Fantasy basketball drafts: Westbrook and Jokic among top make-or-break players

There is no shortage of risk and reward in Russell Westbrook's fantasy basketball value with the Washington Wizards, but is he more likely to make or break your chances of winning? Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

As we're learning with our current fantasy football season, during a pandemic, fantasy hoops managers will need to be on their collective toes this season.

Under normal conditions, competitive fantasy hoops demands you take some risks. But with all the variables at play for 2020-21, to win, you will have gone above and beyond to strategically create differentiation. And to create differentiation, you have to identity and take some calculated risks in your drafts.

You will need to consider some make-or-break players.

Ultimately, our draft goal is to acquire multiple players who outperform their draft valuations. The more differences between your top players' ADP and their final ranking on the Player Rater, the more differentiation you create between you and your fellow managers.

With this in mind, here are my top 10 make-or-break players, in descending order of average draft position (ADP), using ESPN's new default points-league scoring system.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG/SG, Oklahoma City Thunder (ADP: 35; average salary-cap price: $17)

I'm listing Gilgeous-Alexander for a reason: He is going to be so good this season. How good? Achingly regret-dealing-him-for Paul-George-good. And I think Gilgeous-Alexander will even outperform George in fantasy.

I feel the same way about SGA that I felt about Devin Booker on 10/11/19 (when he was at a 34 ADP) when I wrote: "Booker could max out in the top 15." I was right then -- he finished seventh overall -- and I'm right now.

Gilgeous-Alexander's potential is at the center of a Venn diagram, where its three intersecting circles are labeled "efficiency, usage rate, and minutes per game." He's improved his efficiency every season (13.45 PER, 17.76 PER), even as his usage rate (18.7, 23.2) and minutes (26.5 MPG, 34.7 MPG) increased.

The Thunder are in Year 1 of a rebuild. They currently hold (by my unofficial count) 93 first-round picks between now and 2026. The Thunder currently roster one other top-100 fantasy player: Al Horford.

Gilgeous-Alexander is the keystone of the rebuild. He is going to get all the touches he can handle. His usage rate could top 30.0. And if it gets that high, he will return mid-teens fantasy value. Because regardless of his official position, with no Chris Paul, SGA is going to double his assist-per-game average -- and ESPN's new points system loves assists.

9. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers (ADP: 23; $37)

In the past, I've been down on Simmons' preseason fantasy prospects.

The old reason: I've refused to price the sudden appearance of 3-point production into Simmons' preseason valuation. I don't want to hear about how he shot it in some random gym. Until he's hit some 3s in actual live NBA competition, I'm penciling in 0.0 3s.

The new reason: The new me is all about points-league valuation, and Simmons' categorical hiccups in 3-point production and free throw percentage don't mean so much when you're the new me.

The new me thinks Simmons is tracking to outperform that 23 ADP by 8-10 slots. And here's another reason why: this unprecedented season.

This season, I think the effect of projected games missed on fantasy value will mean more. The gap between per-game value and aggregate value will be huge for a lot of elites. Meaning: A big part of determining make-or-break value is figuring if your league's format favors players who post higher per-game value, or aggregate (total) value.

And Simmons is still young. He's entering this season in good health.

He also adds out-of-position pop in rebounds (7.8 per game 2019-20). ESPN's new heightened valuation of assists makes him (8.0 APG) a half-round more valuable. His steals rate made a nice jump last season (2.1). His TS% edged up to 60.2% (very important in points-league valuation). And for you roto enthusiasts? His mediocre FT% (62.1%) continues to trend upward.

I also think Doc Rivers will do wonders for Simmons. And Daryl Morey's acquisition of direly needed shooting (Danny Green, Seth Curry) will open up fresh new areas of operational space for Simmons.

Even without the sudden appearance of never-seen 3-point production, Simmons is headed for a career year.

8. Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans (ADP: 22; $31)

So, the first two entries were "make" your season players. But if you read my breakout sophomores column, you already know how I feel here. Just in case you somehow missed it, I will repeat myself:

Drafting Williamson at 22 could be a season-ending mistake. Because without a sudden reversion to his collegiate counting stats on defense (3.9 steals + blocks in one season at Duke), or an exponential multiplication of his rookie 3-point production (0.3 3PG), Williamson won't miss his 22 ADP by a few slots -- he'll have trouble cracking the top-40. Even with some appreciable improvements, he'll under-perform his draft valuation.

