Fantasy basketball - Why drafting for free throw production makes sense

Nobody is better at getting to the line and cashing in than James Harden. Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

At this point, if you're not gunning for a championship, you're already dreaming about your 2019-20 draft. It's late in the year. Let's get crazy. Let's examine a uniquely geeky way to approach your 2019-20 draft via categorical scarcity.

Because in executing my year-end audit of the Player Rater, I've found a unique wrinkle. When considering categorical scarcity...one category stands out amongst all others.

(No. Not points scored. Drafting around scoring is a sure way to leave your team sadly understocked overall efficiency. Plus, let's face it, prioritizing points is for fantasy Philistines.)

What if there was a way to approach your next draft by prioritizing only one category? Would that make life simpler?

As a draft strategy, we're going to build a draft out of prioritizing just one single Player Rater category.

FT%. Free throw production. Fantasy's scarcest category.

(And remember, within the Player Rater, FT% doesn't just mean pure free throw percentage. FT% also accounts for free throw volume: the number of attempts per game.)

What makes free throw production so scarce? Four reasons.

Reason one: amount of available positive production, Sure, there are other categories that ring up somewhat scarce. (Field goal percentage. Blocks. 3-pointers.)

But in terms of Player Rater points in available production, FT% ranks the lowest of all categories in fantasy. When you add up all of the available points for the top 100 players in FT%, it adds up to just 47.74 points. (To lend perspective, FG% adds up to 66.28 points, while the other categories all add up to well over 100 points.)

Reason two: FT% is one of two categories (along with FG%) where players can turn in a negative value. For every James Harden (4.43 FT% points), there's a Ben Simmons (-4.32). Out of the top 100 players on the Player Rater, 27 of them produce a negative Player Rater value. That means over a quarter of the top 100 players are hurting your team in the category.

And the players that hurt your team's bottom line in FT% are really doing it with gusto. Because the negative producers in FT% don't chart out in a nice, steady decline like the negative producers in FG%. There's a statistical cliff at the bottom end of free throw production. A real 10-man FT% Bermuda Triangle: LeBron, Russell Westbrook, Mason Plumlee, Montrezl Harrell, Rudy Gobert, Andre Drummond, Ben Simmons, Willie Cauley-Stein, Steven Adams, and Hassan Whiteside.

Reason three: top-end scarcity. There's only a small group of players that combine high efficiency with high volume. There are eight Superproducers in FT%: Kawhi Leonard, Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, Lou Williams, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Durant, Damian Lillard and Harden.

Reason four: there's a cross-section of categorical and positional scarcity. Because big men (PF/Cs) tend to really bad in free throw production.

Of the 27 negative FT% producers, 13 of them qualify at center. If you add up the FT% of the 40 center-eligible players in the top 100, their aggregate FT% is -32.99. Only 15 of those center-eligible players produced a positive FT%.

Out of the top 40 centers in fantasy, there are only 12.42 available Player Rater points in positive value. And four centers make up for half of those points: LaMarcus Aldridge (2.27), Karl-Anthony Towns (1.83), Joel Embiid (1.69) and Nikola Jokic (1.59).

So, with all this scarcity in mind, let's map out a winning draft strategy that not only guarantees a win in FT%, but sets you up for success in other categories.

(And we're making this an efficiency-first strategy by not only prioritizing FT%, but FG% as well. I'm doing this by throwing in the rule that any negative score in FG% must be cancelled out by an equal or greater value in 3-point production.)


There are three general directions to go in the first round.

1. Draft James Harden. Whether you're drafting for positional or categorical scarcity, Harden is a one-man tier.

2. Draft one of the rare FT% Superproducers that qualify at PF or C: Towns, Durant or Jokic. You'll get more bang for your FT% buck with Towns or Durant, but Jokic's across-the-board production constitutes a unique fantasy opportunity...especially with the leg up you'll get in assists. (You could also make the argument that the 2019-20 version of Anthony Davis could qualify as a PF/C FT% Superproducer.)

3. Draft one of the other point guard-eligible FT% Superproducers: Lillard or Curry. There's actually a good deal of scarcity at the top end of PGs in FT%.


There are two directions.

1. Draft LaMarcus Aldridge or Joel Embiid. After Towns, Jokic, Aldridge and Embiid (and possibly Davis), the FT% bubble at center bursts. If you go center-center in your first two rounds, you'll be cornering the market in FT% that you'll be able to reinforce at other positions later in the draft.

2. Draft Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker. Either player will provide a reasonable simulation of Lillard or Curry's production. But I'd only recommend going Irving/Walker if you landed Towns, Durant, Jokic or Davis in the first round.


Pick one of four players.

1. Mike Conley. He's the last of the point guards that combine elite FT% with elite assist production.

2. Devin Booker. If he keeps his PG/SG eligibility, he'll basically be James Harden lite. There's also every chance that Booker's late-season scoring binge propels him to second-round consideration.

3. Jimmy Butler. If you feel the need for some statistical diversification across multiple categories, go for Butler.

4. Brook Lopez. With Just Nurkic's injury, there's a good chance Lopez finishes the season in the Player Rater top 20. If Milwaukee returns with this season's rotation intact, there's no reason not to think Lopez won't be worth a third-round pick...especially when employing a FT%-first draft strategy.


Pick one of three players.

1. Danilo Gallinari. Over half of Gallinari's 8.79 Player Rater points are produced within two of fantasy's scarcest categories: FT% and 3PT.

2. Trae Young. If you've waited on PG until now, Young is a great upside pick. But a la Booker, Young's-late season statistical splurge might nudge him up a round.

3. Kevin Love. The last of the center-eligible players capable of giving you at least 1.50 Player Rater points in free throw production.


Jayson Tatum if you want upside, Khris Middleton if you need a SG, Al Horford or Jonas Valanciunas if you need a C.

(After round five, you can start drafting for positional need.)


Lou Williams, Darren Collison, Malcolm Brogdon or Serge Ibaka.


Chris Paul, Jeremy Lamb, J.J. Redick, Bojan Bogdanovic, Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter, Jr., Jamal Murray, or Jaren Jackson Jr.


D.J. Augustin, Reggie Jackson, or Dewayne Dedmon. (Or Jeff Green if he returns to the Wall-less Wizards.)


Danny Green, Terrence Ross, or Tomas Satoransky. (At this point, since you've gone PF/C early, you're probably filling your backcourt and wing positions).


Jordan Clarkson, Evan Fournier, or Justin Holiday.

Wrapping up...here are a couple of realistic examples of lineups using the FT% strategy.

PG: Mike Conley
SG: Khris Middleton
SF: Danilo Gallinari
PF: LaMarcus Aldridge
C: Nikola Jokic
G: Malcom Brogdon
F: Otto Porter, Jr.
UTIL: D.J. Augustin
UTIL: Terrence Ross
UTIL: Justin Holiday

PG: Damian Lillard
SG: Devin Booker
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Kevin Love
C: Joel Embiid
G: Chris Paul
F: Serge Ibaka
UTIL: Dewayne Dedmon
UTIL: Tomas Satoransky
UTIL: Evan Fournier