Fantasy Spin: October 6, 2012

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Fantasy Basketball Primer

Part 4: Finding Sleepers

In Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series, I introduced you to the Fantasy Basketball Primer, reviewed Head-to-Head, Rotisserie and Keeper League strategies and shared strategies for certain league customizations. Today, we look at identifying sleepers.

What is a sleeper? Everyone has a different definition. Mine is a player who is likely to outperform his draft position. There are two main points. The first is ‘likely’ to outperform. Anyone can say player X may outperform his ADP, but in targeting sleepers I don’t want to draft lottery tickets. I want players who are likely to generate a return on my investment. The second point is ‘outperform’ his draft position. If you overpay for an undervalued asset, you are no longer ahead. The key is to find those players that you can acquire at a discount to their season-long value.

Finding sleepers is more art than science. There is no secret formula, but there are a few key factors that tend to cause the market to undervalue a particular player. I call these factors: 1. League Rule Variation; 2. Negative Stigma — usually due to the players advanced age, injury history or some personality quirk; 3. Breakouts — players who are likely to improve more than the market is pricing in; 4. Pace or Usage -— an under-accounted for increase in the number possessions that player gets; and 5. Poor Shooting Numbers — players who had an off-year shooting the ball tend to bounce back.

1. League Rule Variation

This one is pretty simple. The majority of fantasy players will base their selections on the most popular sources of player valuation, including (most significantly) the values provided by their league’s hosting website. These player valuations are based on a default set of rules. The differences in your league’s rules and the default will lead the market to undervalue certain players for your league. I have discussed these in detail in Part 2 and Part 3 already.

2. Negative Stigma

Older Players

As a group, fantasy players are always on the lookout for the next big thing. It is ingrained in our DNA. This not only causes us to overrate young players with potential, but also to underrate older players because we fear their potential decline. Take a look at this year’s ADP and last year’s per-game values. One pattern you will quickly see is how great (but older) players can be acquired at a discount. It is a form of ageism. We are all guilty of it, but you should embrace it and not hesitate to draft those falling stars.

There is one caveat to drafting older players — they must be (or were) star players. It is safe to draft Ray Allen but not Raja Bell. The reasons are twofold. First, teams will continue to give star players playing time, even if they have slipped a notch. Secondly, star players usually became star players because of extreme talent and work ethic. A high level of talent allows them to slip but still be effective. The work ethic is what allows them to defy father time.

Formerly Injured Players

Formerly injured players are also a great source for a discount. The reason is the perceived increase in risk (true for chronic injuries, false for traumatic ones) and the “burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice, shame on me” phenomenon. We tend to avoid players with whom we’ve had a negative experience. The caveat for ageism applies for injuryism — stick to the star players. This is not just because of the work ethic and the ability to overcome the injury. If a player wasn’t very good before injury, a small loss of step could have dramatic impact on the player’s value. Here is a table of some injured players who are trading at a discount based on their per game value versus their current ADP.

Player GP Per 40 M Rank ADP
Stephen Curry 26 39 42
Eric Gordon 9 46 52
Ricky Rubio 41 44 100
Jeremy Lin 35 51 65
Andrea Bargnani 31 52 74
Anderson Varejao 25 55 80
Kevin Martin 40 72 78
Chauncey Billups 20 79 134


As with the Division previews, Per 40 Minute Rank comes from a personal spreadsheet. ADP is from Yahoo! and adjusted for percentage of leagues drafted.

Quirky Players

Lastly, there are players that fantasy players simply do not like for whatever reason usually because the player wasn’t a high draft pick, a known talent or choked on the big stage causing us to think ill of them or disbelieve their statistical output. Kris Humphries is a good example. His on-the-court talents are overshadowed by his bizarre Kardashian personal life, causing him to fall below his value in drafts.

3. Breakouts

This is the group that I try to target the most in my drafts because the potential discount is not measured in picks but in rounds. These are the players most likely to improve significantly from one year to the next. Again, there is no secret formula, but there are a couple of key indicators.

First is age. Players are being drafted into the NBA at very young ages now and we often forget how young a particular player is, especially if they have been in the league for a couple of years. Most studies show that players’ greatest improvement occurs before the age of 25 and you will be surprised to see who is still younger than 25. Second are minutes. Players who get limited minutes can improve simply by seeing more minutes. The league’s elite generally see 34-38 minutes. Starters will average 30+ minutes. A player who got less than 30 minutes, can improve significantly just by getting ‘starter’s minutes’. I use 32 mpg as my cut-off. Third is that the player must be productive with the minutes they get. I limit my choices to players with above average per 40 minute numbers. The reason is fairly obvious. Good players are more likely than bad ones to see an increase in minutes.

Below is a table of my potential ‘breakouts’ based on these key indicators and sorted by ADP. Note that I cut off players who played in less than 30 games last year and got fewer than 20 minutes there is no real reason why you should. I also excluded players who  qualified, but their ADP is above their Per 40 Minute Rank. These are James Harden, Serge Ibaka, Nicolas Batum, Paul George, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan (technically this applies to Danilo Gallinari, but I kept him in because he is also a ‘Shooter’ and if you regressed his shooting percentages, his Per 40 Minute would easily exceed his ADP).

