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How Extension Season Signals NBA Trends

Distinct types of players in this year’s rookie extension class may help signal broader NBA trends going forward.

Ben Dowsett

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The August and September months are a slog for most NBA basketball fans, but they’re an important time for several important housekeeping items. Rosters are a key area of focus for front offices across the league, from possible cuts to training camp signees and guys on the bubble for the 15-man roster down the road. As Basketball Insiders’ Eric Pincus wrote recently, there are also a number of quietly important league deadlines looming around this time of year.

Most prominent among these is the rookie extension deadline of October 31, before which players entering their fourth year of a rookie-scale contract can negotiate with their incumbent teams regarding extensions that, if agreed upon, kick in to begin the 2017-18 season. If a player and team cannot reach an agreement before that Halloween date, the issue is effectively tabled and the player becomes a restricted free agent on July 1, 2017, with his incumbent team retaining matching rights on any outside offer sheet he signs.

The process is simple enough, but there are numerous variables at play that often make the execution a more complex affair. Teams can offer extra incentives to their very best players to keep them in town, which is why it’s extremely rare for a star-level player to change teams after his rookie deal, but many in the next tier down or below are playing a trickier game.

Locking a guy up before his final rookie-scale season keeps him completely away from the open market, a place where predatory competitors can tinker with poison-pill contracts that hurt a team’s position if they choose to match. Finalizing a deal early also offers the potential for a bargain contract if the player in question takes an unexpected leap in his fourth season.

On the other side of the coin, though, agreeing to a deal commits a team salary-wise regardless of the results in that fourth year. For deals signed with future development as part of the expectation, the risk of a bad contract down the line comes with the territory. Even if the superstars almost never go this route, a number of very talented guys have passed the deadline and hit restricted free agency in recent years.

Made up primarily of picks from the 2013 draft, the crop of extension-eligible players this fall represents a few distinct stylistic groupings: Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams highlight a strong group of “traditional” big men; Dennis Schroder and Michael Carter-Williams are two of several notable guards with numerous complementary skills but lack consistent jump-shooting; Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Otto Porter are among a number of emerging “3-and-D” specialists looking to cash in on the modern value of their role; and of course, as will be the case his whole career, Giannis Antetokounmpo gets his own special category.

Not all these players will receive deals before Halloween, and what’s signed – or not signed – could tell us a lot about how the league values these types of players as the NBA’s next crop of young talent move into their primes.

The Treetops

Primaries: Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Nerlens Noel, Gorgui Dieng, Mason Plumlee

Even the grandmothers of discerning hoops fans know the league is trending smaller, but several notable names are set to test that trend over the next couple months. Elite defense is still easiest with a dominant big guy manning the paint, and the best of them do enough other things to be among the most valuable commodities in the game despite a lack of shooting prowess.

Gobert and Adams are the headliners this fall, both undisputed defensive anchors who double as rim-running pick-and-roll threats on the other end of the floor. It’s tough to separate bouts of apparent stagnation from injury concerns after a stop-and-go third season where Gobert missed 21 games and couldn’t ever really find his rhythm. However, he’s cemented his reputation as one of the premier interior defenders in the game, with a few underappreciated supplementary skills to boot. Gobert could be nearly done developing at 24 years old, though – something the casual observer perhaps doesn’t consciously realize.

How the Utah Jazz will approach his situation will be telling, and could reflect a lesson learned a few years back. A difference of a few million dollars reportedly kept them from locking up Gordon Hayward in the summer of 2013, causing Utah to lose a year of Hayward’s services on the deal they eventually matched from the Charlotte Hornets. At the same time, Gobert’s extremely low cap hold next summer could leave open a big chunk of flexibility for additional upgrades – if the Frenchman is willing to play ball and voluntarily table his extension talks until mid-July, with the understanding that he wouldn’t ink a potentially harmful deal elsewhere in the meantime.

That’s a lot of risk, though. As noted by Dan Clayton on the latest Basketball Insiders podcast, that space under the cap the Jazz could conceivably save if they tabled Gobert’s talks might be significantly lessened or even eliminated anyway if the Jazz look to restructure Derrick Favors’ contract – something that makes so much sense that it’s been discussed by local outlets and our Eric Pincus for months. If that happens, a Gobert extension feels even more likely before the deadline.

