Fantasy Basketball: First-round cheat sheet

By Nick Whalen, RotoWire

Special to Yahoo Sports

In virtually any fantasy draft, nailing your first-round pick is a near-requirement to contend for a title. The pick is easily your best chance to land the kind of foundational player who can buoy your team through the natural ups and downs of the season. Whiffing on the pick can be disastrous, but luckily for fantasy basketball players, the league is stocked with elite talent.

While picking first overall remains an advantage, managers can still snag top-tier talent all the way through the first round and even into the early second. Deciding which superstar to draft can be overwhelming, so it’s important to evaluate every option and determine which player(s) best match your risk tolerance and statistical preferences.

This season, roughly 15 players stand out as potential first-rounders in most leagues, and while a few others will creep into that discussion, those will mostly be viewed as upside plays. Using RotoWire’s customizable rankings and composite ADP data as our guide, we’ll evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each first-round candidate and offer some guidance as to where they should be targeted.

The No. 1 pick

If you’re lucky enough to hold the top pick in your draft, it should be a relatively easy decision. Whether you’re playing in a points or categories league, Nikola Jokic enters the season as the near-consensus No. 1 fantasy player following a dominant 2020-21 campaign. The reigning MVP averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, and 1.3 threes per game on excellent shooting efficiency. With virtually no holes in his stat profile as he enters his age-26 season, Jokic is the best combination of ceiling and floor in fantasy basketball. He’s also been the NBA’s most durable superstar, missing only nine total games over the last four seasons.

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Of course, a contrarian approach is always an option, too. If you choose to go against the grain and pass on Jokic, then you’re likely looking at one of: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or Luka Doncic. There’s a path to all four of those players capturing the top spot in fantasy, but they carry more question marks than Jokic.

Picks 2 through 5

Assuming Jokic is off the board, we’re back to the Harden-Curry-Antetokounmpo-Doncic foursome. Choosing between four MVP candidates — three of whom have already won the award — can be a conundrum, but if you’re picking second overall, it’s a good problem to have.

To break what could be a four-way tie, double-check your league’s scoring settings. If you’re in a standard roto league, Harden or Curry perhaps have a slight edge thanks to their excellent field goal and free throw percentages. Antetokounmpo’s shortcomings at the line are well-documented, while Doncic has quietly struggled to hover around 75 percent since entering the league.

Conversely, if you’re in a points league that does not account for free throws, then taking Antetokounmpo or Doncic makes more sense. Both players are durable, counting-stat machines who contribute across the board. In a points league, I’d lean toward Antetokounmpo over Doncic at No. 2 — particularly if your league includes a turnover penalty.

In a roto league, the Harden vs. Curry debate comes down to a matter of preference. Curry was able to stay healthy and finish as the more valuable player last season, but historically Harden has been significantly more durable, and even on a three-headed super team, his fantasy upside might be higher. How do you weigh Harden’s hamstring troubles against Curry missing 60 games two seasons ago?

Ultimately, both players carry some risk, but their upside greatly outweighs the potential downside. Harden’s track record of health sways me in his direction ever so slightly, but fantasy managers can’t go wrong with either future Hall-of-Famer.

Picks 6 through 10

This is where the board really opens up. In many leagues, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, or Jayson Tatum could crash the top-five party. But for the sake of argument, we’ll assume the top five picks are Jokic, Harden, Curry, Antetokounmpo, and Doncic in some order. That’s also in line with early ADP figures.

According to those ADP numbers, Durant is the most popular choice at No. 6, though the two-time Finals MVP carries plenty of risk. For Durant, the concerns are almost entirely health-related. While he’s playing on a loaded super team, Durant’s production has proven to be roster-proof. Even with two elite players by his side, Durant remains one of the best per-game values in fantasy basketball.

The problem is he’s played in fewer than a quarter of the Nets’ games over the last two seasons.

Is Kevin Durant the obvious choice after the top-five? (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Is Kevin Durant the obvious choice after the top-five? (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Of course, Durant’s entire 2019-20 campaign was wiped out while rehabbing a torn Achilles, but he went on to miss more than half of last season due to a variety of issues ranging from COVID-19 to a troublesome hamstring. The good news is Durant did not appear bothered by the Achilles, but given what’s at stake for Brooklyn, it’s difficult to imagine the 33-year-old pushing to play more than he needs to. History suggests he won’t miss as much time as he did last season, but the Nets will build in some rest days, and even if he avoids any serious injuries, Durant still figures to be nicked up from time to time. With all of that said, Durant is productive enough when healthy that many fantasy managers will be more than happy to look past the risks and snag him outside of the top five.

Towns and Embiid carry essentially the same concerns as Durant. Like Durant’s, Towns’ health issues are more of a recent trend, making it easy to forget that he played 82, 82, 82, and 77 games, respectively, over his first four NBA seasons. Towns logged three top-five fantasy finishes during that span, but he’s played only 85 games over the last two seasons. If this is the year he can return to ironman status, Towns could legitimately push for the top overall spot in fantasy basketball. Still, managers have to account for recent history, as well as the general cloud of turmoil that seems to constantly hover over the Timberwolves organization.

