These players will make or break your fantasy hoops season

With Carmelo Anthony out of the picture, we'll find out whether Kristaps Porzingis is ready to become an elite fantasy player. Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

If you're reading this, you're an informed fantasy basketball fan.

The problem?

If others in your league are reading this ... they're pretty informed, too.

When it comes to the majority of our top-40 draft picks, we tend to draw from the same well in terms of general draft order. Meaning: If you're a serious basketball enthusiast, it's hard to fool you and it's just as hard to fool your competition.

Fantasy basketball victory is predicated on differentiation. Finding excess value where others have ignored it. Ignoring players billed as a sure thing in the name of following your own valuation.

Forget sleepers. As soon as a player is tabbed as a sleeper? Said value evaporates. Said sleeper is just as devalued as the next guy.

You need to take some swings on your own. Find your own sleepers.

You have to be willing to take some draft day heat ... even at the sake of seeming less intelligent than your fellow owners.

Don't be the owner making the obviously crafty picks. Don't be the owner trolling for in-draft compliments. Make a plan. Stick to it.

To win a competitive league, you have to take some chances. Create differentiation.

Every season, there are a select few players who drive standings -- defining differentiation. Not just in your league, but in Fantasyland in general. The high risk/reward guys. The big swings.

These could be first-rounders you've judged to be undervalued or overvalued by a few spots. A second-rounder you think is a third-rounder. A ninth-rounder you think is a third-rounder. The later your draft goes, the bigger the potential drags.

Doesn't matter when a draft-defining pick happens. All picks are valuable. Just one pick gone right can set you up for an imaginary championship. One pick gone wrong could tank your season before it starts.

Let's talk about nine big swings before this season starts.

The following players are listed in order of current average draft position (ADP).

1. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder (ADP 1)

Westbrook steamrolled through a fantasy 2016-17 for the ages. A historic triple-double lollapalooza. An 82-game Oscar Robertson tribute concert.

But it was a tribute driven by a key metric: usage rate.

Westbrook had possession of the rock during more offensive opportunities than any other player in the history of basketball. As in, he had the highest single-season usage rate ever.

That kind of throwback volume should lead to unabashed Player Rater dominance.

And yet ... despite averaging a triple-double? Westbrook still only finished second to James Harden. That fact alone should plant a risk red flag in Westbrook's value. In that Westbrook's fantasy value skews too hard toward volume over efficiency.

Case in point: Westbrook shot the ball with a 1961-62 vintage percentage: 42.5 percent from the field, 34.3 percent from deep.

There's been a lot of preseason palaver pushing Westbrook as a preseason No. 1 overall. I just don't see it. With the addition of two other top-20 usage players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony), there's no way Westbrook retains his 2016-17 history-making levels of possession.

Yes, adding George and Melo will improve spacing. But I don't see Westbrook suddenly nudging his shooting percentages up to, say, Durant in Golden State levels (53.7 FG% and 37.5 FG%). Or even a replacement level.

Verdict: Westbrook is a huge risk at No. 1 overall, regardless of league format.

2. Chris Paul, PG, Houston Rockets (ADP 15)

Here's a premier floor general trending in the opposite direction. In that Paul is sailing a few spots beneath his actual value. Paul is currently hovering in the midsecond round. I say he's still a late-first- or early-second-rounder.

I spent a couple of years warning owners off of overdrafting Paul. Point guards on the wrong side of 29 tend to crash hard.

Now? I'm flipping and telling you that you're undervaluing Paul by half a round. Which may not sound like much, but in the rarefied air of the second round? Five picks represent a lot of presumed value.

Don't let James Harden's well-manicured presence deflate your statistical expectation. And whatever you do ... don't underestimate the power of coach Mike D'Antoni.

D'Antoni is fantasy manna. D'Antoni is the James Naismith of fantasy. He didn't invent it ... but he could have.

Anticipate that D'Antoni will stagger Paul's on-court time with Harden's. Anticipate there will be chunks of the game ruled unabashedly by Paul. Anticipate Paul will play at a sky-high pace (102.5 possessions per game in 2016-17, third overall).

