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By Nick Whalen / Alex Barutha, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Separating players into tiers is a popular method of draft prep, and it de-emphasizes the idea that you must draft a player because his projections come out slightly more favorably than those of another player. Often, the difference between a player ranked, say, 30th, and a player ranked 45th is smaller than you think.
Tiers help account for those discrepancies by grouping players with similar risk/reward profiles, empowering the fantasy manager to choose for themselves. Tiers are also a great way to stay organized and disciplined while drafting. The default queue is a good place to start, but tiers add a personal touch and allow for more precise roster management as a draft plays out.
Some notes on methodology:
Tiers take into account players with top-120ish upside. Essentially, players who could reasonably come off the board in a standard draft.
Players within tiers are not ranked in a specific order. Ideally, everyone in a tier has an argument to be taken over by anyone else in that tier.
Plenty of players are multi-position eligible, but to avoid confusion and redundancy, each player only appears at what we assume to be their primary position.
Tiers are based on 8-category, rotisserie scoring. Without further ado, here are the small forwards.
LeBron James, Lakers
For the second time in three years, injuries caused James to miss significant time (27 games, to be exact), but when healthy he was still an elite, all-around contributor. That shouldn’t change in 2021-22, even as he turns 37 in December, but James’ recent track record — flukey as the injuries may be — must be taken into consideration. Fantasy managers must also weigh the effect of Russell Westbrook joining the Lakers, which could eat into James’ passing and rebounding numbers in particular. Still, James remains the team’s unquestioned alpha dog and projects as a high-floor fantasy investment.
Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
Ingram’s 2020-21 season was nearly a carbon copy of his breakout 2019-20 campaign. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though fantasy managers were hoping the 24-year-old would take another leap forward. Zion Williamson is the clear focus in New Orleans, but Ingram should continue to flourish as a more-than-capable No. 2 offensive option. He offers strong shooting splits (47-88-38 last season) but has room for improvement as a defensive player (1.3 combined blocks/steals).
Jimmy Butler, Heat
After shaking off a relatively slow start, Butler turned in one of the best all-around seasons of his career in 2020-21, posting 21.5 points and 6.9 rebounds per game to go with career-bests in both assists (7.1) and steals (2.1) per game. The one drawback with Butler is he’s virtually stopped taking threes, but his contributions in other categories make him one of the NBA’s elite fantasy small forwards.
Michael Porter, Nuggets
Porter finished last season ranked 42nd overall in per-game value (8-cat), thanks in large part to his combination of high-volume three-point shooting (2.8 3PM/G) and a strong field goal percentage (54.2% FG). The 23-year-old was even better after Jamal Murray went down, and with the star guard likely to miss most of the regular season, Porter will be in line to serve as the clear No. 2 option behind Nikola Jokic. Over a 25-game span from March 26 through May 11, Porter averaged 24.0 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 0.9 blocks, and 3.4 threes per game to go with a 57-47-83 shooting line.
OG Anunoby, Raptors
A top-50 fantasy player for the first time in 2020-21, Anunoby continues to improve with each passing season. While he may never be a true go-to scorer, Anunoby has developed into a knockdown three-point shooter with few holes in his stat profile. He’s coming off of a year in which he posted career-bests in points (15.9), rebounds (5.5), assists (2.2), steals (1.5) and threes (2.4) per game, as well as free-throw (78.4%) and three-point (39.8%) percentage.
Khris Middleton, Bucks
Perennially one of the safest options in fantasy basketball, Middleton rarely misses games and has been remarkably consistent as a scorer, passer, rebounder, and three-point shooter. He’s hovered around the 50-40-90 club in each of the past two seasons, while also offering around 1.0 steal per game. Middleton may not be the most exciting player to roster, but his high floor gives fantasy managers peace of mind.
Mikal Bridges, Suns
Bridges finished just inside the top-70 last season behind a well-rounded 13.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.9 blocks, and 1.9 threes per game. One of the NBA’s emerging super-role players, Bridges may never be a go-to scorer, but he should continue to make incremental improvements as he moves into his prime years. The former Villanova star shot a career-best 54.3 percent from the field last season, including 42.5 percent from three (also a career-high).
DeMar DeRozan, Spurs
A 20-point-per-game scorer in each of the last eight seasons, DeRozan offers a Jimmy Butler-like stat profile with almost no three-pointers but well-rounded contributions in most other categories. Joining Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball in Chicago could cut into DeRozan’s scoring and assists numbers, but he should remain a high-floor fantasy option thanks in large part to his strong field-goal and free-throw percentages.
Gordon Hayward, Hornets
Injuries have been the primary narrative around Hayward since he left Utah, and he once again missed extensive time in 2020-21. When healthy, Hayward has top-50 upside, but fantasy managers must take into account his track record before pulling the trigger in drafts. Both LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier excelling in Hayward’s absence last season — as well as Charlotte signing Kelly Oubre in free agency — add some further question marks.