Williamson presents as fantasy pyrite. He will present as a fantasy superstar ... for managers that don't understand fantasy. Because Williamson is going to be an NBA superstar. He's going to average more than 25 points per game. 6-8 rebounds. He will be electrifying to watch.

But Williamson is not tracking as justifying that 22 ADP. Not until he adds 2.0 3s, and 2.0 blocks + steals. It's not an impossibility. He certainly has the potential to do it. (Williamson also has plus court vision. I can easily see him doubling his assist rate, getting it up to 4.0 per game.)

But the likelihood is that Williamson will be top 40-- not top 25. And missing by a full round at 22? That's a "break" move.

7. Andre Drummond, C, Cleveland Cavaliers (ADP: 21; $36)

If you read my column on ESPN's new ultra-fantastic points system, You may recall that I am aggressively reassessing some of previously held positions. A la Simmons, Drummond is a player I've historically warned managers to steer clear of.

Then two things happened.

Drummond radically improved his free throw shooting, upping it from toxic (38.6 FT% in 2016-17) to merely really bad (57.5 FT% in 2019-20).

And (again) I have been reborn as a points-league enthusiast.

Both of those shifts have radically altered my assessment of Drummond. If you're in a roto league, you don't have to punt FT% to roster Drummond. (Above all, I disdain punting.)

And in a points league, Drummond's poor FT% gets overwhelmed in the wash by his plus-plus-volume across every single counting stat outside of 3s (and Drummond even started hitting some very occasional 3s last season).

Drummond's eye-popping rebounding (15.2 RPG) and defense (1.9 SPG, 1.6 BPG) traditionally led to his being slightly over-drafted. But his current 21 ADP is off by half a round, in a good way.

He doesn't have Tristan Thompson around to siphon his minutes. Drummond is a sneaky-good passer. He could average 3.0 APG this season, which would be top 10 amongst players at his position. And he's coming off a shutdown, which always depresses valuation the following year.

But there's one outstanding reason why Drummond could return first-round value off a 21 ADP: He is in his walk year. He'll be a free agent. Players who excel at counting stats in their walk years tend to take those categories up by at least one or two notches.

But he really doesn't need to register radical improvement to push for the top 10. He merely needs to hold serve and stay healthy.

6. Russell Westbrook, PG, Washington Wizards (ADP: 19; $37)

Here comes another reassessment of another player I've traditionally downgraded, because Westbrook presents many of the same fantasy valuation issues as Drummond.

He's coming off some well-documented injury/health issues at the end of last season. His inefficiency in a key shooting metric (25.8 3FG%) makes him a liability in a key category per his position. His counting-stats excellence clashes with modern analytics-based valuation.

But more than any other underrated player, Westbrook's undervaluation is the result of something singular. He suffers from skewed media perception, as opposed to skewed statistical projection. (Here's a comp: pre-injury DeMarcus Cousins).

Westbrook's tendency to function as a lightning rod for hot takes has annually depressed his ADP to the point where, for the first time, he actually enters the 2020-21 season as a fantasy bargain. Which is unbelievable for a player who is one year removed from three straight triple-double campaigns.

Look how the Westbrook-Wall deal was immediately engulfed in the swirl of reflexive, predictable, negative buzz. Lost in the swirl: the fact that Westbrook's statistical value will undoubtedly get a boost in Washington,which means his fantasy value will rise.

Why will Westbrook's value improve? Better health. Getting away from Harden. Playing again for Scott Brooks, who shepherded some of Westbrook's peak output.

But most of all, analysts are missing the fact that roster and systemic conditions in D.C. are custom-programmed for a Westbrook statistical renaissance -- and a "make" fantasy season.

No one seems to have pointed out the benefit of Westbrook re-assuming the role of a traditional point guard, playing alongside a top-3 shooting guard (also returning to his natural position.) Or that he's now surrounded by space-creating, pick-and-roll enabling plus-shooters like Davis Bertans and Thomas Bryant. Result: His assists and overall efficiency will rise.

In a conservative estimate, I'd peg Westbrook at 25.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 9.0 assists, 2.0 blocks + steals, and 1.0 3-pointers, with a slightly mediocre 53.0 TS%. Add that up, and deduct five games to injury -- in terms of per-game value, that's pushing top-12 production.

But if your league favors aggregate production? Then 19 is about right.

5. Kawhi Leonard, SF, Los Angeles Clippers (ADP: 16; $36)

Leonard's ADP has been load-managed into submission. Last season, the load management dominated Leonard's in-season narrative, but Leonard still ended up 10th overall on the Player Rater.

