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NBA Most Improved Player: Five dark horse candidates
NBA Most Improved Player shortlist
The NBA Most Improved Player award recognises the player who has made the biggest step forward. Brandon Ingram won it in 2019/20. Pascal Siakam took the honour in 2018/19 for his breakout year on the way to the Raptors’ first title.
It’s a stacked Most Improved Player field in 2020/21. Role players have ascended to the near-All-Star territory. Established stars have taken another leap to put themselves in contention.
While Jaylen Brown and Jerami Grant are considered the early frontrunners for the award, here are five players who could yet make a push in the second half of the 2020/21 NBA season.
A hot streak earned De’Aaron Fox Player of the Week honours. He’s had some discussion for NBA Most Improved Player too, but it’s a difficult hill to climb.
Fox was already at 21/7/4 last season. He’s scoring a bit more efficiently and crucially shooting the three better, but he needs to post some massive numbers to pull those averages significantly ahead of where he was last season.
It’s a big ask, but it’s feasible. If Fox carries the Kings to the play-in or better and scores 25+ per game, he should get some Most Improved votes.
How would Shai Gilgeous-Alexander handle the increased offensive responsibility without Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder? Incredibly well, it turns out.
The former Clipper has almost doubled his assists, he’s scoring more, and his true shooting has moved from 56.8% to almost 61%. Combine that with impressive defence, and Gilgeous-Alexander is a borderline All-Star.
Keep this up, add a couple more points to that scoring average, and Gilgeous-Alexander will deservedly earn some Most Improved Player votes.
Playing on a lottery team didn’t rule Ingram out last season. Even if the Thunder are one of the worst teams in the league, the former Kentucky guard could win the award.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a career high 42 points 🔥 pic.twitter.com/jQEOQDBYxi— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) February 25, 2021
Defence doesn’t tend to get rewarded in NBA Most Improved Player voting, but perhaps Dejounte Murray can buck that trend.
Murray has taken another step forward as a defender. Add to that his increased offensive workload as a playmaker and scorer, and there’s a case to be made.
Unfortunately, Murray’s candidacy for the award and his ceiling with the Spurs likely comes down to his jumper. He’s still a limited offensive player. He needs to improve on under 32% from three and a true shooting under 52% to rival Grant and Brown.
LaVine’s traditional numbers haven’t exploded. He’s scoring just three points more per game, registering one more assist and grabbing 0.7 more rebounds.
The Bulls star has been more efficient than ever, and that’s where he has a case for Most Improved Player. A true shooting of 63.9% is by far a career-high, and his win shares per 48 have jumped to .150 from a previous career-best of .091.
Only three players are averaging more points per game than LaVine in February. If he keeps that up, he’ll be in the conversation when awards voting comes round
Making his 1st #NBAAllStar appearance… Zach LaVine of the @chicagobulls.— #NBAAllStar (@NBAAllStar) February 24, 2021
Drafted as the 13th pick in 2014 out of UCLA, @ZachLaVine is averaging 28.6 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5.1 APG for the Bulls this season. pic.twitter.com/eejFfNo1Am
Playing alongside Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, it’s easy to overlook Mikal Bridges. His role in the Suns’ impressive season should not be downplayed, however. Bridges have become a prototypical three-and-D wing with career-highs in rebounding, scoring and efficiency.
The advanced numbers show solid improvement from Bridges. His box plus/minus has increased from 0.8 to 2.4. His win shares per 48 have leapt, too.
Scoring 13.9 per game isn’t trademark, NBA Most Improved Player stuff. Others are posting gaudier offensive numbers. Bridges is among the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, though, and he’s developed as an offensive player. He deserves to be in the mix.