Fantasy basketball's riskiest draft picks in first two rounds

Bradley Beal finished second in the NBA in scoring last season but enters 2021-22 with question marks. EPA/CJ GUNTHER

Nail the first two picks in your fantasy basketball draft and everything has a much easier chance of falling into place. Miss on one or both of the selections, and it's more than likely going to be a long season.

With a tremendous amount of talent and depth in the first two rounds again this season, fantasy managers can afford to be choosy; it's actually possible to play it safe and build around a core of talented players who also possess major upside.

All it takes is passing on the players who can ruin your season and opting instead for the ones with better chances of staying healthy and logging heavy minutes and high usage rates.

Here are the riskiest players -- the ones to avoid or at least think twice about before selecting -- with an average draft position (ADP) inside the top 25 in ESPN Fantasy leagues.

Note: All ADPs are as of Sept. 30.

Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Brooklyn Nets
ADP: 8.0

As incredible as KD is when he's on the court, the consistent threat of injury and load management is sure to give fantasy managers heartburn all season long. Durant played in only 35 games last season due to a serious hamstring injury that derailed most of his February and March, and though he put up 26.9 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 5.6 APG, 0.7 SPG, 1.3 BPG and 2.4 3PG, he isn't far removed from the torn Achilles that cost him the entire 2019-2020 season.

Ultimately, the Nets want to win an NBA championship, and keeping Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden healthy is the team's top priority. If you select Durant you have to be comfortable with DNPs, especially when the Nets have back-to-back games, and that's a lot to ask when you consider it will require a first-round pick to land him.

Bradley Beal, SG, Washington Wizards
ADP: 9.4

Beal is "still considering getting the vaccine," but if he ever tests positive for COVID-19 it could result in a multiweek absence. This is a risk you must factor into your draft process considering Beal's lofty ADP. He is coming off of one of the best seasons of his career, setting a career high with 31.3 PPG after going for 30.5 PPG in 2019-20. He also set new personal bests with a 48.5 FG% and 88.9 FT%. On top of that, the only other players who had a higher usage rate than Beal (39.4%) were Luka Doncic (43.4), Trae Young (40.4) and Joel Embiid (39.4).

LeBron James, PG/SF/PF, Los Angeles Lakers
ADP: 11.7

James carries more risk than you might think at his current ADP. First, he's entering his age 37 season. This could result in more DNPs as the Lakers continue their pursuit for another championship. Health is a big concern at this stage of James' career; he was active in only 45 games last season and, while his 38.6 usage rate ranked No. 9 in the league, his productivity (25.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 7.8 APG, 1.1 SPG, 0.6 BPG and 2.3 3PG) was a far cry from his peak.

Just as worrisome, the addition of a ball-dominant star in Russell Westbrook limits James' fantasy upside. Westbrook's 38.7 usage rate was even higher than James' last season, when Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson's long-standing record for the most career triple-doubles (181) in NBA history. Westbrook enters the season with 184 triple-doubles to his name, and his presence added to a Lakers lineup that already includes Anthony Davis can only cut into James' usage.

James is likely to be overdrafted in fantasy leagues due to his name recognition alone, but my recommendation is to prioritize other players in that similar range, such as Jayson Tatum (10.8. ADP) or Trae Young (15.8 ADP).

Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
ADP: 13.6

Embiid has never played in more than 64 regular-season games in any of his five NBA seasons. That constant threat of him missing time, as well as Andre Drummond joining the 76ers' rotation, are cause for concern. Another major factor is the uncertainty surrounding Ben Simmons' status with the team. If the star point guard sits out the season or is traded away, it would have a direct impact on Embiid, who depends on Simmons to get good looks.

If you are feeling skittish about Embiid, I do have an alternative for you. Another center with a similar ADP to Embiid is Nikola Vucevic. He was the third-best big in fantasy last year on a per-game basis behind Nikola Jokic and Embiid, and the Bulls are light at center, which bodes well for Vucevic's outlook.

Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
ADP: 14.8

Williamson's offseason surgery to repair a fractured foot is a legitimate concern. Yes, the Pelicans are optimistic that he'll be good to go for the start of the regular season, but Williamson missed 11 games last season after appearing in only 24 as a rookie in 2019-20. You should take their optimism with a grain of salt. Foot injuries are never good for power forwards, especially someone the size of Zion. It's one of the most physical positions on the court that relies heavily on rebounding, posting up, shot-blocking and jump shots.

Even if Williamson is available at the start of the season, minutes limitations and rest days are likely to become headaches that fantasy managers must deal with throughout the season. He's the epitome of a risk-reward player, especially when you remember what Williamson accomplished statistically last season. He set per-game career-highs in multiple statistical areas, including points (27.0), rebounds (7.2) and assists (3.7).

Others outside the Top 25

Kyrie Irving, PG/SG, Brooklyn Nets
ADP: 33.8

Irving is one of the most notable players who has not been vaccinated against COVID-19. This comes after he played in only 54 games last season, including a stretch from Jan. 5 to Jan. 20 when he was out due to personal reasons. Irving flirted with first-round value on a per-game basis when he was active, but the constant threat of DNPs creates headaches for fantasy managers.

Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, Dallas Mavericks
ADP: 66.0

Porzingis has been extremely productive when on the court, but he played in only 43 games last season, again missing a ton of games while dealing with a multitude of injuries, including ankle, knee, wrist and back ailments. Since the beginning of the 2017-2018 season, he has missed an entire season due to a torn ACL and appeared in fewer than 50 games twice. Porzingis' durability is a risk you must fully embrace whenever you draft him.

He reportedly wanted to be traded from the Mavericks before the team hired head coach Jason Kidd. Kidd has publicly stated that he's focused on "getting KP back to what he did in New York," but coachspeak does not always come to fruition. It might be prudent to pass on Porzingis in drafts if uncertainty makes you uncomfortable.

Other COVID-19 concerns

Andrew Wiggins, SG/SF, Golden State Warriors
ADP: 78.6

Wiggins' request for a religious exemption from the league's COVID-19 vaccination requirements was denied. Per San Francisco's policies, he'll have until Oct. 13 to be fully vaccinated. If Wiggins doesn't comply, he'll be inactive for all of the Warriors' home games. This must be considered when drafting the former No. 1 overall pick, who averaged 18.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.0 BPG and 2.0 3PG in his first season with the Warriors.

Jonathan Isaac, SP/PF, Orlando Magic
ADP: 86.4

Isaac has said publicly that he won't get vaccinated for COVID-19, and it might be prudent to let others in your league take on the risk of drafting him. He didn't play at all last season due to ACL and meniscus tears in his left knee, and has appeared in only 136 of a possible 309 regular-season games in his career. As a reminder, he averaged 12.0 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, and 2.3 BPG in his most recent season.