Top 10 Candidates for Most Improved NBA Player

Stats as of 12/1/18. Stat lines are PPG, RPG, APG, FG%, 3PT%, FT%

Honorable Mention: Caris LeVert

Last Season: 12, 4, 4, 44%, 35%, 71%
This Season: 18, 4, 4, 48%, 37%, 72%

LeVert was one of the most exciting young breakout players in the NBA until he dislocated his foot in that gruesome injury. Fortunately, he did not need surgery and will likely return this season, however, he won’t get enough games in to be in the running for Most Improved Player, which is why he’s just honorable mention. The counting stats may not be vastly improved, but LeVert hit a couple huge shots down the stretch for Brooklyn and has been doing the little things too. His PER is up from 14.3 to 18.8 if you believe in that. More notably, LeVert’s role on the team shifted. Last season, 73% of his three-point attempts were assisted, while this season, only 53% have been. He’s also shooting 51% on shots after 7+ dribbles, so his isolation attempts are not inefficient by any means. His usage rate is up from 21% to 26%, and he’s creating his own shot more while becoming more of an offensive leader. Here’s to hoping he returns to full strength and continues his development.

10. JaVale McGee

Last Season: 5, 3, 1, 62%, 0%, 71%
This Season: 12, 6, 1, 62%, 25%, 68%

Before we get into JaVale, I want to point out his increase in playing time—McGee played only 9.5 minutes per game in Golden State last season, and he’s all the way up to 24.5 this year for the Lakers. So take all these stat changes with a grain of salt, however, there is something to be said for stepping into a new role on a new team, and producing. He’s doing that. One of the most important things with JaVale is his defense. When guarded by McGee, opponents shoot only 48.4% from within six feet. He’s one of the league’s best rim protectors and may be a real Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Offensively, JaVale is doing just enough to play his role. 62% from the field is pretty impressive, especially considering his increased attempts, 8.8 per game. He probably doesn’t have a real chance at MIP, but McGee at least deserves recognition. He’s been excellent in his role.

9. Josh Richardson

Last Season: 13, 4, 3, 45%, 38%, 85%
This Season: 21, 4, 3, 43%, 42%, 84%

The #1 Josh Richardson story this season has been his involvement in the Jimmy Butler trade talks, which has overshadowed the fact that he’s been playing really well in Miami. The 42.2% and 21 PPG stick out the most. He may be developing into the #1 scoring option that the Heat have struggled to find in this young core. Richardson ranks 8th in the NBA in three-pointers made. He shoots 6.3 pull-up jumpers a game, as opposed to 4.8 catch-and-shoot jumpers. Last year he only shot 2.5 pull-up jumpers, vs. 4.5 catch-and-shoot. Like LeVert, Richardson is taking on a creator’s role, rather than just a spot-up guy. His usage rate is up from 18% to 24%. His style of play has changed, his three-point shooting is better, and he’s a real candidate for Most Improved Player.

8.  Montrezl Harrell

Last Season: 11, 4, 1, 64%, 14%, 63%
This Season: 16, 7, 2, 65%, 0%, 66%

Montrezl Harrell has long been an underrated player, and the Clippers really got a good one when they had to unload Chris Paul. He’s improved in a lot of ways, not just this season, but in the past few. His second chance points per game are up to 3.4 from 1.7 in 2017-18, so he’s crashing the offensive glass better. His blocks per game are also up, 1.8 from 0.7. Harrell’s become a solid two-way player. Another interesting stat on him—only 2% of his attempts came after he held the ball for 6+ seconds. 33% came after 2-6 seconds, and 65% were after less than two seconds. Two-thirds of his shots are basically catch-and-shoot… or catch and dunk. He probably doesn’t have a real chance at the award, but he deserves credit.

7.  Buddy Hield

Last Season: 13, 4, 2, 45%, 43%, 88%
This Season: 18, 6, 3, 48%, 42%, 84%

I wrote about this a few weeks ago, but the Cousins to New Orleans trade is looking pretty good for Sacramento. Hield has been an incredible sidekick for De’Aaron Fox, who may or may not appear later in this article. The Marvin Bagley pick looks super disappointing for a team that has some good potential, but that’s for another article. One theme that you’ll see with both Kings guards is pace. Hield is scoring 4.0 fastbreak points per game, up from 2.3. Another interesting Hield tidbit—he’s a better three-point shooter off the catch than off the dribble. By far. He shoots 48% off the catch, and 31% on pull-ups. This season, Sacramento is taking advantage of that, as he’s been attempting 3.7 catch-and-shoot threes per game vs. 2.0 off the dribble. Last year, the percentages were similar—50% vs. 36%, but the attempt ratio was off—2.9 vs. 2.1 Especially with the success of De’Aaron Fox, Hield is able to shoot more threes off spot ups and off-ball screens, as opposed to off the dribble.

6.  Nikola Vucevic

Last Season: 17, 9, 3, 48%, 31%, 82%
This Season: 21, 11, 4, 55%, 41%, 85%

Wow. How about Nikola Vucevic? He’s quietly putting up some pretty crazy splits. He’s one of three players shooting at least 55, 41, and 85. (Will Barton, George Hill). How many players finished last season with those percentages? Zero. That efficiency is incredibly hard to find, and if Vooch can keep it up, he may be an all-star in the East. His net rating has improved from -1.3 to +3.3. His defense has gotten a little better (106.9 to 105.8) but his offense has gotten far better (105.6 to 109.2). Going through the advanced stats, Vucevic’s play style hasn’t changed a lot, he’s just making more shots, which seems simple, but sometimes it’s the truth.

