In drafting basketball team, seek versatility, not stardom

It's easy to forget with so many of you sharing in our national fantasy football obsession, but the NBA season starts next week. And that means fantasy basketball.

I know those words induce a huge yawn from many fantasy enthusiasts. Aside from the Kobe Bryant saga in Los Angeles, pro basketball can't complete for headlines with the NFL and the World Series. And many general sports fans seem to view the NBA's regular season as a real slog.


But I love fantasy basketball. With more games and statistical categories, it's a more intricate game than fantasy football. On the other hand, every player contributes to every category and most NBA teams get three or four off days every week, so it's not as all-consuming as fantasy baseball.

If you follow the NBA even a little and have never played, I urge you to sample an online league. Here's a little draft strategy brush-up for newcomers and fellow hoops devotees.


Always draft a versatile player over a guy who excels in one or two categories.

Fans tend to focus heavily on guys who can score because that's a disproportionately valuable skill in real basketball. But in fantasy, the points category counts the same as rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and three-pointers made. That means players such as Richard Hamilton, Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph are far less valuable than Josh Smith, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Camby, who score less but help in four or five categories.

One true superstar stands out for his relative lack of versatility: Carmelo Anthony. He's among the NBA's greatest scorers, but he doesn't make many three-pointers, dish many assists or grab many rebounds for a forward. That puts him well below peers such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. But it also puts him below Smith and Wallace, counterintuitive as that might seem to new fantasy players.

I don't worry too much about points. I've found that if I draft good players and manage my team carefully, I finish at least in the middle of the pack in that category.

Be aware that assists, steals, blocks and three-pointers are dominated by relatively small pools of players.

Think of these as the stolen bases and saves of fantasy basketball. In his excellent basketball coverage, ESPN columnist Matthew Berry notes that only 11 players averaged more than seven assist last year, only 21 averaged more than 1.5 blocks, only 19 averaged more than 1.5 steals and only 21 made more than 130 three-pointers.

By contrast, 69 players averaged more than 15 points.

I covet players who stand out in two or three of the more obscure categories. It's the chief appeal of fantasy superstars such as James, Gilbert Arenas and Shawn Marion. But there are some less-heralded players who fit the bill as well. Most of them are point guards who combine assists, steals and three-pointers. Try to get two or three of these guys -who include Kirk Hinrich, Raymond Felton, Mo Williams and Mike Bibby - in your draft.


Also, look for players who combine steals and blocks. Smith, Gerald Wallace, Camby and Andrei Kirilenko are the higher-end examples. Ben Wallace is a mid-grade choice, and youngsters Travis Outlaw and Tyrus Thomas are the sleeper candidates.

Don't ignore the percentages.

I haven't talked about shooting percentage or free-throw percentage, but those tend to be the other two categories. Ignore them at your peril.

I try to avoid players who shoot less than 45 percent from the field and less than 70 percent from the line. That's hard to do because you want some of those aforementioned point guards, and they don't tend to shoot accurately from the field (save for the wondrous Steve Nash). Counterbalance that by drafting five or six frontcourt players who shoot 48 percent or higher.

Pau Gasol, Amare Stoudemire and Yao Ming are excellent percentage boosters, but so are some less-touted players such as David West, LaMarcus Aldridge and many of the third-tier centers.

I try to avoid poor free-throw shooters entirely (don't even think about Shaquille O'Neal), but if you draft Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki, who make huge numbers of foul shots at high percentages, you can afford an Al Jefferson or Dwight Howard.


At least check the preseason box scores.

It's a small sample of games, and the stars often play at half speed, but don't ignore the preseason. In a recent auction, I purchased Utah's Ronnie Brewer and Golden State's Kelenna Azubuike for my last two reserve slots. I did so not because they showed much last year but because both have started and played well in the preseason. That means their roles are evolving (as Kevin Martin's did in Sacramento last year).

Some information on new guys is better than none.