By Gabe Allen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The NBA is a league so overflowing with stars that it’s difficult to botch the first round in fantasy drafts. We (you know, the royal we) spend so much time deciding who to take in the first round, but it’s a selection that, barring injuries, rarely makes or breaks fantasy teams. As such, my personal list of must-draft players won’t feature anyone whose average draft position (ADP) is inside the top-12.
Without further ado, here’s my round-by-round list of must-draft players:
EARLY ROUND TARGETS
Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers (ADP-15.3)*
It’s not wise to dismiss any players whose ADP is inside the top-12. However, George stepped up in the playoffs with Kawhi Leonard (knee) sidelined, looking like the guy who was an MVP candidate a couple of years ago in Oklahoma City. And frankly, he shouldn’t be available in the second round of any 12-team league. Players being drafted ahead of him whom I would take George over include, at the very least: Bradley Beal, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis.
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (ADP-25.3)
Ball was phenomenal as a rookie, turning in averages of 15.7 points, 6.1 dimes, 5.9 rebounds, 1.8 threes, 1.6 steals, and 0.4 blocks in 28.8 minutes while starting 31 of his 51 appearances. It’s safe to say he’s due for an increase in playing time this season, and his per-36-minutes averages from last year were 19.7 points, 7.7 assists, 7.4 boards, 2.3 threes, 2.0 steals, and 0.4 blocks. Maybe he’s a year away from actually averaging those numbers, but I’m not chancing it and potentially missing out on a major breakout.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (ADP-35.0)
Gilgeous-Alexander has flashed so much potential, and he is going to be relied upon so heavily, that it’s hard to imagine him actually being available in the third round of 12-team leagues. As long as he avoids the injury bug, which, along with load management, derailed his 2020-21 season, Gilgeous-Alexander will be an elite fantasy option. If SGA is already gone or you’re looking for a more well-rounded contributor, Jrue Holiday (ADP-34.7) is eternally slept on.
Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers (ADP-44.3)
There’s no shortage of superb players who could fall to the fourth, but Harris may be the most realistic (and best) option for those picking in the latter half of that round (Picks 43-48). Harris is coming off a career year in which he compiled career highs in field-goal percentage (51.2% FG), free-throw percentage (89.2% FT), assists (3.5 APG), and blocks (0.8 BPG) while also turning in solid averages of 19.5 points and 6.8 boards per night.
With Ben Simmons’ days in a 76ers uniform likely numbered — and no end in sight to that saga — Harris becomes the unquestioned second option behind star center Joel Embiid. With increased responsibility, 2021-22 may very well be the best campaign of Harris’ career, from a counting stats perspective.
Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans Pelicans (ADP-68.0)
Moving to the fifth round, Valanciunas is coming off a monster season in Memphis, averaging career highs in scoring (17.1 PPG), rebounding (12.5 RPG), minutes (28.3 MPG), and field-goal percentage (59.2% FT). He figures to be heavily involved on a Pelicans team that’s desperate for both a playoff appearance and a steadying presence at center. If Zion Williamson (foot) isn’t fully healthy to begin the year that could also mean increased responsibility for Valanciunas, though the big man projects as a good fit alongside Williamson thanks to his ability to step out beyond the arc.
Also a good free-throw shooter (career 78.0% FT), Valanciunas may not provide all that much in terms of assists, steals, blocks, and threes, but his offensive efficiency and rebounding make him an elite option in the middle rounds.
Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings (ADP-67.3)
Sacramento is thin at center and splurged to re-sign Holmes this offseason. Plus, the Kings, led by De’Aaron Fox, are a good bet to get up and down the court in a hurry this season. Both of those factors bode well for Holmes’ fantasy projection, especially since he’s already coming off a career year, having averaged 14.2 points (63.7% FG, 79.4% FT), 8.3 boards, 1.7 dimes, 1.6 blocks and 0.6 steals in 29.2 minutes per game in 2020-21. If Holmes is still available by the time I’m on the clock in the sixth round, I’ll be a very happy drafter.
Kevin Porter Jr., Houston Rockets (ADP-87.7)
Porter is worth reaching for well in advance of his average draft position, especially in points leagues, in which he possesses top-50 potential. He is the primary beneficiary of the fact that John Wall has likely played his final game for the Rockets. Those who are able to nab Porter in the seventh round of any draft should be counting their lucky stars.
P.J. Washington, Charlotte Hornets (ADP-96.3)
Washington has the size and skill set to spend time at both the power forward and center positions for Charlotte this season, and he’s one of the best breakout candidates in the league. Whether Gordon Hayward stays healthy or not, Washington should prove to be an eighth-round steal thanks in large part to his versatility. He was already a well-rounded contributor in 2020-21, having averaged 12.9 points (44.0% FG, 38.6% 3PT, 74.5% FT), 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 dimes, 1.8 threes, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals in 30.5 minutes per game.
Wendell Carter, Orlando Magic (ADP-98.3)
Carter has had enough trouble staying healthy during the first few years of his career that it’s possible he’ll still be available at this late stage of the game. Nevertheless, his upside suggests he should be long gone by this point, so there’s no shame in reaching for Carter even earlier.
Kelly Olynyk, Detroit Pistons (ADP-125.0)
Let’s not forget that Olynyk exploded for averages of 19.0 points (54.5% FG, 39.2% 3PT, 84.4% FT), 8.4 boards, 4.1 dimes, 1.8 threes, 1.4 steals, and 0.6 blocks in 31.1 minutes across 27 appearances with the Rockets last season. While it’s extremely unlikely that he will match or even come close to posting those same numbers over the course of an entire season, it’s worth noting that he left one rebuilding team for another — this after playing on highly competitive teams for the vast majority of his career until recently. Olynyk may be relied upon fairly heavily in 2021-22, and his ability to play both the power forward and center positions is another reason for optimism that he’ll remain a valuable contributor across all fantasy formats.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics (ADP-129.3)
Robert Williams has struggled to stay healthy, and Horford looked much better in Oklahoma City last year than he did the year before in Philadelphia. Even at 35, Horford remains one of the league’s most versatile big men, which makes him valuable regardless of fantasy format.
Mason Plumlee, Charlotte Hornets (ADP-142.3)
Plumlee is coming off a career year in which he averaged 10.4 points, 9.3 boards, 3.6 assists, 0.9 blocks, and 0.8 steals in 26.8 minutes per game for the Pistons. Moreover, he joins a Charlotte team led by virtuoso playmaker LaMelo Ball. Plumlee isn’t a good free-throw shooter and he’s not a huge help defensively considering his size and stature, but the situation is ripe for him to deliver another decent fantasy season.
Monte Morris, Denver Nuggets (ADP-172.0)
Jamal Murray (knee) could miss the entire season, and Morris is the steadiest point guard still standing in Denver. He’s not a big-time scorer, but Morris proved he could get it done under the brightest lights during the 2021 NBA playoffs when he averaged 13.7 points, 5.5 dimes versus just 0.7 turnovers, 2.7 boards, 1.6 threes, and 1.0 steal in 28.6 minutes across 10 postseason appearances. A similar stat-line for the 2021-22 season is a real possibility, especially if he can hold off Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo to approach 30 minutes per game.