Elite assists. Elite 3-pointers. Elite steals. Scoring that will approach 20 points per tilt. A true shooting percentage (my favorite fantasy metric) over 60 percent. As long as Paul plays 70-75 games, he's a top-10 player. Top-12 at worst.

Fifteenth overall? An unabashed steal.

3. Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat (ADP 16)

Which Whiteside shows up?

Are we talking 2015-16 (ahem, contract year) Whiteside? The big who averaged a double-double while filing away stratospheric blocks (3.7 per game) and field goal percentage (60.5 FG%)? And who also did so while at least trending up from the free throw line (65.0 FT% in 2015-16, up from 50.0 FT% in 2014-15)?

Or are we talking post-max, 2016-17 Whiteside? The one whose efficiency suffered under the weight of increased touches (55.8 percent from the field, 62.8 percent from the line)? The Whiteside whose blocks sagged with increased offensive responsibility (dropping from 3.7 to 2.1 per game)?

The reasonable bet is ... somewhere in between.

After stumbling out of statistical gate, Whiteside finished strongly, posting averages of 18.7 points per game and 13.9 rebounds per game during the final month of the regular season, while shooting 57.4 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from the line.

But the blocks stayed in the lower 2s (2.2 per game). And therein lies the rub. If Whiteside averages more than 2.5 blocks per game? If he threatens Rudy Gobert for shot-swatting supremacy? Then Whiteside is first-round material. Special.

If he's merely top-five in blocks? And he remains a mild drag on free throw percentage? Whiteside becomes a late-second-rounder.

Miami is a very interesting team for fantasy purposes. There's a lot of flux in their production potential. But when it comes to Whiteside, blocks tend to trend downward as careers unfold. Which means he's a bad bet in the early-to-mid second round.

4. Kristaps Porzingis, PF, New York Knicks (ADP 25)

Speaking of vacated touches ... Porzingis was just handed the keys to an entire franchise. He's got top-15 upside. The Knicks' progress this year won't be measured so much in wins and losses. They'll be measured in hope. Hope for the future.

How better to prop up that hope than to let Porzingis do as much as possible?

The upside here is a points-per-game driven version of Nikola Jokic. I say Porzingis gets a bump of five to 10 points in usage. He gets the Whiteside treatment.

That spells less field goal efficiency and assists but a little more scoring punch and rebounds. More volume in a couple of columns. That could just drive Porzingis into the top 15 overall. You're just betting on whether he gets the requisite volume to drive him into second-round value ... while his efficiency holds enough water. Which is possible, given Porzingis' level of talent.

Porzingis is your prototyptical smart pick. You will get complimented for grabbing him around pick 25. I'd certainly rather have him and his upside in the midthird round than a player who's scraping his ceiling (like, say, CJ McCollum).

Don't wait until 25. Because I have a feeling a usage-boosted Porzingis could deliver late-first-round production.

To quote Dirty Harry Callahan ... are you feeling lucky, punk?

(Ask your Dad. It's a pretty good flick).

5. Isaiah Thomas, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers (ADP 28)

Thomas = the most underrated fantasy point guard of the past four seasons. The underdog's underdog.

Cut to today ... my favorite diminutive point guard is decidedly dinged.

Will Thomas be back by New Years? And if he does come back by 01.01.18? Is Thomas' hip, as some fear, permanently damaged?

Will the Cavs, freshly reinforced by Dwyane Wade, be extra cautious with Thomas, gradually ramping him into the post-All-Star stretch?

Or ... could a contract-driven Thomas come back by Thanksgiving? Will Thomas instantly be up 25 points per night, proving all doubters dumb? Will Thomas quickly relegate Wade to the second unit?

Will Thomas be the version of an All-Star point guard who (finally) plays well with others (as in: not Kyrie ... as in: the opposite of my daughter).

All of these questions.

Still 28th overall.

And I love Isaiah Thomas. When he's reasonably ambulatory.

Caveat emptor.

6. Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies (ADP 35)

Every-other-year Gasol. The Kid Brother. The Ringless Gasol.