There’s a similar calculus for Adams in Oklahoma City, where Sam Presti and crew have been silent to this point on extension talks for not only the big Kiwi, but also Victor Oladipo and Andre Roberson. Presti has typically acted early in these scenarios, and there’s a real chance the Thunder are playing the longer game here and hoping for trust – particularly from Adams.

After losing a ton of talent in Kevin Durant this summer, holding off on extensions and saving the cap space will allow OKC to take a real run at the free-agent market in their last chance to re-stock before Russell Westbrook hits unrestricted free agency in 2018. Adams might be the exception, especially if he’s willing to take a slight discount on his near-max value in exchange for security, but even in his case – and even with the understanding that he’s a core piece staying in Oklahoma City no matter what – a deal before the October 31 deadline seems like no sure thing.

For guys like Noel, Dieng and Plumlee, the final dollar figure is likely more interesting than the timing. Team roster situations could play a big role: Noel suddenly finds himself in a frontcourt cluster with multiple other lottery picks including No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, while Plumlee just watched seemingly every teammate (plus a new center in Festus Ezeli) get a huge raise and clog up Portland’s books ahead of his big extension summer. Dieng is the only one of the three with a relatively safe role, but it’s tough to gauge his value (and whether he’s worth locking up ahead of his fourth season) in a situation where he isn’t even the fourth-most valued young player on an up-and-coming team.

The way these guys are approached by their incumbent teams will be dictated in part by circumstance, but they could tell us something more. Are younger teams willing to pony up for big man talent even if it risks future flexibility, or will they test the perils of restricted free agency in hopes of finding more modern talent and (hopefully) still retaining their big later on?

No-J Handlers

Primaries: Dennis Schroder, Michael Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo

An even smaller niche as the league modernizes is the talented ball-handler who does many things well but can’t shoot an accurate enough jumper, and several notable candidates for extensions dot the pool in this category as well.

Oladipo may fall into a similar category as Adams in Oklahoma City. With a huge summer already on the horizon next year, it’s tough to imagine Presti and Co. committing a big number to a guy who hasn’t even played a game in a Thunder uniform yet. Carter-Williams feels like even more of a lock to enter the 2016-17 season without an extension, especially considering the Bucks just brought in Matthew Dellavedova at the same position. And even if there’s money left for Carter-Williams after Antetokounmpo gets his expected max raise, it’s unlikely John Hammond and his brain trust will want to shell it out before seeing how things fit on the floor.

Schroder probably falls between those two skill-wise, but he’s a completely different ballgame. The Hawks signaled his inheritance of their starting point guard position when they traded away Jeff Teague before the draft; letting Schroder enter his final rookie-scale year without an extension in place would appear to run completely contrary to this line of thinking.

That doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, of course. Schroder and his representation surely recognize this same reality, and could be pushing for a big payday. Will they be willing to play the game of chicken and refuse a fair market extension, demanding more or allowing Schroder to prove his own value as a starter? Like always, it’s a big risk – a career 32 percent three-point shooter at the point has a ceiling, and Schroder probably isn’t upping his current value next year unless that sees a real uptick. There would appear to be motivation on both sides to get a deal done before October 31.

These types are a dying breed in the NBA, and their eventual market could reflect that. Teams might be more willing to let restricted free agency dictate their value; in return for security, these players and their agents might become amenable to accepting less than what they feel they’re worth. What we hear and see on these names in the next couple months will be telling.

3-and-D Specialists

Primaries: Otto Porter, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Andre Roberson

Where traditional centers and non-shooting guards could have a plethora of talents but be left behind for lacking one or two vital skills, “3-and-D” wings are completely at the other end of the spectrum: Even if they’re pretty limited in many aspects of the game, the value of these kinds of players is exploding if both “3” and “D” are present in their skill set. Kent Bazemore, an athletic but limited swingman who does pretty little outside shooting threes and defending multiple spots on the perimeter, got a payday the same size as Dwight Howard this summer.

Exactly how far this concept can stretch will be tested by this extension season, and Porter might be the perfect case. At 23 and sporting a career 35 percent mark from deep, Porter barely qualifies in one half of the equation; many in Washington will tell you it’s a coin flip for the “D” part on a given night as well. Metrics may disagree on the latter half – ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus placed Porter in the upper tier of defenders at the small forward spot, and others have similar outputs. In either case, Porter isn’t doing a whole lot else on the court.

