*Updated for ESPN’s latest rankings

Here we go, here we go, here we go.

Everything I’ve been writing about since July has been building up to these guides. Projections are important. So are rankings. Sleepers are for sure. Busts, just as important. But none of those truly dive into what separates the men and the women from the boys and the girls. Your league will not be decided by what team has the most early-round players. That definitely helps, but loaded teams lose all the time. I once beat a 119-win team in the finals with Trevor Ariza as my best player. Seemingly impossible feats like that are in fact possible because fantasy basketball championships are not decided on talent alone. As is the case in real basketball, making sure the fit is right is what turns a very good fantasy basketball team into a great one.

The punting guides that I will be releasing over the next month are all about maximizing the usefulness of the players on your team to build a squad that’s sum is greater than its individual parts. These guides should not be used on their own. They are meant to complement the rest of the content on this site. When working with these punting guides, have the projections for the punting guide you are working with open. It will make it easier to understand how the build changes a player’s value and why we need to avoid certain players. I also recommend reading through some of the articles that focus on the math behind each strategy as well as my look at where each category can be found in ESPN drafts. After you have done all of that, start mocking, and don’t stop until draft day. Mocking until you can’t mock anymore is especially important if you play on ESPN. Their rankings being a hot mess make it very difficult to predict how your draft will go. You have to be prepared for any scenario and you can’t do that without mocking. This site will be able to help you with that soon. Later this month, I will be releasing a tool that will make it much easier to simulate different draft scenarios. If you play on ESPN in a very competitive league, you should read through my Yahoo Punt Assists guide as well. Yahoo did a much better job with their rankings, and in a competitive league, your draft is more likely to follow Yahoo’s draft board than ESPN’s. 

If you are a punting veteran, you can skip this next part. If you are new to the art, I recommend that you keep reading so that you can gain a proper understanding of what we are trying to do. Punting is much more complicated than it appears.

What is punting and how does it work?

Punting is a necessity in head-to-head leagues. Trying to build a team that is competitive in every category may seem like a genius idea on the surface. It is a very tempting strategy to attempt. We all dream about finding that fantasy basketball nirvana. That team that is strong in all nine categories and doesn’t give its opponents an inch. It is a lovely dream. Dream being the key word. The fantasy basketball universe is a cold, dark place and if it was that easy to build a juggernaut, you wouldn’t be coming to this page. Winning all nine categories is not a realistic expectation if you play in a league with semi-competent players, so why waste your time trying.

The idea behind punting is to sacrifice a category to make yourself stronger in the remaining categories. Punting a category will increase the value of some players and decrease the value of other players, but that does not mean that you should blindly target the players who gain value in your chosen strategy. If you do that, you will end up with an unbalanced team that will likely be weak in a handful of categories. The success of a punting strategy is not only determined by how strong the team is in the build’s naturally strong categories. It is also determined by how competitive the team is in its naturally weak categories. Don’t worry if you don’t know the natural strengths and weaknesses of each build. I will have a detailed breakdown of both in each punting guide. 

A good example of punting done wrong is the famous Dwight Howard/Josh Smith/Rajon Rondo punt FT% punting strategy that was pushed by many fantasy experts as some kind of no-brainer start when the three former stars were at their peaks. All three players gained a significant amount of value when free throw percentage was taken out of the equation. What these experts failed to notice was that the three players were not good fits with each other. Yes, all three players would finish close to the top of the punt FT% rankings, but that start would likely lead to a team that was weak not only in free throw percentage, but also in points, threes, and turnovers. Any team starting with those three players would have been much better served by dropping one of the stars for a player who performed better in the points and threes categories.

You will need to get creative when punting. Sometimes it may seem like a player is a bad fit for a build on the surface, but in actuality, that player is a great fit for the strategy. Steph Curry and the punt FT% build is the best example that I can think of. Curry is the best free throw shooter of all-time. That is not hyperbole. That is a fact. So why would we waste his god-like performance at the line? Because he compliments the punt FT% big men that you will be targeting perfectly. Andre DrummondRudy Gobert, and Clint Capela are all devastating fantasy weapons and some of the league’s best contributors in the big-man categories. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to build around because their production in the guard categories is almost non-existent. You need to pair them with guards who dominate the categories they are weak in. Enter Steph Curry. We do not care what Curry’s final ranking ends up being when free throw percentage is ignored. You don’t get extra points for having a player finish atop the fantasy rankings. All we care about is being strong in as many categories as possible and pairing Steph with the punt FT% big men allows us to do that. That pairing is a very strong start in almost every category.

