Fantasy Basketball Sleepers: Who will be this NBA season's diamond in the rough?

Yahoo Sports

By Alex Rikleen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports

Did you roster Donovan Mitchell in 2017-18? What about Taj Gibson? If so, your team probably did pretty well, as you got a top-55 or top-75 player for basically nothing.

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“Sleepers” are always a big buzzword in Fantasy, and with good reason – the term roughly translates to “players who are more valuable than they cost.” Specifically, a sleeper is a player who might produce at a higher level than the Fantasy community expects. Since that definition is a bit vague, I tend to define sleepers as players with a good chance of significantly out-producing their draft cost.

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Mitchell and Gibson are the extreme cases of “sleepers” – both mostly afterthoughts on draft night and went on to provide value as every-night Fantasy starters. Not all sleepers provide such a disparity between cost and production. Will Barton’s ADP of 115 was that of a final starter or top-of-the-bench player and roughly 30 spots ahead of Mitchell, and Barton finished right next to Mitchell in the final season ranks. For the purposes of this article, a “sleeper” will refer to players who have at least a 50-50 chance of beating their ADP by 24 spots, or two rounds in a standard snake draft.

Potential Sleepers for 2018-19

Larry Nance, Cavaliers

I’m already mad at myself for not drafting Nance in more leagues, and I haven’t even done any real drafts yet. There are some legitimate marks against Nance: he’s definitely behind Kevin Love on the depth chart and it’s impossible to trust Ty Lue’s management of a rotation. If we could trust him, then the former issue wouldn’t matter, because we could have confidence that Nance will surpass Tristan Thompson as Love’s frontcourt running mate.

Yet, whatever his drawbacks, Nance should dramatically exceed his comically low ADP. It’s still early, but he’s going 109th overall as of this writing. Last season, he finished inside the top-90 despite averaging only 21.5 minutes per game and changing teams mid-season. From February 8th on — the date he was traded to the Cavaliers — he was a top-80 player despite his minutes decreasing to 20.8 per game. Over the course of the season, Nance was a top-15 player per-36 minutes among players who logged at least 20 games and at least 15 minutes per game.

Larry Nance could compete for quality minutes at the power forward position with the Cavaliers this season. (Getty)
Larry Nance could compete for quality minutes at the power forward position with the Cavaliers this season. (Getty)

LeBron James ate up a bunch of power forward minutes, so his departure opens up court time for the Love-Nance-Thompson triumvirate. Even if Lue (foolishly) insists on keeping Nance behind Thompson, Nance’s minutes should increase to at least around 25 minutes per game. As he’s already shown, that’s enough to have Nance knocking on the door of fantasy’s top-50.

Nerlens Noel, Mavericks

Full disclosure: Noel remains a big risk, and it is very possible that he provides virtually no fantasy value. However, he definitely has a coin-flip’s chance of providing a massive return on investment, so he warrants mention here. He’s listed directly after Nance because they produce similar stat lines and a lot of the pro-Noel argument is similar to that in favor of Nance. If you miss out on Nance, Noel is the consolation prize to target a few rounds later.

Like Nance, Noel was in a terrible situation last year. His off-court conduct caused him to quickly fall out of favor with the Mavericks’ coaching staff, and therefore he never got many on-court opportunities. But when he was on the floor, he showed his production potential.

Noel is an excellent defender, averaging 2.4 steals and 1.7 blocks per-36 minutes. Noel was a top-10 player per-36 minutes, in large part because of that defensive strength. Now with the Thunder, Noel has basically no chance of averaging 30 minutes, let alone 36, but that ranking gives a sense of his potential. Unless his off-court behavior gets in the way, Noel will be the clear backup center behind Steven Adams, who averaged 32.7 minutes per game last season. If Noel can consistently stay in the 15-20 minutes range, he’ll be a solid deep-league player who some standard-league managers can use as a defensive specialist. If Noel can somehow get above 20 minutes per game, then he’s likely to break into the top-100.

Jonathan Isaac, Magic

Keeping with the theme of “per-36 monsters who can average multiple steals and blocks per game,” Isaac enters his second season after barely seeing the court as a rookie. Injuries kept him out of all but three games from Veteran’s Day through March. But Isaac was one of the youngest players in his draft class, and his body was too scrawny to be labeled NBA-ready, so getting a few months to work with coaches and the training staff could have been a blessing in disguise.

Jonathan Isaac could be a heck of a defensive sleeper in Yahoo Fantasy this season. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)
Jonathan Isaac could be a heck of a defensive sleeper in Yahoo Fantasy this season. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

There are some serious holes in his game — he barely scores and he shot 37.9 percent from the field last year. That said, his per-36 averages of 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 2.0 blocks and 1.1 threes demonstrate some of his massive potential. Isaac won’t fit on every roster and a breakout is far from certain, but he’s a great late-round risk, especially for teams in need of help in the defensive categories.

Isaiah Thomas, Nuggets

The Nuggets don’t need Thomas to be great, as they feel good about their budding young backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. But let’s not forget, Thomas is only one season removed from being All-NBA player. If a playoff team has a top-six guard on its roster, it won’t leave him on the bench because it’s excited about a third-year pro’s potential to one day become an above average starting point guard. Thomas’s 2017-18 season was almost unbelievably bad, but between his hip injury and his terrible basketball situations, it’s not fair to assume that he’s suddenly washed. In a new home, Thomas will have opportunities to earn a bigger role for himself. Now it’s unclear if he’ll be 100 percent by the start of the season, but if he can be even 75 percent of the player he was in Boston, he’ll provide fantastic Fantasy return for a late-round pick.

Kevin Knox, Knicks

The fantasy community is collectively terrible at predicting rookie breakouts. Sure, Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic look like the best prospects, but our track record of identifying rookies who will provide top-100 Fantasy value is dreadful. If you want to draft a rookie, let someone else waste an early pick on those two, and instead target someone like Knox late.

Kristaps Porzingis (knee) will be out at least through much of January, and the NBA rumor mill is abuzz with the idea that he could miss the whole season (note: there is no reason to put much stock into that rumor, at least not yet). That leaves the Knicks’ power forward spot completely open, and Knox showed signs in summer league that he could be the best option. This team is bad, so there is plenty of bad team stat inflation available. It’s very likely that either Knox or Mario Hezonja will win this job, and whoever does would have a lot of value. I think Knox has the advantage, but if you’re on Team Hezonja, then he’d qualify as the sleeper to target.

Someone on the Hawks

Top targets: Jeremy Lin, Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Omari Spellman

Deeper league targets: DeAndre Bembry, Alex Len

Late in drafts, one of my favorite strategies is to load up on whatever teams I expect to be terrible that season. While the Knicks will probably be bad, they’re better than what I’m talking about here. The Hawks, Kings and Suns are the only teams that really separate themselves. We can’t trust the Kings to run an orderly rotation, and the Suns’ depth chart is a jumbled mess (three start-worthy small forwards but no NBA-caliber point guards?).

The Hawks, on the other hand, have the type of fantasy-ripe depth charts worth targeting. None of the starters are good enough to start for the majority of NBA teams and most of the backups are of similar potential and ability. At any position, one contender could run away with the job and lock in a season’s worth of bad team stat inflation.

Honorable Mentions: Brook Lopez, Bucks; Maurice Harkless, Trail Blazers; Bam Adebayo, Heat; Markelle Fultz; Willie Cauley-Stein, Kings; Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley, Clippers; Trey Burke, Knicks; E’Twaun Moore, Pelicans

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