The 9 Best Fantasy Basketball Draft Strategies
by Erik C. Anderson
Fantasy seasons can be made or broken with a few savvy decisions on draft day.
The best laid plans can crumble if managers cannot execute them on draft day. Your fantasy championship begins on draft day, and having the moxie to pull off the required moves will separate you from the rest of the pack.
Both newbies and long-time fantasy players can gain an edge by employing these fantasy basketball draft strategies. You can take your game from learning how to draft fantasy basketball to how to dominate your fantasy draft.
1. League Settings
For regular readers of Rival’s fantasy advice, you should be accustomed to hearing this by now. Know your league settings and tailor your strategy to complement and, eventually, dominate. Before we can analyze players properly, we have to know what stats or types of players are going to have the most value in our league based on our settings.
If your league allows unlimited waiver wire transactions, there is no punishment for taking fliers on high-upside players liberally throughout the season. Knowing this will give you the foresight to leave one to two roster spots available for streaming these types of players onto your roster throughout the season (which, some would argue, you should be doing no matter what).
2. Scoring System
This will affect how valuable certain players are. But, you might be thinking, LeBron James should be valuable no matter what. Why would the scoring system impact how to draft fantasy basketball?
The top dogs are always going to maintain a certain amount of value, but just how much? It’s those middle-of-the-pack players or fringe players that can skyrocket in value based on your league’s scoring system.
Here’s an example, which also doubles as another strategy.
3. Rarely Buy the Hype
Luka Doncic is one of the brightest young players in the NBA. The silky Slovenian became the youngest player to make an all-NBA team at the age of 22. His play routinely lands him on House of Highlights and the NBA’s Top 10 lists. He’s a triple-double machine and most people are buying into “Luka Magic.”
He’s incredible! But no NBA player is perfect. Because of all this, our fellow league managers (not us!) tend to overlook some of his blights.
During his entire career, Doncic has been Top 10 in turnovers per game, moving closer to the league’s most careless ball handler. His free-throw shooting in 2021-22 was 71%, nearly 6 percentage points below the league average. He was drafted somewhere in the Top 5 in many leagues or fetched a salary around $60.
If you’re playing in a 9-cat league that counts turnovers, Doncic is going to kill you there. Even without turnover as a counting stat, Doncic returned value closer to that of a third-round player than he did a top five pick in these leagues — at least through 60% of the 2021-22 season.
However, in the same time span’s worth of data, Doncic is a Top 5 player in points leagues and closer to Top 10 in roto formats (using standard scoring). He’s not the only player that will fluctuate based on settings.
Scoring system matters. Fitting your player into that system and cutting through the noise will unlock their true value.
4. Injury-Prone Players
Ah, yes. What do we do with the chronically injured players each season? These are going to be some of the biggest risk-reward types of players out there, and may come down to your own risk assessment.
Do you trust that a player who missed half of the season a year prior is now going to be A) the same or better player now and B) not going to miss more time this season? If you roll the dice on an injured player and that player holds up over the course of the season, you may end up with a first-round or high-salary type of talent. But that player may also zero out.
Here’s a quick example.
Anthony Davis may well be the best center/power forward in the NBA. He can do it all. Historically, he’s been a Top 10 player across formats. However, in 2020-21, when he only appeared in 36 games, that value fell from surefire best player to a part-time top player that returns value closer to that of a third-round player. That production is still good, but loses value when you invest top-end resources.
Many players will be coming off injuries every season. Taking a flier on them could give your team a major boost or it could cost you. Do your own research to understand what type of injury a player dealt with and then try to calculate what that player will bring over the course of a full season.
What roster settings is your league employing? Are you following standard formats or is your team only allowed to start one center every night?
The type of positions allowed to be started on any given night can have major consequences to your team’s makeup and production. A one-center-only league, for instance, would put an insane premium on Karl-Anthony Towns. He’s the best center that is ineligible to play other positions. This would push him, potentially, into the stratosphere of No. 1 overall picks or commanding the league’s highest salary.
Look at what positions you will start each week and how many of that position you can roster, and then create a strategy that takes advantage.
How many players are in your league? A league with 16 players and 13 roster spots opens up a wide range of players that will have value in your league. Theoretically, the Top 208 players will be of importance to a league of this size. Having an understanding of the type of production required for a player inside the Top 208 will be key to determining who to roster.