5.  Derrick Rose

Last Season: 8, 1, 2, 44%, 23%, 87%
This Season: 19, 3, 4, 50%, 49%, 86%

All the “Vintage D-Rose” and “D-Rose is back!” tweets are starting to feel more and more real. Of course, he dropped 50 in the game against Utah, but the most unbelievable number here is the three-point shooting. That type of improvement is unprecedented. Even in his best season with the Bulls, he shot 33%, so getting all the way up to 49% is crazy. Rose is also playmaking. His assist ratio is 20.1 compared to 13.1 last year. His offensive rating is the best in his career. I’ve always considered it unfair to use Rose’s MVP season as a measuring stick for his current success. However, he probably doesn’t have a chance at Most Improved Player, simply because he peaked, fell, and is now rising again. He was really something, but he’s gone through so much since. But dropping 50 on a team that waived you less than a year ago? Truly spectacular comeback.

4.  Zach LaVine

Last Season: 17, 4, 3, 38%, 34%, 81%
This Season: 26, 6, 5, 43%, 30%, 88%

Speaking of guys working on an ACL return, Zach LaVine has been great in Chicago. It’s starting to look like he may be worth the $75 million, 4-year contract the Bulls signed him to this summer. To me, the most interesting numbers for Zach are FG% and 3PT%. He’s shooting a lower clip on his threes, but significantly higher on field goals in general. His explosiveness is definitely back, as any Bulls fan (such as myself) would gleefully tell you. And he’s getting to the rim like he hasn’t since the injury, and maybe the best in his career. That pretty much explains the increase in field goal percentage. His percentage from two is up from 40% to 49%. So how about three-pointers? Well, LaVine is still a good shooter. On catch-and-shoot threes, he’s hitting 36.4%. Good enough. However, on pull-ups? 27.0%. Not so good. Unfortunately, he’s attempting 3.5 pull-ups per game, and 2.1 off the catch. Shot selection is still an issue for LaVine, but his scoring, in general, has been vastly improved. He’s shooting 47% when he holds the ball for less than 6 seconds, vs. 36% when he has it for 6+. The shot selection is where he needs to improve offensively. Having Markkanen and Dunn back from injury should help with that, too. LaVine may be an all-star this season, and he’s definitely a real piece for the Bulls going forward.

3.  Domantas Sabonis

Last Season: 12, 8, 2, 51%, 35%, 75%
This Season: 15, 10, 3, 65%, 83%, 76%

Domantas Sabonis has developed into the second-most important player on Indiana’s roster. His versatile offensive game has become increasingly reliable for the Pacers. His points and rebounds are up, yes, but the most impressive stat here is the efficiency. 65% from the field is pretty incredible. He’s shooting 8.9 field goals per game, exact same as last year. But that field goal percentage is vastly improved. Also, you may see the 83% from three, but that’s only 5 makes on 6 attempts, so take it with a grain of salt. Sabonis has also improved his rebounding and passing. Rebound percentage is up from 16% to 20.4%, and assist percentage is up from 12.7% to 21.5%. His +/- is +3.3, up from +0.3 last season. Sabonis has improved his all-around game, and he’s going to be an important player for Indiana.

2.  De’Aaron Fox

Last Season: 12, 3, 4, 41%, 31%, 72%
This Season: 17, 4, 8, 47%, 39%, 69%

De’Aaron Fox has been able to improve all-around this season. His +/- is up from -5.7 to +1.2. It should be noted, the Kings have been far better as a team, so that makes sense. His offensive rating has increased from 101.0 to 108.6, and defensive rating is 106.9, which is better than 111.1, his number from last year. His 37% from three may be the most important improvement. Fox, one of the fastest players in the NBA, has now drawn defenders out to the perimeter, which opens up lanes to the rim. He’s averaging 3.9 points per game off takeaways, and 4.0 fastbreak points. Those are up from 1.9 and 2.2 respectively. How about this—32% of Fox’s shot attempts come in the first six seconds of the shot clock. Don’t gloss over Fox’s assist improvement, by the way. 7.6 APG is up from 4.4. That’s a huge improvement. He’s become the playmaker Sacramento needs while scoring quick and efficiently running the offense.

1.  Pascal Siakam

Last Season: 7, 4, 2, 51%, 22%, 62%
This Season: 15, 7, 2, 64%, 37%, 78%

Siakam has quietly been a difference maker for the Raptors, maybe THE difference maker. In a way, Toronto has mastered the art of team-building, with everyone playing their role despite a lack of overwhelming talent. First I want to point out Siakam’s efficiency. His shooting percentages are off-the-charts, especially compared to last season. But the attempts aren’t down. They’re actually up. He’s playing 29.9 minutes per game instead of 20.1. Sorry, Jonas Valanciunas. But his field goal attempts are up from 6.1 to 9.2, and his percentage is up from 50.8% to 63.6%. He’s shooting 1.8 threes a game compared to 1.6, but his percentage has vastly increased, 22.0 to 36.6. That’s been huge for Toronto, especially as they bench Valanciunas and space things out with Serge Ibaka. Siakam’s plus/minus is +9.1, up from +3.7. 42% of his shots come after zero dribbles. All but one of this threes this year have come off zero dribbles. On 85% of his shots, he’s held the ball for less than five seconds. Pascal is playing his role and doing it perfectly. That’s what makes the Raptors work, and that’s what earns him my vote for Most Improved Player.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago. I’ve been a diehard Chicago sports fan my entire life, and basketball has always been my favorite sport. In high school, I founded a Sports Media Club, where my classmates and I wrote articles and produced podcasts. After graduating, I kept writing and podcasting on my own. Now I’m a freshman at Purdue University, and I am excited to join Lineups and continue to further the growth of the content side of the site.

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