My blanket definition of "categorical specialists": players whose overall value is weighted heavily within one or two categories ... to the point where they can help win a given category single-handedly.
But we need to qualify that definition.
It's not enough to just check off the big eight categories -- points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, 3s, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage -- and then list which players perform the best within said category.
And any reasonable discussion of apex categorical specialists should begin with two qualifications:
Qualifier No. 1: Which categories are the most valuable?
Think of your league as an economy that functions on a finite, specific amount of available value.
If your league operates 130 players deep, the aggregate amount of value equals roughly 900 Player Rater points. Which categories take up the largest pieces of aggregate value?
More importantly: Which categories constitute the smallest amounts of available value?
The smaller amount of available value, the more value that category carries.
Going off of last year's Player Rater and other preseason projections, blocks hold the least amount of available value, while 3-pointers hold one of the largest pools of available value. Conclusion: A shot-blocking specialist is far more valuable than a 3-point specialist.
After blocks, I rank most valuable categories in this order: field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, rebounds, 3-pointers, assists, steals, and points.
Qualifier No. 2: Which categories are the most top-heavy?
This is predicated upon the weight of distribution for a given stat.
There might be a category with a small amount of available value, but the value is distributed fairly evenly. Conversely, there might be a category with a great deal of available value, but only a few super-producers carry the bulk of that value.
Which categories are top-heavy (unevenly distributed)? Which are the least top-heavy (evenly distributed)?
I'm ranking them in this order (from most top-heavy to least): blocks, assists, free-throw percentage, rebounds, field-goal percentage, points, steals, 3-pointers.
Cross-referencing these two qualifiers, I'll end the intro with this: prioritize bigs who can block shots and hit free throws and point guards who crash the boards.
Let's take a look at some categorical specialists who will make the biggest difference in your drafts.
Within each category, I'll give you a no-brainer option, some less obvious names, and some players who provide what I call "atypical production" (production in a category a player at certain position isn't known for, i.e., point guards who rebound. A point guard who averages about a block per game is more valuable than a power forward who averages a block per game.)
Pushing Davis doesn't qualify as the hottest of hot takes. Davis isn't a specialist, per se. He's going to help you in nearly every category ... while playing a position of scarcity (center.)
But the fact that he's going to help you dominate in four of fantasy's scarcest categories -- blocks, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and rebounds -- underscores how he enters the 2018-19 campaign as fantasy's clear No. 1 draft pick in roto leagues.
Allen will provide a near double-double and 1.5-2.0 blocks per tilt. On top of that, he'll push a 60.0 FG percentage and an 80.0 FT percentage. All that categorical specialty can be yours with the last pick in your draft! Allen is currently C25, according to ESPN's Live Draft Results.
Looking for an endgame specialist with season-long upside? Target Isaac. His floor should be 3.0 steals+blocks per game, with solid rebounding.
Isaac's upside lies in his scoring and 3-point shooting -- he flashed a solid 1.0 3s per game as a rookie to go with an exceptional 62.2 TS percentage. If he finds any consistency within Orlando's offense and pushes his points per game north of 10.0 PPG, he'll have top-80 potential.
Lost in Wall's injury-shortened 2017-18 season: the fact that he averaged a career-high 1.1 blocks per game. The only other point guards out there with a shot at out-swatting Wall? Ben Simmons and maybe Lonzo Ball.
When it comes to free-throw impact, it's not just about having a high percentage. A player also needs to get to the line with a decent amount of frequency. Lillard is the rare point guard who can supplement elite 3-point production (3.1 3PG in 2017-18) with heavy volume in free-throw attempts (7.4 free-throw attempts per game).
When you convert 7.4 attempts per game 91.6 percent of the time -- that player is a free-throw specialist, regardless of his production in other areas.
Think of Williams as Lillard-lite: elite 3s and points, with a secret sauce mainly consisting of free-throw production. He got to the line 6.2 times per game last season while posting an 88.0 FT percentage.
Danilo Gallinari, PF, LA Clippers
Can Gallinari play more than 60 games? He's done it only four times during his injury-marred career. If he can stay relatively ambulatory, he'll have a path to a ton of minutes and plenty of touches in the Clippers' post-Blake Griffin attack.
More touches equal more free-throw attempts. Plus, Gallinari has averaged at least a 88.0 FT percentage three seasons in a row.
Capela led the league in field-goal percentage last season with an emphatic 65.3 FG percentage. He's going to ding your free-throw percentage (56.0 FT percentage), but as long as his free-throw attempts stay south of 4.0 per game, he can't do that much damage.
Factor in his double-digit rebounding, and his pushing 2.0 blocks per game, and Capela qualifies as a triple-threat difference-maker.
Otto Porter Jr., SF, Washington Wizards
Last season's 50.3 FG percentage may not scream "percentage specialist." But remember that Porter is the rare 3-point specialist who keeps his overall percentage north of the 50 percent mark.
When it comes to figuring out which players generate the most value in field-goal percentage, you need to fold in 3-point production. It's about effective field-goal percentage, and Porter is a lock to stay above a 58.0 eFG percentage.
Ben Simmons, PG/PF, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons' lack of an outside shot (or free-throw stroke) is well documented. There are few basketball visuals as patently terrifying as Ben Simmons lining up a corner jumper.
But Simmons makes up for it by taking nearly 50 percent of his shots from 0-3 feet (per Basketball Reference). The result: Despite his issue from distances beyond three feet from the hoop, Simmons still generated a 54.5 eFG percentage, thanks to his savvy shot selection.