Punting two categories can work and is sometimes the best course of action. Some builds come with a naturally weak second category that may not be worth the effort to bring back to life. If you sacrifice multiple categories and build your team correctly, then you should be stronger in the remaining categories than you would have been if you only punted a single category. It’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but it is not something that I would recommend for fantasy players new to punting. It has a higher chance of backfiring than strategies that involve punting only a single category. The biggest downside to punting more than one category is that it limits your flexibility. Changing strategies mid-season, or close to the fantasy playoffs, is very common and often the right move. Quality free-agent pickups can change your team’s makeup and sometimes the build that you have chosen doesn’t match up well with a likely playoff opponent. As a rule, unless I play in a league with more than nine categories, I try not to punt more than two categories at the beginning of the season. That sometimes changes as the fantasy playoffs get closer, but at the beginning of the season, I like to maintain some flexibility.

One strategy that you absolutely need to stay away from is punting four categories. I cannot stress this enough. If you punt four categories, your season will not be fun. I know some are tempted by the thought of locking up five categories and squeezing out 5-4 victories every week. Resist that temptation. This strategy is better in theory than it is in reality. You have zero room for error if you try to pull off the quadruple-punt. If you don’t draft properly, or an injury puts one of your chosen five categories at risk, you can sink to the bottom of the standings quickly. Even if you do pull off this strategy relatively well, you can still find yourself in trouble. I played in a league a few years back where a team employing this strategy finished in the top-three in matchup victories and missed the playoffs. The team racked up 5-4 wins, but a couple of tough 7-2 losses in the middle of the season when the team was missing a couple of its stars was all it took to end the team’s championship aspirations.

Punting can work in Rotisserie leagues. I know some will disagree with me on that one, but it’s the truth. That being said, it’s not something that I recommend. It is hard. Very hard. In Rotisserie leagues, even punting one category leaves very little room for error. Often when punting, a second category ends up being weaker than expected. If that happens in a Rotisserie setting, there goes your championship. Punting in Rotisserie leagues is only for experts.

The Punt Assists Strategy

Let’s start with what I consider the most reliable and simplistic of the punt strategies: Punt Assists. This is a high-floor, high-ceiling strategy that is usually easier to pull off than some of its more famous cousins. If you’re new to punting, this is where you want to start. If you’re a veteran of the art, there’s still a pretty good chance that this is where you’ll end up.

Punting assists makes sense for a host of reasons. The math checks out, it takes advantage of a deep-rooted issue with the human psyche (not a joke), and it works with almost all of the first-round picks.

First the math. Punt assists and punt steals are the only two builds that are not accompanied by a naturally weak second category. Punt FG% is going to struggle with the big-man categories and usually turnovers. Punt FT% can be very difficult to pull off because of its issues with points and threes. With punt assists, it’s clear sailing. When punting assists, you need to keep an eye on points and steals more than the other categories, but neither category is a major issue. I find that I am almost always strong in both categories at the end of a punt assists mock. The math also tells us that a punt assists team is a good bet to end up as a very strong turnovers squad. In fact, managers punting assists will need to be wary of being too strong in turnovers. As is the case with every punting strategy, punting assists is about more than just sorting the rankings without the punted category and picking the players who receive the largest bump. If you just follow the rankings, you’ll come away from your draft stronger than you need to be in turnovers and weaker than you should be everywhere else. Aiming to be strong in turnovers may not be the most exciting strategy, but it is an effective one. I am a bit of a turnovers truther. I try to be decent in the category for a couple of reasons. The main reason is that most fantasy players completely ignore the category and end up punting it unintentionally. Usually, you don’t have to be great in turnovers to win the category consistently. Since everyone ignores it on draft day, “good” will get you the win most weeks. Maybe you don’t care about turnovers during the regular season, but every fantasy owner punting it wishes they weren’t when they playoffs roll around. It also makes streaming less stressful. It’s easier to play the wire when you don’t have to worry about the additional games costing you a category.

