Like Texas Hold 'Em, building a fantasy team is mostly a matter of playing the odds. In Hold 'Em, you can follow the traditional conservative standard and play only the safe, high-odds hands (e.g., pocket pairs). However, the top young pros also love to get creative with risky hands like suited connectors (e.g., 6-7 of hearts), because they can manage the risk and when the hands hit, they win big.
In fantasy, you can also be conservative and draft only high-odds, "reliable" players near their average draft position (ADP). This safe route is the traditional standard. On the other hand, you can get creative by drafting riskier players a round or two before their ADP. If you can manage the risk like a poker pro, you also can hit it big and win championships.
First, you have to go beyond the accepted standard that you shouldn't reach a round beyond a player's ADP to draft him. Think about it. If you simply draft all the guys you love one round earlier than their ADPs -- before anyone else has even considered drafting them -- then your roster will be stacked with players you want. Don't wait and hope that a player you really desire will fall to you the next round. Go get your guy while he's still available, regardless of what round or pick it is. Who cares if someone mocks you for taking your man early; you got your man.
I've been using this technique for several years with great success. Consider my 2009-10 championship squad from our 14-team ESPN Writers League. Look at each player's ADP, where he was drafted, his final Player Rater ranking and final month ranking:
Although I drafted nearly all of them before their ADPs, only the injured Devin Harris' and Jason Thompson's Player Rater rankings failed to match or exceed their actual draft spots. And when it mattered most, during the final month of the fantasy season, nearly all of them exceeded their season-long production.
As you can see, the key to this strategy is drafting the right type of player. Think of a player's career as an arc. "Safe" draft picks are veterans who are at or just past the peak of that arc. This makes us feel confident that, say, a guy who produced like a fourth-rounder the past couple of seasons should be drafted in the fourth round again this season. The downside is that if you draft a player in the fourth round who has reached the peak of his career arc as a fourth-rounder, he inherently won't perform better than his draft spot. If anything, he may begin sliding down the other side of the arc and perform like a fifth- or sixth-rounder.
On the other hand, if you aim primarily at players who have yet to reach the peak of their career arcs, they will be far more likely to exceed their draft position. That's because the risk that they won't peak this season lowers their ADP. It's that risk of the unknown that scares people away from drafting those players a round or two earlier. However, if you really believe a certain player will rise toward the peak of his career arc this season, then his upside will outweigh that risk. Now you have an advantage on the other owners in your draft.
In other words, I'd rather reach in the fourth round for a player whose ADP is in the fifth round if I believe that player hasn't reached the top of his arc. If my read on him is right, then he should perform like a fourth-rounder, and maybe even a third-rounder or better. Whereas the safe fourth-rounder who has peaked won't do better than a fourth-rounder, and may do even worse.
The bottom line is that talent and opportunity trump "reliability" every time in my book. My teams are always stacked with players who have loads of untapped talent and roles on their teams that I expect will foster statistical growth. I use ADP and cheat sheets only as guides to determine where these players likely will go in my drafts. Then, when my turn comes, I choose from the list of players that meet those qualifications, even if I have to reach a round or two.
Here are some players you'll see on most of my teams this season, because I'm willing to reach a round or two to get them: Russell Westbrook, Tyreke Evans, Raymond Felton, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Brandon Jennings, Darren Collison, Anthony Randolph, Joakim Noah, Kevin Love, Roy Hibbert, Marcus Thornton, Eric Gordon and James Harden.
Tom Carpenter is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.