With the other two members of Washington’s starting perimeter eating up a combined $40 million or more every year moving forward (and reportedly feuding to some extent), whether these glue skills alone are enough to break out the checkbook yet again for Porter is an intriguing question. Porter and his representation know full well the value the league places on his primary functions, and could easily be willing to risk injury or slight regression to let him hit the market next summer if the Wizards are reticent to commit so much money to three guys.

It feels like a more tightly-run ship in Detroit currently, but that doesn’t make Caldwell-Pope’s impending extension eligibility any less complex. Barring a sizable salary-shedding move before July, a deal with KCP this fall would immediately stamp out any cap space the Pistons may have been hoping to use on the free agent market in 2017. If Stan Van Gundy is going to act now, it’s with a virtual certainty that this is his group for the future.

Van Gundy is a savvy executive, though. He already curried favor among his players by rewarding Andre Drummond with a deserved five-year max after Drummond did the franchise a solid and waited on his own rookie extension, allowing the Pistons to sign additional pieces alongside him. It’s tougher with a non-max guy like KCP, but look for the same approach here; Van Gundy can sell team loyalty after a successful 2016 summer, and might even be able to kill two birds by adding more talent next offseason before once again rewarding one of his guys for their patience. There’s still a lot of risk here though, and Caldwell-Pope’s agent, Rich Paul, is known for hard-nosed bargaining.

Further still, this is a distinct seller’s market. There are fewer capable “3-and-D” guys in the league than there are needs for such players. The summer of 2017 will introduce even more money into the equation, and guys like Porter and Caldwell-Pope simply have to look back at the contracts signed in the past few months to see what they might be in for. Their team situations could determine outcomes this fall, but just how far the league’s obsession with these two skills stretches will be interesting to track through next offseason.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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The Curious Case Of Andrew Wiggins

The path to becoming a superstar took a wrong turn two years ago for top pick Andrew Wiggins. With stability and a new regime in Minnesota, it will be up to him to get the train back on the tracks this season. Chad Smith writes.

Chad Smith

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Being a number one overall draft pick in the NBA instantly puts a target on your back. Expectations come with that as well, fair or not. Andrew Wiggins has had a roller coaster ride since being taken with the top pick in the 2014 draft. After three years of promise, he has tapered off in each of the last two seasons. The make or break cliché is used too often, but this will definitely be a defining season for the Canadian.

Wiggins has played exactly 400 games in his NBA career. He has played all of them with the Timberwolves, who traded the face of their franchise to acquire the promising young talent. Wiggins has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. Through his first four seasons, he only missed one game. Last year he played 73 for Minnesota, who failed to reach the playoffs after a disastrous season that included trading Jimmy Butler.

Butler left a lot of money on the table to leave Minnesota – largely due to the lack of improvement from Wiggins.

For all of his physical tools and salivating upside, Wiggins has failed to significantly improve as a player. His scoring averages did improve in his first three seasons, going from 16.9 to 20.7 to 23.6 points per game. The following year it dipped to 17.7 and 18.1 per contest. His per-game averages in rebounds, assists, steals and blocks have all plateaued.

From the foul line, Wiggins shot 76 percent in each of his first three seasons, but dropped to 64.3 and 69.9 percent in the last two years. His shooting efficiency numbers across the board have been declining as well. The progression clearly has not been there, and you don’t even need the actual numbers to see it.

If you do need the numbers, they are not flattering. His 0.6 win shares last season ranked him 350th among 530 eligible players. Per 48 numbers were even worse as his 0.005 win shares were the third-worst in the league (minimum 2,000 minutes played). The Wolves finished 11th in the conference last season. Improving upon that will prove to be difficult given the stiff competition in the Western Conference.

The five-year, $147 million maximum extension that Wiggins signed two years ago was questionable at the time and appears even more detrimental now. Gersson Rosas is the new president of basketball operations in Minnesota, and it is not clear what his intentions with Wiggins are. Trading the former Rookie of the Year is one option, but it will not be an easy one. If he can show some true progression in his game, Wiggins could fit nicely alongside superstar Karl-Anthony Towns.

Under former coach Tom Thibodeau, the Wolves appeared to underutilize the services of Towns. He also tended to play his starters heavy minutes. Wiggins averaged nearly 37 minutes per game under his system. Those numbers came down dramatically towards the tail end of last season under new head coach Ryan Saunders. His career average still sits at 36 minutes per contest. The only other active players with a higher minute per game average are LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Damian Lillard.

