It will be fascinating to watch the basketball card market over the next few months. With the start of the NBA regular season right around the corner, the market is already extremely active and prices are on the rise. Today, I’m sharing 12 players who data leads me to believe could have very good seasons both on the court and in the value of their basketball cards.
I’m a big believer in analytics when evaluating any investment decision – and especially those involving sports cards. One data source I’ve always been a fan of is ESPN and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. While they’ve taken heat over their somewhat shaky election predictions, I’ve found their sports data models to be among the most comprehensive available, and I’ve referenced them often in prior shows. Lucky for us, two days ago, FiveThirtyEight released their new player projections for the 2020-21 season.
To come up with my top 12 basketball card investments for this season, I leaned heavily on FiveThirtyEight’s projections and other data points. In fact, my top 12 list is solely data-based. These picks aren’t based on my own opinion at all; rather, I built a formula to score the potential that a player’s card could escalate in price this season. The elements of the formula are as follows:
- FiveThirtyEight’s projected 2020-21 Competition-Adjusted Offensive +/- for each player, to which I raised to the power of 2.75 to create a larger spread favoring the top offensive producers in the game (which is akin to the exponential spread in card prices between top-tier players and second-tier players). You can read more about FiveThirtyEight’s “RAPTOR” projection calculation here and see them here.
- FiveThirtyEight’s projected 5 Year Market Value for each player, which is based on the player’s projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) for the next 5 seasons.
- A youth score, which adds points to younger players based on their age as of the start of this NBA season (often, the hobby values potential over actual results, so I’m giving weight to players early in their career).
- A team score, which adds points to players on the 10 teams most likely to advance to this year’s NBA Finals, according to current Vegas odds.
- A card value score, which is a sliding scale that adds points to players with lower current market values of their most commonly sought after rookie card (for rookies since 2012, their Prizm Base RC PSA 10), thereby exposing potential value.
- A card rarity score, which adds points to players with lower population counts of their key rookie card, meaning they’re more scarce in the market.
I combined these six data points in a large spreadsheet and combined them to create an overall value score for each player. For example, here is a snapshot of this work for notable 2019-20 rookies:
Below I have listed the players this formula determined were the best investment values for 2020-21. No formula is perfect, and it remains to be see how this formula will perform this year, so naturally there is risk associated with these (or any) card picks. I do feel confident that this formula takes into account several factors that can influence card prices, so I’m hopeful these picks will look pretty good as the season progresses.
Before you read the selections, let me provide some more important context:
You are not going to see players like Lebron, Durant, Anthony Davis, or Steph Curry on this list. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good investments — to the contrary, extremely well established players such as them are often the best long-term investments. If you want to park your money somewhere that feels safe and watch it appreciate over the next 10-20 years, Lebron, KD, AD, and Steph would be among the best players to look at (as would be retired Hall of Famers). However, I don’t expect players like Lebron, KD, AD, and Steph to have a large increase in value this season that would outpace the less established players on the list below. While investing in younger players is riskier, it also offers the possibility of more short-term profit if you may the right picks.
I divided the results into a few categories so comparable players were grouped together. I’ve also included helpful links to eBay listings for each of the cards below, as well as the most recent eBay sale price for every card referenced. We get an affiliate commission if you shop through these links, which is a great way you can help support our show.
Without further ado, here are the picks:
Best Emerging Stars to Invest In
4. Jayson Tatum
A strong projected offensive +/- for the upcoming season (3.6), coupled with playing for a contender and being only 22 years old (the youngest of the stars in his 2017 draft class) puts Tatum as one of our best emerging stars to invest in now.
3. De’Aaron Fox
Fox’s 2020-21 projections aren’t as good as Tatum’s, but his cards are roughly 1/3rd of the price. As such, despite the recent big contract and associated hype, Fox’s cards are still a very good value according to our data.
