Stew: Stephenson Rising

Matt Stroup
With only a few weeks left in the NBA regular season hot players are a hot commodity. Here's a list of some you should be targeting

I’m not sure about the rest of you, but to this point in my life I really haven’t gotten to know any people named Lance. I know of some Lances, such as Lance Berkman, Lance Armstrong, Lance Reddick (a.k.a. Lieutenant Daniels from The Wire) and Sir Lancelot (played of course by John Cleese).

But not having had any friends (or enemies) named Lance, I don’t really know what association to have with the name. One of the Lances I mentioned was a star of an all-time great TV show. One of them had a conversation with Oprah. Meanwhile, yet another rides a make-believe horse (which could go either way, depending on your feelings on horses and make-believe).

I mention all of this because I would like to talk about a Lance who is doing some great things in the world of fantasy hoops right now. A Lance named Lance Stephenson.

Locked into heavy minutes with Danny Granger (already) injured, Stephenson has posted 17.5 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 4.5 apg and 2.0 3s in the Pacers’ first two games of the year. It’s the continuation (and escalation of) a trend that started in last year’s playoffs, when he posted 9.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.2 spg and 0.9 3s in 19 games.

Last year’s playoff run was a combo of big outbursts mixed with single-digit scoring games (hence the 9.4 ppg), and I would expect some more inconsistency from a scoring standpoint going forward. But overall I think Stephenson has a shot to average 12-plus points with enough rebounds, assists, steals and 3s to make him a very valuable addition in most formats. And with Granger already out for three weeks (and or maybe even 4-6 weeks), there’s no sign of Stephenson’s minutes (or name recognition) taking a hit any time soon.

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Also catching my eye this week…

Happy learned how to putt. Uh-oh... While binge-watching televised hoops Wednesday evening, I noticed some improved shooting mechanics for Ricky Rubio (13 points, 11 assists) and Jeff Teague (24 points, nine assists), the latter pulling up for – and burying – a transition three like he’s been making that shot his whole career (Note: he hasn’t). Overall, Teague looked outstanding on Wednesday, consistently making a floater that has been a frustrating weakness, and getting to the free throw line a career-high 12 times (he averaged just 2.8 FT attempts last season). I was worried about Teague’s production in the first year of a long-term deal, but the Hawks PG looks improved, motivated and ready to produce in Mike Budenholzer’s offense.

Meanwhile, I don’t think Rubio is about to suddenly become a marksman – he shot just 5-of-15 Wednesday – but it was nice to see him aggressively looking to score after attempting 15 or more shots just three times all last year. Overall, I think 15-plus ppg is reachable in what should be a monster all-around season for Rubio.

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Michael Carter-Williams: hyphen, exclamation point. Without question, the most stunning line of Wednesday evening (and probably the entire week) came from Sixers rookie PG Michael Carter-Williams, who went for 22 points, seven boards, 12 assists and nine steals against the Heat. This after failing to top 12 points in any preseason game, and only topping 20 points once during his two years at Syracuse. When you take that into account – and consider that he shot 39.3 percent in college, and 32.7 percent (17-of-52) during the preseason – this could obviously be called a sell-high moment (to the extent that there is such a thing after one game). With that said, I always expected Carter-Williams to put up a nice combo of rebounds, assists and steals, and he doesn’t have a proven backup fighting him for minutes. So if you’re able to stomach some bad shooting, there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and enjoying the production for a while. Because even if he shoots badly with some regularity, last night was an overwhelming example that Carter-Williams is ready to produce right away in some key areas.

Meanwhile, Trevor Ariza went berserk. Dominating minutes over Martell Webster (38 to 21), Ariza went off for a career-high 28 points, adding 10 boards, three assists and six treys. I have a hunch you’re already tempering your enthusiasm, but just in case you aren’t, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) Ariza has averaged better than 11.0 ppg just once in his nine-plus year career (2009-10, when he posted 14.9 ppg for Houston);

2) As you may already know, he’s wildly inconsistent. Last year, Ariza topped 20 points four times. In the games immediately after those 20-point outings, he averaged 7.8 ppg;

3) That’s it – there is no third point.

In closing, feel free to add him in deeper formats if he’s still available, but in standard leagues I think you’ll mostly find frustration.

Also going berserk: Miles Plumlee. I happened to be in the right place at the right time when the Marcin Gortat trade happened, so I ran over to 30-Deep (the 30-team expert league I’m in along with the rest of the Rotoworld crew) and beat 29 other people in the race to add Plumlee. It was an obvious move in a 30-team league, but I wouldn’t have been in much of a rush to add Plumlee in a standard league – until last night. I caught some of the Blazers-Suns game while playing NBA League Pass roulette last evening, and Plumlee (18 points, 15 boards, three blocks) looked impressive from the opening tip. You may instinctively dislike former Duke players, but Plumlee is big, he’s a first-round pick from last year (No. 26 overall), and he’s an athlete. He may not score 18 or pull down 15 boards all that often, but overall I think he has a legit chance to keep producing, and really shouldn’t be left on waivers in any competitive leagues.

Pau Gasol: quiet early on, should get louder. Due to two lopsided games so far (a big win followed by a blowout loss), Pau is averaging just 24 minutes a night, but still posting 13.5 ppg, 10.0 rpg and 3.5 apg. His season-long durability remains a concern, but I expect his numbers (specifically scoring) to improve with increased minutes, and a return to his 2011-12 stats (17.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.7 apg and 1.4 bpg) is well within reach.

Other Random Thoughts: Josh Smith’s Detroit career got off to a good start (19-5-5 with three 3s and a block), but I’m still concerned he’s going to be a major liability in free throw shooting. He shot just 55.2 percent (16-of-29) in the preseason after a career-low 51.7 percent last year. … Gerald Wallace (three points, four steals) took one shot in 40 minutes last night. It’s not encouraging after his awful 2012-13 (7.7 ppg in 30 minutes a night), but I’d give him at least a couple more weeks before writing off his offense on a Boston team that could use his production. … It’s only been two games, but it looks like Victor Oladipo’s minutes may end up hurting Moe Harkless (8.0 ppg in 21 minutes per game so far) much more than Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo. … Monta Ellis (32 points) and Dirk Nowitzki (24) look like they’ve been playing together for years. … If you drafted Tim Duncan, you probably have the urge to panic-trade him to someone already. Be kind to yourself and to your fantasy team, and wait until he’s back posting big numbers before you shop him. … Meanwhile, if anyone in your league is irrationally panicked after Stephen Curry’s bad opener (10 points in 24 minutes), you should already have an offer heading in their direction – and get it done before the Warriors play again Thursday night. … I’ll admit I was concerned about the arrival of Eric Bledsoe cutting into Goran Dragic’s numbers, but it was very encouraging to see Bledsoe (22-7-6) and Dragic (26-6-9) both posting big stats in a Phoenix win.