Every year, there are players who settle into new roles and exceed expectations in fantasy basketball leagues. These types of players, whether they’re unproven youngsters or veterans with red flags like injury or playing time concerns, can often fall through the cracks in the rankings but perform well above their average draft positions. If you draft one of these guys — be it a solid player who becomes an upper-tier star or a true late-round sleeper — they’ll be considered major draft steals, which is why you need a solid list for your 2021 cheat sheet.
Below, we break down our 10 favorite draft-day steals for 2021. Again, many of these players are already on fantasy owners’ radars, but we still think they can vastly outperform their ADPs.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: 2021 fantasy basketball cheat sheet
For more undervalued players, check out our list of one sleeper pick for every team.
Fantasy Basketball Breakout Sleepers 2021: 10 potential draft steals
OG Anunoby, SF, Toronto Raptors
Last season could have been considered a breakout fantasy year for Anunoby, but the 24-year-old wing can take things up another notch. His 15.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, and 2.4 threes per game all marked career highs, and he also shot a career-best 78.4 percent from the free throw line, which helps his fantasy stock, as well.
With star forward Pascal Siakam expected to miss the start of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Anunoby will likely play a bigger role in the Raptors’ offence to begin the year. We saw developments in his offensive game last year and he is one of the most versatile defenders in the game, sure to continue to rack up steals and blocks. Don’t be afraid to reach for Anunoby in your fantasy drafts, because the best is still yet to come.
Lonzo Ball, PG, Chicago Bulls
A new situation might be best for Ball to reach his full potential, and he’ll have that opportunity playing alongside three stars in Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, and DeMar DeRozan. Playmaking duties may get divided because of LaVine and DeRozan’s developed passing, but Ball should still be the lead orchestrator, getting back closer to the 7.0 assists per game we saw him average in 2019-’20. The Bulls’ lack of frontcourt depth makes me think Ball will rack up more rebounds than last season (a career-low 4.8 RPG), and his scoring average (14.6 PPG) should remain close to the same.
Playing alongside talented scorers, it will be interesting to see if Ball can knock down over three three-pointers a game again this season, but regardless, he should be set for a breakout year in a new environment.
Darius Bazley, PF, Oklahoma City Thunder
Competing for a rebuilding Thunder squad, last year had the makings of being a breakout fantasy year for Bazley. The then-20-year-old PF was solid in 55 games, averaging 13.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 0.5 steals and blocks per game, but he shot inefficiently and a shoulder injury disrupted any momentum.
We’re doubling down on a Bazley breakout year this season because the situation hasn’t changed all that much in Oklahoma City. He should thrive playing alongside the emergence of star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and rookie guard Josh Giddey makes everyone around him better. Playing time will be readily available for Bazley as the starting power forward, meaning he’ll have plenty of opportunities to put up numbers.
Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Charlotte Hornets
You could certainly qualify last year as a breakout fantasy season for Bridges, but he didn’t really ramp things up until after the All-Star break. From the start of April through the end of the season, Bridges morphed into a different animal, averaging 19.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 blocks, and 0.8 steals per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the field. He also knocked down 3.0 threes per game at an impressive 43.5 percent clip and found a groove at the charity stripe, making 83.9 percent of his free throws.
Bridges was a late-season gem for fantasy teams, helping make a push to the playoffs and beyond. It will be interesting to see how his numbers are affected by the return of Gordon Hayward, but after seeing production like that down the stretch combined with Hayward’s injury history, it’s worth taking a swing on Bridges in the middle rounds of your draft.
Luguentz Dort, SG/SF, Oklahoma City Thunder
Dort was another late bloomer in fantasy basketball last season, even playing through rest days due to the Thunder’s placement at the bottom of the standings. He appeared in just 17 games after the All-Star break, but he had a handful of very impressive stat lines, including a career-high 42-point game to go with seven rebounds, four steals, three assists, and seven threes against the first-place Jazz. He had five games with 20 or more points during that stretch, taking on a larger role within Oklahoma City’s offense despite being known as a defensive specialist.
The Thunder are expected to continue their rebuilding stage this season, so Dort should see similar opportunities on the offensive end, where he will prove to be a must-roster fantasy player.
Kenyon Martin Jr., SF, Houston Rockets
Martin had his moments as a fantasy streaming star last season, and don’t be surprised if he takes over a starting role in Houston, giving him the opportunity to perform on a full-time basis. The 20-year-old forward’s per-36 numbers from last year jump off the page (14.1 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.0 steals per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field). The playing time wasn’t always there, but when he got the chance, he produced.
The Rockets will be in full rebuild mode this season, so their younger players should see the bulk of the playing time. Martin will be a beneficiary of that, so he’s worth taking in the mid-to-late rounds of your fantasy draft as a low-risk, high-reward pick.
Dejounte Murray, PG, San Antonio Spurs
Murray is popular breakout pick for this upcoming season. Last year, we got a taste of what Murray could become as one of the best young guards in the NBA. He averaged 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.4 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, finishing as a top-50 fantasy player. With DeMar DeRozan now in Chicago, every share of the Spurs’ playmaking duties will be turned over to Murray, where he should thrive as the lead floor general.
Murray is a player that is worth taking even earlier than the middle rounds. Give him a look as early as the fourth or fifth round, just after that top tier of fantasy players are off the board.
Larry Nance Jr., PF/C, Portland Trail Blazers
Nance was already a very solid fantasy player last season, posting balanced averages of 9.3 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. He dealt with some injuries that limited him to just 35 games, but for a solid portion of the season, Nance was the league leader in steals per game. In being traded to the Trail Blazers, Nance will be utilized even more because of how badly Portland could use his defensive prowess and versatility. Playing time should be easy to come by on a roster that is thin with depth, so if Nance can stay healthy, he’ll surely be an asset for your fantasy team.
Give him a look in the middle rounds of your draft.
Michael Porter Jr., SF, Denver Nuggets
Porter was certainly a breakout player last year, but the potential for bigger and better things are still there. Coming off of a season where he averaged 19.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.9 blocks, and 0.7 steals per game while shooting at jaw-dropping efficiency of 54.2 percent from the field and 44.5 percent from deep, the 23-year-old forward is hitting his stride. The Nuggets will be without star guard Jamal Murray for a portion of the season while he recovers from a torn ACL, so Porter should remain the No. 2 option on offense behind reigning MVP Nikola Jokic.
He’s worth reaching for in your draft because of that, so start looking for his name as early as the fourth round.
Isaiah Stewart, C, Detroit Pistons
Stewart’s rookie season started out slow in a crowded frontcourt, but when he received more playing time toward the end of the season, he started to shine. Over the final 15 games of the season, he averaged 12.0 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game, notching four double-doubles in the process. All of those double-doubles were big performances, to, as he went for 15 points and 21 boards against the Thunder, 19 points and 12 boards against the Wizards, 18 points and 16 rebounds against the Cavaliers, and 20 points and 10 rebounds against the Mavericks.
Stewart will take over starting center duties in Detroit this year, so he’ll without a doubt be worth a mid-round draft pick.