During Media Day, Andrew said that he felt as though he was on the rise three years into his career, before “some changes were made” that seemed to derail his trajectory. Wiggins went on to talk about Thib’s coaching style, and how the yelling didn’t change anything for him. He stated that he prefers a player’s coach that is “real” with him, like Saunders, the youngest coach in the league.

With Saunders cemented in place, the Wolves could find new and better ways to get the most out of Towns and Wiggins. Using more screening action, it could allow smaller defenders to switch onto Karl, or get a bigger defender on Andrew, allowing him to drive to the basket. That could open up opportunities on the wing for their solid group of role players.

A healthy Robert Covington and Josh Okogie will provide Minnesota with hope from the outside, an area where they have struggled heavily. New additions such as Jake Layman, Jordan Bell and Noah Vonleh should fit right in as well. All eyes will be on rookie Jarrett Culver, whom the Wolves gave up assets (Dario Saric and the 11th pick) to acquire with the sixth pick in the draft.

Saunders will likely want to push the pace and score in transition this season. Minnesota was 14th in pace last season and had the 13th-ranked scoring offense. They have the players needed for that style of play and will now be able to play both small-ball and match up against bigger lineups.

Versatility will be a strength for them this season, but they must improve on their biggest weakness – defense.

The Wolves ranked 23rd in scoring defense last year, and 24th in overall defensive rating. Having Covington back will help in that area, but it needs to start with Towns and Wiggins. As leaders, both must show improvement on that end of the floor in order for the other guys to buy-in.

With a year of continuity and a more stable environment, Minnesota should still be an improved team from last season. Whether or not they are able to challenge for a playoff spot will likely be determined by the play of Wiggins. Andrew has the skillset to become a very good player, even if his ceiling is not as high as Karl’s. That being said, Andrew will turn 25 in February. The time is now for him to show improvement.

Aside from Jeff Teague’s 10 years of experience, only Covington and Gorgui Dieng have more experience than Wiggins. They each have just one more year than he does. So where exactly does he need to improve his game?

Shot selection and defense should be at the top of the list. Despite the decent scoring average, the more minutes he plays, the more shots he misses. In theory that makes sense, but there are a number of players (even his own teammates) that played more minutes and missed fewer shots. In all five seasons, Wiggins has ranked inside the top 20 in the league in missed field goals.

The defense is fairly straight forward. He has the ability to defend on the perimeter and even inside, but his desire and effort are not always there. Playing passing lanes more aggressively and being able to anticipate what comes next on a given play are two key areas to focus on.

Rebounding is another area that would really benefit the team if he is able to improve. His size and athleticism afford him great opportunities to crash the boards, especially when Towns is not on the floor. Obviously, everyone can improve their shooting, and while his three-point shot isn’t horrid, there is no excuse for him to shoot below 70 percent from the foul line. These are things that should have progressed much better entering your sixth year in the league.

Rosas has stated publicly that continuity and playing style under Saunders should make Wiggins one of the biggest beneficiaries this season.

For their sake and his own, here is to hoping he is right.

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NBA Daily: Mavericks Reacclimating Kristaps Porzingis From The Outside In

Kristaps Porzingis has been away from the game for nearly two years. In his first exhibition games with his new team, the Mavericks are reacclimating him from the outside in. Jack Winter writes.

Jack Winter

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Any doubt surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ blockbuster trade for Kristaps Porzingis had nothing to do with his play.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2015 proved draft-night boos foolish during an eye-popping rookie season that seemed to establish him as the New York Knicks’ long-awaited, homegrown franchise player. Porzingis made subtle strides as a sophomore, adjusting his shot chart to include more three-pointers and attempts at the rim, before accelerating his developmental timeline and suddenly living up to his All-NBA potential over the first half of the 2017-18 season. He couldn’t sustain a blistering start that was so good it prompted early-season MVP talk, but averages of 22.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game nevertheless made it clear Porzingis was bound for true stardom – if he wasn’t there already.

All that progress came to a crushing halt on Feb. 6, 2018, when Porzingis cut backdoor for a powerful dunk on a trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo that caused him to land awkwardly and clutch his left knee as he writhed in pain on the Madison Square Garden floor. The worst fears of the Knicks and their success-starved fan base were confirmed shortly thereafter, when it was announced that Porzingis had suffered a torn ACL, ending his season and putting his future in jeopardy.

