*Updated for ESPN’S latest rankings
If you are new to the art of punting, I recommend that you take some time to read this article to get a better understanding of what we are trying to do. Punting is much more complicated than it appears. It is not just about selecting players who gain value when the punted category is removed from the equation. If you are a punting veteran, you can skip over it and dive straight into the theory behind punting steals.
The Punt Steals Strategy
Punting steals is a team-building strategy that doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Sure, it’s no punt assists, but it can hang with any of the other punting strategies. It works well as a mid-draft pivot if you find yourself stronger in assists than you were planning to be and is a natural fit with some of this year’s first-round picks. If you are leaning towards the punt assists build, I’d still take some time to try out this strategy in a few mocks. You may come away surprised by the strength of your teams. When mocking for this guide, I didn’t notice a significant difference between the strength of my punt steals teams and the strength of my punt assists teams. In some cases, my punt steals team actually came out looking a little better.
This strategy takes the most difficult category to predict out of play. You may think that you have a strong steals team after the draft, but it will be hard to know for sure until the season starts.
These charts show us how a player’s production in each category correlates with his production in that same category in the following season. As you can see, steals are near the bottom. No category has more year-to-year variance on an individual level than steals does. If a player averages 6.0 APG and 1.5 SPG in a season, he is more likely to average a number close to 6.0 APG the next season than he is to average a number close to 1.5 SPG.
Punting steals comes with many of the same advantages that punting assists does. These two builds are the only punting strategies that make it relatively easy to finish your draft above-average in both field goal percentage and free throw percentage. Steals are not strongly correlated with either category as you can see here:
In fact, the correlation coefficients suggest that passing on high-steals players actually helps our odds of being strong in both categories. This is a very important feature of the build. Field goal percentage and free throw percentage are 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 the 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.
The correlation coefficients also suggest that a punt steals team is usually going to end up as a decent turnovers team. It won’t be quite as dominant as a punt assists team in the category, but it should still end up above-average. The correlation coefficients tell us that players who steal the ball a lot find themselves on the opposite side of the equation more often than most players. This makes sense since many high-steals players are point guards. Being respectable in turnovers is another goal that most teams should strive for. Aiming to be strong in turnovers may not be the most exciting strategy, but it is an effective one. Not punting turnovers makes sense because punting turnovers is an extremely common strategy. It is probably the most common punting strategy. Since half of the teams in your league will be ignoring turnovers, it won’t take major adjustments to win the category consistently. “Good” is often enough to get the job done. You don’t need to keep turnovers in mind with every pick. Being decent in the category usually only requires a few turnover-related picks during your draft. Maybe you take Jeremy Lamb in the later parts of the middle rounds instead of a 2.5 TOPG player. Or maybe you target Otto Porter in the middle rounds instead of DeMar DeRozan. You may not care about turnovers during the regular season, but you will during the fantasy playoffs. It is extremely frustrating to see your season end with a 5-4 loss with turnovers going to your opponent. Not ignoring turnovers also makes sense because 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.
The categories that you are going to have to pay special attention to when punting steals are points, threes, and assists. These are the three categories that the high-steals players tend to produce big numbers in. Many of the big men who gain a significant amount of value in this build struggle in at least two of the categories and often all three, so we are going to have to pick our guard and wing targets carefully. If a guard or wing doesn’t put up nice numbers in at least two of those categories, you will usually want to pass on them. Assists are the biggest issue of the three. Some of the big men that we will be targeting are black holes on offense and produce horrendous numbers in the category. You will likely need around four point guards on your roster to pull off this punting strategy and will need to be on the lookout for non-point guards who can provide you with out-of-position dimes.
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. Assists are the punt steals build’s most troublesome spot and it is a category that you will have to address early. Assists are mostly found in the early rounds. They become extremely hard to find after the fifth round on ESPN and you can forget about finding them late. Threes are less of a pressing issue. They can be found throughout the draft, although most of the late-round threes belong to specialists who contribute little outside of the category. The best percentages anchors are found in the early rounds, so make those two categories a priority early on as well.
This strategy works with a handful of first-round picks. This is a very strong build for Karl-Anthony Towns and Damian Lillard. Towns has never averaged more than 0.9 SPG in his career and Lillard has not averaged more than 1.1 SPG since the 2014-2015 season. Both players produce very strong numbers in the three categories that this build tends to struggle with. Towns will be one of the league’s leading scorers this season (24.4 PPG), is consistent from deep (1.8 3PG), and provides above-average assist numbers for a big man (3.4 APG). He is also a player that brings us closer to our dream of percentages dominance. The young Wolf is efficient both from the floor (51.8 FG%) and at the line (83.6 FT%). The only center-eligible big men who had a larger positive impact on the free throw percentage category last season were Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge. Lillard brings the heat in all three of our targeted categories (25.8 PPG, 3.0 3PG, 6.9 APG) and has a shot at leading the league in positive free throw percentage impact this season (91.2 FT% on 6.4 FTA). Only James Harden bested him in the category in 2018-2019. Lillard should be paired with one of the top-end second-round bigs due to his weak field goal percentage (44.4 FG%).
