*Updated for the latest ESPN rankings.
I won’t sugarcoat it. The 2020-2021 season is going to be a bumpy ride for fantasy players. Half of the league played until at least September, and we haven’t seen eight of the league’s teams since what feels like 1996. I expect this season will be a wild one with plenty of players underachieving and plenty of surprises. Load management is likely going to rear its ugly head, and it’s possible that with the short offseason, we’ll be dealing with an unfortunately large amount of injuries. So, how do we deal with all this additional uncertainty? We punt. We lean into team building harder than we ever have. It is very likely that you are going to lose an essential part of your team at some point this season. That is not something that is easy to overcome. But if you build your team properly and punt, it will be much better equipped to take unforeseen hits.
If you decide to build a balanced team, you are going to be very vulnerable to all of the crazy twists and turns that this season brings. When building a balanced team, it is difficult to be significantly above average in many categories since you are constantly trying to shore up your weakest category. If you go for balance and lose your third-round pick for a month, it’s possible that your team drops to below average in most categories. That’s less likely to happen if you are punting since it will be easier to build teams that are well above average in a handful of categories. A third-round pick going down will be easier to survive since you should be higher above the category mean than you would be if you had to worry about competing in every category.
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.
The Punt Assists Strategy
In nine-category leagues, it’s hard to top the punt assists strategy. Not only is it a high-ceiling/high-floor strategy, it is also relatively easy to pull off. If you are new to fantasy or to punting, this is where you want to start. You’ve probably heard more about the punt FT% or punt FG% strategies, but I promise you, punt assists is usually the way to go if your first-round pick fits the build. Fits the build being the key words in that last sentence. I get a lot of questions from people about forcing the punt assists strategy with less than optimal first-round picks. I get the temptation, and it can absolutely work, but generally, I recommend sticking with the obvious builds for players like James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. I’m speaking from experience when I say that. I tried to cute with a Harden-led punt assists team last year to spice things up in a league that I was confident I could win, and while I had a very strong team, my squad wasn’t as good as it would have been if I had stuck to the basics and paired Harden with his go-to build.
Punting assists makes sense for a variety of reasons. The math checks out, it takes advantage of opposing fantasy players’ biases, and it works with almost all of the first-round picks.
There are only two single-category punt builds that do not come with a naturally weak second category. Those two builds are punt assists, and its little brother, punt steals. 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 issue with points and an increasingly difficult-to-offset problem with threes. With punt assists, there are no major red flags. The above category correlations tell us that we will need to keep an eye on points and steals, but neither category is a major issue. Players who get a lot of assists tend to also be strong sources of points and steals, but the correlation isn’t strong enough to make us sweat.
The correlation coefficients also tell us that a punt assists team is a good bet to end up as a very strong turnovers squad. That is obviously good news, but we need to be careful here. It is very easy to end up being too strong in the category. As is the case with every punting strategy, punting assists is about more than just sorting the projections without the punted category and picking the players who receive the largest bump. If you just blindly follow my punt assists projections, you will come away from your draft stronger than you need to be in turnovers and weaker than you should be everywhere else. In fact, my approach to nine-category punt assists looks a lot like my approach to eight-category punt assists does. Since you are ignoring most point guards, you are very likely to end up being strong in the category without even trying to be. In other builds, you will have to make a couple of picks with turnovers in mind, but in punt assists, unless you really go out of your way to scoop up high-turnover wings and bigs, you will usually come away from your draft in a great spot in the category. If you don’t believe me, take any combination of players in this guide and plug them into the Team Builder Tool. I bet almost all of them will lead to a strong turnovers team. Don’t be afraid to take a couple of high-turnover players early to boost your points. It will be easy to offset the poor start in the category later in the draft.
But why all the talk about turnovers? Shouldn’t we just punt the category every time? No. You should not. Aiming to be strong in turnovers may not be the most exciting strategy, but it is an effective one. I know that other analysts disagree, but it is a strategy that I swear by and one that has won me a couple of championships that I wouldn’t have otherwise won. I try to be decent in the turnovers for a couple of reasons. The first is that most fantasy players don’t care about the category, and if they are not punting it intentionally, they usually do it unintentionally by drafting a handful of point guards. Because of this, 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. It is usually an easier category to consistently win than say, points or assists, two categories that fantasy players tend to attach too much value to. The second reason is that it 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. This is especially important in the fantasy playoffs when matchups are often won and lost on the wire.
It is not just the build’s lack of weaknesses that make it a league-winning strategy. Punting assists also comes with some perks that its better-known cousins lack. The strategy’s biggest strength – as the weak correlation between dimes and the percentages categories suggest – is its ability to consistently win both FG% and FT%. Only punt steals can make a similar claim. Like turnovers, FG% and FT% are not categories that most fantasy players pay a ton of attention to, and as with turnovers, that is a mistake. 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. You will likely lose some counting categories you normally win in weeks where the schedule works against you, but if you are strong in the percentages, you’re likely not going to get blown out. This advantage is going to be more important than usual this season given all the uncertainty that the odd start date and condensed schedule will bring. Two years ago, I won my main league because I went all-in on the percentages. In the first round of the playoffs, 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.
