Fantasy Basketball: 5 Stars to Target Entering the 2021-22 Season

Paul George had a monstrous run in the 2021 playoffs without Kawhi Leonard. Who else is a priority this year in the early rounds of season-long fantasy basketball drafts?

Season-long fantasy basketball is unique. In modern days, the season-long format is less popular than the daily format. With production less variable than other sports, the key to success in fantasy basketball in any format is getting the right stars on your roster and continuously surrounding them with the players seeing minutes, usage, and opportunity.

The problem is that the top level of the NBA has never been deeper, but it has also never been less reliable. Seventeen players averaged at least 45 fantasy points per game in 2020-21, but only nine of them played at least 60 games. That type of shifting movement makes it crucial to balance the per-night scoring element with participating in enough games for it to matter. Motivation is different for many players, and the offseason movement has created a few "superteams" that probably don't care too much about this year's regular season.

For that reason, drafts at the top are difficult entering this year. That is unlike fantasy football, where a fantasy manager can very easily accumulate two or three stars with minimal research. There are landmines all across the top of season-long basketball drafts this year.

With that in mind, let's identify five stars entering a fantasy situation this season that makes them worth their draft position.

Note: Per-game averages are using FanDuel standard scoring.

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

For me, the top pick in this year's season-long drafts should be Luka Doncic. However, his average draft position is 3.3.

There are three clear-cut options at the top of the fantasy draft board, as Doncic is joined by Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo. All three blew past 50 FanDuel points per game in fairly full workloads, but that could be changing for the latter two options.

Jokic was the MVP of the 2020-21 season, and whether fair or not, that nearly disqualifies him from this year's award. FanDuel Sportsbook has him listed at +1600 to win this season's award, which is seventh behind even the expected part-time schedule of LeBron James. One of Jokic's key factors to fantasy excellence was his 72 games played, and if Denver chooses to rest its young star more in the coming season, his value comes down. Jokic also may lose usage from his overall 29.8% mark with Will Barton and Aaron Gordon both enjoying a healthy offseason to integrate into the Denver offense.

Coming off of a championship, the Bucks might be even more cautious with Giannis than they were last year. His averages rose to 33.0 minutes per game across 61 games played, and those marks are just 6th and 9th amongst last year's top-10 per-game producers. Less of Antetokounmpo on the court puts more pressure on his efficiency and his per-minute production -- and it's already at historic levels. He led the NBA last year with 1.63 FanDuel points per minute, and to be worthy of the top pick, Giannis would have to improve upon that mark this year if he winds up seeing less court time.

Doncic has the most to prove of the three. He is the +480 favorite to win this season's MVP, and everything appears to align for Doncic in fantasy. Dallas had a quiet offseason outside of a swap of Reggie Bullock for Josh Richardson, but their lineup remains barren of top-shelf talent. Knee injuries forced Kristaps Porzingis to just 43 games played last season, and that number is sure to be low again. Without Porzingis, Doncic ascended to a 37.7% usage rate and 1.46 FanDuel points per minute last season. Luka can deliver the top overall numbers regardless of Porzingis' status, but he could be the runaway top fantasy player if Porzingis misses a lot of time.

Doncic also will likely garner guard/forward flexibility as he moves throughout spots in the Mavericks' lineup, whereas Antetokoumpo and Jokic are likely now locked into the center and power forward positions, which are slightly easier to stream throughout the season.

Paul George, Clippers

There is no star -- certainly no veteran one, at least -- that enters 2021-22 with a chance to ascend in public perception more so than Paul George.

George is often seen as a flake or unreliable with poor shooting in some crucial moments. However, this season, he will be forced to carry a talented, efficient Los Angeles Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard. Even with the Clips' depth, George is the clear alpha inside the offense, and while his usage is unlikely to be the gaudy 32.8% mark he posted in 10 playoff games without Leonard, he's going to be the clear focal point of this attack.

George made a run at the MVP in 2018 when he played with Oklahoma City, posting 77 games played and averaging 28.0 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game. George's per-36-minute averages last year without Leonard on the floor were 28.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 4.4 assists on a 35.1% usage rate, which means it is very plausible George hops into the realm of that 2016 season once again.

