The 2021-22 Fantasy season is nearly over, so what better way to celebrate than by taking an early look at next year?
There is a ton of time before the 2022 draft season, and lots will change between now and then. But that shouldn't stop us. There is still plenty to be gained by clarifying our thoughts now.
Without further ado, welcome to my way-too-early 2022-23 first round.
Unless otherwise specified, all ranks refer to per-game production.
The consensus No. 1 pick
1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Don't overthink it. Fantasy basketball hasn't had a No. 1 pick this obvious since Kevin Durant played for the Thunder (he finished top three in both 8-cat and 9-cat for five straight seasons). Jokic has run away with Fantasy's No. 1 ranking for two straight seasons. He's durable – he's played at least 72 games every year of his career. And he provides an irreplaceable strategic advantage as the only non-PG in the top-15 for assists per game.
I don't expect this narrative to take hold, but, just in case it does: don't let the return of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. lessen your excitement for Jokic. Murray suffered his injury on April 4, 2021. Jokic actually had a bigger lead over Fantasy's No. 2 producer on April 5 than he did at the end of the season (both 8-cat and 9-cat). He was somehow even more dominant when his Nuggets co-stars were available.
Closer to No. 1 than they'll get credit for
2. Kevin Durant, Nets
Jokic is the unquestioned first pick, but that doesn't mean managers should be disappointed by a No. 2 (or Nos. 3 or 4) selection. As unlikely as Durant is to displace Jokic at the top, the rest of the field is almost equally unlikely to unseat Durant for second. Joel Embiid was the only person to come relatively close to Durant this season, but this was easily the best season of the big man's career. Durant has put up numbers like this repeatedly throughout his career.
Category-wise, Durant does it all. He provides blocks from a non-big man position and assists from a non-PG spot. This season he reclaimed the No. 1 spot for FT% Impact, a title he held for most of his Thunder run – and a title he's likely to hold onto now that the James Harden "non-basketball move" foul has been eliminated. Durability is going to be a concern with Durant for the rest of his career, but his per-game production is unassailable.
3A. Steph Curry, Warriors
Let me start by saying I see almost no distinction between spots three and four here. Managers should pick based on how they want to build their team – I tend to find good big man value in the middle rounds, so I'd rather start with an elite PG.
Curry is having his worst season in nearly a decade. He's still sixth in 9-cat and seventh in 8-cat. Now, you tell me, do you think the best shooter of all time has permanently lost his touch, or just went through an extended cold streak? I'll bet the latter.
His career numbers are 47% from the field and 43% from behind the arc, and he shot just 42% and 38%, respectively, over the first three months of the season. His FG% has already rebounded, getting up to 50% since the start of February. The improvement from deep has been much smaller, only up to 39%, but its positive trend underscores the idea that whatever was happening to Curry's shot was much more likely to be a blip than the new normal.
Even with the worst shooting slump of his career, Curry was still a top-7 Fantasy player who led the league in 3s per game. This will be the first time Curry was healthy and finished outside the top five in either 8-cat or 9-cat in a decade. There tends to be minimal turnover amongst Fantasy's truly elite, and the safe bet is that Curry's stay at the top is not done yet.
3B. Joel Embiid, 76ers
As mentioned above, when it comes to the Embiid-Curry decision, we're really splitting hairs. Embiid is a worthy choice at No. 3, if that's your preference. As was the case with Curry, the best pro-Embiid argument is one based on team building strategy, and it's one without a "right answer". There are several elite big men – five players in this article are center-eligible on most platforms – and the drop-off behind them is steep. Furthermore, there is usually a second steep tier gap somewhere between rounds six and eight. Locking up an elite option early can protect managers from having to play catchup later.
Embiid was 2021-22's third-best producer, much closer to Durant's second spot than to anyone fighting for fourth. In addition to probably winning the scoring title, he's going to finish in the top six in rebounds and the top 12 in blocks. He's not a Jokic-level passer, but he was sixth among center-eligible players. Near the top of the first round, you want someone who won't hurt in any categories, and Embiid fits that bill – according to position-blind metrics like BasketballMonster's Z-scores, Embiid worst category is 3s, where his 1.4 per game as a center is actually a positional advantage.
Embiid won't play 82 games, but no one does anymore, and his actual injury risk is lower than popular perception. He missed 21 games during the condensed 2020-21 season, which was par for the course among star players – nine of Fantasy's top-15 missed at least 18 games. Embiid missed just 13 games this season. At this point in their careers, there's no meaningful difference between Embiid's injury risk and the risk associated with Durant, or Curry.
Foundational building blocks with upside
The Greek Freak is basically superman. The dude's knee bent backwards in a playoff game and he only missed two games. In his entire career, he's missed more than two games in a row only twice: he missed six consecutive games last season with "knee soreness" when the Bucks were basically locked into their No. 3 spot in the standings, and five games this year due to COVID-19 protocols. Through nine seasons, he's had one multi-game basketball injury. That's insane durability.
His kryptonite is his free throw shooting. While he's now good enough to avoid public ridicule and a hack-a-Shaq defense, he's still a massive negative in Fantasy because of sheer volume. Antetokounmpo averaged 11.4 free throw attempts per game this season, second-most in the NBA. Combine that with his 72% hit rate and he had the worst FT% Impact of anyone in Fantasy. It's almost impossible to be competitive in free throws if you roster Antetokounmpo – but building a punt-FT% team is relatively easy, and he's the second-best player in Fantasy for that strategy.
