How high is your capacity for public humiliation?
Option A: Low. You are the competition. If you’re not first, you’re bored. You look to coast through your fantasy season. All drafts are set on autopilot. You know you’re going to glide to a top-three finish, and you like it that way. (You drive a BMW 3 Series.)
Option B: High. You crave competition. Action. You like your leagues to be Marianas Trench-deep. Whether you’re first or worst, you’re secure in the knowledge that you dove off the high board. (You’re not much of a car person.)
I’m an Option B person. Because the goal of any long-term fantasy enthusiast shouldn’t be just to win. You should be looking to improve. A life well-lived is gauged by continual evolution … even within your geeky hobbies.
I play in any number of expert leagues. I’m in multiple situations where there’s a high probability of falling on my face. A high tolerance for online embarrassment is part and parcel of this particular part-time job.
Here’s my takeaway: High-viscosity competition underscores a need.
A need to create statistical separation.
If you’re playing against a well-heeled cabal of managers? You’re going to have difficulty creating differentiation. We’re all mining value from the same player pool. We all look at the same stats. The more everyone knows, the harder it is to win.
Result: You’re going to have to take some big swings.
You don’t have to be reckless. You don’t need to reflexively reach to get ahead. Just retain the willingness to chance calculated, decisive gambles at key points in your draft.
Each stage of the draft carries its own level of risk.
You might go for it with a first-rounder with some red flags. Conversely, you might roster more dependable standbys early, then go for heavy upside in the middle rounds. By the time you get to the endgame, you might just want trusted names … or you might want to punch some lottery tickets.
Every campaign offers its own roster of high-risk, high-reward players. But the 2019-20 season has more red-flagged names than any year in memory.
Much of the risk was generated by player movement. The unprecedented team-switching this summer put a lot of familiar faces in unfamiliar places. Leaving Fantasyland with uncalibrated expectations, scrambled stats, hastily projected rotations, and misty playing time.
These are good developments. The continual change of the NBA is what keeps us glued to our phones all summer. The more jersey-swapping, the better.
But then there’s the dark side. There’s (cue David Fincher-esque score) … load management.
Like many nightmare fantasy developments, load management was authored by Gregg Popovich. A couple of seasons ago, we were just talking one team. You drafted Spurs knowing they’d be unexpectedly rested.
But Kawhi’s winning in Toronto is going to change everything.
Contending teams are going to make sure their stars are fresh for April. Non-contending teams will be wary of burning out their long-term franchise cornerstones.
We’re looking at a full-on roto plague. Because sitting a star for 5-10 games is going to rob fantasy managers of huge swaths of production. It isn’t pleasant to ponder. But this draft season, it’s mandatory that managers remain cognizant of load management.
Let’s get into the list. We’ll take it by ADP (average draft position).
Of all the picks vying for No. 1 overall (roto or points), Antetokoumpo possess the most upside. But that upside is accompanied by a few questions.
Can he hit the 3 with more consistency? Can he continue to improve his free throw shooting? Will his minutes expand beyond the relatively stingy 33 per game he logged in 2018-19? Will his knee issues force him to sit another 8-10 games?
Fantasy-wise, I’m concerned about efficiency. From the field, and at the free throw line.
For all of Antetokoumpo’s dizzying volume in 2018-19, he didn’t start putting together a consistent shot until after All-Star weekend. But if Antetokoumpo can just push his 3-point percentage north of 32 percent … he could blow past 30.0 PPG.
There are safer options at No. 1. But if you want to make a dent at the top of your draft … grab Antetokoumpo and don’t look back.
Clocking in at a late-first round ADP? Simmons is being drafted near his absolute ceiling. Which is a cause for alarm. Because Simmons’ floor is late third round.
Removing obvious injury concerns (Joel Embiid) from the overall draft equation? Based on per-game averages alone? There’s no other first-rounder with more potential to disappoint than Simmons.
Not that he couldn’t deliver late-first value. There are two obvious areas Simmons can improve: 3s and free throw percentage. But taking Simmons this early requires a healthy leap of faith.
This preseason, you’ll read some wide-eyed reports that Simmons has solved his jumper. Never draft a first-rounder based on preseason palaver. Even from the rosiest, cheesesteak-fortified perspective, it’s hard to envision Simmons hitting more than the occasional 3 this season. Remember, he’s 0-for-17 from deep for his career. Averaging just 0.5 3-point attempts per game will be asking a lot.
The more realistic area Simmons could register real, immediate improvement? The free throw line.
It’s not as sexy as suddenly hitting from range. But if Simmons could nudge his free throw percentage closer to 70 percent — a 10 percent improvement — It would have a seismic effect on his fantasy production. He’d attack the basket with more confidence. Look to draw more contact. Goose his free throw attempts from 5.4 per game to something closer to 8.0.
That’s the kind of realistic improvement that would push Simmons closer to returning first-round value. Because it’s hard to see him decidedly improving on his already gaudy assists, rebounds, and steals+blocks.
Simmons could be a steal at 30. But he could be a bust at 10. Simmons epitomizes risk/reward.
Like Simmons, Siakam is being drafted at his ceiling. I’m worried Siakam is being drafted too high on the narrative.
Siakam presents a neat, tidy, inspiring statistical story. High-flying sleeper becomes a champion, then gets promoted to No. 1 scoring option. Add minutes, usage and hype and boom: instant early second-round pick.
But the sleeper phase of Siakam’s career is done. Siakam won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season … especially NBA defenses.
I like Siakam as a third-rounder. He should return top-25 value. But even if Siakam hits his drool-worthy projections (22.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 3s, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks)? He’ll have a hard time cracking the top 15.
