What qualifies as a “sleeper” in fantasy basketball? It depends on who you ask.
For some, a sleeper is anyone who is likely to outperform his average draft position. Hassan Whiteside, who is ranked ninth on my big board but has an ADP of 13.1, would fit under that description. It’s hardly helpful to dub a consensus second-round pick a sleeper, though, even if I believe he should be a late first-round target.
Instead, I’m turning my focus to players taken outside of the top 100 in terms of ADP. These are late-round fliers with the potential to develop into mid-round-caliber contributors, guys who can help swing a roster from good to great. Rarely will one of these players single-handedly turn into a league-winner, but those who draft well early and complement their team with one or more of these sleepers could be headed toward the fantasy promised land next spring.
DeMarre Carroll, SF, Toronto Raptors (ADP: 108.3)
DeMarre Carroll’s first year with the Toronto Raptors didn’t exactly go according to plan. Injuries forced him to miss all but 26 games, and when he did play, he shot a ghastly 38.9 percent overall while averaging 11.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.8 triples and 1.7 steals in 30.2 minutes. On a per-game basis, Carroll finished as the 118th-ranked player in fantasy, crushing players who bought into him at his mid-round ADP. This year, however, he’s all systems go, telling Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun, “Right now, I feel good. No setbacks and mentally I feel good.” He added that he has a log-sized chip on his shoulder after his lost 2015-16 campaign, setting the stage for fantasy owners to capitalize on him as a post-hype sleeper in the later rounds.
Robert Covington, SF, Philadelphia 76ers (ADP: 112.0)
How in the hell is Robert Covington outside the top 100 in ADP? Sure, his field-goal percentage was awful last year (.385), but in spite of that, he finished as the 63rd-best fantasy player on a per-game basis. Covington is an elite mid-round fantasy target due to his combination of three-pointers (2.5 per game last year) and steals (1.6), to go with a decent number of points (12.8), rebounds (6.3) and the occasional assist (1.4) and block (0.6). Considering he’s the Sixers’ primary source of floor-spacing once again, there’s no way he should slip past the ninth round of drafts.
Jusuf Nurkic, C, Denver Nuggets (ADP: 114.7)
Jusuf Nurkic’s breakout preseason is continuing on full steam ahead. Through five games, the Bosnian Bear is averaging 15.2 points on 46.7 percent shooting, 11.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.6 blocks in just 24.8 minutes. If he remains anywhere near that efficient come the regular season, fantasy owners will be scratching their heads how he fell outside of the top 100. Though it’s a small sample size, the biggest improvement of note may be his free-throw shooting—after averaging just 2.5 trips to the charity stripe through his first two seasons, he’s up to 8.4 in the preseason, converting 81.0 percent of those tries. If that continues, he’d be hard-pressed not to finish as a top-75 option (if not far higher).
Buddy Hield, SG, New Orleans Pelicans (ADP: 115.3)
Outside of Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis from last season, rookies don’t often make much of an impact during their first professional campaigns. This year, the same figures to hold true for most lottery picks—except for Buddy Hield. With Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans both sidelined indefinitely, Anthony Davis will be in desperate need of a high-scoring sidekick to start the season, and Hield fits the mold. The Oklahoma product is lighting up nets in the preseason, averaging 12.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 treys in 25.6 minutes, flashing mid-round upside. Thanks to the absence of Holiday and Evans, Hield is one of the most obvious late-round targets in fantasy this year.
Rodney Hood, SG/SF, Utah Jazz (ADP: 117.0)
Much like with Robert Covington, there’s no good explanation for how Rodney Hood has fallen to the bottom of the 12th round in average drafts. Sure, the Utah Jazz filled out their backcourt this summer by adding George Hill and Joe Johnson, and yes, the return of Dante Exum and Alec Bucks could likewise cut into Hood’s minutes. That said, with Gordon Hayward sidelined for the first few weeks of the season, the Duke product will have plenty of opportunity to prove he’s deserving of a sizeable role. Hood finished as the 70th-ranked player in fantasy last year, averaging 14.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.0 treys in 32.2 minutes per night, so even if his playing time declines slightly, he still touts top-100 upside.
