2017 Fantasy Basketball Draft Prep: Kawhi Leonard our long shot bet for MVP, while Lonzo Ball figures to take home Rookie of the Year

Many awards in the NBA are decided well before the end of the season, but last year was an exception.

Not only was the MVP race one of the closest in voting history, but the Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award races were extremely competitive as well.

These awards often aren't so much about the players, as much as they are about the roles in which they find themselves. That's especially evident when it comes to Fantasy, as the overall best player isn't always the best Fantasy player. With that in mind, let's take a look at the frontrunners for each major NBA award and predict a winner with an emphasis on Fantasy production.

Most Valuable Player

Last season's MVP race was one of the closest in recent memory. The fact that Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the entire season shows just how incredible Harden's MVP campaign was, with both players having historically great all-around years. What makes this upcoming MVP race especially intriguing is the fact that many of these superstars are now playing together. That's represented in the Vegas odds, as there are six players with odds at 10-to-1 or lower.

Here's a quick look at Bovada's most recent MVP lines:

  • Kawhi Leonard +350
  • LeBron James +450
  • Kevin Durant +550
  • Russell Westbrook +600
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo +1000
  • James Harden +1000
  • Stephen Curry +1200
  • Kyrie Irving +1200

Some may think it's bizarre Leonard is the favorite, but consider the fact that all the other candidates have teammates who are perennial All-Stars, aside from Antetokounmpo. Westbrook has Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; Harden has Chris Paul; LeBron James has Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas; and the Warriors are the Warriors.

Not only is Leonard one of the three best defenders in the NBA, but he's developed into one of the best offensive players, as well. Leonard ramped up his efficiency last season, shooting 49 percent from the field, 38 percent from three-point range and 88 percent from the free-throw line.

If the Spurs win enough games and he can duplicate those numbers in addition to playing his top-notch defense, Leonard will win the MVP. His ability to stuff the stat sheet while maintaining elite efficiency is what makes him most valuable for Fantasy -- there's no other player in the world who does what Leonard does across the roto format.

Rookie of the Year

Last season's Rookie of the Year race was one of the least-compeling in recent memory, but a strong 2017 draft class -- plus the presence of the 2016 No. 1 pick -- should make this year's version much more interesting. According to Bovada, Lonzo Ball is the favorite:

  • Lonzo Ball +225
  • Dennis Smith, Jr. +300
  • Ben Simmons +500
  • Jayson Tatum +500
  • Markelle Fultz +800
  • De'Aaron Fox +1200
  • Malik Monk +1800
  • Josh Jackson +2000

Rookie of the Year is all about accruing stats and holding a significant role for most, or all, of the season. With that in mind, we're going to use process of elimination to pick a winner. The two Sixers are going to have a tough time winning, simply because they cancel one another out with such a young and talented surrounding core.

Tatum at +500 is a bit of a head-scratcher. Even after the Celtics parted ways with Jae Crowder, Tatum is going to a bench player with little chance of challenging Jaylen Brown or Gordon Hayward for increased minutes.

That leaves us Ball, Smith and Fox as the top candidates. While Smith is in a perfect situation to rack up numbers for what should be a non-playoff team but not a bad team, I have to go chalk and pick Ball.

In Los Angeles, Ball will immediatley be handed the keys to the offense with little competition for minutes at point guard. Though his scoring numbers may not be overly impressive, assists should come easily, and Ball has always rebounded well for his position. Perhaps most importantly, he'll have the spotlight on him at all times.

Sixth Man of the Year

This is always one of the trickier awards to predict, but I'm going with last year's runner-up: Lou Williams. Coming over to Los Angeles from Houston, Williams will be arguably the Clippers' best pure scorer and should reprise his role as the primary option on the second unit.

Before being traded, the 30-year-old averaged 18.6 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting in 58 games for the Lakers last season. Had he stayed with the Lakers, there's a good chance he'd be seeking his second straight Sixth Man of the Year award.

Defensive Player of the Year

Defensive Player of the Year was a three-man race last season and it's going to be the same three competing for it again this year. Out of the 900 points available for the award last season, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard combined for 885 of them.

Green ended up capturing the award, with Gobert as the runner-up and Leonard finishing third.

This season, my money is on Gobert. His 2.6 blocks per game in 2016-17 led the league, and he also tied for the league lead with a defensive rating of 98.9. In addition, Gobert topped the NBA in defensive win shares and defensive real plus-minus.

The Jazz will have to adjust after losing Gordon Hayward and George Hill in free agency, but that could mean more responsibility for Gobert on both ends, and the 25-year-old has demonstrated tangible improvement in each of his four NBA seasons.

Most Improved Player

"Most Improved Player" is a bit of a misnomer, as the award typically goes not to the player who improved most throughout the season, but to the player whose numbers jumped most dramatically from one year to the next.

A few players who could meet that criteria if a few things break right: Kris Dunn, D'Angelo Russell, Myles Turner, Buddy Hield and Thon Maker. Usually, these players come from winning teams, but there's reason to believe Russell is the favorite for this award. While he won't be handed the starting job, Russell should eventually be running the show for the Nets, who ran the league's fastest-paced offenses last season.

Russell's per-36 minute averages with the Lakers came to 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game in 2016-17. Whether those numbers are replicable remains to be seen, but Russell should be in a much more favorable situation with a team that will prioritize his development. 

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