Two Man Game: How Good Can Nicolas Batum Be?

Yahoo! Sports Staff
Roto Arcade

Each week, Matt Buser and Justin Phan will take a closer look at some rising and falling players as well as their own dissenting opinions to serve as a follow-up to Thursday's Big(ger) Board.

Buser says: It's not a huge surprise here that we came in fairly similarly on a number of players in our inaugural aggregate Big(ger) Board. But obviously there were some notable differences of opinion, and some were stark. I pegged Jarrett Jack at 75th overall while he sits on your bubble. He hasn't looked limited since returning from his knee injury and is currently 73rd overall in per-game impact with 35 minutes per game. Is this a hunch that his knee issue isn't going to go away, or do you potentially see a timeshare with Greivis Vasquez emerging? Vasquez hasn't been much of a step down when it comes to production, that's for sure.

I think it's safe to say that everyone is recalculating (read: lowering) expectations when it comes to fantasy impacts for Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire on the Jeremy Lin-led Knicks, but you are particularly down on those two in your ranks (Amar'e - 61, Melo - 40). The ceilings are questionable with everyone healthy, no doubt, but what I'd be interested in is your take on floors here. How bad can you see things getting for these second-round picks? (Melo - 14.4 ADP, Amar'e - 16.2).

Nicolas Batum has been a favorite for years - particularly among nine-category roto players - but has absolutely exploded during the month of February (18.6 points, 50/43/83 percent shooting, 2.6 threes, 1.6 steals, 1.6 blocks). What is the ceiling here? We're talking about per-game rank of eighth over the past month and I can't help but make this comparison.

Phan says: I'm not one to get hung up on starter designations, but that new reserve role behind Vasquez means Jack will get closer to 30 minutes a game moving forward as opposed to the 35-36 he was seeing before. Not a huge difference, but it's one that takes him from strong utility territory to the outskirts of the top-100 looking in. It's funny you led off with Jack though, because Evans asked me on last week's Freak Show which player from my bubble I could see cracking the top-100 in the near future, and he was my guy. Consider it a soft bubble that could burst depending on how well Vasquez and Marco Belinelli play.

Before I get to the floor values of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, let's establish their current per-game ranks first (Anthony - 76th, Stoudemire - 92nd). Working from that, the question is: can (and will) things get worse? And that's where I diverge between the two.

For Anthony the matter is really one of fit and integration within this new-look Knicks offense centered around Jeremy Lin and his ability to masterfully work the two-man game with Tyson Chandler. It's a time-sensitive issue considering the condensed schedule and shortage of practice time, but one I believe will get sorted out in the near future. Expect Mike D'Antoni to incorporate more Lin/Anthony pick-and-rolls, off-the-ball action for Anthony, and sets with Anthony as the primary point-man. That dreadful shooting efficiency of his will improve with time, as will his rank.

The issue of fit looms for Stoudemire as well, but it's compounded by a noticeable decline in athleticism. He just isn't getting the same lift as he used to, and has looked a far less explosive player since arriving in New York. He's uncertain about what exactly he should do when he gets the ball now, a possible byproduct of his demotion from the first option to the second or third. There's legitimate cause for concern here, and where I see Anthony potentially turning things around, I can't quite say the same thing about Amar'e. Given you have him slotted at 40 on your Big Board, 21 spots higher than I do, what's your outlook on his floor and ceiling?

You know how the Blazers front office had consistently said Batum was more or less off limits in trade discussions? This is exactly why. What he's managed to do this month and in his six games as a starter is 100 percent legitimate, and not just a byproduct of a few fluky, short-term statistical blips. It's a result of an extremely talented and gifted player finally living up to his potential and playing to his full capability. It's him finally getting past those sporadic moments of genius and stringing them all together on a consistent basis. I must admit that putting him at 26 on my board was a bit conservative, and a more aggressive approach would land him in my top-15 (and maybe higher). Come August when we're putting together our preseason rankings for the 2012-2013 season, where do you project he'll end up?

Another player that has my attention is Brandon Jennings, who you have ranked 40 spots higher than I do. While we were buying a potential breakout season in the works early on, he's completely regressed to that player we've grown to both loathe and hate over the past two seasons -- the erratic outside shooter who doesn't finish well at the rim and is hampered by a lack of court vision. I ranked him according to what we've seen from him over the past month and his first two seasons, writing off his January numbers as a level of production he is unlikely to come close to replicating anytime in the near future.

Also wanted to touch on a pair of Grizzlies -- Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. How much will the imminent return of Zach Randolph impact their production? And how much of their early improvement can be attributed to his absence?

Buser says: You are right about Stoudemire and it's hard to find any positives here. The D'Antoni offense in Phoenix was about Steve Nash and Amar'e but, while Lin has stepped into that point guard role, the pick-and-rolls are going to Chandler and the pick-and-pops will go to Anthony in this edition. And the angle that I have not been giving enough credit to is, as you mentioned, his physical decline. Per Hoopdata, the typical NBA player playing at least 25 minutes per game gets their shot blocked around six percent of the time, and Amar'e is at 10 percent. I would say that my ranking has less to do with optimism than a lack of belief in how dire things look. I'll say a floor is around 125th in per-game rank, where he remains inefficient but also loses a field goal or two - his ceiling is likely where I have him now, and the only way he gets there is if D'Antoni makes it his mission to get him more involved and those jump shooting numbers come closer to his career averages. That's quite a swing.