Bring strong in both categories also gives your team a higher ceiling because it makes running up the score more likely in weeks in which the schedule is in your favor. 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 bump from the friendly schedule.
Taking Advantage Of Your Competitors’ Biases
Anyone who has ever participated in a fantasy basketball draft knows that there is one position and two categories that tend to be overvalued on draft day. The position is point guard, and the two categories are points and assists. Punting assists allows us to take advantage of two of these biases. While your opponents are taking part in that inevitable fourth-round point guard run, your punt dimes team can be scooping up wings and bigs that could be top-25 assets to your build. On average, the players that you will be selecting will be more valuable in the other eight categories than the point guards going in the same round will be. This is because many point guards – especially those selected in the middle rounds – have a ton of their value tied up in assists. If you take assists out of the equation, many early-round lead guards become mid-round players and many mid-round point guards become only top-100 options or worse. We can see which point guards maintain value their value and which lose a significant amount of value by comparing their 2019-2020 rankings (as of March 11th, 2020) inside and outside of the punt assists build.
As you can see, on average, point guards lose about 2.5 rounds of value when assists are thrown out. 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 are punting assists, and playing against a squad with four-to-five point guards on it, you’re playing against a team that has four-to-five players who will be not as effective against your team as their draft position suggests they should be. If you are not punting assists, Trae Young and Luka Doncic are terrifying players to go up against. But if you are punting dimes, then Young and Doncic are only very good, but not elite weapons for your opponent. Since so many of the top picks are point guards, punting assists is a great way to neutralize some of the best players in fantasy.
This analysis is also useful for identifying which point guard-eligible players you should target for your point guard spot. I usually aim to have at least two point guard-eligible players on my roster by the end of the draft, and I try to make sure that both will be players that I will not be looking to cut during the first month of the season. If you only go with one point guard or wait until the final rounds to grab a point guard that could end up being cut for a free agent, there will be nights where you will not be able to field a full roster. Here is a quick cheat sheet of point-guard eligible players that are good and bad fits for the punt assists build (these lists do not consider ADP):
- Steph Curry
- Kyrie Irving
- Damian Lillard
- Devin Booker
- Zach LaVine
- Kemba Walker
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
- Donovan Mitchell
- Jamal Murray
- C.J. McCollum
- Collin Sexton
- LeBron James
- Trae Young
- Luka Doncic
- Ben Simmons
- Russell Westbrook
- D’Angelo Russell
- Ricky Rubio
- Lonzo Ball
- John Wall
- Devonte’ Graham
- Malcolm Brogdon
- De’Aaron Fox
- Ja Morant
Where The Build’s Key Categories Are In The Draft
Punt assists doesn’t have any major weaknesses, but we do want to keep our eye on points. As you can see here, on ESPN, points are going to disappear early in the draft. Most of the best sources of points are found in the first two rounds. If you are down in points after the fourth or fifth round, it is going to be very hard to come back in the category without hurting yourself elsewhere. Steals is punt assists’ other potentially troublesome spot, but you don’t need to target the category with as much urgency. The best steals options are found in the first FEW rounds, but the availability of steals doesn’t fall off a cliff late like the availability of points does. We also want to target percentages. There is not a lot of FG% impact in the first two rounds since those two rounds are dominated by guards and wings. You’ll want to focus on the category between rounds 3 and 7 as that is where most of the best FG% options are on ESPN. FG% impact availability falls off of a cliff after round 7. You’ll find most of the best sources of FT% impact inside of the first two rounds. Like points, it becomes much harder to find players who are difference-makers in the category after round 5. This is a category you need to focus on early.
