As the NBA season nears, I'll be running through each NBA division (there are six of them now, in case you missed it), targeting the fantasy sleepers of 2004-05. My definition of a sleeper is a player likely to perform well above the level that they'll be selected in fantasy drafts. With that in mind, I'm leading things off with a look at my Rip Van Winkles from the Southeast Division:
Al Harrington – Harrington made the prep-to-pros jump back in 1998, just before that path became commonplace. He spent his first six years in the NBA learning the ropes from the bench in Indiana. Now, after a trade that sent Harrington to Atlanta in exchange for Stephen Jackson, the Hawks get to reap the rewards of the Pacers' tutelage. In Atlanta, Harrington gets the opportunity to start regularly for the first time in his career. He started 15 games for the Pacers last season, averaging 14.6 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals. But those numbers should improve greatly in Atlanta, where the talent arguably isn't as good as that of the Pacers' bench. Harrington and Antoine Walker will be leaned on to provide the bulk of the scoring. With a surrounding starting cast that could include Kenny Anderson, Boris Diaw, and Predrag Drobnjak, it's easy to envision 18 to 20 points a night from Harrington. And as long as he keeps shooting at his career average clip of .451, there'll be no complaints from fantasy owners.
Primoz Brezec – Emeka Okafor will be the highest drafted Bobcat. And Gerald Wallace will be the team's leading scorer. But Brezec, a 7-foot 1 Slovenian, may ultimately be the team's top fantasy player. Brezec was acquired in the expansion draft from the Pacers, who tried in vane not to let him get away. Brezec is a former 2000 first-round pick of the Pacers who offers the usual solid fundamentals that accompany European players, with the exception that he's not as soft as your typical foreign big man. He can consistently hit the mid-range jumper and should rack up 1.5 to 2.0 blocks per game if given 30-plus minutes a night. Brezec impressed general manager Bernie Bickerstaff during the Bobcats' summer league, and the team extended his rookie contract. Quality fantasy centers are in short supply, so Brezec warrants a closer look this preseason.
Udonis Haslem – As the Heat's projected starting power forward, Haslem will earn his living directly in the shadow of Shaquille O'Neal. But that's not a bad thing, as the extra attention on Shaq will be to the benefit of Haslem. Without O'Neal last season, Haslem still had his moments, posting 11 double-doubles. His average of 12.6 boards per 48 minutes was good for 28th in the league. Throw in solid shooting percentages from the field (.459) and foul line (.765) and it was a surprisingly strong first season in the NBA for the former University of Florida star. The Heat will be carried by Shaq, Dwyane Wade and Eddie Jones, but Haslem will provide strong support. And fantasy owners may need to call upon that support at some point during the season if injuries or disappointing performers leave them with some holes to fill at the forward spot.
Grant Hill – The word out of Orlando is that Hill looks as good as he's ever looked since his ankle injury in 2000. Of course, it seems like we hear that every preseason. Foot/ankle injuries sidelined him after just four games in his first season in Orlando. He played 14 games the following year before suffering another foot injury. In 2002-03, he put in 29 games before hitting the shelves for a third time. This time, major foot reconstruction was required. So, nearly two years later, hope has returned once again. But why should a fantasy owner take a risk on him after getting burned so many times? There are several reasons. First, Hill is a fantasy stat machine. In his short Orlando career, he has averaged 15.1 points, 4.5 assists and 7.6 rebounds. Hill is no longer the above-the-rim, dynamic, 20-plus-points-a-night scorer that he was in Detroit. But his court awareness and versatility continue to make him a triple-double threat. Hill has been playing regularly for the past few weeks without pain, and seems to have picked up where he left off, scoring 10 points, grabbing four rebounds and doling out four assists in a recent intrasquad game in which he played just 18 minutes. He is going full speed in camp and is reporting no pain. Hill is likely to go outside the top 80 players on draft day. That seems a small price to pay for a player with such a high upside.
Jared Jeffries – Gilbert Arenas says that Jeffries is the Wizards' player most likely to have a breakout season. And Jeffries isn't going to disagree. Said Jeffries, "I'm the type guy, I can give you 12 points, 12 rebounds, four or five assists, three or four blocks. I can fill a stat sheet." Fantasy owners would be thrilled with those numbers. At 6-foot 11, Jeffries is a rare big man in that he can handle any role on the court. He's a solid dribbler, passer, rebounder, shot blocker, you name it. And he's just 22 years old. Said Wizards coach Eddie Jordan: "We'd like for the offense to go through him, so he can make reads and deliveries." With Kwame Brown shelved for the first month of the season, playing time will come a little easier for Jeffries early on. Jeffries finished last season with four consecutive double-digit rebounding efforts. He'll likely go undrafted in fantasy leagues, but if he picks up where he left off in April, fantasy owners should be prepared to grab him off the waiver wire before he elevates his game to yet another level.