Examining Position Scarcity: What Positions Should You Target Early

by Ray Lin

There are a number of things people typically consider when deciding between a handful of players during a draft: previous season performance, career trajectory, surrounding cast, coaching scheme, etc. When things get into the middle and late rounds, however, one inevitable question comes up — which position should I draft for?

It’s partly a loaded question: if you’ve already maxed out at a certain position, you’re not gonna keep cramming eggs into that basket. However, if you’ve got a utility spot to occupy or can’t decide whether you should address shooting guard or power forward first, that’s where perhaps some stats can help you make an informed decision.

So this is what I did: I went to ESPN’s Player Rater for the 2015-2016 season and extracted all the data for the Top 200 players by ranking in that system’s year-end list. For the ease of analysis, let’s just take the primary position listed for those who are eligible at multiple.

With this particular set of data, a few questions naturally come up for those who are perking up at the potential answers this could answer, so let’s just knock a few out of the way first. Which position(s)…..

 

  • …..showed up the most (and least) in the Top 200? At the top was a tie between PF and PG, which each claimed a 24% share of the 200 best fantasy finishers. Last, and not in a particularly close race, was C (16%).
  • …..had the highest average player rating? SF, which averaged 6.2 on the player rater. It comes out to roughly the 55th percentile.
  • …..had the most variation in player rating between players? PG led the way with a 4.8 standard deviation. This isn’t a huge surprise, considering that 40% of the Top 20 were floor generals. After that though, the depth starts to drop off considerably.

 

  • …..scored the most overall on the player rater? PG, and it wasn’t particularly close. Despite sharing the same number of players in the Top-200 with PFs, point guards scored a whopping 66 more on the player rater in total.

If the takeaways weren’t 100% clear from those, it’s okay. That’s what we’re here to dig through. First off, I think it’s clear that point guard remains the premium position in fantasy hoops. It’s not only that the trifecta of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul represent the holy grail of the first round. It’s the combination of their explosive fantasy ability along with the fact that depth is extremely top heavy.

The rise of Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas, rehabilitation of Mike Conley and revival of Rajon Rondo will help strengthen the depth in the early-late rounds. But, wait beyond those tiers and you’re stuck with incredibly flawed later options like Ricky Rubio (10.1 ppg, 37.4 FG%), Emmanuel Mudiay (20th in assists, 36.4 FG%), Tony Parker (age), and Goran Dragic (loss of Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh from supporting cast). I think having a top-tier point guard should be a top priority for the first 5 rounds of any draft in leagues of any size.

With that same depth argument, the fact that only 16% of the Top 200 fantasy finishers were centers should raise alarm bells loudly. Particularly in 2-center leagues, I think it think makes studs like Karl-Anthony Towns and Hassan Whitesite both warrant Top-5 pick consideration. Meanwhile, I think it also makes certain guys deserve a little more slack for their common knocks, including Pau Gasol (age), Jonas Valanciunas (injury recovery) and Dwight Howard (poor past few seasons in Houston). The injury losses of C-eligible players like Bosh, Nerlens Noel, Ian Mahinmi and Kelly Olynyk further decimates the depth in the paint.

Even though the small forward spot has been overshadowed a bit by the wealth of point guards in recent years, I think it remains a position to look towards when deciding between a few different positions to draft. The key word with the 3-spot is versatility. A sizeable 15% of players in the Top 45 are small forwards who are also eligible at other positions (mostly PF). This creates some position versatility that is particularly helpful in leagues with daily roster moves.

With the evolution of the “3 and D” in real-life hoops, there’s also been parallel evolution in the diverse fantasy skillsets of small forwards. While SF has historically been mostly a scoring and rebounding position, you’ve now got bona fide fantasy stars who actually offer much more than just that. We’re seeing more offer tremendous passing and defensive upside (Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo), shoot deep like guards (Trevor Ariza, Robert Covington, Evan Fournier, Al-Farouq Aminu) and produce some of the most well-rounded fantasy lines of any position period (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard).

So, if you leave this with just three rules of thumb to take with you into drafts, here they are: 

 

  • Grab an elite point guard early if possible
  • Center is as thin as ever. Don’t wait around.
  • Small forward remains as versatile as ever. Get creative filling that spot and you’ll likely end up with well-rounded players who can also fill in at other spots around the roster.

 

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