Let's assume Leonard sits out back-to-backs this year. That the lack of offseason rest almost guarantees Leonard misses 10-15 games. That means the gap between his per-game value and his aggregate value would be wider than any other elite player.

The make-or-break factor is entirely determined by your ability to correctly gauge what kind of value means more in your league. I'd peg his per-game value in the 8-10 range overall, and his aggregate value is 18-22. If your league is more about per-game numbers, and you can manage his likely sitting out back-to-backs, then you could be netting a half round in value.

But it isn't a randomized chance situation. You have the power to figure out which kind of value means more in your league in advance of the draft. And making those kinds of calculations will be able to give you a hidden edge in terms of gauging "make-or-break" value.

4. Devin Booker, SG/PG, Phoenix Suns (ADP: 13; $44)

With Chris Paul running the point in Phoenix, deduct 1.5 assists and keep the rest of Booker's stats roughly the same. I predicted a big season for Booker in terms of over-performing his ADP last season. What's to keep it that kind of over-performance from happening again?

The lack of defensive stats -- specifically steals. Booker reminds me of a top fantasy talent with an incandescent future. But within ESPN's new points system, elite players who can't contribute in terms of blocks + steals are going to have problems. Because the new system adds four points per block and four points per steal.

Booker still overwhelms in just about every other fantasy category. But he's now one season removed from his breakout. The season after a breakout, one must be concerned about overpaying. All of this is conspiring to limit his ability to over-perform his ADP.

3. Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Brooklyn Nets (ADP: 10; $53)

Other than Zion at 22, Durant at 10 constitutes the riskiest pick on this list. In a campaign saturated with variables, Durant adds too many for my liking.

He's coming off a uniquely career-altering injury at 32. He will likely be held out of back-to-backs. He's playing on a new team. In a new city. For a new coach. Who's never coached. His co-alpha (Kyrie Irving) is the most quixotically unpredictable star in fantasy.

I don't think Durant will be a bust. But there is potential he ends up being more of a top-25 player. That (injury excepted) is the floor. The key with Durant is what is his ceiling?

If you break down your league's valuation system, and you assess Durant could deliver fifth-overall value on a 10 ADP, then Durant is worth the risk. But I can't endorse drafting Durant at 10, as the surefire deliverer of 10th overall production. Not when there are surer options available.

2. LeBron James, SF/PF, Los Angeles Lakers (ADP: 5; $64)

This has nothing to do with a decline in any statistical category. I don't believe LeBron is due for a dropoff anywhere in his per-game averages.

This is just a warning about the load management whispers that have swirled around LeBron this offseason. I don't think you price that into his ADP. Fantasy-wise, LeBron is at that stage similar to Tim Duncan at a similar stage -- until the drop-off actually happens, I'm going to assume it's not happening. Until he actually undergoes some load management, I'm going to assume it's not happening.

If LeBron plays like previous incarnations? If he shrugs off his advancing age, throws down 65-68 games, and goes all-out? He will back up that fifth-overall valuation. But the one major difference to this season is the lack of an offseason. He played all the way through the Finals. He did not get a normal amount of recovery time.

Again, we're talking about a player who has suffered only one substantial injury in a very long career. But the prospect of load management has never been greater. And with the shortened schedule, every missed game means more.

I do think LeBron at No. 5 is less of a risk than Durant at ten. But he is the riskiest top-10 play outside of Durant.

1. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets (ADP: 4; $63)

Jokic isn't on this list due to any particular positive or negative. He's here as an emblem of the issue facing the top-four players overall. I don't think there's a ton of separation at the top. But out of the top-four (Jokic, Harden, Doncic and Antetokounmpo), Jokic has the least upside.

It's not a knock on Jokic. Saying a player has the upside of the fourth-best player in the NBA is a big, big compliment. It's just that with the other three players, I can marshal an argument as to how they all could finish the season ranked No. 1 overall. I can't make that with Jokic. Not in fantasy terms.

Because I look at his portfolio, and I wonder if we're seeing his ceiling. I don't see where he can improve, outside of a couple extra points scored per game. In points leagues, he'll get a little more built-in value thanks to the boost in assist valuation. And leagues that finish in playoffs also help cancel out Jokic's biggest fantasy liability -- his annual underwhelming first month.

Maybe the lack of an offseason means Jokic won't take the first month off. But it's safer to assume it will happen.

I can make four separate arguments as to how Harden, Doncic, Antetokounmpo, and Anthony Davis could all finish No. 1 overall. I can't make that argument for Jokic.

Which by default, makes him a make-or-break pick.