Perhaps the paramount strategy in preparing for a fantasy hoops draft is solidifying an awareness of the appropriate round in which to draft players you want on your team. ESPN's live draft results provide a baseline for when players are typically selected, but it doesn't factor in the nuances of your particular league. If fantasy owners are talking up players they envision breaking out this season before the draft, it's a safe bet to assume those players will be selected earlier than their average draft position. So the first step is identifying those players you think are being drafted later than they should, as well as those being drafted too early. These are your sleepers and busts.
A strategy we suggest is creating a tiered sleepers/busts list, broken down by round, with rationale for why you dubbed the player worthy of reaching for or avoiding in parentheses. For example, if you have Andrea Bargnani as a sixth-round sleeper (second year as focal point of offense, just 26 years old) but drafted a guard like Rajon Rondo who doesn't give you 3-pointers, selecting Bargnani in the fifth is worth it. Conversely, if you dubbed Michael Beasley as an eighth-round bust (mediocre peripheral stats, the presence of Derrick Williams) but he's still available in the 10th, snatch him up.
It's critical to know how you feel about every draft-worthy player if you want to have a well-researched draft. There's nothing worse than your pick rolling around and selecting somebody who makes you think, "Meh, I guess he's all right." Creating a comprehensive sleepers/busts list, round by round, will ensure you aren't stuck in the vortex of draft ambivalence and that your selections are well thought-out. So we, the ESPN fantasy analysts, have compiled sleepers/busts lists of our own.
In parentheses below is the round in which the analyst would take that player in an ESPN standard draft.
2011-12 Staff Sleepers
Ranked within the position in order of when you can expect to get them, from earliest to latest.
Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets (from Carpenter): He's been so quiet since entering the league that many have forgotten what a baller this kid is, but look at his production as a starter last season. Any point guard who shoots 50 percent with 3s, dimes and swipes is going to be a choice fantasy option. All he has to do is hold off the aging Andre Miller and he'll break out.
Chauncey Billups, Los Angeles Clippers (from Landman): Billups will lose some value from last season, especially in assists, but he's going to get tons of open looks playing off the ball alongside Chris Paul, and should wind up in the top 50 by the time it's all said and done.
Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks (from Whitling): He's set to get plenty of run with Kirk Hinrich out and Jamal Crawford gone, and should provide steals, 3s and decent assists for cheap. Teague should have every chance to prove that he's the point guard of the future for the Hawks.
Norris Cole, Miami Heat (from Tardy): I like Toney Douglas as a late pick as well, but I'll drop Cole's name here. Of course no point guard will ever post huge numbers playing alongside LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but Cole has a chance to supplant Mario Chalmers.
James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder (from Carpenter): The only thing standing between Harden and a true breakout is starting 2-guard Thabo Sefolosha. Starter or not, Harden's usually finishing the game on the floor. That's how he averaged 28.0 minutes and 15.8 points after the break last season. He'll give you nice percentages, 3s, steals and even some dimes.
Arron Afflalo, Denver Nuggets (from Landman): He'll be an elite outside shooter, and he's great on the foul line. It'd be nice if he would start getting some steals, but even as is he'll finish ahead of at least 10 shooting guards currently getting drafted ahead of him.
O.J. Mayo, Memphis Grizzlies (from Whitling): Yes, last season was a disaster, and Tony Allen has seized his starting spot. But in later rounds talent trumps circumstances, and Mayo's talent was made clear when he averaged 18.0 points, 1.8 3s and 1.2 steals while shooting 84.5 percent from the line in his first two seasons. I'm not expecting those numbers, but I am expecting improvement.
Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz (from McKitish): Hayward looked tremendous when he earned extended minutes in April last season (16.4 points, 0.9 steals, 1.7 3-pointers) and with only Raja Bell pushing him for playing time, he should earn plenty of run in his second season. I'm expecting Hayward to earn the starting shooting guard spot in Utah where he'll provide owners with some solid scoring, steals and 3-pointers.
Danilo Gallinari, Denver Nuggets (from Carpenter): It's taken him a little bit longer than hoped to bust loose, but everything is looking good for him now. He's healthy, locked in as a starter and should see plenty of shots. In this situation, he could battle for the NBA 3-point crown and is long enough to add quality rebounding numbers.
