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Last year's draft class was historically great. That's a true statement both for the draftees as NBA players and fantasy players.

Expectations are high leading into year 2. And although progress isn't linear (see, e.g., Tatum and Mitchell, exhibits 1A and 1B), there is reason for optimism.

Today, we'll be looking at three of those top 2018 players: Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young. Good reason exists to expect big things from each of these players in year two and beyond. With apologies to a long list of players also deserving (Read: at the very least, JJJ, Bagley, Bridges x2, and Mitchell Robinson), let's focus in on these three for the time being. And look for a sequel blog on a few more rising Sophomores soon.

1. Deandre Ayton

It's possible that Ayton is somehow being undervalued, both as an NBA player and in fantasy. According to our Rank of Ranks, Ayton's average draft position is falls between 26-33 on the most popular sites, despite him finishing last year as (checks notes) the 35th best player. Some fantasy rankings suggest he should be drafted closer to 37th, meaning that he'd take a step back from his rookie year.

That's certainly a possibility, but we believe that the more likely outcome is career growth. There are basketball reasons why, which should guide the analysis. Ayton showed signs of steady improvement (particularly on defense) as his rookie year went on. He may have more of a green light to shoot 3s this year. Rubio's best asset is his ability to improve shot quality for centers. Suns staff have raved about Ayton in particular during the summer.

There are also fantasy specific reasons to expect progress. Ayton's game resembles what we call the "quiet pro" meaning that his game - particularly his high percentages and low TO rate - give him a built-in fantasy value floor. Any incremental leap in other categories (be it in points, assists, blocks, etc.) thus build on an already good foundation. That's a great recipe for fantasy success.

Our guides, models, and tools all generally agree with this assessment. Our Rank of Ranks places ranks him 21st, with a confidence score roughly equivalent to a player like Andre Drummond. Our Dynasty Trade Tool is even higher on Ayton, and values him more highly that Trae, Luka, and JJJ (notably, they are all close - within 1% point of value from one another. Again: 2018 was a really, really good draft).

2. Trae Young

Trae is a divisive talent. Some continue to believe he'll be a better NBA player than Luka; others (myself included) see him as a potentially lethal offensive player but with a career expectation that won't match Luka. His fantasy value is similarly difficult to map: his confidence value is huge in our Rank of Ranks (and again: the higher the value the less predictable the player's actual value, meaning that a large number means we're not too confident where he could end up). Having a higher confidence value than Ayton, JJJ, and Luka reflects Trae's on-court expectations, and suggests high boom-or-bust potential.

What it means, simply put, is that using a high draft pick this year on Trae is like buying a lottery ticket. Over a full career, however, where growth smooths out and looks less uneven, Trae's value becomes more interesting. Our dynasty trade tool loves him, for example, and views his value roughly equivalent to Luka's value (and sees Trae as the better player particularly in years 3 and 4 of his career).

2. Luka Doncic

If this post were focused on real life play, Luka would hold the leading edge by a significant margin. His profile, NBA-skill set, mix of offensive and defensive skill (not great on the latter, but better than first advertised), and first year ability are really, really impressive. Second best step-back in the game is high-praise.

There are reasons for concern, most of which are related to his FT% rate. That doesn't bode well for his fantasy game, nor does it help provide a good trajectory for other aspects of his game. And because he draws fouls at a high rate, that percentage matters more than say, a Lonzo Ball. Optimism does abound, of course, with his coach suggesting that FT% was a priority over the summer. His summer league play to date suggests that priorities aside, we may see a similar outcome.

Our Rank of Ranks likes Doncic putting him at 30, two spots higher than Trae Young and a single spot higher than his newest teammate. It also projects a higher confidence score than I'd prefer (30.4), which suggests a good degree of boom-or-bust potential this year. It's certainly far better than Trae's score, and closer to the variability we'd see from a player like Covington (his due to injury risk) or Adebayo (his due to new found starting role).

Our Dynasty Trade Tool likes Doncic, which should be expected. Surprisingly, however, the tool suggests his value is roughly equal to Trae Young, meaning that if the Hawks were playing fantasy, their draft-day trade was a good one. We'll see, of course. In my estimation Doncic has a higher likelihood of becoming a superstar, and if that happens he becomes over 5% more valuable year-over-year than Trae or Ayton).


Check back again soon for Part Two of our 2018 player series.

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Every fantasy website, blog, and podcast has a list of breakouts, underrated players, and sleepers. It's a siren song. For good reason: it's fantasy basketball's equivalent to the 'get rich quick' schemes of old. And every season the message is reinforced. Players do breakout, after all.

This guide isn't a list of those players are. Predictions are hard, and one more set of won't move the needle. Instead, this guide is all about how to think about value and how how to frame the search for underrated players and sleepers.

The TL;DR version: grouping all fantasy sleepers under the same banner is wrong. Fantasy players break out for different reasons, and understanding why players are underrated can help identify who will breakout.

My preferred framework groups underrated players, sleepers, and breakouts into three camps: (1) the real life breakout, (2) the quiet pro, and (3) the underappreciated fantasy player. Let's take them each in turn.

1. The Real Life Breakout (ex. Donovan Mitchell, De'aaron Fox)

Because NBA success correlates with fantasy value, a good NBA player will generally (but not always!) be a good fantasy player. Correctly predicting whether a player will become a good NBA player is thus valuable for fantasy. Unfortunately, it's incredibly hard.