Robert Covington, Trail Blazers
Playing for his fourth team in three seasons, Covington’s scoring took a notable dive last season (8.5 PPG), but he remained one of the league’s premier three-and-D forwards. The 30-year-old has averaged at least 1.4 steals and 1.9 threes per game in seven consecutive seasons, and he’s added at least 1.2 blocks per game in each of the last three.
Andrew Wiggins, Warriors
While Wiggins will likely never live up to his billing as the No. 1 pick in 2014, he’s developed into a steady, if not extremely boring, fantasy contributor. Wiggins rarely misses games, and he’s quietly grown into a well-rounded player who averaged 18.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 2.0 threes, 1.0 blocks and 0.9 steals a season ago. In his first year with the Warriors, Wiggins raised his three-point percentage to a career-best 38.0 percent.
De’Andre Hunter, Hawks
The 2019 fourth overall pick got off to a superb start to his sophomore season, putting up 17.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 0.9 threes with a 52-38-88 shooting line through 17 games. But a knee injury, which required multiple surgeries, caused him to miss 48 of the Hawks’ next 52 games, effectively putting an end to what was shaping up to be a breakout campaign. All indications are that Hunter will be ready for training camp, but lingering injury concerns — as well as a crowded depth chart — could limit his upside.
Kyle Anderson, Grizzlies
Coming off of a disappointing showing in 2019-20, Anderson flipped the narrative last season, putting up career highs in points (12.4), assists (3.6), and three-pointers (1.4) per game. If the minutes are there — he averaged 27.3 MPG last season — Anderson’s production should be replicable, but there’s a chance the Grizzlies’ depth could eat into his workload. Regardless, Anderson should make for a nice pickup in the later-middle rounds of most drafts.
Harrison Barnes, Kings
The 29-year-old doesn’t offer standout contributions in any one area, but he’s yet another versatile forward without any glaring drawbacks. Last season, Barnes averaged 16.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, and a career-high 3.5 assists per game while nearly touching 50 percent from the field (he finished at 49.7%). While he may be even more boring than Wiggins, Barnes is a nice depth piece to add to nearly any fantasy roster.
Kelly Oubre, Hornets
Oubre never quite settled in with the Warriors after struggling out of the gate, but in 55 games he compiled a respectable 15.4 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.8 blocks per contest. Joining his fourth team in as many years, Oubre will again have to adjust to a new situation. As the likely sixth man in Charlotte, Oubre should be able to lock in a solid role, but he may need an injury to P.J. Washington or Gordon Hayward to raise his fantasy ceiling.
Bojan Bogdanovic, Jazz
Fantasy managers know what to expect from Bogdanovic as he enters his third season with the Jazz. In terms of counting stats, he doesn’t offer much outside of points, but over the last two seasons, Bogdanovic has averaged 2.7 threes per game on 44-40-89 shooting. He’s not an extremely high-volume free-throw shooter, but he gets to the line enough (3.7 FTA/G last season) to be a difference-maker.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
Coming off of a partially torn ACL in June, it’s anyone’s guess how many games Leonard will play in 2021-22. The notoriously reclusive forward is obviously an elite talent when healthy, but even when he’s not recovering from a serious injury, his availability is a constant question mark. There’s a good chance Leonard returns during an extremely crucial point in the fantasy basketball season, but managers should be prepared to stash him in an IR spot through at least the All-Star break.
The third-year wing made significant progress from an efficiency standpoint last season, including raising his three-point percentage to 40.1 percent and shooting nearly 75 percent at the line. Barrett is already a solid scorer, rebounder, and passer, but for his fantasy value to rise, he’ll need to offer more on the defensive end. With the Knicks bringing back nearly every key piece from last season, in addition to signing Evan Fournier, Barrett may not have a clear path to a higher usage rate.
One of the best defensive-stat producers in all of fantasy basketball, Isaac has been hit by several major injuries since entering the league in 2017-18. A torn ACL and meniscus cut his 2019-20 season short and caused him to miss the entire 2020-21 campaign. Isaac should be back healthy this season, but even at age 23, he’s already among the league’s most difficult players to trust.
Bey was one of the few bright spots for Detroit last season when he averaged 12.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 2.5 threes in 27.3 minutes per game. The Villanova product looks like a long-term piece, and he’ll likely be entrenched as the Pistons’ starting small forward. While the arrival of Cade Cunningham changes the landscape, adding a high-level playmaker should only help a spot-up shooter like Bey.
After an up-and-down run in Los Angeles, Kuzma arrives in Washington as part of the return in the Russell Westbrook trade. While the Wizards’ roster is deeper than in years past, Kuzma will have a good chance to earn a starting spot at small forward. Consistency will likely be an issue, but Kuzma projects as a decent source of points, rebounds, and three-pointers.
Next up: Terrence Ross, TJ Warren, Talen Horton-Tucker, Cameron Johnson, Aleksej Pokusevski