Fantasy basketball: Eight NBA players who could make or break your season

After a disappointing season by fantasy standards, John Collins is now falling too far in drafts. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

There are many types of risk to be aware of when it comes to evaluating NBA players in fantasy basketball, whether it be a player's age, injury history, role in his team's rotation or perhaps a statistical shortcoming you'll have to build the rest of your team around.

As you put together your fantasy basketball roster, the size and competitiveness of your league will help you determine how many risks you need to be willing to take in to position yourself for a true shot at the championship.

Sure, you can win your fantasy hoops league by having a great draft, making sound start or sit decisions, being proactive on the waiver wire and conducting savvy trades; generally, you'll have to excel at two or more of these to finish on top. The good news is that our staff here at ESPN will provide you with guidance on all these important pillars for the 2021-22 season.

In this column, however, we will focus on the players who can make or break your fantasy basketball team -- players who come with a lot of risk but also a lot of reward.

Note: All average draft positions listed below are as of Oct. 12.

Players who could make your season

Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves

Do you select Towns in the middle of the first round in a points league? Will he meet the lofty expectations of fantasy managers after having burned them the past two seasons? Well, there's no denying the talent. Towns is one of the best centers in the NBA and capable of posting No. 1 overall fantasy numbers. The only question is whether he can stay on the court; last season, he appeared in only 50 of the Timberwolves' 72 games due to a dislocated left wrist and a battle with COVID-19. On a per-game basis, though, he remained phenomenal, providing managers with first-round value when healthy. He averaged 24.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.4 3-pointers, 1.1 blocks and 3.2 turnovers per game on 48.6% shooting from the field and 85.9% from the free throw line. His assists and field goal percentage were career highs. Nevertheless, Towns is the face of the franchise and should continue to have a high usage rate this season; the only centers with a higher usage rate than Towns (28.8) were Nikola Vucevic (29.5), Nikola Jokic (29.9) and Joel Embiid (35.5). If you miss out on Jokic, Towns is a player with a similar ceiling who can be had four to six picks lower in most leagues.

LaMelo Ball, PG, Charlotte Hornets
ADP: 24.9

Can Ball surpass his Rookie of the Year 2020-21 campaign? He has the potential to finish as the top fantasy point guard, which is a long-winded way of saying yes. Ball averaged 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks and 1.8 3-pointers as a rookie, and he also shot an impressive 43.6% from the field and 75.8% from the free throw line. The departure of Devonte' Graham via trade to the Pelicans provides the second-year point guard additional minutes, and all of Ball's per-game averages should rise. He essentially is a late second-round to an early third-round pick who could provide you with first-round value once the dust settles on his second season in the league.

John Collins, PF/C, Atlanta Hawks

Some managers make the mistake of spending too much time looking through the rearview mirror instead of straight ahead. Collins is a great example of a player who should be seen for what he can do going forward. While he didn't deliver on lofty second-round ADP last season and saw decreases in many statistical categories from the previous season, the 24-year-old still averaged a healthy 17.6 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.3 3-pointers in 29.3 minutes per game. Heading into this season, the pendulum has swung in his favor from an ADP perspective, with fantasy managers now overlooking him. Here's one other factor to consider: The Hawks signed Collins to a massive, five-year deal over the offseason, solidifying his starting role in Atlanta. Collins is a middle-round draft pick who is well-positioned to exceed expectations.

Jonas Valanciunas, C, New Orleans Pelicans
ADP: 100.1

Valanciunas is flying under the radar in drafts after being traded to the Pelicans this summer. Now the starting center in New Orleans after achieving career highs in points (17.1), rebounds (12.5), FG% (59.2) and minutes (28.3) in his last season with the Grizzlies, the veteran big man finished as a top-30 option in 2020-21. A move to the Pelicans shakes things up, but Valanciunas could very well be leaned on heavily early this season after the revelation that Zion Williamson underwent offseason surgery to repair a fracture in his right foot and could be slowed at the start of the season. If Williamson has his minutes limited or is rested to allow his foot time to fully recover, Valanciunas has a chance to be an even bigger force.

Players who could break your season

Kevin Durant, SF/PF, Brooklyn Nets
ADP: 8.5

Durant only played in 35 games last season due to a serious hamstring injury but was the No. 8 player in fantasy. This is the conundrum you'll deal with when considering drafting the future Hall of Famer. Durant averaged 26.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks and 2.4 3-pointers per game last season, and the good news is he's fully healthy entering this campaign. With the addition of veterans Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge and James Johnson over the offseason, the biggest risk with Durant is load management. The Nets want to win a championship, and Durant will be a major part of that; but there is always going to be a temptation to give Durant rest throughout the season. Yes, Durant is a statistical dynamo when on the court, but missed games are a lot to absorb for someone who will be off the board in the first round of most fantasy drafts.

Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid's injury history places him on the radar as someone who could break your season. As you probably remember, Embiid missed the entire 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons due to injury. Since then, the 76ers star big man has not exceeded 64 regular-season games played in any campaign. Last season, he was a top-10 player in both eight- and nine-category formats. but Embiid carries a great deal of risk in the late first to early second round considering other centers such as Bam Adebayo and Vucevic possess similar upside without as much risk.

Kyrie Irving, PG/SG, Brooklyn Nets
ADP: 39.0

Last season, Irving was a first-round talent on a per-game basis with averages of 26.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks and 2.8 3-pointers. The problem, as it has been for years now, is Irving's availability -- or lack thereof. He dealt with a plethora of injuries and decided to take a personal leave of absence for a stretch last season, and he won't be able to play this season unless he gets vaccinated; the Nets released a statement on Oct. 12 from general manager Sean Marks indicating the team had decided Irving was not going to have "part-time availability" and that he would be welcomed back once he complied with New York City's vaccine mandate. That's too much to risk an early-round pick on, and it would be prudent to let someone else manage this uncertain situation.

Terry Rozier, SG/PG, Charlotte Hornets

Rozier averaged career highs in points, assists, steals, blocks and 3-pointers during the 2020-21 season, and he'll play alongside Ball as the Hornets' shooting guard. The problem is, at Rozier's current ADP, you are drafting him at his ceiling and not his floor. It's also worth noting that rookie James Bouknight could get more minutes than many anticipated.