The NBA has now completed the first third of the regular season, and debate has recently drummed up about who has taken the biggest step from last year.
The New Orleans Pelicans’ Brandon Ingram took the Most Improved Player honour last season, setting the precedent for a career high season of 23.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.2 assists and a steal per game.
2021’s potential candidates are an eclectic variety of players boasting different skills through 1-5, some given opportunity in the absence of leaving teammates and also those taking the next step to superstardom.
Here’s who is tipped to pick up the much-coveted gong for the 2020/21 season.
Mikal Bridges (Suns)
The small forward is taking on average 5 three-point attempts for the first time in his career, but he is no stranger to defense.
His 7ft1inch wingspan aided in him spending the previous two campaigns in the top 20 players for steals, and is averaging 1.4 a game so far this year. The crowning moment of the season so far was a 38-point game against the Indiana Pacers, where he shot an incredible 75% from beyond the perimeter (6 from 8).
Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
He became one of the stars of the ‘Bubble’, boasting 22ppg and four double-doubles. Despite the relatively small sample size of only fourteen games this term, and half of them starting, Michael Porter Jr.’s ppg has jumped by six points to 15ppg and his rebounds have gone up by 1.7 a game also.
The forward has resumed the impact he had off the bench last season, still starting half the games but increasing his shift by ten minutes per game. Three of his games have been 20+ point performances (including two 30+ points) and two double-doubles.
His field goal (51%) and three point percentage (44%) has incrementally increased as attempts per game in both stat lines have gone up too. The ability to create his own shot and consequential release has and will continue to cause many a problem for defenders in the league as he looks to establish himself as third banana to one of the league’s best duos in Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic.
Zach LaVine (Bulls)
The guard is arguably playing at an All-Star level and has shown that he is more than capable of potentially being a key piece in a playoff side.
Combined with a 65% true shooting rating according to teamratings.com, Zach LaVine is maintaining an average of 5 rebounds and assists per game and shoots 52% from the field, 42.5% from three and 86% from the line with an increase of 3ppg. His current 28ppg is fifth in the league standings overall, while he is 7th in average three points made per game with 3.5.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Thunder)
The Thunder are heavily tipped to elude the playoffs for only the third time since their relocation from Seattle this forthcoming season.
Big losses in personnel, such as Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Nerlens Noel and Steven Adams have left the cupboards bare and expectations are at an all-time low. Armed with plenty of draft picks, general manager Sam Presti is looking to build for the future in the coming years. One star remains in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who just missed out on the top five in voting of last year’s MIP, is now up on last year’s points and assists contributions by 3.6 and 3.2 per game respectively.
On the assists front, he sits inside the top 20 in average assists made per game with 6.5. The guard is now shooting over 50% from the field and has improved his three point percentage by 3.5% to 38.2%. Encouraging signs for new head coach Mike Daigneault and those in Oklahoma, as Gilgeous-Alexander looks to become even more ball dominant now in a franchise of his own.
Chris Boucher (Raptors)
The big has made a sizable impact off the bench for his Raptors side that have been slow off the mark to say the least.
The departure of the likes of Serge Ibaka and Aron Baynes’ tough start have enabled the former G-League MVP. Chris Boucher has posted three double-doubles in his six February games, missing out on a fourth by just one board in a triumph over the Brooklyn Nets.
Average rebounds have increased by 2.4 per game compared to last season, in addition to sitting fourth in the league in blocks, having doubled to 2 a game on average (recorded a career-high 7 blocks in December vs Spurs). Boucher has become quite the stretch forward, more than doubling his field goal attempts and also his ppg, which now stands at 13.8ppg- not to mention 12% increase in three point percentage up to 44% currently.
Julius Randle (Knicks)
Tom Thibodeau’s influence has proved instrumental in the Knicks potential route back into the playoff conversation, but Julius Randle has done the talking on the court.
A career best season in all of points (22.3), rebounds (10.9), assists (5.8), three pointers made (38%, up 10.5%) and free throws made (80%) has been the centrepiece for the Madison Square Garden team’s decent start to the 2020-21 campaign.
Collin Sexton (Cavaliers)
The crowning performance of the season for Collin Sexton was a 42-point haul against a full strength Brooklyn Nets back in January.
Similar heroics will be needed consistently from not only Sexton in order for a big push for a potential play-in spot.
Sexton’s development since the offseason nonetheless has been one of great encouragement. Drafted as a first-round pick in 2018, he has been a beacon of light in a post-LeBron Cleveland and has improved in many areas. Ppg (22.7), assists (4.3), effective field goal percentage (53%) and three point percentage (42%) have all been bolstered in 2020-21. Sexton has also continued the trend of having his team’s highest ppg.
Christian Wood (Rockets)
Houston jumped at the chance to pick up the big man in a sign-and-trade for the next three years for $41 million when few others would, perhaps understandably so. It seems to be proving quite the coup.
Putting up a career-high 22ppg and 10rpg, only five players in the NBA have bettered Wood in both categories this season. 55% from the field and 42% from downtown also commands attention.
An impressive defensive rating of 103.4 according to statmuse.com, bettering the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (106.6) and Bam Adebayo (108), has contributed to the Rockets sitting fourth in defensive efficiency rating according to teamrankings.com.
The Rockets, although now all but out of contention, seem like a well rounded team in wake of the departure of their star back court and could cause problems for those in the play-in spots. This all does come with a caveat however, as Wood sprained his ankle against the Memphis Grizzlies in early February. While he will be out for an undetermined amount of time, he will be evaluated weekly as the Rockets faithful watch on with bated breath.
Jaylen Brown (Celtics)
Famed for his contributions when out of possession of the ball, it’s on the offensive end that has seen the most stark improvement for Brown. Future Hall of Famer Vince Carter recently tipped the wingman to take the prize in the Most Improved category.
The two-way sensation has seen his ppg skyrocket by just under 6ppg this term so far to 26ppg, continuing his career trajectory of bettering his ppg every year.
Many would say that due to Kemba Walker’s absence for the opening of the season, the C’s have had little choice but to utilise Brown in running the offence. Even so, the latter has taken the opportunity well. Field goal percentage and three point percentage has risen by 4% and 3% respectively, and his famed consistent mid-range efforts has continued and maintained at a very steady 55% when shooting for two points. Brown also recorded career high totals of 42 points against the Memphis Grizzlies and 10 assists against the Toronto Raptors.
Jerami Grant (Pistons)
Jerami Grant is proving to be more than the ‘three and D’ player that was once thought of him before this season. His ability to create his own shots, initiate the pick and roll and then draw contact has been commanding attention.
Now in his seventh season, Grant’s improvement is astronomical and has caught many in the game by surprise.
Much of the Pistons offence is run through the forward, with field-goal attempts (up by 9 per game), three-point attempts and assists on the rise while his effective field goal percentage has only dropped by 4%. Crucially, his ppg has practically doubled from 12ppg to 23.7ppg. Quite incredible.
Grant’s rebounds, in particular defensive rebounds, have improved by on average two a game. He has helped the Pistons gain somewhat of a giant killing status, with all six of their wins coming against playoff sides. Despite the Pistons desperate situation at present, their forward’s form is in some way making up for their decision to not pay Christian Wood in the offseason.
(All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless stated otherwise, and are correct as of February 12)