The fact that he forces a specific strategy build knocks him below Curry and Embiid, but if you enter your draft with a plan to punt, it's ok to consider Antetokounmpo as early as second overall.
Towns is a great pick. If you want to be risk-averse, it's OK to take him as high as third overall. He lacks top-three upside, but he has multiple finishes in the fifth to eighth range. The continued rise of Anthony Edwards has lowered Towns' usage rate, though Edwards' presence is also likely a key factor in Towns' improved field goal efficiency.
At least as far as Fantasy is concerned, Towns is basically a slightly worse, slightly more durable version of Embiid. They're both good at everything, though Embiid holds a slight edge in every category except 3s and FG%. Towns provides an excellent base in points and rebounds, above-average assists for a center, and more than one block and steal per game.
7. Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Tatum took another leap this season, cementing his place as an elite Fantasy asset. While he's going to finish the season barely inside the top 15, he's inside the top 10 since mid-January (and all the way up to top five in 9-cat). He's only 19 years old 24 years old, and he's made a meaningful leap in his passing skills while posting career-bests in points, rebounds, and 3s. And there's still some low-hanging fruit left to justify my optimism that he can keep improving – all this improvement came while Tatum was shooting just 35% from behind the arc, by far the worst mark of his career.
8. Dejounte Murray, Spurs
If you didn't roster Murray last season, then you might think I put him in my top 10 to try to add some spiciness to this list. If so, you'd be mistaken. There wasn't much discussion about it – no surprise, given where he plays – but Murray finished safely inside Fantasy's top 10 this season. He has already arrived.
He made a massive leap as a passer, finishing fourth in assists per game. He had the second-most triple-doubles this season, behind only Jokic and ahead of more well-known triple-double threats like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Luka Doncic. Murray double-doubled in more than half his games.
He doesn't really block shots, and other point guards will provide more 3s than Murray, but those are the only flaws in his game. In addition to his passing, he's second in the league in steals, he provides a massive positional rebounding advantage, and he's a relatively efficient shooter. If you time traveled back from the future and told me my rank of Murray was wrong, I'd assume it was because I ranked him too low.
Elite players with important flaws
9. Trae Young, Hawks
Curry and Murray are elite Fantasy options who happen to play PG. Young is more of a traditional Fantasy PG, just, on super-duper steroids. He's excellent at typical PG stuff, and quite bad in the areas where PGs traditionally struggle. He's going to finish third in assists, fifth in points, and 10th in 3s, but he's a massive negative in rebounds, blocks, and turnovers. He hurts in FG% and while ranking among the leaders in FT% Impact.
Young will be entering his age-24 season, so there's still room to improve. His weaknesses give managers less flexibility as they construct their rosters, but his strengths are so strong that it's OK to consider him a few spots higher – especially if that's part of a deliberate roster-building strategy.
10. Anthony Davis, Lakers
Kevin Durant is the best Fantasy producer this decade. There's no rational counterargument. What gets interesting is the debate over who is second – and, with several prime seasons still ahead of him, Anthony Davis is absolutely a contender. These last two seasons have been so disappointing that it's easy to forget, but Davis finished top two in Fantasy's for four straight seasons, and in six seasons out of seven. He's still only 29 years old. While this season will be remembered for all that went wrong, he still finished in the top 10 in 9-cat (top 15 in 8-cat).
The injuries remain a concern, but the upside here is monumental. The best-case scenario is he comes back from this season's embarrassing lottery finish with a revenge tour, challenging for the NBA MVP and Jokic's No. 1 Fantasy spot.
The worst-case scenario is that he continues to miss a lot of games and "only" manages to repeat 2021-22's top-10 finish. After the first three or four picks, there is no other player with a legitimately plausible path to finish No. 1 overall. This combination of ceiling and floor is excellent value late in the first round, even if there's considerable injury downside.
11. Luka Doncic, Mavericks
Fantasy-wise, Doncic is in the same category as Antetokounmpo, except instead of one Fantasy flaw, he has three. Doncic isn't quite as harmful in FT% as Antetokounmpo, but Doncic is also a massive liability in FG% and the reigning league leader in turnovers per game.
The positives, however, are incredibly positive. Doncic is a fixture at the top of the league ranks in points and assists, he's in the top 12 in 3s, and he snags more rebounds than any other non-PF/C. Doncic locks you into a certain type of team building strategy, limiting your options throughout the rest of the draft. But if you successfully build your roster around him, he'll provide the equivalent of top-five-or-better value.
12. Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers
Haliburton is 22 years old, finishing up his sophomore season and playing for his third NBA head coach. Despite that youth, inexperience, and non-optimal situations, he ranks 15th in 8-cat (18th in 9-cat) since getting moved at the trade deadline. He is a Fantasy star on the rise. And now the Pacers will have an entire offseason to build a roster around their new-found centerpiece.
"But Alex," you protest, "that's only because the Pacers were tanking and held out their veterans!"
Not really. While Malcom Brogdon missed a lot of games down the stretch, Haliburton's usage rate and assists per game barely changed whether Brogdon was active or not. Haliburton is not a high-usage player, and the other missing Pacers at the end of the season are not volume passers. The Pacers utilize Haliburton as their primary distributor, and his passing was the biggest source of his boosted Fantasy value.
There probably won't be any need to draft Haliburton this high – my guess is that his ADP will settle in the late second or early third. But this is where I have him on my initial board.