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By Mike Barner, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
With most teams having reached the halfway point in their regular-season schedules, it’s a good time to take a step back and hand out some fantasy basketball awards. Let’s examine some stellar starts, as well as some disappointing ones, while also discussing what to expect from these players over the second half.
Note: These awards were handed out based on performance in nine-category roto leagues.
Most Valuable Fantasy Player: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic was the consensus top overall pick heading into draft season and he hasn’t disappointed. He’s having another magical campaign, putting up 25.7 points, 14.1 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.5 three-pointers per game. The reigning real-life MVP has remained efficient by shooting 56.3 percent from the field, although his 77.2 percent shooting from the charity stripe would be the lowest mark of his career. That number has been on the rise, however, as he’s shooting 82.1 percent at the line over his last 15 games.
Another mark in Jokic’s favor is that he’s averaged 33 minutes while missing only five games in a year when big names are going down left and right. With Michael Porter Jr. (back) not coming back and Jamal Murray’s (knee) return still a ways away, Jokic should continue to provide monster stats during the second half.
Honorable Mention: LeBron James
Most Improved Fantasy Player: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Big things were expected from Morant last season but he couldn’t deliver, posting modest averages of 19.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists and 1.2 three-pointers per game. He also shot 44.9 percent from the field and 72.8 percent from the free-throw line, dealing a significant blow to his value in nine-category leagues.
It appears that Morant’s breakout was only delayed by one season. He’s currently ranked 32nd in nine-category leagues, thanks in large part to him averaging 24.9 points per game and shooting 48.9 percent from the field. His usage rate has increased to 31.9 percent, which is nearly five percentage points higher than last season.
Morant’s improved averages of 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.6 three-pointers per game more than make up for his modest decline in assists, which is still excellent at an average of 6.7 per game. His role isn’t going to change anytime soon, so as long as he maintains this level of efficiency and stays healthy, he could help take plenty of fantasy managers to the promised land.
Honorable Mentions: Dejounte Murray, Darius Garland
Fantasy Rookie of the Year: Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
With the No. 3 overall pick, the Cavaliers decided to go big, selecting Mobley out of USC to pair with Jarrett Allen. They wasted no time not only making him a starter ahead of Kevin Love but also playing the rookie significant minutes. In fact, Mobley is tied with Darius Garland for the team-high at 34.0 minutes per game.
Mobley has the makings of a fantasy unicorn. He’s the rare defensive star who’s also a good passer, which has helped him produce valuable all-around averages of 14.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game. He needs to improve his three-point shooting to complete his stat profile. But if he does, he could move into top-30 fantasy territory for years to come.
Honorable Mentions: Scottie Barnes, Cade Cunningham
Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
This was the toughest award to hand out, but I ultimately decided that it had to go to Turner. His shot-blocking prowess is so significant that, if you select him, you can largely ignore the category for the rest of your draft. His production is down a bit from last season, but it’s difficult to complain about a guy who is averaging a league-leading 2.9 blocks per game. He is one of only six players to post at least 2.0 blocks per game — the next-closest player behind him is Rudy Gobert at 2.3 rejections per game.
With that being said, both Turner and Gobert better watch their backs. Robert Williams is quickly making a case for being a dominant defensive force in fantasy with his averages of 2.2 blocks and 0.9 steals per game. Turner offers some value in steals (0.6 SPG), but his figure is down from 0.9 per game in 2020-21.
Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gobert, Robert Williams, Jaren Jackson Jr., Lonzo Ball
Biggest Fantasy Surprise: Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks
Portis was a key bench player for the Bucks last season but he only averaged 21 minutes per game, which kept him on the fringes of most fantasy leagues. He was slated for a reserve role again this season, but things quickly changed when Brook Lopez went down with a back injury on Opening Night. Lopez hasn’t taken the floor since, and he remains out indefinitely after undergoing surgery in early December.
Portis has taken Lopez’s place in the starting five and is now averaging a career-high 28 minutes per game. He hasn’t let his opportunity go to waste, posting 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game while shooting 48.1 percent from the field and 78.9 percent from the charity stripe.
Lopez played a key role in helping stretch the floor for the Bucks’ offense, and Portis has also stepped up in that regard, draining 1.9 three-pointers per game at a 42.8 percent clip. With Lopez unlikely to return anytime soon, Portis should continue to roll along as one of the year’s best value pickups. On the year, Portis is a top-55 player in 9-cat, per-game value.
Honorable Mentions: Desmond Bane, Alex Caruso
Biggest Fantasy Disappointment: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard grabs this dubious award for two reasons. First, even when he has been healthy, he hasn’t lived up to past performance levels. He’s only shooting 40.2 percent from the field, which comes on the heels of three straight seasons in which he shot at least 44.4 percent. His biggest issues have come from behind the arc, where he’s hit only 32.4 percent of his attempts. That has left him to average just 24.0 points per game, which would be his lowest mark since the 2014-15 season.
The second reason for Lillard being a disappointment is his abdomen injury, which is likely the root cause of his shooting struggles. He’s not going to travel with the team on its upcoming six-game road trip, and there is no concrete news that he will even be ready to return when the Blazers get back to Portland.
The Trail Blazers are barely staying afloat in the playoff hunt, posting a 16-24 record that currently has them sitting in 10th place in the Western Conference. If they continue to careen down the standings during the road trip, there’s a real possibility that Lillard could end up being shut down for an extended period — or even the remainder of what’s looking like a lost season. Lillard was comfortably going in the first round of most fantasy drafts, so it’s been a true nightmare scenario for managers.
Honorable Mentions: De’Aaron Fox, Julius Randle