Porzingis’ injury would have been considered a blip for almost any young player. A torn ACL isn’t anything close to the career-threatening injury it was even just a decade ago. Most players return to the floor well within a year of suffering the injury, and all are expected to eventually regain their initial level of athleticism.

Porzingis was the exception to those updated rules. Especially tall players have a long history of reacting poorly to serious lower-body injuries, and Porzingis is a physical anomaly at 7-foot-3 with rare mobility and overall coordination. If his all-around athleticism was even marginally affected by invasive knee surgery, just how good could Porzingis be?

The height of Porzingis’ readjusted ceiling remains a question mark two exhibition games into his playing career with the Mavericks. He’s struggled to shoot the ball from deep after 20 months removed from the NBA game, and it stands to reason he’s more likely to re-injure his knee after going under the knife. But concerns that Porzingis has lost explosiveness as a result of his torn ACL are almost long gone, and more importantly, those about his ability to hold up physically have been lessened by how Dallas has used him.

It would be remiss to submit that Porzingis is all the way back athletically, even though he insisted on Media Day he’s “110 percent.” The Mavericks are planning to load manage Porzingis in 2019-20, perhaps sitting him for either end of all back-to-backs, for a reason.

Still, it’s wildly encouraging to see Porzingis, in his exhibition debut against the Detroit Pistons, throwing down the type of from-nowhere tip dunk he made seem routine during his ill-fated time in New York. A few minutes later, he withstood a reckless shove to finish a lob from Luka Doncic, even landing hard on his left leg no worse for wear.

But just because Porzingis avoided re-injury on that dangerous play hardly means Dallas should be more comfortable putting him at risk. In fact, it provides further justification for Rick Carlisle’s apparent plan of easing him back into NBA action from the outside in.

Comparing young players to all-time greats is an exercise in disappointment. Porzingis isn’t Dirk Nowitzki, and never will be. The Mavericks would be absolutely thrilled if he enjoyed half the extent of individual success that propelled Nowitzki to 12 All-NBA selections and 14 All-Star Games. But just because Porzingis isn’t Nowitzki hardly means Carlisle won’t use him in much the same way he did the greatest player in team history.

For now, that means taking advantage of Porzingis’ deep shooting range from the frontcourt by spacing the floor across four and sometimes five positions. Porzingis has spent most of his time beyond the arc through his first two exhibition games, running high and side ball screens with Doncic, popping back on off-ball screens he sets for catch-and-shoot chances and lagging behind in transition for trail threes.

The numbers, as could be expected from a player who last played competitive NBA basketball nearly two years ago, aren’t great. In 43 total minutes so far, Porzingis has scored only 29 points on 31 shots, including 4-of-16 shooting from deep. But the result doesn’t matter nearly as much as the process for Porzingis, a reality that should extend into the regular season, and there’s ample reason to believe he’ll thrive offensively once he re-acclimates to basketball being played at its highest level.

It’s not Porzingis’ physical tools nor package of offensive skills that makes him special, but the layered scoring opportunities that blend of attributes presents. Leave him free, and Porzingis is the type of shooter who can get hot from three in a hurry. Close-out too aggressively, and he’ll put the ball on the floor to create a cleaner look.

Porzingis started at center on Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, and opened next to Maxi Kleber up front two days earlier versus the Pistons. Regardless of what position he’s played, Dallas has mostly used Porzingis as a screener and weak-side spacer, letting him finish plays rather than start them.

Putting a player like Porzingis in a box, though, ignores the versatility that led Kevin Durant to famously dub him “Unicorn.” When he’s been on the floor with another big, the Mavericks have occasionally treated Porzingis like a wing or guard, running him off screens away from the ball.

Purists need not worry: Porzingis hasn’t completely abandoned the post. His touches on the block have been few and far between through his first two exhibition games, and have shrewdly come after he sets screens on the perimeter, allowing him to roll into post position instead of fighting hard to establish it. Porzingis’ right-shoulder turnaround jumper is nearly as unblockable as Nowitzki’s iconic one-footed fadeaway. It’s not going anywhere.

But Dallas clearly plans to utilize Porzingis from the perimeter first and foremost, a development that doesn’t just mitigate the physical toll he’s bound to take, but also leverages his unique abilities as a shooter and driver to make the game easier for Doncic and his teammates. No team in the league will benefit more from pitch-perfect spacing this season than the Mavericks. Porzingis, obviously, is much more than a floor-stretcher, but he can get his own playing mostly from the outside while teammates – including likely starter Dwight Powell, one of the best roll men in basketball – reap the rewards of him being on the court.

