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Three months and 25 days: that's how long hoops fans will have to wait until the next NBA regular season begins.
Though it's been just two weeks since the Miami Heat closed out the Oklahoma City Thunder in this year's NBA Finals, a lot has changed since the 2011-12 season finale.
In that span, Steve Nash became a Los Angeles Laker, Larry Bird resigned from his position as Indiana Pacers President of Basketball Operations and Joe Johnson was traded to the Brooklyn Nets. But most importantly, the NBA absorbed a new draft class headed by No. 1 overall selection Anthony Davis.
The 2012-13 campaign doesn't tip off for another 117 days but it's never too early to start evaluating this season's crop of first-year talent. Here are a few rookies that I think can make an immediate impact on the fantasy circuit:
Bradley Beal, Guard, Washington Wizards: Beal (14.6 ppg) and junior guard Kenny Boynton (16.3 ppg) combined to form one of the most electrifying backcourts in college hoops last season at the University of Florida. Now Beal is in Washington, where he'll be paired in the backcourt with former No. 1 overall pick John Wall. Both players should benefit from playing alongside new offseason acquisitions Emeka Okafor (9.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg) and Trevor Ariza (10.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), provided that both players are healthy. Beal's smooth shooting (42 percent three-point percentage in the NCAA Tournament) has drawn comparisons to Ray Allen and he's a surprisingly strong rebounder (6.5 rpg last season) for his size (6-foot-4). If Beal lives up to his potential he should be able to post at least 15 ppg/5 rpg for the Wizards next season, making him a worthy fantasy pickup in all formats.
Anthony Davis, Forward/Center, New Orleans Hornets: Davis was a freakish shot- blocker in his only season at the University of Kentucky (4.7 bpg) and an equally dominant rebounder (10 rpg). Davis had his way offensively in college (14.3 ppg on 62.3 percent shooting) but his thin build (6-foot-10, 220 pounds) could reduce his effectiveness in that area as a pro. Still, Davis should be a safe bet for double-digit points, 8-9 rebounds and 2-3 rejections every time he steps on the floor.
John Henson, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks: Free agent power forward Ersan Ilyasova enjoyed a breakout year in 2011-12 (13 ppg, 8.8 rpg) and the odds of him returning to Milwaukee look slim now that Brooklyn, Cleveland, San Antonio and Toronto are all bidding for him. With Ilyasova out of the picture, the Bucks' power forward slot will be up for grabs and Henson seems as good a candidate as any to fill that hole. Henson averaged a double-double for North Carolina last season (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg) and with enough playing time, he could be a double-double threat in the pros as well.
Meyers Leonard, Center, Portland Trail Blazers: If Portland ends up signing Roy Hibbert (they already offered him a contract worth $59 million over four years), center won't be an issue for the Blazers in 2011-12. But if Hibbert stays with Indiana (right now the Pacers are pondering whether or not to match Portland's offer), the 7-foot-1, 250-pound Leonard would be the favorite to assume that role. The 11th pick in this year's draft notched 13.6 ppg and 8.2 rpg on 58.4 percent shooting as a sophomore at Illinois last season. He was also a surprisingly efficient free-throw shooter for his size (73.2 percent). Playing time is a crucial prerequisite to fantasy success for any player and if Meyers gets a lot of it in 2012-13, I'd expect him to produce.
Damian Lillard, Guard, Portland Trail Blazers: Lillard is a Stephen Curry clone. Both players are 6-foot-3, both went to small schools (Curry played for Davidson during his college days) and both can shoot the lights out from beyond the arc (Lillard shot 40.9 percent from three-point range in 2011-12 while Curry is shooting 44.1 percent for his career). Nolan Smith (3.8 ppg) is the only point guard on the Portland roster besides Lillard so it doesn't look like the 22-year-old will be facing much competition for playing time next season. Lillard might not be a productive distributor in his first year in the league but he'll get his 15-17 ppg.
Austin Rivers, Guard, New Orleans Hornets: Rivers (15.4 ppg, 36.5 three-point percentage at Duke last season) was criticized for being a selfish player in college but a lot of times having a selfish streak can be a good thing in the NBA. Rivers has been around the NBA his whole life because of his father (a former player himself and the current head coach of the Boston Celtics) and I doubt he'll be intimidated by the superior level of competition he'll face next season. Rivers has the shooting range and quickness to succeed in this league and if Eric Gordon (20.6 ppg) signs with another team as he's expected to, Rivers should have a chance to make his fantasy presence felt right away.
Dion Waiters, Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers: Syracuse had a plethora of talent last season, which is why Waiters didn't start a game for the Orange in 2011-12 and only registered 12.6 ppg. Cleveland's cupboard on the other hand is pretty bare. Daniel Gibson will be Waiters' main competition for the starting shooting guard position and though Gibson has proven to be a strong long-range shooter in the past (41.6 percent three-point percentage for his career), he can't take over a game the way Waiters can. Waiters can penetrate at will and should be an excellent complement to the reigning rookie of the year Kyrie Irving (18.5 ppg, 5.4 apg). I wouldn't be surprised to see Waiters tally 13-14 ppg as a rookie.
It may seem like a long ways off, but this year's fantasy draft will be here before we know it and you won't want to miss out on any of this season's rookie sensations.
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