The buzzword "sleeper" is well on its way to becoming a misnomer. Thanks to the Twitter age, fantasy owners are wired in to any news that blows across the NBA landscape, thus leaving few secrets among those in the fantasy trade. Nowadays, a player identified as a sleeper at the beginning of training camp often is being overdrafted by the time the regular season rolls around, as the hype serves as a double-edged sword. This is where what you do with the information becomes more important than having it. More than ever, owners must zig while their opponents zag in order to stay ahead of the pack.
The constant need for sleepers highlights a growing obsession with players with "upside" or players who are assumed to have a significant chance to "break out" in the upcoming season. It is in this constant search for upside that many errors in judgment occur. Four years ago, Bill Simmons devoted an entire column to how ridiculous the real-life version was becoming; now, the fantasy side of things is suffering a similar attack.
In the minds of many, there doesn't seem to be a significant difference between a high-upside player and a high-value player. The problem, however, is what often is left unsaid in evaluating upside: the downside for that player. Take Andrew Bynum, one of the most popular "sleepers" last season, who would have cost you a midround draft pick and was expected to resemble a No. 1 center. Most were quite optimistic in their projections for Bynum, failing to account for the non-zero possibility of injury and/or stagnation, never mind the difficulty of a 21-year-old carving out an increased role on a first-place team. By the time draft day came around, you had to reach a little if you really wanted him, meaning you were counting on substantial improvement from Bynum in order to justify his draft position.
Rather than reach a little for that extra upside, I prefer to play it safer, instead going after a player whose projections are less volatile and who has a greater probability of being worth his draft slot. The difference is in not taking a big risk, hoping your Andrew Bynums of the world continue to improve in a linear fashion, but in taking smaller, calculated risks for players. For example, players on up-tempo teams often offer extra value. It might surprise you that the Pacers have ranked third in pace the past two seasons, and all those extra possessions each game helped make surprise fantasy stars out of Mike Dunleavy in 2007-08 and Troy Murphy this past season.
Keep in mind that your search for high-value players begins at the start of the draft. If you select Dwight Howard in the first round, for instance, you essentially force yourself to stock up on other players who excel in free throw shooting in order to restore balance to your team. But such a strategy might handcuff you right in the middle of a draft, when value picks are still on the board for your taking but you must counteract Howard's free-throw percentage and focus on players who excel in that one category. In the end, settling for slightly less valuable players in order to balance Howard's weakness might end up making your team weaker overall.
Considering this is an article on drafting for value, it would only make sense to include a handful of players who epitomize drafting for value. Although there haven't been enough drafts to lock onto players' average draft positions quite yet, I took the liberty of sifting through our top 100 rankings from July, which, if nothing else, should provide a decent barometer of what to expect in drafts. Here are some players whose rankings might belie their actual value, for better or worse:
Brook Lopez, C, Nets: Lopez burst onto the scene as a rookie, surprising everyone by averaging 13 points, eight rebounds and nearly two blocks in just 30 minutes per game. Normally, a rookie putting up numbers worthy of a No. 1 center in limited playing time would be the farthest thing from a value, but it seems the general feeling is that Lopez is unlikely to improve substantially over his rookie numbers. Heck, he just barely made it into the top 50 of July's rankings, despite finishing 26th on last season's Player Rater.
Fortunately, Lopez will be the second scoring option for the New Jersey Nets, and coach Lawrence Frank already has said he will become "more of a focal point in the post." Lopez improved as the season went on, as both his field goal percentage and points per game increased after the All-Star break, and more shots should be available since the Nets traded Vince Carter and his 16.8 shots per game. Even if he doesn't substantially build on his rookie numbers, Lopez doesn't hurt you anywhere since he even chips in a few steals (0.5 per game) and a decent free throw percentage (79.3 percent) for a big man.
Leandro Barbosa, PG/SG, Suns: Barbosa was sort of lost in the shuffle when the Phoenix Suns abandoned their run-and-gun identity for most of last season, so many fantasy owners might not remember that he was well on his way to a rebound after Alvin Gentry took over as coach after the All-Star break. A knee injury quickly put a damper on that, but this season, Barbosa should resume a critical role for the Suns, who were running more often than ever after Gentry was promoted. Despite the off year, Barbosa still ranked 84th on the Player Rater last season, yet many owners might be left with a foul taste in their mouths and overlook a possible bounce-back season.
Trevor Ariza, SF, Rockets: If nothing else, Ariza should be a superb one-category wonder, as he averaged a whopping 1.7 steals in 24 minutes last season. Now expected to start at small forward for the Houston Rockets, he easily should set a career high in minutes played, meaning he could push two steals per game. That alone should be enough to cover his draft position. He also could improve on the 0.7 3-pointers per game he converted last season, as he showed improvement from long range during the latter half of the campaign. Ariza became a sharpshooter in the playoffs, hitting 47.6 percent of his 3-pointers while attempting 3.65 per game. If he can improve even a little bit on his 31.9 percent mark from long range last season, Ariza will turn into a valuable fantasy starter.
Andrea Bargnani, SF/PF, Raptors: Sometimes players who have career years tend to be undervalued in the following year's draft instead of overrated because everyone and their mom believes it's a stone-cold fluke. Bargnani could be one of those due to how badly he burned owners in 2007-08; people don't like to get fooled twice. It seems that Bargnani isn't getting nearly the credit he deserves; a 23-year-old former No. 1 overall draft pick having a career year would normally have fantasy leagues going crazy. But back in July, he was ranked just 75th by a trio of our analysts, with one even leaving him unranked; chances are, a lot of people in your league won't like him, either.
And there's no doubting the extent of his breakout. Bargnani turned into a legitimate scorer, averaging more than 19 points after the All-Star break and shot 40.9 percent from beyond the arc on the season. He improved in nearly every category, including his foul rate, which could allow him to get his minutes into the 33-35 minute range this season and turn him into a mini Rashard Lewis.
Although it's always nice to go into a draft with a couple of targets to keep an eye on for later, I think it's just as important to make sure to avoid certain players. Personally, I will never draft Howard or Baron Davis or any other category-killing player in a rotisserie league because I don't want to back myself into a corner later in the draft. I focus on selecting players who won't hurt me anywhere, possibly reaching a bit for extra position eligibility or production in the scarce categories like blocks, assists and steals. After all, your best pick might be the player you didn't select.
Do Not Draft
Caron Butler, SF, Wizards: The return of Gilbert Arenas and the additions of Randy Foye and Mike Miller enhance Butler's supporting cast and therefore should reduce the need for him to be the entire offense. Butler's minutes, points and assists all could drop, and we haven't even gotten to the bad news: He has missed an average of 19 games the past three seasons.
Ray Allen, SG, Celtics: The continued maturation of Rajon Rondo and the return of Kevin Garnett should eat into Allen's numbers, which, combined with his advanced age (34, at which performance can drop off a cliff), make Allen a risk I'm not willing to take.
Baron Davis, PG, Clippers: Numerous reports accused Davis of dogging it last season, and the proof is likely found in his awful numbers. Some have suggested the arrival of Blake Griffin and a possible playoff push might cause Davis to suddenly fall in line, but that's being optimistic; even so, he now is on the wrong side of 30 and has had just one injury-free campaign in the past seven seasons.
LaMarcus Aldridge, PF/C, Blazers: It's nothing personal; it's just that once you take away the points, Aldridge doesn't do much to distance himself from other big men. For a power forward of his stature, his field goal percentage, rebounds and blocks are somewhat ordinary.
Adam Madison is a fantasy basketball analyst for ESPN.com.