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Fantasy Basketball 101: Draft Tips for Beginners

Oscar Heanue

Oscar Heanue has been writing about the NBA for RotoWire since 2015. Some of his work has appeared on NBA.com and CBS Sports. Oscar has also had been published on NBAdraft.net.

Whether you’re a fantasy basketball veteran or a brand-new owner, knowing how to draft a solid team is the foundation for success in any league. No matter how many trades you make or players you pick up, your team will be founded on the players you choose in the draft.

If you’re a new player unsure of how to approach a draft or a returning player hoping to be more competitive or serious, never fear. Even the most novice owners can draft a great team with the right combination of preparation and strategy.

The following six points can help fantasy players of all experience levels choose a championship-caliber team.

1. Know Your League

This may seem obvious, but knowing the basics of your league can be the biggest key to having a successful draft. Understanding your league’s scoring settings and general rules has a major impact on how you pick players.

For example, knowing whether or not your league uses turnovers as a category can hold significant bearing on where you would draft a turnover-prone star player like James Harden or John Wall. Reviewing roster settings and acquisition rules is important, too. If your league has an IR spot, you should be somewhat more willing to take an injury-prone player since you will have a place to put them if they go down.

If you do nothing else before you draft, take some time to familiarize yourself with the rules of your league.

2. Know Who You Want (And Who You Dont)

Just as importantly, you should familiarize yourself with the current NBA landscapes and what players may be available at your picks. Knowing where players are expected to go can help you to prepare a list of potential targets at different spots in the draft.

While you’ll want to look for “sleepers,” or players who you think will be better than their draft spot, you should also come into a draft knowing which players you may want to steer clear of. Making two quick lists -- one of potential targets and one of players to avoid -- can be a great tool to fall back on during a draft. Being on the clock during a draft means making quick decisions, so having prepared some basics for yourself ahead of time can help you make a smarter, more informed choice in the moment.

3. Pay Attention to Positions

When drafting, it is important to keep player positions in mind. While you shouldn’t draft based on position in the first few rounds, it can be an even worse error to draft too heavily at one position throughout.

It is entirely possible, for example, to draft several centers who are worthy of owning and keeping on your roster. However, if you don’t have space to put all of them in your lineup, chances are at least one of them will see their production wasted on your bench.

And although a player’s statistical output should be your primary concern, keep in mind that there is a benefit to rostering players who are eligible at multiple positions. If you’re having trouble separating a single-position player and a multi-positional player in terms of their production, give the edge to the one who is eligible at an extra position. You never know when that extra flexibility could be useful.

4. Don’t Try to Win Every Category

This advice applies only to category-based leagues, but it can be the most important thing for newer owners in such leagues to keep in mind.

In leagues with eight or nine categories, it’s nearly impossible to be competitive in each one. When choosing how to draft, selecting a few categories to focus on over others will allow your team to consistently dominate in certain areas. If your first round pick happens to be Stephen Curry, for example, choosing complementary players like Klay Thompson, Ryan Anderson, or another sharpshooter will give you a team that is a consistent powerhouse in terms of three-point makes, free-throw shooting, and points scored.

Additionally, if you enter the late rounds still lacking in a certain category, it can be tempting to look for players who fill that need. However, you may be better off strengthening your already-solid categories instead. Players picked towards the end of the draft to fill empty categories rarely end up winning your team those categories. Instead, they take up valuable roster spots that could be used on contributors who fall in line with your existing strategy.

5. Approach Rookies with Caution

One of the biggest question marks when drafting a fantasy team is how the season’s rookies will produce. When they work out, they can be major difference-makers. Just two seasons ago, rookies Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis found themselves among the league’s best frontcourt fantasy commodities. However, some rookies becoming major steals does not mean that rookies are always a good bet.

While rookies can be tempting to take for their potential, it’s worth noting that many highly-touted rookies are barely worth rostering. Last year’s draft class was a prime example of this, as injuries, team situations, and disappointing production kept any of the top picks in the 2016 draft from making a major splash in fantasy leagues. Only three players -- Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid -- finished among the top 50 at their position.

Taking a rookie can be a productive gamble in later rounds. But drafting too many rookies or relying on rookies to fill a certain category brings a high level of risk to your team that is ultimately unlikely to pay off.

6. Don’t Think Like a Fan

For passionate basketball fans, this is generally the hardest piece of advice to stick to. Everyone has their own favorite teams and players, and it can be extremely tempting to choose a player you love over the player who would be best for your team.

In fantasy basketball, though, the teams that succeed are generally the teams that draft the best player available whenever fit and positional eligibility will allow. It may be tough to pass on your favorite player if they might not be available in the next round, but chances are, your team will be better for it down the road.