Caron Butler, Los Angeles Clippers (from Landman): Butler has always been a good fantasy option when healthy; the fact the Clippers are paying him too much shouldn't matter to us in the fantasy world. He's always an injury risk, but when he's on the floor, he's going to be very good.
Paul George, Indiana Pacers (from Whitling): He's taller, more experienced and in a better situation than he was last season, when he put up tantalizing 3s/steals/blocks numbers in limited minutes. He's poised to take a leap forward offensively, and has proven to be a solid defender who could average more than 30 minutes per game with more than a 3-pointer and a steal per game and nearly a block. He has more upside than nearly any other player in the draft.
Jared Dudley, Phoenix Suns (from McKitish): Dudley averaged a versatile 12.8 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 3-pointers after the All-Star break last season, and with Vince Carter gone, he's in line for an increase in minutes. The arrival of Shannon Brown may cloud things a little, but Dudley's defense and 3-point shooting should ensure that he'll earn plenty of minutes for the Suns.
Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors (from Tardy): Buy the dip. Bargnani was going around pick 40 last year, so I consider him a bargain in the sixth or seventh round; despite his 53.1 ADP, I've seen him go that late in some mocks. Bargs apparently trained very hard during the offseason/lockout.
Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons (from Landman): Monroe averaged a double-double after the All-Star break, and is barely skimming the surface of his offensive potential. You'd like to see him block more shots, but he's got a nice ability to rack up steals as a big man, and could be a pretty good source of assists, as well.
Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers (from Whitling): Varejao averaged nearly a double-double (9.1 points, 9.7 rebounds) with 1.2 blocks and 0.9 steals per game before going down to injury last season. With J.J. Hickson out of the picture, the career 51.9 percent shooter provides solid help in four categories and positional versatility in the late rounds.
Kenneth Faried, Denver Nuggets (from McKitish): Denver loves Faried's toughness in the paint and so do I. An undersized power forward in the mold of Paul Millsap, Faried should earn quality minutes off the bench in the depleted Nuggets frontcourt. Grab him in the final round if you're looking to bolster your rebounding numbers.
Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets (from Carpenter): OK, so Lopez rebounded like your grandma last season. So what? Look at his scoring, percentages, shots and free throws taken, and his blocks. Now he gets a full season running with Deron Williams. He also hasn't missed a game in his three NBA seasons. Don't sleep on this guy.
Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks (from Landman): It's easy to forget that his arm was still hurt all of last season. He should approach 15 points and 11 rebounds this season while possibly continuing to lead the league in blocks per game.
Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies (from Tardy): Gasol enjoyed a tremendous playoff run last season, and I think he can approach those numbers this regular season. Compared to JaVale McGee, Martin Gortat or even Andrew Bogut, Gasol (65.2 ADP) is a safer pick and a solid value.
Marcin Gortat, Phoenix Suns (from McKitish): Once he got out from under Dwight Howard's shadow, Gortat proved that his per-minute numbers in Orlando were no fluke by posting 15.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 28 games after the All-Star break for the Suns. Those numbers make him one of the league's best at center, and I think he'll be able to continue his success in 2011-12.
2011-12 Staff Busts
Ranked within the position in order of when you can expect to get them, from earliest to latest.
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics (from McKitish): For a guy who doesn't score and can't hit free throws or 3-pointers, Rondo is being drafted awfully high this year. I know Rondo is a dominant assist and steal guy, but he won't win those categories on his own, and there are plenty of more balanced point guards, like Ty Lawson, Kyle Lowry or Jrue Holiday, who can be found a few rounds later.
Kyle Lowry, Houston Rockets (from Cregan): Underrated, now slightly overrated. I still think he'll be a top-15 point guard, but he'll go a round or two too high. There are a lot of guys with similar numbers at PG this year. There's some potential for a letdown campaign.
Raymond Felton, Portland Trail Blazers (from Whitling): His averages from last season are inflated from his time in New York, and his career field goal percentage is 41.2. The addition of Jamal Crawford, who I call an "assist killer" because of his propensity to turn possessions into one-on-one matchups, hurts Felton's value even further, as do rumors he entered camp out of shape.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves (from Carpenter): I have no idea whether he will have long-term success in the NBA. I do know that the Timberwolves have too many guards, so minutes will have to be earned. I also know a point guard who can't drop the J is going to be tough on fantasy teams. He's going to have to prove himself some before I'll believe the fantasy hype.
