Special to Yahoo Sports
Separating players into tiers is a popular method of draft prep, and it de-emphasizes the idea that you must draft a player because his projections come out slightly more favorably than those of another player. Often, the difference between a player ranked, say, 30th, and a player ranked 45th is smaller than you think.
Tiers help account for those discrepancies by grouping together players with similar risk/reward profiles, empowering the fantasy manager to choose for themselves. Tiers are also a great way to stay organized and disciplined while drafting. The default queue is a good place to start, but tiers add a personal touch and allow for more precise roster management as a draft plays out.
Some notes on methodology:
Tiers take into account players with top-120 upside. Essentially, players that could reasonably come off the board in a standard draft.
Players within tiers are not ranked in a specific order. Ideally, everyone in a tier has an argument to be taken over by anyone else in that tier.
Plenty of players are multi-position eligible, but to avoid confusion and redundancy, each player only appears at what we assume to be their primary position.
Tiers are based on 8-category, rotisserie scoring
TIER 1: Elite Superstars
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Last season, the 20-year-old averaged 28.8 points, 9.4 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 2.8 threes, and 1.0 steals in 33.6 minutes during 2019-20. Doncic was in complete control of the Mavericks’ offense, posting the second-highest usage rate in the league (36.8 percent). While it doesn’t seem like there’s much more for him to improve on in terms of raw numbers, he’s just 21 years old, so growth is practically inevitable.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Young made a huge leap during his 2019-20 sophomore campaign. The point guard was fourth in the league in scoring (29.6 points per game) and second in passing (9.3 assists per game). From here, Young’s strides may mostly be in efficiency and steals. Plus, the Hawks revamped their team during the offseason, adding Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. The result could be more work off-ball for Young. Even if that’s the case, he figures to be worth a top-10 pick in most fantasy leagues.
LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
James continued to be a great fantasy option last season. He led the league in assists per game (10.2), while also averaging 25.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 threes, and 1.2 steals. The Lakers re-tooled during the offseason, which could make it easier for James to take nights off during the upcoming squeezed 72-game campaign. Fantasy managers shouldn’t be surprised if more rest days are in store for James, which is something to keep in mind before drafting him.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard is coming off his strongest season, leaping into legitimate superstardom as a 29-year-old. He was third in the league in scoring (30.0 points per game), fifth in passing (8.0 assists), and third in threes (4.1). With Jusuf Nurkic back and fully healthy for 2020-21 and a re-loaded roster overall, Lillard shouldn’t have to carry quite that much weight again on a regular basis. Still, knowing he’s capable of that kind of elite production puts him in obvious contention for a top-five fantasy pick.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The 2019-20 season was essentially lost for Curry, who played just five games due to a broken hand. He’ll enter 2020-21 as a 32-year-old who hasn’t crossed the 70-game threshold since 2016-17. Injury potential should be at the forefront of fantasy managers’ minds before they draft Curry, but his upside is obvious. With Kevin Durant out of the picture and Klay Thompson set to miss the season with a torn Achilles, it’s quite possible Curry takes on more usage and handles the ball more than we’ve seen in recent years.
TIER 2: High-Level Starters
Russell Westbrook, Washington Wizards
Westbrook’s fantasy stock was ultimately unaffected by the transition to the Rockets last season, and the same may be the said after being traded to the Wizards. Given his age (32), history of knee injuries, and hyper-athletic play-style, there should be some concern from fantasy managers that Westbrook could end up bitten by the injury bug as his career progresses. Drafting Westbrook this season has plenty of risk, but the upside remains tantalizing.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons continues to make incremental improvements to his game. He averaged 2.1 steals and 0.6 blocks and was named to the All-Defensive First Team last season. Simmons’ other averages of 16.4 points, 8.0 assists, and 7.8 rebounds (six triple-doubles) helped him secure an All-NBA Third Team selection. Continuing to improve his free-throw percentage (62.1%) will be crucial for Simmons to reach his upside as a fantasy asset past last season’s rank of 19th.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
With Oklahoma City transitioning into a full-scale rebuild, Gilgeous-Alexander should be the focal point of the team’s offense. That could mean the 22-year-old will transition into a bigger role as a ball-handler and possibly shift back to point guard. If that’s the case, Gilgeous-Alexander should see his numbers rise across the board. There’s not much of a sample with SGA on the court alone from last season, as he played just 36 total minutes with Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, and Dennis Schroder on the bench — averaging 23.8 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 8.9 assists. Those numbers probably aren’t perfectly indicative of what will happen this season, but the increased usage is practically certain.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
With Kawhi Leonard leaving Toronto for Los Angeles, Lowry took on an expanded role and ended up ranking as the 20th-best fantasy player, This season, he’s entering the final year of his contract and could be a trade candidate at 34 years old on a team that’s increasingly getting younger. And at his age, it remains to be seen what kind of workload he can continue carrying, as he’s been averaging 35.3 minutes per game across the past seven years and has missed significant time with injury before. Lowry’s most recent season suggests he’s a clear second-round option, but age, injury history, and role concerns mean it would be surprising if he reached the heights he did in 2019-20.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Fox had a strong third season, seeing 32.0 minutes per game while putting up 21.1 points, 6.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals. Heading into his fourth season, the 23-year-old should continue building upon his game, with his three-point and free-throw shooting being the most obvious potential improvement areas. If he can improve his overall scoring in those ways, the boost to Fox’s fantasy value would be significant.