In time, Dallas will ask more of Porzingis offensively. He’s too gifted an individual scorer for that not to happen. But as he gets his feet under him in the season’s early going and perhaps for its duration, Porzingis will offer more than enough by his presence alone to make the Mavericks dangerous. And if he grows comfortable quickly, don’t be surprised if Carlisle affords Porzingis more responsibility, perhaps lifting his team to legitimate playoff contention in the process.

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NBA MIP Watch 2019-20: Preseason Edition

While the Most Improved Player Award is the hardest to forecast, there are certain signs that a player may be poised for a season worthy of this honor. Quinn Davis names five that could be in the running come season’s end.

Quinn Davis

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Forecasting the Most Improved Player award is not an easy undertaking. Unlike other awards, the field for Most Improved cannot be narrowed down to a select few that usually are in consideration. Theoretically, any player in the NBA could make a significant enough improvement to win this award.

Rookies heading into their second year could be an easy choice, as a year of NBA experience usually translates to improvement on the court. The issue here is that the voters think it’s too easy, and second-year players who were high draft picks are rarely considered for this award.  

De’Aaron Fox bucked this trend last year, finishing third in voting. Using that as a guide, it would be fair to say that it will take a Fox-like improvement for a second-year lottery pick to be considered for Most Improved.

The task becomes much more fun, and much more difficult, when looking beyond that batch of players. There are certain things to look for, such as an increased role or a player who has received praise for their work over the summer. In the end, it may just come down to a gut feeling.

Here are five players that check one or multiple of those boxes.

Jonathan Isaac

The third-year big man enters this season primed for improvement after a summer spent training with the USA Select team. Isaac has particularly shown flashes of defensive ability in his two seasons and could blossom into a disruptor on that end in this upcoming campaign.

Isaac’s coach, Steve Clifford, made it clear that he has high hopes for the Flordia State product this season in an interview he gave before training camp.

“He’s had a terrific summer. He looks good physically. He’s worked really hard with (assistant coach) Bruce (Kreutzer) and with (assistant coach) Pat (Delany) on his shooting, his range, his mechanics, his ISOs, his post-ups, his shot-making,” Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “I think he’s in a really good place. Last year from Game 1 to Game 82 he made great strides. He was a big reason why our team improved so much. I think people will see he put a lot of hard work in. I think it’ll pay off.”

Clifford mentioned the improvements across last season, which were particularly seen in Isaac’s shooting. The versatile forward shot a dreadful 28.7 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break last season, but improved to 38.2 percent following that time off, per Basketball Reference.

Isaac is armed with a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, giving him the ability to contest shots and take away passing lanes. One of his biggest weaknesses on the defensive end has been his skinny build, which makes it difficult for him to body up against some of the league’s brutes.  

Isaac is reportedly up to 230 pounds, after ending last season at 209. This weight could not only help him guard in the post, but also score in the post on the other end. Isaac will likely be guarded by opposing fours starting next to Vucevic, and his length could give him a significant advantage over opponents at that position.

Last season, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. If those numbers jump up to 15 points and eight rebounds with strong defense for a playoff-bound Magic team, he could be in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player.

Zach Collins

Another third-year big who teems with potential resides in Portland. Collins, who will likely start at power forward this season for the Trail Blazers, should see a large minute increase and has many excited for the possible leap he could take this season.  

A lot of this excitement was brought about by Collins’ performance in the playoffs last season when he played a pivotal role in Portland’s series win over the Nuggets. Collins flashed his defensive potential late in that series, recording five blocks in Game 6 and four blocks in Game 7 – both Blazers wins.  

Portland will ask Collins to stretch the floor this season next to the paint-bound Hassan Whiteside. Collins has shot 30 percent from deep in each of the last two regular seasons and will need to climb towards league average to give his team’s star backcourt requisite room to operate. 

If Collins can better space the floor while being an impactful defender, he may emerge as Portland’s third-best player this season. With increased minutes and a more defined role, the stage is set for Collins to build on his playoff performance and put himself into contention for Most Improved.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

As mentioned, it is very hard for second-year players to make a case for this award. Since the expectation for these players is to improve, they need to make a very significant leap to stand out for the voters. De’Aaron Fox did this last season, going from lost rookie to stud point guard that helped the Kings chase a playoff seed. Shai will need to do something similar on his new team in Oklahoma City if he is to make an impression.

