Lists are an indispensable tool. They provide efficiency and preparedness to workdays, shopping trips and breaking up with people. But drafting in fantasy basketball is a strategic art, and if you place too much prep time or credence on a rigid list, you'll limit your ability to capitalize upon pockets of value that emerge during the draft.
Since the draft is your primary opportunity to establish team value, it's important to craft a sound roster, while breaking away from plans and drafting players who have fallen to ensure maximum overall roster value. Think of the fantasy draft like this: It's 1998, Matchbox 20 is redefining the concept of terrible, and you've got $50,000 to invest in the stock market. Applebee's might be your favorite restaurant because you appreciate its practical method of delivering what seems like good food and decent prices, and perhaps you even think sales of its new extreme chicken kickers are going to bump the stock up a bit. But what you like isn't necessarily what's best for you, especially if Google is sitting there for the same price. You must capitalize, even if it means selling Google a week later for twice as much stock in Applebee's and a copy of "Now! That's What I Call Music, Volume 4." Again, it's all about worth, and this column is about drafting a high-value team.
Now of course, I'm not encouraging you to draft five centers and no point guards because the big men came at a good price. But being fluid, keen and adaptable to each draft will set you apart. Field a good team, and especially in the first few rounds make sure that you feel confident in its cornerstones. Get to know your league and the overall feel of this year's draft, and be ready to toss the list aside when opportunities emerge. A combination of prep work before the draft, in-draft strategy and follow-up afterward will help your team start the season with a high net worth.
Do plenty of mock drafts to get a feel for the flow of the draft this season, and where players are often selected. Each year, certain trends emerge and become consistent during drafts, and no amount of article reading or stat perusing substitutes for experiencing drafts firsthand. Some players consistently seem to fall, or elicit "nice pick" comments when chosen. Mock drafting provides a far better chance of accurately predicting where players will go, which is an integral part of building a high-value team.
Use average draft position as a barometer for value, and monitor significant changes in the days leading up to the draft. This doesn't have to be your new cheat sheet or anything, but knowing where players are typically drafted and identifying whether or not one has fallen relative to that position is important. Now keep in mind this is average draft value, and if you're like me, the guys in your league are far from average human beings. So, knowing each owner's strategy as best you can is beneficial during draft time.
This is another key: Get to know your league members' innermost fantasy basketball secrets and desires. Chat them up about their sleepers and busts. Invite them to join you in mock drafts. Memorize their hometown biases. If you're in an annual league, this is an ongoing strategy. Recall moments from last year when an owner boasted about his or her favorite player, then draft that guy out from under his or her nose this year and get top value for him in a trade. Many owners are in multiple leagues with certain friends, and utilizing every chance you can to learn their strategies will pay off. With a little private detective work, you'll be able to predict whom certain owners are going to pick in advance, which is vital draft-day information.
And, of course, come with your lists and rankings and as much information as will make you feel comfortable and informed. Don't compromise your basic fantasy principles, just be ready to break away from your strategies and adapt to each draft based on the circumstances.
During the draft
As I mentioned, establish a solid foundation with your first few picks. In the later rounds, it's easier to disregard positions or statistical needs and chase value, but with the first few picks make sure you've given yourself something to work with. Also, immediately adjust to your draft position. How often are you picking, and who is picking around you? Your draft position is the primary determinant of which players you'll be choosing from in the first half of the draft, so start planning accordingly the moment you find out which pick is yours.
It's crucial to use the time between your picks wisely. Keep a list of each owner's team in real time, and closely monitor the owners whose picks surround yours. Once their rosters start filling out and needs become apparent, you will be able to better predict whom they'll choose and who will still be around for you to vulture at high value. Later in the draft, notice if there are any desperate holes in the rosters of the owners selecting after you. When this is the case, it often becomes clear whom they're keying in on to fill that hole, and drafting that player first puts you in a position of power. Snag him, and immediately begin discussing a trade with the owner. Also, if a fellow owner has a clear weakness, he may pass up better players to address it, which causes value to fall in your lap. Knowing whom owners will and won't pick also provides the opportunity to hold off on reaching for players if, looking at the owners' needs, they will likely be passed on.
An option for some leagues is in-draft trading. Different leagues may have rules about this, but it's a good way to capitalize on high-value players who don't especially suit your team. Once your trade targets become clear, approach the owner immediately so he can already imagine his or her team with your player on it, and even plan the rest of his or her draft accordingly.
In the later rounds, don't worry much about positions. Drafting is more about statistics and value. Don't fret about filling out an entire starting roster with a backup at each position by drafting a lower-value forward over a higher-value guard. Post-draft adjustment is relatively easy, and you'd rather have the task of being creative with trades or free agency to address a minor need than draft a player you hate and be stuck with him.
Part of the game is about follow-up as well. If you draft a high-value player who doesn't suit your team, make sure to trade that player either before the season even starts or at a point during the first month when his value is high. If you spoke of trades during the draft, propose them and use the value you established in the draft to assemble a balanced team. If you're in the type of league where undrafted players immediately become free agents, be sure to scour free agency right after the draft to make sure a high-value player didn't slip through the cracks. Heed these draft rules and you should end up with a team full of value. This provides you with trade ammunition and a valuable squad that'll ensure a strong start to the season, like beginning a game of "Oregon Trail" as a banker rather than a carpenter. Just don't die of dysentery along the way.
Josh Whitling is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.