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In fantasy land, role players steal some of stars' thunder

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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A return to the basics seems in order, and with the NBA nearing the midpoint of its season, now is as good a time as any to review what we've learned so far in fantasy basketball.

We've learned that in real life, Shawn Marion will never overshadow Phoenix teammates Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire. But in fantasy, he's as dependable a superstar as anyone.

I'm always a little disappointed when I'm left to pick Marion in the first round, because it means I've missed out on the flashier stars like Kevin Garnett and LeBron James. But I can't say I'm ever disappointed in the end. Marion has been even better than usual this year.

He's shooting better than 50 percent, he's third in the league in rebounds, he averages nearly two steals and two blocks a game and he makes three-pointers. Marion will never score like Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson, but pair his 21 a game with all those other stats and you have your fantasy Most Valuable Player for the first half of 2005-06.

We've learned that Gerald Wallace of the Bobcats is our newest fantasy star. Wallace's 15 points a game won't wow you, but look at the rest of his stat sheet. He is among the league leaders in steals, shoots 55 percent, averages more than two blocks a game and ranks among the NBA's best rebounders at his position. And he's only been getting better. Last Friday against Milwaukee he put up 21 points, 15 rebounds, eight steals and four blocks, sure to be one of the year's best lines.

Fantasy players cherish guys with odd combinations of skills. You don't often find a player who can anchor you in both blocks and steals, and when you do, it's a blessing because he can cover holes in the rest of your roster. So if you have Wallace this season, enjoy him, because he won't be available in the middle rounds next time around.

We've learned that Andrei Kirilenko is back as a major fantasy star. The Utah forward is fragile and has missed 10 games already, but over the last month, he's been as good as anyone in fantasy hoops. Kirilenko is another player who thrives in an odd combination of categories. I love the stat lines he produces. Try this Jan. 3 game against the Lakers: 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting, eight rebounds, nine assists, six steals and seven blocks. In fantasy, I'd take that over Kobe's 62 any night.

We've learned that Philadelphia's Samuel Dalembert is the league's newest shot-swatter supreme. Dalembert disappointed last season and missed the first 13 games this year. But he's blocked five or more shots in one-third of the games he's played and boasts the best average in the league with 3.4 blocks per game. If your team needs help in that category, he should be a top trade target, and he might be available because he's not a big scorer.

We've learned that I dismissed Carmelo Anthony too soon. I decided early in the season that the Towson Catholic alum would never be a superstar. He didn't seem to offer much beyond scoring, and he didn't score enough to make himself a top player on that alone.

But something's gotten into Anthony. He's shooting better, he's getting to the free-throw line a ton, and 35-point nights have become commonplace. He's still not much of a passer or defender, and he's certainly no LeBron or Dwyane Wade. But Anthony owners have to be really happy for the first time in three years.

Finally, we've learned that Chris Paul of the Hornets and Channing Frye of the Knicks were the most NBA-ready rookies in last year's draft. Paul isn't a great shooter, but he's good enough and he has no trouble getting shots or cutting into the lane to set up teammates.

It's fascinating to watch the divergent fortunes of former Atlantic Coast Conference guards Paul and Raymond Felton. The two battled relatively evenly in college. But Felton's shooting and court vision were never as refined as Paul's, and he can't just run by an entire defense in the NBA. So he's struggling.

Frye shows the importance of height and long arms. Sean May was a bigger star in college, but at 6 feet 9 and without great quickness, he has trouble getting good shots in the NBA paint. The lithe Frye, meanwhile, can drift around and shoot his soft jumpers over most forwards. It's a good lesson that when judging rookies, you really have to think about particular skills and how they might translate to the pro game.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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