Nikola Jokic averaged 1.4 SPG in 2018-2019, but that is a number that may not hold. Jokic produced 1.6 SP36 last season, but only 1.3 SP36 in 2017-2018 and 1.1 SP36 in 2016-2017. Big Honey does a solid job scoring (20.1 PPG) and comes with a historic assist rate (7.3 APG). His three-ball is hard to project. After averaging 1.5 3PG on 39.6 percent shooting from deep in 2017-2018, Jokic only managed 1.0 3PG on 30.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc last season. As is the case with Towns, starting your punt steals team with Jokic is a great way to end up with a squad strong in both percentages categories (51.1 FG%, 82.1 FT%).
LeBron James is a slightly trickier fit now that he’s forgotten how to shoot free throws (66.5 FT%). He does everything we need him to do besides hit his freebies (27.4 PPG, 2.0 3PG, 8.3 APG). If you want to punt steals with LeBron, consider turning it into a double-punt with free throw percentage. The double-punt brings in some monster bigs, many of whom post weak steals numbers. Your target categories won’t change in that build. Points, threes, and assists will remain your biggest issues. 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, Threes, Assists, FG%, FT%
First-round targets: Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Damian Lillard, LeBron James, Steph Curry
*I do not recommend taking Joel Embiid in the first round. He’s a good bet to miss 20 or more games this year and the Sixers have some scary back-to-back sets on their schedule during the fantasy playoffs. However, if you are set on rolling the dice on Embiid, this is a great build for him. Steals (0.7 SPG) was Embiid’s second-worst category last season in nine-category leagues and his worst category if you were playing in eight-category leagues.
R2) Nikola Vucevic – You’re going to see Vucevic’s name appear in almost all of this year’s punting guides. His well-rounded line makes him a solid pick in the second unless you are punting rebounds (12.0 RPG). This build needs to be on the lookout for out-of-position assists and Vucevic is one of the league’s better passing centers (3.8 APG). In addition to his great rebounding and assist numbers, Vucevic is also a major producer in the points (20.8 PPG) and field goal percentage (51.8 FG% on 16.9 FGA) categories. He also increases your odds of winning the free throw percentage category (78.9 FT%) and comes with a good, but not great, three-ball (1.1 3PG) and a respectable block rate (1.1 BPG). Only seven players were more valuable than Vucevic last season when steals were ignored.
R2) John Collins – Collins is going to go in the second in a lot of drafts this season. I don’t agree with that move as it leaves little room for upside and a lot of room for downside. However, I don’t hate the move if you planning to pair him with the punt steals build. The Hawks’ second-option has top-15 upside in this very friendly build. Collins’ steal rate was abysmal as a sophomore (0.4 SPG) and the Hawk went from being a top-50 player with steals included in the valuation calculation to a top-25 player when they were excluded. Collins is going to be a difference-maker in the points (19.5 PPG) and field goal percentage categories (56.0 FG%). Last season, he finished eighth in field goal percentage impact with only Deandre Ayton and the main targets in the punt FT% build finishing ahead of him. He should also occasionally hit from deep (0.9 3PG) and unlike many bigs, he won’t hurt you at the free throw line (76.6 FT% on 4.3 FTA). If his block rate can return to what it was in his rookie year, he could flirt with first-round numbers in this build. As a rookie, in only 24.1 MPG, Collins averaged 1.1 BPG. As a sophomore, his per-minute block rate fell off of a cliff and he only averaged 0.6 BPG in 30.0 MPG.
R2) Kyrie Irving – Irving loses some value in this build (1.6 SPG), but makes the list because of his ability to dominate the categories that this build tends to struggle with. He’s one of the league’s best scorers (23.8 PPG) and does a lot of his damage from deep (2.6 3PG). The Nets’ new lead guard has improved as a creator and set a career-high in dimes last season (6.9 APG). The punt steals build also loves Irving because he scores his points very efficiently. If you can grab Irving in the second, you are well on your way to building a strong field goal percentage (48.7 FG%) and free throw percentage (87.3 FT%) squad. Irving’s only weakness is his tendency to miss large chunks of the season. He has only hit the 70-games played mark in two of the past five seasons.
R2) Deandre Ayton – Ayton will have first-round upside in any punting strategy that eliminates one of the guard categories. His production from deep (0.0 3PG) and in the assist column (1.8 APG) will be limited and he will get a small boost in value when steals are ignored (0.9 SPG). The 2018 first-overall pick cracked the top-30 in this build as a rookie and should see his minutes and per-minute production rise in his sophomore year. Ayton could put up a 20/12 season and has an outside shot at leading the league in field goal percentage impact. Last season, Ayton had the fifth-largest positive impact on the category and had the largest positive impact of all of the players that did not kill you at the line (74.6 FT% on 2.7 FTA). If Ayton can improve his block rate this year (0.9 BPG), he’ll likely end up costing you a first-round pick in 2020-2021 drafts.
Other Round 2 Options: Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Joel Embiid