The lack of a second weak category is a nice perk, but what really turns punt assists into a monster is its ability to be strong in both percentages categories. Like turnovers, field goal percentage and free throw percentage are not sexy categories. They are the categories that a casual fantasy basketball player is most likely to underrate. They are also the best categories to be strong in. Yes, better than the counting categories. Being strong in the percentages gives your team a higher floor and a higher ceiling. If your team is near the top of the league in both percentages, your team is less likely to struggle during weeks in which the schedule is unfriendly. It gives your team a higher ceiling because it makes running up the score in weeks in which the schedule is in your favor more likely. A team that is strong in counting stats but weak in percentages, won’t benefit as much from a friendly schedule since having more games won’t boost its percentages. Being strong in the percentages in a week in which you have a games advantage is more likely to lead to a blowout win because you’ll be winning the percentages while your slightly weaker counting stats will be receiving a boost from the friendly schedule. I won my main league last year because I went all-in on the percentages. In the first round, the fantasy gods unleashed their wrath on me and my team ended up with only 34 games played (after streaming too!). If I was banking on winning points or threes, I would have been dead on Wednesday. Instead, I pulled out the W, and eventually the championship, because I focused on the right categories on draft day.

We’re not done with the math just yet. This may be hard for my younger subscribers to believe, but back in the day, ESPN did care about fantasy basketball. They weren’t ranking players in the top-100 that no longer play in the NBA and they were coming up with some nifty little analyses, including one that looked at the week-to-week variance of each category. You can find that analysis here. It turns out that percentages are, by far, the most consistent categories on a week-to-week basis. The consistency of field goal percentage has likely decreased slightly over the last half-decade due to the increase in threes (a more volatile shot than twos), but the category will still have less variance than the counting categories.

So the math looks rock solid, how about the psychology behind the strategy. The fantasy basketball community loves point guards. Its obsession with point guards is only surpassed by its sick love affair with points. Punt assists takes advantage of this widespread bias. Now don’t get me wrong, point guards tend to be very useful fantasy assets. Not only do they usually post strong assist numbers, they also tend to be reliable from deep and are usually very good sources of threes. However, when you take away assists, most point guards see their value take a substantial hit. To figure out just how much value they do lose, I compared how all of the point guards that I currently have ranked inside of my top-100 in nine-category leagues faired with and without assists included in their valuation calculation.

On average, point guards lose about two rounds of value when assists are ignored. The loss in value is even greater when we only consider real point guards and not shooting guards who happen to have point guard eligibility. This means that if you’re punting assists, and playing against a squad with three-to-five point guards on it, you’re playing against a team that has three-to-five players who will be not as effective against your team as their draft position suggests they should be. If you’re not punting assists, Russell Westbrook is an extremely scary player to go up against. If you are punting assists, then Westbrook is a player that is hurting your opponent’s team more than he is helping it. Punting assists is a great way to protect yourself against some of your opponents’ best players. Avoiding point guards throughout the draft also allows you to roster some wings and big men that you probably wouldn’t be able to roster if fantasy players weren’t reaching for dimes. 

As mentioned earlier, the punt assists build works with most of this year’s first-round players. The only first-round picks that I would not be willing to slide into the build are James HardenNikola Jokic, and LeBron JamesSteph CurryGiannis Antetokounpo, and Damian Lillard all put up some decent assist numbers, but they do enough elsewhere to be very strong starting spots for fantasy’s top punting strategy. If you are fortunate enough to draft Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, then this is the build that you will want to zero-in on. Both players are versatile enough to fit into a variety of punting strategies, but it is punt assists that does the best job of maximizing each player’s talents. The bigs gain a significant amount of value when assists are ignored and both players make dominating both percentages categories, one of our main goals here, very possible.

A couple more things. Don’t completely ignore your point guard spot when punting assists. Make sure that you have at least two point guard-eligible players on your team. I used to suggest three, but with the adjustments that the NBA has made to their schedule, you can likely get away with only two now. Any less than two and you run the risk of not being able to field a full roster at certain points of the season.

As we discussed here, points are going to disappear early in the draft. Make sure that you come out of the third round in a good spot in the category. Try not to take more than one low-scoring player in the first five rounds. Steals is punt assists’ other potentially troublesome spot, but you don’t need to target the category with as much urgency. Players who put up helpful swipes numbers can be found throughout the draft. The best percentages anchors are found in the early rounds, so make those two categories a priority early on as well.

