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Benedetto Blog: Leonard's time to make leap

October 16, 2017 Updated: October 19, 2017 at 12:14 pm
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photo - FILE - In this May 9, 2017, file photo, San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard (2) waits during a timeout in the first half in Game 5 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets in San Antonio. Leonard will miss the entire preseason because of a thigh injury.(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
FILE - In this May 9, 2017, file photo, San Antonio Spurs' Kawhi Leonard (2) waits during a timeout in the first half in Game 5 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets in San Antonio. Leonard will miss the entire preseason because of a thigh injury.(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File) 

Now that the preseason is wrapped up, most everything should be set in stone to start the 2017-18 NBA regular season.

With that comes the time for predictions. Here’s who I think takes home the NBA awards at the end of the season. I’ll save a Finals prediction for after the trade deadline.

Executive of the Year: This is one of the most difficult to predict since there’s bound to be moves still to be made. As it sits now, my pick is Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti. Bringing in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony and signing Russell Westbrook to an extension is a heck of an offseason. That’s tough to beat for now.

Rookie of the Year: As talented and deep as the 2017 draft looks to be, I’m going with the top pick from the year before, Ben Simmons. Although he missed the entirety of last year, he still has a head start on the 2017 class, not that he needs it with his size and vision. The only thing that could get in his way is another injury or the 76ers’ process takes another year to get going. If I had to pick someone from the most recent draft, it’s Dallas guard Dennis Smith Jr.

Sixth Man of the Year

There are a lot of well-established sixth men like Jamal Crawford, Andre Iguodala and Lou Williams, but I’m going with a new member of the bench mob, Cleveland’s J.R. Smith. Shooters shoot, and Smith is just that. With Dwyane Wade moving into the starting lineup, Smith will become the Cavaliers’ top scorer on the second unit. Smith, who has improved his defense in Cleveland, hasn’t met a shot he doesn’t like or a shot he can’t make. His minutes might dip, but I expect him to be a bigger part of the offense while he’s on the floor.

Most Improved Player

Gordon Hayward’s decision to leave Utah for Boston should open up enough extra shots for Rodney Hood to take a big step forward this season. He’s steadily increased his scoring average from 14.7 points per game as a rookie to 16.9 last year while losing some time to injury. Teaming with passing extraordinaire Ricky Rubio should ensure Hood will have no shortages of opportunities to push that scoring average north of 20 points per game in his fourth year in the league.

Coach of the Year

After leading Minnesota to 31 wins a year ago, expect Tom Thibodeau and the Timberwolves to take a big step forward in his second season. Thibodeau knows Jimmy Butler well and should have enough depth to make a 15- go 20-win improvement this season. Other options include Jason Kidd, who could lead the Bucks to a similar rise, and Boston’s Brad Stevens, who probably gets the nod if he can lead the new-look Celtics to the finals.

Defensive Player of the Year

Since Kevin Durant joined the squad, all the Warriors need Draymond Green to do is defend, and that’s where he’s at his best. He won the award last year, and should have no problem repeating. This seems like one of the safer picks. Rudy Gobert is another popular pick, but if I’m going with someone other than Green, it’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Most Valuable Player

It’s Kawhi Leonard’s time to take another step forward and cement his status as the league’s best two-way player, as long as his quad injury doesn’t become a bigger problem. Leonard likely won’t say as much, but I believe his exit from last year’s playoffs with an injury has eaten at him since.

Last year, we saw Steph Curry and Kevin Durant hurt each other’s chances at the award. This year, I think we see the same thing with George and Anthony bringing Westbrook’s numbers down a bit, while James Harden has his campaign hindered by Chris Paul’s arrival.

If you want to take more of a flier, you could do worse than Washington’s John Wall - another great two-way player - or Anthony Davis, provided he plays for most of the season.

Best hooper/rapper combination

Since the days of Shaquille O’Neal and Master P, basketball players have wanted to be rappers, and rappers have dreamed of being hoopers. I guess that means everyone wants to be Damian Lillard. He released a full-length album “Confirmed” under his rap pseudonym Dame D.O.L.L.A. It’s quite a bit better than I expected. Honorable mention to Iman Shumpert.

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