2. Luka Doncic
Luka has the best projected wins over replacement (WAR) for the next 5 years of any player from the last 10 rookie classes. Luka’s projected offensive +/- is an outstanding 6.9 (3rd in the league), his team is a contender, and he’s only 21.
1. Trae Young
If you watch my show, you know I own a big Trae Young collection, but that has nothing to do with why he’s in my number one spot. The data loves Trae Young; FiveThirtyEight projects his offensive +/- as 7.2 for this upcoming season, second in the league only behind James Harden. Although his card prices have gone up considerably this offseason, they are still just a fraction of Luka’s prices, and my formula believes there is still real value to be had with Trae.
Best Value Investment Picks
I’m defining a value pick as player whose Base Prizm Rookie Card in raw condition is regularly available for $50 or less.
3. Keldon Johnson
He’ll miss the start of the season with a left foot injury, which may be why his card prices have dipped lately, but that makes them an even better value. Johnson played only 17 games in his rookie season, but averaged 9.1 points per game with 59.6 percent field goal shooting. My formula thinks he’ll make a sophomore leap this year, and his cards are available for less than any other player in this list.
Average Last Sale of This Card: $98.00 (12/16/2020)
Average Last Sale of This Card: $435.00 (12/15/2020)
2. Lonzo Ball
You may chuckle, because if you’ve watched my show for a while, you know I’ve been beating the Lonzo Ball drum for the last year. It has become a running joke with the many non-Lonzo-believers in my audience. He’s listed here, though, not because of my opinion, but because of the data. FiveThirtyEight gives Lonzo a higher projected WAR for the next 5 years than his draft class counterparts Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo, and De’Aaron Fox. Those are excellent players to be ranked above. Given how much lower Lonzo’s card prices are than that trio, my formula really likes him as a value buy.
1. Devonte Graham
He was a hot name in the hobby last season as his points per game jumped from 4.7 his rookie year to 18.2 his sophomore year. FiveThirtyEight’s data indicates further improvement is likely, and he could build towards becoming one of the better scorers in the league. For someone with that potential, my formula shows his cards are still a real value right now.
Best Second Year Player to Invest In
He was the breakout rookie star in the bubble, so he’s not going to sneak up and surprise anyone anymore. But the fact he had that bubble experience provides a great building block for his sophomore campaign. FiveThirtyEight’s projections expect Herro to make another leap this season, and the fact he’s on a contending team and his cards are significantly less than Ja and Zion’s cards make him the best investment option within his draft class.
Classically Undervalued Established Stars
If you want to invest in players who are more established but still with considerable upside, this is your list. My formula flags these four players as significantly undervalued based on their current card prices and career accomplishments. With much more ball out ahead of them, at some point the hobby may begin to recognize their greatness and their cards could escalate to the appropriate price levels.
4. James Harden
FiveThirtyEight has Harden as #1 in projected offensive +/- and #1 projected WAR. A trade to a contender should give his card prices a boost as well. Also of note, his rookie cards are extremely rare. Population counts of 2009 basketball cards are shocking low.
3. Karl Anthony-Towns
He might not be stuck in Minnesota forever, and he’s a stat monster with strong future projections. It’s incredible to think that his rookie cards are less expensive than Jaylen Brown’s. I like Brown, but KAT’s statistics are magnitudes better.
2. Joel Embiid
His prices have been hampered by the drama and team underperformance in Philadelphia, but statistically he’s a machine. The 76ers could also be much improved this season, and now they have better leadership in place to make moves to build around Embiid.
1. Nikola Jokic
The Joker is a true force: He’s top 10 in the league in projected offensive +/-, he has a great WAR, and he’s on a real up-and-coming contender. But, his rookie cards cost less than Zach Lavine’s?!? Come on now, that’s disrespect. The Joker deserves better and hopefully the hobby will soon realize how undervalued his cards are.
Who do you like on this list, and who don’t you like? Let us know in the Comments below. And, make sure to check out Market Movers — the absolute best way to track your sports card investments and find the best deals!