If you want to turn punt assists into a double-punt, then combining it with the punt FT% build is the way to go. Ignoring assists and free throw percentage can turn some of the punt FT% big men into top-five players. Last season, Andre Drummond finished second in the double-punt rankings and Rudy Gobert finished one spot behind him. Punting both categories is a great way to lock up field goal percentage, rebounds, and blocks each week. However, bringing the punt FT% big men into the equation does create some complications. Most of these big men struggle in the points and steals columns and don’t hit threes, so you’ll need to pay more attention to these categories than you would if you were just punting assists. The players in this guide whose names are italicized are players that I would only consider in the double-punt build.

Note: The below list is not meant to be a complete list of all of the players that fit into this build. The round that I recommend taking each player in is based on ESPN Fantasy Basketball’s rankings and where I think each player will, or could be, available in a standard 12-team, nine-category draft. If you don’t see a player that you think fits the build well, it may be because I think that player is badly overpriced on ESPN.

Categories to target: Points, Steals, FG%, FT%

First-round targets: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George, Andre Drummond, Steph Curry, Damian Lillard

*I do not recommend taking either Joel Embiid or Kawhi Leonard in the first round. Both players are good bets to miss 20 or more games this year and have some scary back-to-back sets on their schedule during the fantasy playoffs.

R2) Nikola Vucevic – Only eight players were more valuable than Vucevic in the punt assists build last season and six of those players ended up on All-NBA teams. Not bad company for the All-Star. Vucevic is a high-ceiling, high-floor pick in the second round who works well with both the elite big men and the elite guards. He fits well with everyone because he contributes in all eight of the remaining categories. Vucevic is a force on offense (20.8 PPG, 1.1 3PG), an elite rebounder (12.0 RPG), a reliable source of defensive numbers (1.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG), and very efficient both from the field (51.8 FG%) and at the charity stripe (78.9 FT%). The Magic’s head honcho also comes with a turnover rate (2.0 TOPG) that most of his early-round peers cannot match.

R2) Rudy Gobert – Gobert was the third-ranked player in the double-punt last season. Only Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond were more valuable than the Defensive Player of the Year when both assists and free throw percentage were ignored. He is a steal anywhere outside of the top-15 and is a no-brainer first-round pick in leagues that start their playoffs early. Gobert provides elite production in all of the big-man categories (12.8 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 66.9 FG%) and is going to score more than most big men. He averaged 15.9 PPG last season and that number trended up as the year went along. Over the final 15 games of the 2018-2019 regular season, Gobert averaged a very healthy 18.1 PPG. We have not yet seen his ceiling. The Jazz adding Mike Conley and greatly improving their perimeter shooting should give Gobert more room to operate inside and will make it harder to help on the pick-and-roll. Gobert is a good bet to set a career-high in points and could lead the league in field goal percentage impact this season. 

R2) Bradley Beal – Beal is a reasonable pick in the first and a steal if you get him in the second half of the second round. The shooting guard has no holes in his line so the loss of his very good assist numbers (5.5 APG) is not a huge blow to his value. We want to focus on points early in the draft, as they disappear quickly, and Beal should be a monster in that category. After John Wall’s season ended, Beal averaged a ridiculous 27.2 PPG. That’s not a repeatable number, as it came in 37.2 MPG, but it is clear that only a handful of players will be a bigger help in points. Beal is also going to be a very good source of triples (2.5 3PG) and defensive numbers (1.5 SPG, 0.7 BPG) and will put up those flashy scoring numbers without hurting your odds of winning field goal percentage (47.5 FG%). Beal has only missed nine games over the past three seasons, but he is a somewhat risky pick. The Wizards will have no reason to play their star guard (and best trade asset) late in the season and a minor injury in March (real or imaginary) could lead to a shutdown.

R2) Deandre Ayton – I’m surprised that Ayton is not receiving more hype. I’ve heard a lot of talk about how high Trae Young and Luka Doncic are going to go in this year’s drafts, but not much about where Ayton, who finished higher in the rankings as a rookie in both eight- and nine-category leagues, will come off the board. To me, he is a no-brainer second-round pick with top-10 upside in the punt assists build but you may be able to get him early in the third. As a rookie, Ayton was a top-25 player without dimes in 30.7 MPG. His playing time is going way up and so should his already stellar per-minute production. A 20/12 season from Ayton feels likely and it should be accompanied by elite field goal percentage impact (58.5 FG%) and over a steal (0.9 SPG) and a block (0.9 BPG) per game.

Other Round 2 Options: John Collins, Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving, Clint Capela, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard

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