A player has averaged at least two threes, one steal, and one block just a handful of times previously, and Batum looks like he'll comfortably be in that company by the end of the season. Combine those rare stats with his high-level efficiency and neither a top-15 status on not-too-distant Big(ger) Boards nor a late first-round draft slot next season seems outlandish. The fact that we're throwing around these kinds of numbers now makes it even harder to believe that Batum was posting a per-game impact of 95th as of Jan. 23, thanks to just 25 minutes per game.

I didn't go all-in with Jennings in terms of a Big Board rank in the early-going, but, yes, I was on board with his turning a corner in terms of shot selection and accuracy. His numbers have indeed tanked in February (34% FG, 27% 3PT) and shot charts show that his volume of looks around the rim is way down, as is his conversion rate. My hunch is that he's somewhere in between what we've seen in his monthly splits, but I'd certainly be looking to pay February market price in current trade discussions.

I don't see Zach Randolph having a major negative effect on Gasol or Conley upon his return. Regarding Gasol, give a big dose of the credit for his huge numbers to his career-high 38 minutes per game. On a per-minute basis, he's right in line with what we typically see out of him when he plays alongside Z-Bo. Fatigue has to be considered, but the Grizz play only three games in each of the next three weeks, so he's getting something of a breather at just the right time, and I don't see his minutes being scaled back by any noticeable measure. And everything about Conley's line is similar to what we've seen from him in recent seasons, with those league-leading steals being the lone exception. But Conley's steal percentage has also risen every season since he entered the league and I don't see an adjustment coming as the season progresses. And one reason to love all of your Grizzles for head-to-head purposes: they are the only team with five games in both the default semifinals and finals.

What do we make of Danny Granger? He started the season terribly, had an excellent run from roughly mid-January to mid-February, and then limped into the break. Granger's production peaked in 2008-09 and has declined most notably since the start of last season.

And you certainly have been as big of a Kyrie Irving backer as anyone, going back to the preseason. He's been excellent from the outset but has steadily ramped up his numbers as we've moved along here. A similar line of questioning here that we saw for Batum: how impactful can Irving be in the second half, and are we drafting him as a truly elite fantasy contributor next preseason?

Phan says: I have a hard time seeing how Randolph's return won't have a sizable impact on Gasol, both in terms of minutes and production. Marreese Speights has started and logged heavy time at the four this season more out of necessity than choice with Darrell Arthur's season-ending Achilles injury and Dante Cunningham's ineffectual play.  Z-Bo's reinsertion into the starting lineup means that Speights will slide back into a reserve role, one that will free him up to see more minutes as Gasol's primary backup at his more natural position in the pivot. I'm not necessarily saying Marc will go back to the 32 mpg he averaged last season, but it's also a rather safe assumption to say he won't continue to see 38 mpg moving forward.

There's also a clear delineation between the league-average production that Speights has provided and the dominant, elite low-post play of Randolph, who's averaged 20-10 for three straight seasons now. Speights has done his fair share of gunning as a starter, but he doesn't come close to matching Z-Bo's usage, rebound rate, and overall impact. We're talking about the centerpiece of the Grizzlies offense here, and you can expect everyone to get a bit less (for the betterment of the team) upon Randolph's return. Gasol has been among the Western Conference's best centers to this point, but that career-high rebound rate (among other statistical marks) has a lot to do with not having Randolph -- who was fourth in total rebound rate and led the league in offensive rebound rate last season -- there inhaling misses as they carom off the rim.

Granger has been miscast as a pseudo-superstar for years now in Indiana, where he's been allowed to get away with a more than questionable shot selection and use possessions up at a extraordinarily high rate with only middling efficiency to show for it. There's no longer a dearth of options around him to cover this fact with the emergence of Paul George and Roy Hibbert (to compliment the additions of David West and George Hill), and the number of shots Granger has taken reflects this, continuing its three-year downward trajectory. His marked decrease in volume is only compounded by career-low marks in efficiency. If he's not scoring in bunches and knocking down threes at a high rate, there's not much else to like about his game. He's a below-average rebounder for his position, and his pure point rating is among the worst. You get the sense that the Pacers are a few moves away from making a run at joining Miami and Chicago as the elite teams out East, and that the next (maybe only?) logical move would be to deal Granger. They've already indicated an openness to doing so, and expect them to jump at the opportunity if it enables them to land the player that they've long coveted -- Eric Gordon.

There's not a whole lot else for me to say about Irving that I didn't already mention in my Rookie Spotlight piece. Like Batum, who I have pegged three spots ahead, he's another exceptional talent I could see challenging the top-20 by season's end. Byron Scott caught a lot of flack for not playing him more early on, but I actually didn't mind the decision at all. Keep in mind that Irving only played 303 minutes during his freshman season at Duke due to a right toe injury -- less than he did in the month of January alone (496) --  so easing him in at the outset to make sure he could handle a heavy workload was the smart thing to do. Irving clearly proved he was capable, and Scott responded accordingly by playing him more than 36 minutes a game in February. He's become more adept at reading defenses, and his assist-to-turnover ratio has improved significantly from 1.4:1 to 2.1:1. There isn't much not to like about his game at this point.

Follow Justin Phan on Twitter @jphanned | Follow Matt Buser on Twitter @busersports

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