Player Consistency in Punt Assists
Player rankings and projections don’t tell the whole story. The 75th-ranked player may be a different type of asset than the 76th-ranked player, even though they are about even in value. Some players are very consistent, and some players are boom-or-bust. To give you a better idea of which players are consistent in punt assists and which players are hard to predict on a game-to-game basis, I created a consistency analysis that you can read about here. If you want to skip the explanation of how I developed the consistency measure and get straight to the punt assists consistency rankings, click the below links:
First-round Building Blocks
Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns are so good that they can fit into any strategy, but this build is usually where you want to go if you are lucky enough to draft either stud. Both bigs bring the elite percentages impact that this build is looking for in the early rounds. Before the COVID stoppage, Davis was shooting 51.1 percent from the floor and 84.5 percent from the line on significant volume. Towns’ wasn’t quite as efficient, but he did manage to hit 50.8 percent of his field goal attempts and connect on 79.6 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe. I would expect Towns to have more success at the line this year. Last season’s connection rate was the worst of his career, and in 2018-2019, Towns hit 83.6 percent of his free throw attempts. Davis and Towns are also both dominant in the points category, one of the categories that any successful punt assists team will need to focus on early. Steph Curry is the best first-round guard for the build. He won’t have as much value tied up in dimes as the other guards going in the first (5.2 APG in 2018-2019) and will post top-end numbers in the three categories that this build will be looking for in the early rounds (27.3 PPG, 47.2 FG%, 91.6 FT% in 2018-2019). Damian Lillard can work as well, but I usually prefer to slide him into the punt FG% build. As mentioned earlier, the same goes for James Harden. Giannis Antetokounmpo can be an outstanding punt assists weapon (5.8 APG), but only if you are willing to punt both assists and FT% (63.5 FT% on 10.0 FTA). Unless the back-to-back MVP improves from the line this season, it will not be possible to offset his FT% hit. The Buck had, by far, the largest negative impact on the category of any player in the association in 2019-2020. If you do decide to punt both assists and FT%, Giannis will be a top-two player to your build. Last season, only Davis and Hassan Whiteside were more valuable in that double-punt. If you are picking late in the first and want to punt assists, Jayson Tatum (2.9 APG) is your guy. The Celtic was a top-10 player in this build last season and looks like he’s about to take a major leap. It would not shock me if Tatum ended up as a top-seven player without dimes. Kawhi Leonard could be a top-three player in this build on a per-game basis. Per-game being the key word, of course. If you do decide to roll the dice on the Kawhi late in the first, make sure you pair him with a player who has a good shot at playing 70 games. This build also loves Kevin Durant as its starting point due to his godly percentages (52.1 FG%, 88.5 FT% in 2018-2019) and ability to lead the league in scoring. If you go with KD in one, games played will need to be a focus throughout your draft, and so will steals. The superstar only managed 0.8 SPG in his final season with the Warriors, and his numbers in that category could get even uglier now that he’s coming off of a torn Achilles.
Categories to target: Points, Steals, FG%, FT%
First-round targets: Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo (Punt AST/FT%), Jayson Tatum, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant
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. All numbers and rankings for the 2019-2020 season unless otherwise stated are pre-Bubble regular-season numbers.
R2) Joel Embiid – Embiid was made for the punt assists build. The biggest issue with the superstar, besides the missed games, is his turnover rate (3.1 TOPG). 3.0+ TOPG from one of your center spots is a very tough pill to swallow for most builds. I say most builds because that is not true for the punt assists build. Since the build ignores most point guards, it can easily absorb a couple of early-round high-turnover players like Embiid. When you throw out both assists and turnovers, Embiid is a first-round player with top-five upside. In 2018-2019, the big man was a top-seven player when assists and turnovers were ignored, and in his “down” 2019-2020 campaign, the Sixer was a top-12 asset without two of his weaker categories counting. Embiid brings the points and FT% impact that this build wants to focus on early in the draft in addition to his top-end big-man numbers (11.8 RPG, 1.3 BPG, 47.3 FG% on 16.0 FGA). His floor in the points category is last season’s 23.4 PPG average, and his ceiling is around his 2018-2019 27.5 PPG average. The Sixers’ pre-bubble charity stripe connection rate (81.4 FT% on 8.7 FTA) may not jump off the page, but that is about as good as it gets from a center. The only center-eligible players who did better work in the category last season were Anthony Davis and Kevin Love.
R2) Paul George – Last season’s disappointing top-25 per-game finish in the punt assists build was mostly due to a drop in minutes. After playing 36.9 MPG in his final season in Oklahoma City, George only saw the court for 29.1 MPG in 2019-2020. Outside of an unfortunate drop in his steal rate (1.7 SP36 in 2019-2020, 2.2 SP36 in 2018-2019), George’s per-minute numbers were very similar to what they were during his top-three 2019-2020 campaign. Assuming he receives a slight bump in playing time this year, another first-round per-game finish is very possible, if not likely. The Clipper does most of the things we want our early-round picks to do. He should be in the 23-to-25 PPG range this season, average over 1.5 SPG, and provide his owners with top-end numbers in the FT% category (88.2 FT% on 4.5 FTA). The key category that he doesn’t help his owners in is FG% (43.2 FG% on 16.0 FGA). George’s perimeter-focused game, and this build’s goal of dominating both percentages categories, makes George a much better fit for Davis or Towns-led punt assist teams than Steph, Tatum, or Leonard-led punt assists teams.
R3) Kyrie Irving – I prefer Kyrie at the beginning of the third, but he’s fine at the end of two. His upside, even in a build where he loses value, is enormous. He was a top-seven per-game player in this build last season, a top-15 asset to this strategy in 2018-2019, and he produces well-above-average numbers in all of this build’s key categories. The All-Star will lose usage with Kevin Durant coming back, but Irving should still able to average 25+ PPG on sublime percentages while providing above-average steals (1.4 SPG). His percentages are what really make Irving a no-brainer pick for this build. We are aiming to win both consistently, and Kyrie allows us to do just that. In 2019-2020, Irving shot a stellar 47.8 percent from the field and had the fifth-largest positive impact on the FT% category (92.2 FT% on 5.1 FTA). Irving is also an above-average rounder for a guard (5.2 RPG) and will not put this build’s natural advantage in turnovers at risk (2.6 TOPG).
Other Round 2 Options: Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard/Kevin Durant if they are available