weakness last year (0.6 spg and 0.2 bpg – playoffs included). I obviously wouldn’t be counting on much in the way of steals and blocks, but the points, rebounds and 3s should make Barnes a nice lower-half-of-the-roster asset going forward.

Since I mentioned Derrick Rose before, I might as well talk about Derrick Rose. The start of his season has been wildly annoying for owners who drafted him (15.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.8 apg, 31.3 percent shooting, 1.3 3s, 5.3 turnovers and zero steals). But rhythm and confidence appear to be far bigger issues than health right now, as we already saw Rose post some big stats in the preseason (24.3 ppg over his last four exhibition games). With a breakout likely to happen sooner rather than later, it’s time to test the level of Rose impatience in your league.

Faverani equals frustration. I definitely burned up some fake waiver dollars to add Vitor Faverani after his 12-point, 18-board, six-block bonanza, but as we saw Wednesday night (0-of-4 shooting in six minutes), Faverani doesn’t have much margin for error on a nightly basis. I’m personally going to wait another game or three before cutting him (he’s still posting 0.8 spg and 2.2 bpg in just 23 minutes), but this could end up being a platoon led by Kelly Olynyk going forward.

As for Olynyk – who started the second half Wednesday – it was an active and productive 29 minutes (14 points, eight rebounds, three assists), but he doesn’t have the same fantasy potential as Faverani right now, as his upside is capped by a lack of blocks (none through his first five games after averaging 0.6 bpg in the preseason). Olynyk could be pretty useful in deeper formats, but he’s not a player I’m eager to have on a roster in a 10- or 12-team league.

Meanwhile, we’ve got an umlaut sighting in ATL. When he hasn’t been busy giving unsolicited medical exams to opponents, 20-year-old Hawks rookie PG Dennis Schröder (6.2 ppg, 4.2 apg in 19 minutes per game) has looked like a player who could post some pretty strong stats if given the opportunity. The only issue: Jeff Teague is playing outstanding hoops himself (18.2 ppg, 8.8 apg), and has missed just two games total the last two years. As of now, Schröder is just a watch-list player in standard leagues, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for the Hawks potentially giving him 25-plus minutes a game (and hopefully playing him alongside Teague more and more) as the season progresses.

Other Random Thoughts: I see a clear buy-low opportunity in the case of Jonas Valanciunas. It’s probably premature to expect monstrous numbers from the 21-year-old, but he’s definitely better than his stats so far (9.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 1.0 bpg). After two duds in his first three games, Valanciunas has averaged 15.0 ppg and 9.5 rpg in his last two games. … The man in the headline of this column (Ricky Rubio) is shooting badly even by his standards (28.6 percent from the field), but is still posting difference-making stats in assists (8.6) and steals (3.4), and is going to post some huge lines once his shot starts falling a little more frequently (which it should). … I wasn’t relentlessly hyping Kawhi Leonard during the preseason or aggressively targeting him in my drafts, but now looks like a great time to buy low on the guy who averaged 13.5 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 3s during the Spurs’ playoff run last year.