Each year we see players take their game to new levels. Some of these guys were chosen at the top of the draft and are starting to fully reach their potential, while others have come out of nowhere to take leaps that many didn’t see coming.
The NBA awards one player each season with their league’s Most Improved Player Award. Many of these past recipients have flourished after receiving this award, continuing to make leaps into the upper tier of NBA talent. Names include Giannis Antetokounmpo, CJ McCollum, and last year’s winner Pascal Siakam.
For the sake of this article, I have decided to omit three players from the discussion. The main argument that is made when this award is announced, is that players taken high in the draft should not be rewarded for being the players that they were drafted to be. Though I agree with that statement, I also find that it isn’t fair to every player under certain circumstances. Some top picks struggle on the team that they were drafted to, and it takes a change of scenery or coach to put them in a position to unlock their potential. In this case, making that leap is improving their game as well as their numbers, which should warrant them to be considered for this award.
That being said, I will not include Luka Doncic, Trae Young, or Pascal Siakam in this discussion. The leap that Doncic and Young have taken from year one to year two has been unprecedented, but after their rookie seasons, we had some sort of idea to expect this. Though no one could have predicted exactly this, I think that these two guys have other awards on their minds. As for Siakam, he has been awarded already. We knew he had put in an immense amount of work to get to where he is as a player, and he deservingly took home the MIP last year. Now, he’s doing what every NBA player does, and that is getting better each year.
Though some players that you will see on this list were high draft picks and can be argued as similar situations as Luka and Trae, I feel I have used my discretion to decide which type of players have made substantial jumps in their games to be considered for this award. With that said, here is my top five Most Improved Player latter as we near the All-Star Break.
Last season on the Lakers we saw flashes of what Ingram could do when he had the ball in his hands, running the offense at times during LeBron’s absence. After being included in the Anthony Davis deal, Ingram has been taking off since touching down in NOLA. Last season the swingman from Duke averaged 18.3 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 0.6 BPG, and 0.5 SPG. This season, we have seen a potential All-Star. Ingram is up to 25 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 4.3 APG, 0.8 BPG, and 0.9 SPG. Ingram has finally been giving the keys and has been put in a role by Alvin Gentry to create his own offense. We have seen games where Ingram has been able to take over in the 4th and lead the Pelicans to big wins. Ingram’s staple game so far this season was when he went off for 49 points, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists in an OT win against the Jazz on January 16th. With the addition of Zion Williamson, the Pelicans are going to be able to make a bid for the playoffs and continue to get better with age.
Adebayo has developed into one of the most versatile bigs in the league and has been arguably the most important player on a Heat team, next to Jimmy Butler, that is tied for 2nd in the East. The big man went from 8.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.9 BPG, 0.9 SPG last season to 16 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 4.8 APG, 1.1 BPG, and 1.2 SPG. The Heat moved on from Hasan Whiteside this offseason, going all-in on Bam, which has paid off greatly. Adebayo reminds me of a more athletic Draymond Green, as he can guard every position as well as run offensive sets through the high post and the top of the key. Bam has also shown that he can grab rebounds and initiate the fast break, not just with his outlet passes but he also has the ability to put the ball on the floor and go. The Heat have a defensive presence that they can build around in the future and perhaps will have two All-Stars this year in Chicago.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far this season, and undoubtedly the player that came out of the nowhere more so than anyone else has been Devonte’ Graham of the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets did a sign and trade in the offseason to acquire Terry Rozier, the player that they thought would be their point guard in the post-Kemba era. Little did they know, they already had that player on their roster with Graham. Although Rozier has been good, Graham has been electric. Last year Graham appeared in only 46 games, and this season he has almost as many starts (36). In those 46 games, last season Graham didn’t do much, averaging 4.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG, and 2.6 APG. This season, the story, and the numbers are quite different. Graham is averaging 18.6 PPG, 3.7 RPG, and 7.6 APG, and is third in the league in three-pointers made. Graham can catch fire, and when he does it’s hard not to take notice. Just watch him go off for 10 threes in a game earlier this year against the Warriors.
The main thing talked about in what the Thunder received out of the Paul George and Russell Westbrook trades at the time were the picks. People were amazed at how much draft capital they accumulated, that the psychical players in the deal were sometimes overlooked. People’s first thought was how Chris Paul would stunt the growth of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and they often forgot what kind of player SGA is. The Thunder’s three-guard lineup of CP3, SGA, and Schroder have played great together, and we have seen what kind of player SGA is going to be. He may be best known as a point guard, but he has shown off-ball skills to go along with stellar defense that makes it seem like he is going to be the most valuable piece they got out of the Clippers. Last year as a rookie SGA averaged 10.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 3.3 APG, and 1.2 SPG, showing flashes of the dynamic player we saw coming out of Kentucky. This year on his new team, Shai is showing the league what sort of player he’s going to become. He is averaging 19.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 3.1 APG to go with 1.2 SPG. He also was the youngest player ever to record a 20/20/10 triple-double this season.
Rounding out the list is 4th year wing Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics. Some may argue his teammate Jayson Tatum over him for this spot, but frankly, I am more surprised and pleased with the jump Brown has made. If it comes down to Brown or Tatum for the All-Star Game, my vote is going to Jaylen. After a sophomore year in which Brown showed the league a version of himself in which he might become, Brown took a step back in the second year of the Kyrie Irving experiment. This offseason though, Irving left and Kemba came, and Brown decided to shave off his signature flat top that he says signified him moving on from last season. This year, shaved head Jaylen is proving he’s worth the 4yr/$107mill contract he signed in the offseason. Brown is averaging 20 PPG, 6.6. RPG and 2.3 APG, and is showing that he is going to be stapled in Boston for years to come alongside Tatum. Not to mention, he will probably be selling a lot of posters after jamming on the King.