Eric Gordon, SG, Houston Rockets (ADP: 131.7)
Eric Gordon is basically the Arian Foster of fantasy basketball: You know he’s likely going to get hurt at some point in the year, but his production when healthy merits a draft pick regardless. Gordon missed 37 games last season, causing him to finish as the 183rd-ranked player in fantasy, but on a per-game basis, he ranked 77th thanks to his averages of 15.2 points, 2.7 assists, 2.5 treys and 2.2 rebounds. In the free-flowing offensive system of new Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, Gordon should have the green light as a playmaker and a three-point weapon, giving him top-75 upside if he can avoid any substantial injuries. Given his laughably low ADP, he’s well worth the risk in the 11th or 12th rounds.
Brandon Jennings, PG, New York Knicks (ADP: 143.0)
While Derrick Rose remains in Los Angeles engulfed in a sexual assault lawsuit, Brandon Jennings has been filling in as the New York Knicks’ primary point guard during the preseason to mixed results. On the bright side, he’s averaging 7.5 points, 3.8 assists, 2.8 rebounds, 1.3 treys and 0.8 steals in 20.6 minutes across four games, showing no ill effects from the torn Achilles he suffered in December 2014. However, he’s also shooting just 35.7 percent from the field, which is right in line with his career average (.390). Considering Rose’s injury history, there’s a decent chance Jennings starts a dozen or more games for the Knicks this year, so he’s worth taking a flier on late just due to that, mediocre field-goal percentage be damned.
Taj Gibson, PF, Chicago Bulls (ADP: 150.5)
While Chicago Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg has yet to declare his team’s opening-night starting power forward, Taj Gibson appears to be the front-runner for the job. He’s started three of the Bulls’ five preseason games and is averaging 14.2 points on 67.4 percent shooting, 7.4 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in just 18.9 minutes of action. Considering Nikola Mirotic suffered a lower back strain during Monday’s preseason contest against the Charlotte Hornets, Gibson’s competition for the starting gig may now be thinned out only to Bobby Portis. The 31-year-old may not put up huge numbers this year, but since you can rarely find solid starters in the final few rounds of drafts, he’s worth picking up as a late-round flier.
Dario Saric, PF, Philadelphia 76ers (ADP: 153.7)
Philadelphia 76ers fans were forced to wait two years before Dario Saric made his NBA debut, and despite an up-and-down preseason, it was all worth it. Through his first five preseason games, the Homie is averaging 8.4 points on 40.0 percent shooting, 4.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 0.8 treys in 20.1 minutes, showing enough flashes to pique the interest of fantasy owners. With No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons likely out until January (if not the entire season), Saric figures to open the year as the Sixers’ starting 4 alongside Joel Embiid, giving him fantasy appeal on that basis alone. If Philly can address its tire fire of a point guard rotation, Saric could emerge as a top-100 fantasy value.
Matthew Dellavedova, PG, Milwaukee Bucks (ADP: 185.0)
Even before the Milwaukee Bucks traded Michael Carter-Williams to the Chicago Bulls in exchange for Tony Snell, Matthew Dellavedova was shaping up as one of fantasy’s best final-round fliers. With the Bucks committed to using Giannis Antetokounmpo in a point-forward role, who better to play point guard alongside him than someone coming from a LeBron James-led team? Through four preseason games, Delly has struggled with his shooting efficiency (34.8 percent), but his per-game averages of 6.3 points, 5.8 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.0 treys and 0.8 steals in 24.4 minutes suggest he’ll have a sizeable role for Milwaukee this year. Snap him up at the end of your draft if you’re in need of assists, triples or steals.
Trevor Ariza, SF, Houston Rockets (ADP: 68.0)
Ricky Rubio, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves (ADP: 74.3)
Jae Crowder, SF, Boston Celtics (ADP: 81.0)
Jeremy Lin, PG, Brooklyn Nets (ADP: 82.7)
Elfrid Payton, PG, Orlando Magic (ADP: 90.0)
Avery Bradley, SG, Boston Celtics (ADP: 90.7)
Otto Porter, SF, Washington Wizards (ADP: 94.3)
Wesley Matthews, SG, Dallas Mavericks (ADP: 100.3)
J.J. Redick, SG, Los Angeles Clippers (ADP: 103.3)
Emmanuel Mudiay, PG, Denver Nuggets (ADP: 116.3)