Of course, now aged, George will likely not playing all but five games and will not play 36 minutes per night, but George is going behind Anthony Davis in most leagues despite AD coming with much more significant concerns. PG13 is an excellent target around the "bend" of 10 or 12-team leagues.

Bradley Beal, Wizards

In a majority of these cases, a star is losing help this season. That normally is terrible for a team's overall efficiency, but I can't wait to see this new Bradley Beal unleashed in a full-time, no-competition role.

Beal has shared the backcourt with Russell Westbrook and John Wall for much of his career, but now he is left with a recovering Spencer Dinwiddie on a Wizards squad with a 32.5 win total, according to oddsmakers. Washington will stink, but last season, they had the 10th-worst defensive rating and the top-ranked pace (104.7). That is a recipe for a fantasy goldmine.

Beal did break out a year ago. He finished second in scoring (31.3 points per game) while adding 4.7 boards and 4.4 assists. While there is the chance Beal's fantasy season implodes if he misses the end of the season with Washington clearly out of it, if the Wiz are able to contend for the eighth seed, he will likely be asked to carry more work than his 60 games from a year ago.

Beal's offensive usage rate without Westbrook on the floor last season was 39.9%. That's a higher usage rate than Doncic, Jokic, and Giannis. He's adding more rebounds to his total each season, and his offense could theoretically get much better. He now has Dinwiddie and Kyle Kuzma in the fold -- capable players who won't challenge Beal's top role.

His 14.8 ADP in Yahoo! leagues is too low for what is a serious scoring title challenger and fringe MVP candidate.

Zion Williamson, Pelicans

Beyond just his growth as an absurd prospect, Zion Williamson's second half of 2020-21 is incredibly repeatable.

Post-All-Star break last season, Williamson averaged 45.1 FanDuel points per game. That was the 13th-best total in the entire league, sandwiched between Nikola Vucevic and Jimmy Butler. Both of those players have worse overall market shares in their offenses this season due to additional help arriving and still are going a healthy amount above Zion in Yahoo! drafts.

There is some concern around Williamson's current injury -- a broken foot -- and potential future ones, but he is expected to start the regular season. And injury concerns just do not justify his ADP dropping when he played more contests post-break (27) than Giannis (26) with absolutely nothing to play for in New Orleans.

While Brandon Ingram will see plenty of usage, it is now Williamson's show in the wake of Lonzo Ball's departure. Williamson had a 33.2% usage rate without Ball on the floor last season in 921 minutes, and that was a +3.4 percentage-point increase beyond his overall mark.

Add in his usual 8.36 rebounds per 36 minutes in that same floor condition, and Zion is a borderline first-round producer with a current ADP of 24.7.

Fred VanVleet, Raptors

Don't let his 6'0" frame fool you -- Fred VanVleet is a monster in waiting.

The Toronto Raptors' playoff legend is embarking on a season where he will have the first true opportunity to remove "playoff" from that description. He has shared the backcourt with Kyle Lowry for years, but with Lowry now taking his talents to South Beach, VanVleet has the backcourt all to himself.

Gary Trent Jr. is a good player but is mostly a spot-up shooter. Trent had just a 22.9% usage rate with Toronto last season, but context is crucial as that mark is low despite VanVleet, Lowry, and Pascal Siakam missing plenty of games after Trent's acquisition at the trading deadline. Goran Dragic is also relegated to the bench for the moment, and while he could play crunch time situations for the Raptors, he will not encroach anywhere near Lowry's 21.5% overall usage.

VanVleet saw absurd volume and production without Kyle Lowry last season. His usage increased 3.2 percentage points -- to a team-high 27.3% -- sans Lowry, and his production surged to 1.16 FanDuel points per minute.

Toronto will need both VanVleet and Siakam to play well to return to the playoffs in 2021-22. With a 24.2 ADP, VanVleet may not be quite the value Zion is, but he is a great pick in this range. Landmines like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving -- stars with nothing to play for in the regular season -- are still going ahead of him, but unlike those three, VanVleet should post a healthy game total. He was on pace to play 66 games before Toronto shut him down entirely last year with the season lost. The Raps should be able to contend this year.