​This makes finding the real life breakout both the most appealing and hardest to predict. At various points, professionals missed on players like Mitchell and Fox. And bust potential is high. Players like Dennis Smith Jr. are emblematic of over-drafting choices made in search of the next superstar.

Importantly, research by Thinking Basketball suggests that only 6-7 players ‘break out’ in any given season. Because sleeper lists can run 20 players deep, this means that there were be far more misses than hits.

My advice: be careful betting the bank on players that fit this mold. When a team hits on a prospect, it feels like winning the lottery. But finding a player is more luck and guesswork than science.

That said, if you do want to try to find a player in this mold, don't rely solely on fantasy experts. Fantasy analysts are generally once removed from the NBA community. Instead, look to actual NBA beat writers or analysts. Finding experts like Zach Lowe, Nate Duncan (particularly his team previews, which bring on team-specific beat writers), and others will be your best chance to spot the next rising star.

2. The Quiet Pro (ex. Robert Covington)

Although NBA success correlates with fantasy value, it’s not a 1 to 1 ratio. Certain players are more valuable in fantasy basketball than in the NBA. Robert Covington is a prototypical example: he is a solid, starting player in the NBA but in fantasy basketball (when healthy) he’s a star.

Covington is now on everyone’s radar, but it took years for that to happen. Finding value in players like this are my preferred way to succeed, because there is typically a 1-2 year lag before their ADP reflects their true value. And unlike the “real life breakout,” there is far less legwork in finding the next quiet pro. Usually players in this mold fit a common theme: they do well in categories that don’t translate into the most visible NBA skill, scoring. This means players that turnover the ball infrequently, are efficient, and/or record high steal and block rates should be closely tracked. Players in this mold include Mikal Bridges, Otto Porter, and Jonathan Isaac.

One last reason to favor the quiet pro: because their value is mostly derived from non-scoring categories, they have a built-in value floor. Any minor leap in scoring thus only increases value, and can shift the Quiet Pro into real life breakout territory. Finding players who have the potential to fit this mold, like Jimmy Butler, are fantasy gold (particularly in dynasty).

3. The Underappreciated Fantasy Player

Group-think happens, particularly when there are fewer experts that cover a space.

Fantasy basketball is no different: almost every engaged player has only a few primary places they look to for in-depth analysis. Because of this, players often hear the same thing. Which, in turn, quite reasonably moves public opinion. Identifying patterns as they emerge can be helpful in deciding what advice to take and what advice to ignore. Common examples include:

- Injury risk and injury prone: Leagues often implicitly assume that a player will play less after an injury-riddled season. Although no player, injury, or injury history is the same, high-level analysis suggests that concern around injury risk is larger than it should be (look for an article soon exploring this subject in more detail).

- Younger v. older: Teams generally assume higher rates of both improvement and regression. This means that players, league wide, will not improve as quickly as general consensus suggests nor decline as quickly as general consensus suggests. Identifying veterans that remain valuable can be a good way to find value.

- System issues: players can have a poor year, but for reasons that have more to do with the team than their own skill-set or production. Brook Lopez is a perfect example, where the fantasy community moved on from him as a player due to a single, very explainable, poor year in L.A. On the Bucks he returned valuable production.


Next time you're drafting, looking at a waiver wire option, or evaluating a trade, consider this framework in evaluating players. Ask where and how a player could return greater value than is presently assumed, and whether that pathway is likely. Doing so can help your team avoid predictable pitfalls and find hidden value.

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Our punting tool is (hopefully) relatively straightforward. It does do a few things that are unusual for fantasy basketball, however, so I want to unpack those choices first. If you're less interested in the 'what' and instead want to learn more about the 'how', feel free to skip down a few paragraphs.

That disclaimer made, the what:

Our punting tool is actually two different tools packed into one.

Tool 1:

- First, we've created ranked each player's predicted output for individual categories. James Harden, for example, has the rank "1" under his point category because he's predicted to lead the league in scoring. Anthony Davis being ranked as "185" in 3 pointers made means he's predicted to be quite poor at making 3s relative to the league, and is expected to be 185th best.

- Second, we've reflected the 'average' rank of how well players do across the board, in the far left column, "rank." Think of this score not as a pure rank, but instead a representation of how good a player is, mixed with how evenly distributed that player's value is spread across different categories. This score likes players that do well across the board (like Towns and Otto Porter, for example) more than players that derive the majority of their value from one category (like Mitchell Robinson, for example).

Tool 2:

- Using these ranks, we can turn off certain categories to derive punting value. If we ignore a category, like blocks, for example, the new score (reflected in "punt rank") represents the same value (how good a player is, mixed with how evenly distributed the player's value is across different categories) but ignores the punted category.

- This provides both a new rank and also a percent change. All important information for any team that wants to punt particular categories.

An important note, before we get to how to use the tool: the numbers here ARE NOT straight ranks (for our predicted rankings, head over to our Rank of Ranks). Instead, these values represent a combination of how good a player is in fantasy and how evenly distributed that player's value is across categories.

Now, the how:

Using the punt tool is easy. To punt a category, simply toggle from "On" to "Punt" in the drop down menu. Both the punt rank and the percent change will update automatically.

If you want to sort by a different category than the default, which is the far left column, "rank," just click the down arrow on the particular header you want to sort by. So, for example, if you want to sort by "punt rank" just click on the arrow and choose sort ascending (usually) or descending. All categories are sortable, so feel free to take a look at data by position or specific category.

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