How To Guide: How to think about value, underrated players, and fantasy sleepers
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.