Eric Gordon, New Orleans Hornets (from Tardy): I've been a huge Gordon backer since his rookie season, but I'm now backing off. While I can see him scoring a ton of points as the only real offensive option in New Orleans, I fear his shooting percentage will plummet with opposing defenses collapsing on him. I no longer consider him a top-25 player.
Kevin Martin, Houston Rockets (from McKitish): Even after playing in 80 games last year, Martin's four-year average for games played stands at 59.5 games per season. It's possible that he can shed the injury-prone label, but not likely.
Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs (from Carpenter): Last season's renaissance performance has people taking Ginobili in the fourth round of many drafts. We have to consider his age (34), the way he throws his body around without concern for injury, and his history of battling long-term injuries. That risk should make him a sixth- or seventh-round pick, not a fourth- or fifth-rounder.
Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings (from Landman): This is an easy choice. Even if (and it's a big if) he gets minutes and makes a ton of 3s, he's not going to do anything else for you. He really shouldn't be getting drafted at all.
Paul Pierce, Boston Celtics (from Whitling): Averages of 78.0 games and 35.5 minutes per game in his past four seasons could easily catch up to Pierce this season, especially with the condensed schedule. He also notched career highs in both field goal and free throw percentage, which should regress to the mean.
Gerald Wallace, Portland Trail Blazers (from Landman): Wallace looked great with the Trail Blazers last season, but the deeper story is that many of his numbers, including rebound rate and shooting percentage, were in decline on the whole. His price is just too high right now for what he'll give you.
Dorell Wright, Golden State Warriors (from McKitish): I'm skeptical that Wright can recreate the magic that made him one of the most valuable fantasy pickups last season. He'd be a nice selection if you can get him in the middle rounds, but you may be disappointed if you end up paying based on his career year.
Corey Maggette, Charlotte Bobcats (from Carpenter): As usual, Maggette will be a quality fantasy producer this season -- in those moments when he's not in the infirmary. Considering his propensity for injury throughout his career and the condensed season, he's too risky to draft with any expectation of him being there as a regular starter. Draft him as a reserve you can use on occasion and you won't be disappointed.
Amare Stoudemire, New York Knicks (from McKitish): Asked to carry a heavy load in 2010-11, Amare wore down toward the end of last season. Will the condensed 66-game schedule wear on him, as well? Will Tyson Chandler steal some of his rebounds and blocks? There are too many question marks for Amare to be a first-round pick in fantasy leagues this year.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers (from Landman): Griffin played 38 minutes per game for 82 games last season and still finished just 51st on the Player Rater. Even if he keeps improving his free throw stroke, he'll need to reinvent himself as a shot-blocker to justify his being picked in the top 15. I love him, but he's getting drafted at least one round too high.
Chris Bosh, Miami Heat (from Cregan): LeBron and Wade aren't going to be in any more of a sharing mood this season than they were last season (his 21.0 usage rate was his lowest since 2005). Bosh is a player who needs to score to feed the other areas of his game, especially rebounds and blocked shots. If I have to have a blocks-deficient center, I'd much rather have David Lee, maybe even Andrea Bargnani.
David West, Indiana Pacers (from Tardy): I wouldn't say owners are overreaching here (51.7 ADP), but I'm staying away entirely. With West, I can't help but recall the decline in Al Jefferson's numbers the season after his ACL injury.
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks (from Tardy): Horford is a fantasy darling, but he's also an undersized center, and I can't help but wonder if he'll be more susceptible than most to a compressed schedule.
Andrea Bargnani, Toronto Raptors (from Whitling): It's too hard for me to stomach a power forward or center with no rebounds, low blocks and bad field goal percentage. Having him on your squad throws the typical team balance too off-kilter to easily compensate.
Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls (from McKitish): With so many reliable options at power forward and center this year, taking a chance on Noah just seems too risky. He's a great defensive talent, but nagging injuries will continue to frustrate fantasy owners.
Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks (from Cregan): He'll be overhyped heading into MSG. He will still be good for a double-double, but don't go nuts.