The best part of drafting these breakouts is that the value can either come from the player having improved, his minutes going up or the market simply failing to see how good he was. You can now see why I was targeting/drafted the players I did in our elimination draft. The results of that 20-team, 16-round draft are available here (please see the comment section of that post for my round-by-round targets and selections).

Player Age Minutes Per 40 M Rank ADP
Kyrie Irving 20 30.5 12 15
DeMarcus Cousins 22 30.5 15 29
Greg Monroe 22 31.5 29 40
Danilo Gallinari 24 31.4 62 59
Jeremy Lin 24 26.9 27 65
Kenneth Faried 22 22.5 74 85
JaVale McGee 24 25.2 83 86
Isaiah Thomas 23 25.5 87 90
Thaddeus Young 24 27.9 86 93
Spencer Hawes 24 24.9 84 126
Gordon Hayward 22 30.4 105 127
Kawhi Leonard 21 24 128 135
DeJuan Blair 23 21.3 147 178
Kevin Seraphin 22 20.6 167 196
Jerryd Bayless 24 22.7 123 Undrafted
Trevor Booker 24 25.2 152 Undrafted
Rodrigue Beaubois 24 21.7 162 Undrafted


As above, Per 40 Minute Rank comes from a personal spreadsheet and ADP from Yahoo!, adjusted for percentage of leagues drafted.

4. Pace or Usage

The most predictable path to growth is when a player sees increased minutes plus increased possessions per minute. How do we identify players who are likely to see an increase in minutes? The easiest way is to look at the minute distributions for a team in the regular season and playoffs. Non-star players who had significant increase in minutes in the playoffs are likely to hold that increase into the next season. For teams that do not make the playoffs, you can use first and second half splits. Just be careful to factor in that team’s offseason activity. Ed Davis had a significant increase in minutes in his first- and second-half splits but with addition of Jonas Valunciunas and the return to health of Andrea Bargnani to the Raptors’ frontcourt, he is unlikely to keep those additional minutes.

How do we identify players who will see more possessions per minute? The most predictable way is to identify players who go from a team with relatively few possessions per minute to a team with relatively high possessions per minute. Andre Iguodala, for example, is going from the slow paced 76ers to the very high paced Nuggets. A more challenging but potentially fruitful source is to try to identify which teams will try to increase their pace this year (look for a change of coach, point guard, or philosophy). This is where training camp stats are helpful — look for teams that have significantly increased their possessions per minute from the previous season.

A couple of teams that I think will see a higher possessions per minute this year are: Portland — Terry Stotts started the process last year, they have a much younger lineup and a rookie shoot-first starting point guard; Houston — a lot younger, deeper and more athletic this year with a new star point guard who plays his best on the edge; and, Dallas — a lot younger at the point with Darren Collison, a team whose strength is its depth and as a means to conceal the slowing of Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion. I have also heard early reports that the new management in Atlanta wants to push the pace this year, as does Miami.

Just as with the Breakouts, limit your search to efficient players or players with above-average per-40-minute numbers. Below-average players simply won’t benefit from increased minutes or possessions. Their deficiencies will only become more exposed.

5. Shooters

The last area to find sleepers are in the shooting numbers. Look for players whose shooting percentages in the prior season were below their career norms. Fantasy players typically only look at last year’s stats and are likely to write off players who had disappointing years with their shooting. Players whose other numbers were relatively stable but saw their shooting percentages fall are likely to outperform their prior year’s value, because the shooting percentages will likely regress toward their career average.


Before we conclude, I want to say a couple of things about drafting rookies. Rookies can be a tremendous source of value at the draft, particularly when filling out your bench. The issue with drafting rookies for your starting lineup is a lack of information. We just don’t know what a rookie will do before he does it and in most cases a rookie’s full impact will not be felt for several years. Every year a couple of rookies will amaze us and a Kyrie Irving may emerge as a star, but it is very hard to predict who those rookies will be and the most likely candidates (Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) will cost a premium to find out. For this reason, I don’t think of rookies as sleepers. They are not likely to outperform their draft position.

But there does come a time in most drafts when lottery tickets are the way to go. If I am going to buy a lottery ticket, I will most likely look to the rookie pool. When drafting rookies, opportunity is as much (if not more of) a consideration than talent. A talented rookie buried behind a superstar is unlikely to get a meaningful chance to play, whereas a mediocre rookie behind a journeyman is more likely to get that opportunity. Also pay attention to their ages and experience. Life in the NBA is much harder for a 19-year-old freshman than it is for a 23-year-old Euro League star. Obviously, rookies with both talent and opportunity make the best lottery tickets. We covered the most notable ones here.

For some further insight and names of players we see as sleepers, please check out our Division Previews.

Please return next Saturday, October 13 for Part 5 of the Fantasy Primer — Draft Prep and Auction Strategies. On Saturday, October 20 we will conclude the series with Part 6 — In Season Tactics and Putting the Primer into Practice.

Thanks to Sarju Thakkar for the photo of Kyrie Irving.

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  1. OZBargain says:

    Thanks for this! Sophomores like me in KEEPER leagues are always on a lookout for sleepers. I just can’t take the fact that in our league, MINUTES PER GAME are included. It is a huge disadvantage on me. How can I justify to my fellow GM’s that MPG is not needed?

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