If your league is on the smaller side, say an eight or 10 team, it’s more likely every roster will be chock-full of very good players. A risky flier on a late-round rookie may not be the best play in a league like this.
6. Pre-Draft Analysis
This is something that new players almost always overlook. It’s way easier to jump into the thick of it on draft day than it is to have a plan. While fantasy basketball is a game, researching players and having an understanding of who is on the rise ahead of a season will give you an edge over your fellow players. Showing up to draft day is only half the battle.
There are tons of resources dedicated to pre-draft. Finding analysts you trust most, or doing your own analysis, will set you apart from the rest of your league.
Also take time to chart out your draft. If you’re a late first-round pick, you know you’ll get two picks in rapid succession in snake drafts. This gives you a chance to start balancing your roster early or taking the best talent available regardless of position to start maximizing value.
Some managers will consult rankings and cheat sheets throughout the draft. Find out what works for you.
7. Rookie Conundrum
Rookes can be a cost-effective producer for fantasy teams, but can also cause quite a few headaches. With rookies, fantasy managers will want to look at the NBA team that drafted said player. Is the player being groomed to become the face of the franchise and likely going to get an unrestricted 32 minutes a night as the team goes through some growing pains? Or is a rookie joining a team with an incredible foundation and fighting for minutes in a loaded rotation?
Typically, lottery teams are going to give their rookies minutes the following season. Figuring out which rookies are worth grabbing, which are worth holding through their first-season slumps, and who should be avoided and/or ultimately dropped will make a tremendous difference in your leagues.
In general, rookie guards will have efficiency and turnover issues. Most will need time to acclimate to the NBA. Managers who grew frustrated with Detroit Pistons rookie Cade Cunningham in 2020-21 cut ties with him after his shooting and peripheral production were sloppy to start his season. However, a little over a month into the season, the rookie became a machine and looked like one of the Top 50 players in the NBA.
Understand the ceiling of rookies. During the past 10 seasons, only two of the NBA Rookie of the Year selections have claimed a Top 20 spot: Karl-Anthony Towns in 2015-16 and Kyrie Irving in 2011-12. Most of the seasons’ top rookies will float closer to a Top 50 return, while some, a la Ja Morant, will struggle to crack the Top 100 (though we’re seeing just how high Morant can fly now).
This does not exclude other rookies each season from having value, but setting expectations can help you properly evaluate how rookies can figure into your strategy and league’s settings.
Similarly, taking stock of the sophomores and which second-year players are primed for a breakout can be a great under-the-radar tactic to find value where other fantasy managers may not.
8. Auction Strategy and Knowing Your League
Auctions will have a slightly different strategy when it comes to acquiring the best picks.
At any point in the auction a Top 10 player can be nominated for bids. Similarly, a player that’s not worth rostering could be nominated. Fantasy managers will have to be frugal until players that fit their strategy are nominated and then properly evaluate how much they’re willing to spend — or buy up a bargain player when other managers choose not to spend.
Who you nominate can give the rest of your league insights. Throwing dummy nominations can throw people off your scent, while also potentially extracting dollars from your fellow managers.
It’s also completely viable to bid up players you have no intention of drafting. If you know you have Los Angeles Lakers fans in your league, slapping an extra $5 or $10 onto LeBron’s, Anthony Davis’ or Russell Westbrook’s price tag should be no problem. Just be careful; being caught holding the bag could greatly alter the makeup of your team and require a strategy shift mid-draft.
9. Rounding Out a Roster
In either a snake draft or an auction draft, your final few picks are going to be key to your roster. Do you look for consistent veterans that give you very little upside but are proven producers? Or do you take a flier on a rookie or a backup that may see his minutes rise, or even a player returning from an injury that could explode in value?
These decisions can yield major benefits for any team.
Remember, NBA GMs try their hand at drafting the best talent each season. This is a process that will require time to perfect. These tips will get you on the path to success in your fantasy basketball draft.
Erik C. Anderson is a fantasy football and basketball guru and freelance writer living in Montana. He’s previously written for The New York Times, USA Today, ESPN and many more. Business inquiries can be sent to [email protected].
House of Highlights — Title Page
NBA — Top 10 List
Basketball Reference — NBA & ABA Rookie of the Year Winners