Last season, the Kentucky product showed an ability to get into the paint and finish around the rim. He attempted 39 percent of his shots at the rim and finished 61 percent of those attempts.  Those numbers ranked in the 78th and 72nd percentiles for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.

SGA also shot a serviceable 37 percent from beyond the arc and a very impressive 48 percent on long mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.  

Now under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Shai may be able to take his all-around efficiency to the next level and learn how to get to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. The future Hall-of-Famer could also school SGA on the art of the pass, which is an area the second-year guard may have the most room to improve on.

While Shai had a very low assist rate for a point guard, he did show the ability to scan defenses and make the right play. With further experience and more teaching from Paul, he could make great strides in that department.

The second-year guard also has defensive potential thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan. He already showed an ability to block shots and swipe passes as a guard last season and could immediately become a strong defender if he reduces his foul rate and stays focused off of the ball.

While he is poised to build off a strong rookie year, Shai’s candidacy may come down to the construction of the Thunder roster as the season goes along. It may be difficult to stand out while playing next to a ball-dominant point guard like Chris Paul.

If Paul is traded, SGA may have the opportunity he needs to control the offense and make a large enough leap to vault into the Most Improved conversation.

Lonzo Ball

There have been few players that have had as tumultuous first two seasons as Ball. Coming out of UCLA with his father as a hype man, Lonzo was drafted by the Lakers and asked to turn the franchise around.

After two seasons that featured a LeBron free-agent signing sandwiched between them, Ball was sent to New Orleans this summer as part of the Anthony Davis trade. He will now have the luxury of being away from the spotlight and could put more focus on his game.  The early returns on this focus have been encouraging.

Multiple videos have come out of the Pelicans training camp showing an improved jump shot form from Ball, and he’s looked confident putting it up in the preseason. If the confidence translates to the real games, Ball could truly take his game to the next level.  Already a brilliant passer and strong defender, Ball could go from an internet punching bag to an above-average NBA player this season with improved scoring ability.

The threat to shoot off the dribble would instantly improve his pick-and-roll game, which has been a weakness thus far in his career. This improvement could be amplified with the presence of Zion Williamson, who could make for a great partner in those plays.

Maybe more important than his on the court improvements are his lack off the court distractions.  Without the constant attention of the Los Angeles media, Ball could quietly make a case for Most Improved if his jumper is indeed improved this season.

Ben Simmons

Yes, it would be quite an achievement for a player to win Most Improved after already being an All-Star the year before; but Ben Simmons has the room to improve, specifically in one area, and could take a leap this season that warrants consideration for the award.

Simmons authored maybe the biggest moment in a preseason game thus far when he drilled a 27-foot three-pointer off the dribble in a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The shot sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave many Sixers fans hope for a new Ben this season, one that isn’t afraid to launch from deep.

While it is unclear whether this newfound brashness from beyond the arc will translate to games against actual NBA teams, the fact that he took the shot in any game is encouraging. If the shot attempts keep coming and a few makes come along with them, Simmons could go from All-Star to All-NBA this season.

The best comparison for Simmons’ Most Improved campaign would be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2016-2017 season. In 2015-16 Giannis averaged about 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 50 percent shooting. The next season, he averaged about 23 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 52 percent shooting on his way to being named Most Improved Player.

Last season, Simmons averaged about 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, on 56 percent shooting. It’s plausible that an improved jumper and increased confidence could give Simmons the push he needs to make a similar jump that Giannis did. 

Both players have proven to be impactful defenders. Giannis has longer arms and is a better rim protector, but Simmons can lock down perimeter players when he needs to, as seen in his total erasing of D’Angelo Russell in the Sixers’ playoff series against the Nets. If Simmons further engages on that end he could make himself an even more viable candidate.

Simmons making this leap would be a surprise and a fun story, but it would not be unprecedented.  If the jump shot proves viable, he will certainly garner some consideration for Most Improved.

All of these players share the ability and the opportunity to make a run at Most Improved this season, but that is not to say that they will be the only candidates. It is likely that multiple players will surprise us with a breakout season and throw their hat into the ring for this award. 

Be sure to stay up to date and check out Basketball Insiders’ postseason award watch, for all of the awards, this season.

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