When you factor in categorical and positional scarcity, Drummond's value skyrockets. He leads the league in boards. He blocks shots. He boosts your field-goal percentage. He provides atypical production in steals and assists.
But ... those free throws remain a fantasy buzzkill. And while Drummond improved from "all-time worst" at the line to merely "really, really bad," that 60.1 FT percentage continues to kneecap his value.
Whiteside's fantasy valuation has come full circle, from sleeper to overvalued back to sleeper. Lost in all of the injury reports, trade rumors and bad contract stories is the fact that Whiteside is still a guaranteed double-double with considerable upside in blocks and field goal percentage.
Lonzo Ball, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
Think of Ball as Ben Simmons-lite. He's going to give you 75 percent of a triple-double, with great atypical production (6.9 RPG in 2017-18). And unlike Simmons, Ball isn't shy about launching 3-pointers (1.7 3PG). Add in his 0.8 blocks per game (huge for a PG), and you have the makings of an atypical two-category specialist.
Assists aren't quite as top-heavy as blocks. But there is an elite group of three super-producers at the top of the category: Wall, Simmons and Westbrook. If you want to dominate that category, start with one of them.
And while Westbrook regressed in points (25.4 PPG) and 3s last season (1.2 3PG), he remains the best rebounding guard in the NBA by miles (10.3 RPG).
One of many solid middle-round point guards available, Teague delivers top-10 assists potential on a sixth-to-seventh round ADP. And if Jimmy Butler is dealt, expect Teague's APG to nudge the 8.0 per game threshold.
Blake Griffin, PF, Detroit Pistons
Griffin's health remains a perpetual issue, but he meshed well post-trade (despite the dip in rebounds) with Drummond, averaging 19.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and an impressive 6.2 assists across 25 games.
If point forward is Griffin's new role, he'll end 2018-19 as the second-best assists generator among NBA forwards after Simmons.
James Harden, PG/SG, Houston Rockets
I typically try to forget about points per game when drafting. If I draft well across the other categories, the points will be there. If you draft looking for scoring first, you'll end up with at least one "empty points" player.
Distribution of value in points is fairly steady. Think of a long, unimposing bunny slope in valuation across the category. But there is a clear two-man top tier with Harden and Davis. If you're prioritizing scoring punch at No. 1 overall, lock in on Harden.
For a player who could finish top five in points per game, Booker is getting a shocking lack of love in fantasy drafts. Booker has top-20 overall upside, no discernible ceiling, and will also power your squad in free-throw percentage (87.8 FT%) and 3s (2.7 3PG).
Tobias Harris, PF, LA Clippers
Harris was brought in to fill Griffin's role at the deadline and flourished, chipping in 19.3 points and 2.2 3s per game down the stretch. He's had a great offseason and is primed to push 20.0 PPG in 2018-19. Barring a crazy trade (Jimmy Butler?), Harris is one of my favorite mid-round targets.
Of all the categories floating around to corner ... you should target steals last. They're cheap and plentiful: 20 players averaged at least 1.5 thefts per contests.
But if you're charting available production, Oladipo resides in a tier of his own. His 2.4 steals per game obliterated all comers (Paul George, Eric Bledsoe and Butler came in second at 2.0 per game).
Lost in Oladipo's 2017-18 offensive explosion was his just-as-impressive defensive leap. Oladipo doubled his steals from 1.2 SPG to 2.4 SPG. He more than doubled his steals+blocks from 1.5 to 3.2 per game.
I think managers are sleeping on Dunn. All of the roto signs are pointing toward a small breakout for the third-year guard, who is on a rebuilding team with low expectations, has next to no competition at his position and has elite defensive upside.
Dunn's upside is different from that of most other mid-round point guards. He isn't likely to break the bank in points scored, 3s or assists. Expect decent value in those areas. But Dunn is a monster-in-waiting defensively. His steals+blocks average of 2.5 is already elite, and more minutes means more volume in both areas.
Robert Covington, SF, Philadelphia 76ers
Covington would have been too easy to list as a 3-point specialist. That's what he's known for ... the small forward you draft in the later rounds who will knock down at least 2.0 3s per game. But he's also top 15 in steals, making Covington one of the most efficient two-category specialists in Fantasyland.
I was tempted to list Curry here, as he's a one-man tier (4.2 3PG in 2017-18). Then I was tempted to list Harden here -- he's also a one-man tier (3.7 3PG).
I decided to highlight Lowry because it looks like he's getting slightly undervalued in drafts to date. He's currently PG6 off the board, 18th overall and dropping. Entering his age-32 season, Lowry's 3-point production shows no signs of a dropoff. He stayed above 3.0 3s per game last season despite losing more than five minutes per game of court time.
Allen Crabbe, SG/SF, Brooklyn Nets
Don't underestimate the Nets as a source of fantasy value. They won't win a ton of games, but they run a fantasy-friendly system that will dole out tons of statistical opportunity to less-heralded players.
Crabbe is a prime example. He's coming off a quiet career-best campaign: 13.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG ... and 2.7 3PG.
Dario Saric, PF, Philadelphia 76ers
Ignore the reports of Saric getting edged out of fantasy relevancy by Markelle Fultz and Wilson Chandler. He's still a lock for 25.0-plus MPG, on a team starved for 3-point production ... remember, Simmons doesn't shoot 3s, and Fultz's outside shot is a total rebuild.
Other than Covington, Philadelphia will be starved for players who can stretch the floor, and Saric is becoming one of the more underrated stretch-4s in the league.