Lower-body injuries have plagued Embiid since his days at Kansas, but given how his NBA career began, it’s a minor miracle he’s been able to appear in at least 75 percent of the Sixers’ games (playoffs included) in each of the last four seasons. Even so, Embiid trudging through the postseason with a partially torn meniscus is still fresh in the minds of fantasy managers. In some ways, last season felt like a best-case scenario, fantasy-wise, so there’s some question as to whether Embiid can replicate it.

If you’re looking to subvert some risk and still land an elite fantasy player, consider targeting Lillard or Tatum, each of whom finished inside the top eight in total value (8-cat) last season. Through nine years in the league, Lillard has never missed more than nine games, while Tatum’s eight absences a year ago — five of which were due to COVID-19 protocols — were a career-high.

As one of the league’s ultra-elite, high-volume three-point shooters, Lillard has a slightly higher fantasy ceiling. But concerns about his future in Portland could give fantasy managers some pause. Meanwhile, Tatum has made yearly leaps since entering the league in 2017, and he continues to improve as a playmaker and defender.

In standard leagues, Lillard’s combination of production and durability give him the slight edge for me, but any of those five are reasonable options in this range. All things considered, I would rank them: Lillard, Towns, Durant, Tatum, Embiid.

Picks 11 and 12

With most of the truly elite options off the board, the end of the first round should see plenty of variance from league to league. Some managers may favor Bradley Beal or Trae Young, while others could look to Paul George, Anthony Davis, or even LeBron James. Given the hype he commands, Zion Williamson will likely sneak into the first round in some drafts, but he should probably be a second-rounder in most leagues.

Unless 1987 Michael Jordan is inexplicably in the draft pool, there’s no correct answer as to who you should take at this point in Round 1. It’s a matter of preference and could largely depend on which player(s) you plan to target with your second pick early in Round 2.

The case for Beal is pretty cut-and-dry. He’s put up back-to-back 30-point-per-game seasons and is the clear No. 1 option on a team that will once again force-feed him shots. Beal hit a career-best 48.5 percent of his attempts from the field last season, though he made just 2.2 threes per game — his fewest since 2015-16. He could be due for a bounceback in assists, however, after going from 6.1 per game in 2019-20 to 4.4 per game while playing alongside Russell Westbrook last season.

Bradley Beal #3 of the Washington Wizards
Bradley Beal's 2021-22 fantasy value lies with him being the undisputed No. 1 option for the Wizards. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

Young should be able to pick up where he left off in the playoffs when he officially announced himself as one of the league’s premier point guards. A virtual lock for around 25 points and nine assists per game, Young trailed only Lillard in fantasy value derived from free throw shooting last season. Forthcoming rule changes could knock Young down a bit, but the hope is that he ups his three-point volume after dropping from 3.4 makes per game in 2019-20 to 2.2 last season.

Of this group, George may be the biggest upside play. The 31-year-old is a proven commodity, but since coming to Los Angeles he’s gone from a top-10-to-15 fantasy asset to closer to the 20-to-25 range. That trend could reverse this season with Kawhi Leonard out of the picture for most, if not all, of the regular season. Managers pulling the trigger on George in Round 1 will be hoping he replicates his final season in Oklahoma City, when he averaged 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 2.2 steals, and 3.8 threes en route to finishing as the second-most-valuable fantasy player behind only Harden.

And then there are the two Lakers stars. In terms of ADP, James (12.0) is right on the first-round borderline, while Davis (14.0) sits a couple of spots back. This is typically the zone in which James sits, but for Davis, a second-round average is much lower than in years past.

Davis logged five straight top-five fantasy seasons (per-game value) from 2015-16 through 2019-20, but his numbers took a notable hit in virtually every category in 2020-21. Due in part to injuries, Davis was never able to get back on track, and with another high-usage player in Russell Westbrook entering the mix in LA, Davis enters this season with more question marks than ever. When he’s rolling, Davis is in the best player in fantasy basketball discussion, but fantasy managers are taking more of a wait-and-see approach with the 28-year-old.

For James, it’s business as usual as he heads into his 19th season in the NBA. On a per-game basis, the four-time MVP has remained a late-first-to-mid-second-round value since joining the Lakers, but he’s missed significant time in two of the last three seasons. Granted, both injuries were flukey — in 2018-19, he slipped on a wet spot; last season, Solomon Hill dove into his ankle — but injuries are injuries, even for a player with James’ overall track record. Even with Westbrook in town, James should be able to approach his usual 25-7-7 with a steal per game and an excellent field goal percentage. However, his poor free-throw shooting (sub-70% in three straight seasons) continues to put a hard ceiling on his fantasy value.

Again, it’s difficult to go wrong picking at the end of Round 1, and any of George, Beal, Young, Davis, or James make for a perfectly acceptable selection. I would rank them in that order and hopefully grab two players from that group as the draft snakes into Round 2.