The most underrated fantasy basketball star this season plays for an NBA championship contender, but is not regarded as the best player on his own team. He plays the same position as the San Antonio Spurs’ Tim Duncan—who is having a resurgent fantasy season despite his sixth-round average draft position.
Duncan is shooting 52.4 percent from the field, 76.0 percent from the free-throw line (on 5.0 attempts per game) and averaging 18.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.4 turnovers, 0.8 steals and 2.3 blocks a night.
Duncan’s efficiency (percentages and turnovers) and defensive statistics this season best his career averages while his PPG, RPG and APG rival those put up by a guy that many consider to be the best power forward of all time. His assist numbers are a fine fantasy asset for a big man, but the most underrated fantasy basketball star for 2012-13 is a young stud.
His name is Serge Ibaka.
The Oklahoma City Thunder big man has posted averages of 14.5 points, 7.6 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.3 steals and 2.9 blocks—good for second in the NBA. The Indiana Pacers’ Roy Hibbert is averaging 3.1 on the legs of an 11-block effort against the New Orleans Hornets on November 21.
Ibaka hasn’t had his double-digit block game yet, but it’ll come.
Ibaka’s fantasy value has been underrated because—outside of his heavy presence in the blocks category—his counting stats are unspectacular. You’d like to have a fantasy big man that can get 20 points and 10 rebounds nightly, but there aren’t too many of those.
Other valuable fantasy bigs, like Duncan, can get you an abnormally high number of assists on a regular basis.
Ibaka’s sneaky fantasy contribution comes in the shooting percentage and turnover categories: areas where he can positively impact any fantasy team. Ibaka is shooting 57.4 percent from the field and 88.1 percent from the free-throw line on 2.8 attempts per night.
Does Dwight Howard do that? No.
Howard is routinely the first fantasy center off of draft boards. Ibaka is the fifth—behind Dwight, Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson and Marc Gasol. Fantasy owners add Howard for four reasons: his statistical contributions in the points, rebounds, blocks and field-goal percentage categories.
What Ibaka fails to match in the points, field-goal percentage and rebounds categories—he blocks more shots than Howard—he makes up for in turnovers and free-throw efficiency.
As all of Dwight’s fantasy owners (both past and present) know, his free-throw percentage and sheer volume of attempts essentially eliminate them from being competitive in that department. He is converting an abysmal 49.7 percent of 10.4 attempts from the stripe this season.
Conversely, Ibaka’s free-throw percentage is actually better than most NBA guards. His statistical free-throw season resembles the stat line of L.A. Lakers point guard Steve Nash’s career.
Over a considerably larger sample size (1,154 games), Nash is knocking down 90.4 percent of his career free-throw attempts. He’s averaging 2.5 makes on 2.8 shots per game.
So is Ibaka.
Ibaka averages about half the turnovers per game (1.7) that Dwight (3.3) does. His name wasn’t quite as big as other fantasy PF/Cs entering this season, but his production doesn’t lie. He’s sustained his statistical dominance in the blocks category (3.7 per game last season in 27.2 minutes a night) while improving on several others.
He’s shooting better in addition to scoring and rebounding at a higher rate than any other season in his NBA career.
Howard’s fantasy owners may want to try an experiment: Try trading him straight up for Ibaka. See what the other owner says. You should be warned—the return message might not be too friendly.
Even if you’re attached to Howard and the other owner happens to accept, you’ve freed yourself from a free-throw albatross and replaced his production with a fantastic OKC fantasy player not named Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook or Kevin Martin.
Dwight won’t know you traded him away from your fantasy team. You can still admire his supremacy on the NBA hardwood—and smile as each of his missed free-throws sinks your competition.
Ibaka, meanwhile, will continue to swat shots like Dikembe Mutombo and at least give you a chance in each percentage category. That is, if he doesn’t continue his absurdly efficient free-throw shooting.
All statistics accurate as of November 27. For more fantasy basketball opinions and analysis, follow Jamal on Twitter: Follow @StatManJ