Paul George, SF, Los Angeles Clippers (ADP: 19.2)
New injury reports this week have Fantasyland wondering if George is coming back later than sooner. Projected to miss the preseason and the first couple of weeks of the regular season, we’re starting to worry the Clippers will be (understandably) loathe to rush George back into action.
A month ago, I fretted about Kawhi’s load management. Now George is the long-term injury concern.
If George misses only six to eight games, managers should be okay in H2H leagues. When healthy, George wields top-five fantasy upside. He could be a steal at 19.
But even at full strength … how will George and Kawhi divide the scoring duties? There’s no reason to believe George and Kawhi couldn’t both be top-12 players. But it’s just conjecture. We won’t know until they play the games.
There’s a way this ends with George notching top-10 Player Rater production. But there’s an alternate ending where George misses a month and regresses to a No. 2 scoring option.
This is sky-high for any rookie. Even rookies as decorated as Zion.
For argument’s sake, let’s put Zion down for a 20-10 season. With that as a baseline, can Zion crack the top-20?
It won’t be from downtown. He’ll finish with utmost authority … but the jumper is still under construction. Put him down for less than a 3 per game. He’s a mediocre-to-bad free throw shooter. Put it all together: Zion’s TS% will probably peak just north of replacement-player territory. He’ll have to rely on heavy usage to lock down that 20-10 … but the Pelicans are deeper than many realize.
Zion’s rookie superpower is liable to be his defense. He posted 3.9 steals+blocks last season. The Law of Rookie Aggression suggests those numbers could translate. But can he generate that kind of defense and stay out of foul trouble? Zion’s rookie fantasy upside could come down to his ability to stay on the court.
Let’s also put Collins down for a 20-10. Heck, make it a 22-11. Can Collins find the secondary numbers to justify that 25.9 ADP?
Unlike Zion, we know Collins has stretch-4 chops. He added the 3-pointer last season, converting at a 34.8% clip. Even marginal improvement from deep in 2020 should land his TS% well north of 60.0%. I love Collins for roto. He’ll lay down bedrock efficiency that managers can really build around.
Collins has two issues, though.
Issue one: lack of defense. Collins barely averaged 1.0 steals+blocks last season. Bigs tend to get less aggressive as they evolve. It’ll be tough to expect more than marginal improvement.
Issue two: position. Where will Collins play? He’s capable of playing anywhere in the frountcourt. But if he ends up playing more center, Collins’ 3-point production could suffer.
Simmons is a first-round pick with a third-round floor. Booker turns that dynamic on its head. After a shutdown-plagued 2018-19, Booker is flying under the radar this draft season.
It seems like he’s been playing forever. He’s been in the league five years. But this is just his age-23 campaign. We’re years away from peak production. And there’s fantasy upside coming at managers from multiple angles.
Last season’s shutdowns obfuscated a full-blown late-season eruption. In March, Booker screamed his way to 33.4 points, 7.2 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 3s per game. That is top-eight production.
What’s not to like headed into 2019-20? With Ricky Rubio in the fold, Booker may regress in assists. But Booker should improve in every other category. With all respect to Deandre Ayton, this is Booker’s team; Booker’s usage will stick in the low-30s.
And there’s still plenty of room to grow in 3s and defense.
If Booker can convert the 61.6 TS% he posted in March for a full campaign? If Booker can convert 36-37 percent of his 3s? 3.0 3s per game and 30.0 points per game could become reality. And with a new coach and system, Booker has a chance to expand his defensive portfolio beyond the pedestrian 1.1 steals+blocks he delivered in 2018-19.
Consider Booker’s secret sauce: his free throw production. Last season, he got to the line 7.1 times a game and converted at a 86.6% clip. But over that fantastic March, he accelerated to 10.4 free throw attempts. At that volume, over the course of a full season, Booker would join Harden and Lillard as the top three free throw producers in Fantasyland.
Booker is being criminally under-drafted at 34. My only question: is it by one or two rounds?
I’m grouping these two bigs together to underscore a point. There’s still risk/reward in the middle of a draft. You just have to be willing to gamble on pure potential. And there are multiple high-upside centers available in the middle of the draft board.
With Bryant, think poor man’s John Collins. The Wizards are embarking on a developmental year. No player will garner more developmental minutes than Bryant. The Wizards just made a sizable investment in their only true center.
If Bryant plays north of 30.0 MPG? Best case scenario: He could threaten 20-10. He could challenge for the NBA lead in TS%. He’ll add on decent secondary numbers.
There’s fourth-round upside here. But you’re drafting that all on potential. So what about Robinson?
If you’re a Knicks fan, or have ridden an elevator with a Knicks fan in the last six months, you know all about Robinson. Like Bryant, he has fourth-round upside. Unlike Bryant, his upside resides in the defensive columns.
But a lot of things will have to go just right for Robinson to reach peak production.
The Knicks just signed 1,000 power forwards who could siphon minutes away at the 5. Head coach/fantasy-hoops-jones-killer David Fizdale can absolutely not be trusted to apportion Robinson’s minutes effectively. We don’t know how Robinson will handle extended minutes. We don’t know if Robinson’s usage will rise beyond the anemic 12.8 he delivered in 2019-20.
Best-case scenario? Robinson averages 28.0 MPG, 4.0 steals+blocks and hits a double-double. That would be enough to make him well worth the risk in middle of your draft.
Other risk/reward players
Lonzo Ball, PG, New Orleans Pelicans
Domantas Sabonis, PF/C, Indiana Pacers
Brandon Ingram, SG/SF, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis Bertans, PF, Washington Wizards