Fantasy Basketball sleepers: Seven players set to surprise

Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein proved to be a real fantasy asset down the stretch last season and could ready for more. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports

Identifying potential sleepers is a crucial component to fantasy success, as the mid-to-late rounds in most drafts are often what make or break a season. The first few rounds generally go as expected. But once the last of the fringe-All-Stars are off the board, it becomes a matter of finding needles in the haystack that is the vast majority of NBA players.

For the purposes of this piece, I wanted to view “sleeper” differently than “breakout”. For example, I don’t classify Rodney Hood as a sleeper, because it’s expected that he’ll make a leap after the departure of Gordon Hayward. To me, sleepers are guys who could make unexpected strides, or maybe just don’t get much press – mid-round rookies, veterans in different situations and under-the-radar signings are who I consider true sleepers.

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Dennis Smith, Jr., Mavericks

With much of the rookie hype surrounding Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons, Smith could slip through the cracks in many drafts. While Yogi Ferrell was a nice surprise at point guard for the Mavericks for the final 36 games of the season, averaging 11.3 points and 4.3 assists per game, Dallas selecting Smith ninth in the draft suggests the Mavs feel he’s their future at the position. A workload of 30 minutes per game doesn’t seem out of the question.

Smith averaged an impressive 18.1 points, 6.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals during his one year at NC State. He has the feel of an NBA-ready point guard, as he’s comfortable drawing contact and is a crafty finisher in the lane. Though his perimeter shooting is somewhat of a question mark, his ability to sneak into the paint and force help from the defense should open up opportunities for him as a passer. As evidence by his almost two steals per game in college, he should provide fantasy value as a defender as well.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lakers

Caldwell-Pope made 2.0 threes per game during 2016-17 on 35.0 percent shooting, averaged a career-high 2.5 assists per game, and has the potential to hover around 1.5 steals per contest. He’s no stranger to playing big minutes, having averaged 35.0 minutes per game over the past two seasons.

He should benefit from changing teams, as well, as the Pistons ranked 22nd in pace last season compared to the Lakers, who were 6th. While primary a perimeter threat, joining a Lonzo Ball-led offense should provide Caldwell-Pope with plenty of opportunities to get easy buckets in transition. Ultimately, he may slip too far in the draft for a young starter in a fast-paced offense capable of racking up threes and steals at a high clip.

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Tyreke Evans, Grizzlies

The Grizzlies lost significant depth in the offseason — notably Tony Allen, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph – without adding much other than Evans. While they’ll be getting an allegedly healthy Chandler Parsons back to begin the season, he’s averaged just 62.2 games played over the past five seasons and hasn’t appeared in at least 70 contests since 2013-14.

If the Grizzlies suffer an injury, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it doesn’t allow Evans increased run, as his 6-foot-6 frame and ability as a ball handler allows him to play at both guard slots, as well as small forward.

He’s somewhat injury prone himself, but could certainly be worth the risk in the later rounds in standard drafts considering he should see minutes in the upper-20s. He’s also quietly been improving his outside shot — one of his deficiencies early in his career — making 1.1 threes per game at a 35.6 percent clip last season.

Thaddeus Young, Pacers

Young joined the Pacers last season after spending the previous four years of her career on poor 76ers, Timberwolves and Nets teams. With the likes of Jeff Teague and Paul George on the roster, Young was simply asked to do less than in prior seasons, and that resulted in averages of just 11.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.

However, George and Teague are no longer with the team, which should make Young more of a focal point. From 2012-16, Young averaged a combined 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He shot just 30.6 percent from beyond the arc over the span, but improved last season to 38.1 percent. Ultimately, he should see more touches and could see a slight bump in rebounding with George’s 6.6 boards per game out of the picture. Young also provides rare defensive value from the power forward slot, flashing upside of nearly two steals per game.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings

Cauley-Stein emerged as a legitimate fantasy option last season after the Kings traded away DeMarcus Cousins. In Cauley-Stein’s 21 starts, he posted 13.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and a combined 2.0 steals and blocks per game while shooting 50.5 percent from the field.

Perhaps most surprising was his work as a distributor, as he racked up five games with at least five assists during 2016-17, all of which occurred after the All-Star break.

While many fantasy owners in need of a defensive-minded center may opt to pick up a bigger name like Nerlens Noel, Cauley-Stein can likely be picked up later in many drafts for a comparable value. In the four games last season in which Noel played at least 30 minutes, he averaged 14.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and a combined 3.8 steals and blocks. While Noel’s numbers are better there, it’s a small sample size and a bridgeable gap for Cauley-Stein.

Milos Teodosic, Clippers

New to the NBA and regarded as one of the best players in Europe for several years, Teodosic is the ultimate fantasy wild card. Teodosic is expected to start at point guard, though with major questions surrounding his defensive abilities, it seems likely we’ll also see significant run from the defensive-minded Patrick Beverley. That said, Teodosic fits LA’s lob-city mentality, handing out 6.8 assists across just 27.6 minutes per game overseas last year — and often doing so in fantastic fashion. He’s also a three-point threat, making 2.7 threes per game in last season at a 38.1 percent clip.

John Collins, Hawks

The rookie will be joining one of the most talent-barren rosters in the NBA for the 2017-18 season, with the Hawks losing two All-Star-caliber talents in Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard over the summer.

Ersan Ilyasova will presumably start over Collins to begin the year, but with little hopes of being competitive, the Hawks could certainly pivot to Collins later in the season.

A top-tier athlete at power forward, the 6-foot-10 Collins should have no issues racking up rebounds and blocks, as he posted 9.7 and 1.6 per game, respectively, across 26.6 minutes per game as a sophomore at Wake Forest.

Collins lacks three-point range, however, which may limit his workload if the Hawks want to space the floor. It’s quite possible that Collins will go undrafted in many leagues, but he’s certainly an important name to keep in mind as a potential early-season waiver add.