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
Holiday will be in a new role in 2020-21, as he was dealt from New Orleans to Milwaukee during the offseason. Holiday will presumably start at point guard for the Bucks, but coach Mike Budenholzer tends to be conservative with his starters. Holiday may also see a slight reduction in usage playing alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, and Brook Lopez. Over the past five years, Holiday has ranked between 17th and 49th in fantasy on a per-game basis, and it seems more probable that he’ll be at the back end of that with Milwaukee.
Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Heading into 2020-21, Paul finds himself on a new team, as he was traded from the Thunder to the Suns. In joining Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, it’s possible Paul’s role will be slightly reduced compared to his time in OKC. Combined with age and injury concerns, Paul is a high-risk, high-reward option.
TIER 3: Solid Starters
Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
After winning Rookie of the Year last season, it’s up to Morant to build upon high expectations in 2020-21. His most obvious weakness is three-point shooting, where he converted only 0.9 per contest. Morant was also relatively average on defense, combining for 1.2 steals-plus-blocks. Fantasy managers who are banking on those improvements — or even improvements elsewhere — will certainly select Morant higher than he was valued last season, which was a rank of 63.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
Ball found renewed success in his first year with the Pelicans last season and produced the best season of his three-year career. His well-rounded play didn’t just stop with counting numbers, as he saw marked improvement in his shooting — something that was an issue for him in Los Angeles. If he can continue building on his efficiency, Ball’s upside is high given his potential for triple-doubles and strong defensive stats.
John Wall, Houston Rockets
Wall is coming off of an Achilles tear, playing his most recent NBA game in December of 2018. Given the severity of the injury and the fact that he hasn’t played in two years, expectations for Wall are wide-ranging after being dealt to the Rockets and being paired with James Harden (at least for now). It’s easy to forget Wall is a five-time All-Star, averaging 20.0 points, 9.8 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 0.7 blocks since 2013-14 (his first All-Star appearance). Pessimistic fantasy managers might opt to stay away entirely given players’ tendency to struggle following an Achilles tear.
Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
Walker’s first season in Boston was mostly a success. He was as efficient as ever, while his counting stats took only a slight dip playing alongside an infinitely better supporting cast. However, Walker played only 56 games, and the knee issue that limited him last season appears to be lingering. The Celtics have already ruled Walker out for the first two weeks of the season. Given the condensed schedule, he could be load-managed for the bulk of the year.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Graham was perhaps last season’s biggest breakout fantasy star. Completely off the radar as a rookie, Graham grabbed the starting point guard job early last season and never looked back, finishing eighth in the NBA in total minutes played, fifth in made threes, and fourth in assists. Graham won’t catch anyone by surprise this season, and he’ll face new competition in the form of No. 3 overall pick, LaMelo Ball.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
During the playoffs, Murray had stretches when he looked like an All-NBA-level player. The key will be translating that aggressiveness and shot-making to the regular season. If this is the year Murray finally takes the next step — he’s ranked 59th, 65th, and 50th in per-game value over the last three seasons — Murray could be among the best values in all of fantasy basketball.
Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
Brogdon more than doubled his assists production last season after coming over from Milwaukee, but he cooled off toward the end of the season and, once again, missed chunks of time due to injury. On a per-game basis, Brogdon is a fifth- or sixth-round fantasy value, but his medical history is a significant concern.
TIER 4: Lower-Level Starters
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
A breakout candidate entering last season, Murray ended up playing well but only averaging 25.6 minutes per game. He still managed to finish 70th overall in eight-category leagues, and that number could climb quite a bit higher if Murray plays closer to 30 minutes per night. Murray remains a low-volume three-point shooter, but he shot nearly 37 percent from beyond the arc after hitting just 26.5 percent of his threes in 2017-18 (missed 2018-19 due to injury).
Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
Fultz is coming off of his first truly complete season, and he demonstrated significant progress. While he remains a disappointment relative to his pedigree as the top pick in 2017, Fultz has rounded into a solid starting point guard, though his three-point shot remains a major issue. On the plus side, Fultz shot 73 percent at the free-throw line last season — up from 56.8 percent in 2018-19.
Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves
Back in Minnesota, where he spent the first six years of his career, Rubio should reprise his role as the starting point guard. But the Wolves’ backcourt is suddenly quite crowded, so Rubio may take a slight step back relative to last season, playing alongside D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards.
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
He picked things up toward the end of the season, but Conley’s first year in Utah was mostly a disaster. The veteran finished outside of the top-160 (per game value) for the first time since his rookie season while posting his lowest scoring average in nearly a decade. Conley’s resume implies that he’ll bounce back in 2020-21, but at age 33 his best days are probably behind him.
Goran Dragic, Miami Heat
One of the breakout stars in the Orlando bubble, Dragic was playing perhaps the best basketball of his career before going down with a foot injury in the Finals. Expecting the 34-year-old to pick up where he left off is a big ask, but Dragic should remain the starter after spending the entire regular season backing up Kendrick Nunn.
Dennis Schroder , Los Angeles Lakers
A top-85 player last season, Schroder averaged 18.9 points, 4.0 assists, and 3.6 rebounds and finished as the runner-up in Sixth Man of the Year voting. More importantly for fantasy managers, Schroder shot a career-best 38.5 percent from three on 5.0 attempts per game (also a career-high). Playing alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis might take some getting used to, but the Lakers will count on Schroder for instant offense and secondary playmaking off the bounce.
TIER 5: Late-Round Targets
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Darius Garland, Cleveland Cavaliers
Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Coby White, Chicago Bulls
Shake Milton, Philadelphia 76ers
Derrick Rose, Detroit Pistons