These are tough labels to overcome.

Only one comes from me: The first one. Gasol's production has been more bipolar than any other NBA big.

Take a gander at Gasol's career production. This dynamic has existed since his first season in the league.

I'm no real-life expert. But I can tell you that from a fantasy perspective, a player whose games played lurches from 82-69-81-65-80-59-81-52-74? Said player is the sort of fellow who tends to take it easy every now and then.

And I love healthy Gasol. 19.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.6 APG, 1.3 BPG, 0.9 SPG, 1.4 3PG ... spells an intriguing add to your everyday lineup.

And Gasol continues to improve ... every other year.

But this year ... is the other year. The down year. The year Gasol gets hurt and disappoints his owners. Will this be the year Gasol breaks his vicious cycle?

7. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers (ADP 37)

The Process is the ultimate risk/reward fantasy producer.

If healthy, 75-78 games of Embiid will net top-10 value.

Let's put it this way: If I were in an uber-competitive fantasy league? I'm talking playing with John Hollinger, Bill James, Billy Beane and Red Auerbach's ghost? Swinging for the hazy, distant Fence of Fantasy Glory?

I would consider drafting Embiid ahead of Westbrook. There. I said it.

Not that such a decision would ever occur in reality.

But let's say both players are sitting there toward the midsecond round. Depending on how competitive this league was? I might reach for Embiid. Because I know I need to create major differentiation. And Embiid is 7 feet of athletically freakish walking differentiation.

Because 75-80 games of 28-32 MPG Embiid could be that good. Top-five good.

(And by that, I mean in a non-turnover league. In turnover leagues, both Westbrook and Embiid incur similarly sized divots. They both give the ball away at sky-high rates relative to their positions (5.4 per game for Westbrook, 3.8 for Embiid ... terrifyingly high for a big.)

I'm telling you that Embiid has top-10 upside. And he's going -- understandably -- in the midfourth round.

Are you feeling lucky? Because a selection of Embiid, properly placed, is a swing for the fantasy stars.

In my estimation ... 37 is way too low.

8. Ricky Rubio, PG, Utah Jazz (ADP 60)

It only feels like Rubio has been around forever.

Rubio is (still) only 26 years old. He's (still) on the right side of peak production for an NBA point guard.

And after years of refining his game in Minneapolis ... Rubio is deposited in one of fantasy's most desirable destinations. Don't walk away from this guy.

Rubio retains league-leading (9.1 APG in 2016-17) assist upside. He can throw down in steals (1.7 per game). He rebounds (4.1 per game in 2016-17) at an elite level (for a point guard.)

In Fantasyland, Rubio has been kneecapped by his shooting. I'm saying that in Utah, with expected maturation ... Rubio doesn't ring as a negative. He maintains.

If Rubio maintains from the field? From deep? He's worth way more than 60th overall.

9. Danilo Gallinari, SF/PF, LA Clippers (ADP 81)

If Gallinari's only accrued career-wide red flag was a fractured finger via punching some Dutch guy in the face? He wouldn't be on this list. I've had some very bad vacation experiences in the Netherlands.

But Gallinari, for all of his offensive potential, has an injury history that would make Eric Bledsoe blush.

Every season, we've been teased by what Gallinari's capable of.

And seemingly every season, we've been let down due to one injury after another.

Across eight seasons, Gallinari's played more than 71 games once -- in 2009-10. He hasn't cracked more than 61 games in four seasons.

And yet ... in between the trips to the DL, he's refined his game.

To me, Gallinari's 2016-17 campaign was his best to date (18.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.0 3PG, 44.7 FG%, 38.9 3PT%, 90.2 FT%). A career year, even when extrapolated across just 63 games.

Post-CP3, the remaining/new-look Clippers have been handed a capital fantasy opportunity. There's a ton of production to occupy.

Toss in the fact that the Clippers have had a hole at the 3 for forever. Toss in that Gallinari is coming off a career year.

You're looking at a player who could outperform his ADP by four to five rounds ... if he plays 70-75 games.

That's a heavily italicized "if."