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Most Improved Player Watch

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the candidates for this year’s Most Improved Player award.

Buddy Grizzard

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Although a fairly broad consensus has formed regarding who should win the 2017 Most Improved Player Award, the field is actually quite crowded with players deserving of consideration. Herein we count down the candidates using a mix of stats to show their year-over-year improvement.

This table includes per 36 minute stats, true shooting and usage percentage, Player Efficiency Rating and SportVU’s defensive differential percentage for the last two seasons for the players listed below. SportVU has optical tracking cameras in all 29 NBA arenas and utilizes algorithms that determine defensive assignments 25 times per second. Defensive differential is the difference between shooting percentage when guarded by the player and the season average for opposing shooters.

15. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Oklahoma City’s last remaining superstar has increased his per 36 minute scoring from 24.6 to 32.6 this season. He’s in the midst of a historic campaign that could see a player average a triple-double for a season for the first time since Oscar Robertson did it in 1970-71. How can Westbrook not be higher on this list? The answer lies in the massive 10.3 percent jump in usage since last season. Westbrook is also averaging nearly three more rebounds per 36 minutes, but opponents are shooting four percent above their season average when he guards them, more than a two percent increase over last season.

14. Tim Hardaway Jr., Atlanta Hawks

As the Atlanta Hawks bumble their way toward another middling playoff seed, lost in the uninspiring story of their season is the breakout of Tim Hardaway Jr. Atlanta’s sixth man increased his per 36 scoring by nearly six points, although his true shooting percentage remained flat around 56 percent. The increased scoring output correlates to a better than six percent increase in usage, although he did jump from 42nd to 17th in PER among shooting guards. Once labeled a defensive liability by Knicks team president Phil Jackson, Hardaway has posted consecutive impressive defensive seasons in Atlanta.

13. Seth Curry, Dallas Mavericks

Curry went from appearing in 44 games (nine starts) and playing 692 minutes last season to 65 appearances, 37 starts and nearly 1900 minutes so far this season. He did see a two percent uptick in usage while his PER increased from 13.8 to 15.4. But looking at his per 36 minute stats, they’re nearly identical year-over-year. That’s not to say Curry didn’t improve. To maintain a similar rate of production in nearly triple the minutes and four times as many starts has significance. Incredibly, Curry is holding opposing shooters nearly eight percent lower compared to last season. However, the level of improvement doesn’t push Curry higher on this list.

12. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets

Capela’s assists stayed roughly the same while he is committing nearly half a turnover more per 36. Impressively, his true shooting percentage jumped by nearly eight points. Ultimately, his three-point bump in PER is largely explained by an increase of over four percent in usage. The NBA is an opportunity league and Dwight Howard’s defection to Atlanta has opened up plenty of opportunities for Capela in Houston.

11. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

Most of Thomas’ per 36 stats have remained flat, but he has jumped from 24.8 to 30.7 points per 36. He’s also seen a five-point increase in PER, but it’s accompanied by a usage increase of nearly five percent. He should absolutely be lauded for posting a career-best in true shooting (62 percent), which is a six percent improvement from last season. However, opponents are shooting two percent higher when guarded by Thomas compared to last year.

10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

Davis has stepped up in scoring with a career-high 27.7 points per 36 minutes, a full three points better than last season’s previous high. He also stepped up in rebounding, pulling down a career-best 16 per 36, a 1.5 rebound improvement over last year. As with Westbrook — though to a lesser degree — much of Davis’ improvement can be attributed to a three percent uptick in usage. He does deserve a ton of credit for holding opposing shooters nearly six percent below their average, a differential that is almost twice as good as what he posted last season. Prior to the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins, Davis was called upon to fill the stat sheet due to the overall talent-deficit on the Pelicans’ roster.

9. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks

Barnes’ per 36 scoring exploded from his previous career-high of 13.6 points in his final season with Golden State to 20 per 36 this season. However, his true shooting percentage and per-minute rebounding decreased slightly while assists decreased and turnovers increased. The latter is doubtlessly explained by having much more proficient scorers to pass to last season in Oakland. As with Westbrook, the huge increase in production is linked to a massive 10 percent increase in usage. With the Dallas Mavericks three games out of the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference, it’s fair to wonder how much of this is an improvement and how much is simply increased opportunity on a team desperate for scoring.

8. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

As the Pacers creep toward overtaking the Hawks for the fifth seed, Myles Turner is a major reason why Indiana is making some noise in the East. Although his per 36 stats are fairly consistent with his rookie season, Turner upped his PER by three points while his usage actually decreased by one percent. Turner compiled 25 steals as a rookie but already has 63 this season. He’s also taken a step up defensively, holding opponents four percent below their average. It seems like selling Turner short to rank him eighth, but despite a stellar sophomore campaign, the list is simply too crowded.

7. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

It’s tough to gauge improvement when a player is already so good. Leonard’s scoring has jumped by five points per 36 but his usage is up by more than five percent as well. Interestingly, Leonard is having an off season defensively (for his standards), allowing opponents to shoot nearly five percent higher than last season. Leonard won’t have a strong enough case for Most Improved Player, so he may just have to settle for MVP.

6. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz

Hayward has upped his scoring by more than three points per 36, improved his rebounding and cut down on turnovers. He’s also improved his true shooting slightly while impressively holding opposing shooters four percent lower than last season. Here again, despite a four-point leap in PER, it’s not a strong enough case to crack the top five.

5. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Basketball Insiders senior writer Ben Dowsett made a convincing argument for Beal to be among the top contenders for this award. Most of his jump from a 15.5 PER to 20.2 resulted from an increase of just under four points per 36 on true shooting that increased from 55 to nearly 61 percent. The bulk of his per 36 stats stayed flat while rebounding decreased. However, his bump in offensive production can’t be explained away by a jump in usage, which only increased by just over one percent.

4. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards

Thanks to spending much of the season with the league lead in three point percentage, Porter’s true shooting percentage skyrocketed from 56 percent to nearly 64 percent this season. The Wizards’ wing has also shown improvement in assist-to-turnover ratio. While his assists per 36 minutes decreased slightly from 1.9 to 1.7, he nearly cut his turnovers in half from 1.1 to a career-low .6 per 36. He managed a three point jump in PER while seeing his usage actually decrease by one percent, a testament to his supreme efficiency.

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Of particular note for Gobert is a quantum leap from 58 percent true shooting last season to nearly 68 percent this season. His PER took a major jump from 17.5 to 22.4, and he accomplished all of this while seeing his usage increase by a mere two percent. In any other season, it would be shocking if such accomplishments didn’t put Gobert at the head of the class in this discussion. But this is no ordinary season as the two stars below have gone supernova at an early stage in their respective careers.

2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic is part of a big man renaissance that is sweeping the NBA, joining a herd of unicorns that includes Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. His steals per 36 fell off from 1.6 as a rookie to just one this year while his assists per 36 jumped from 3.9 to an unimaginable 6.2. This was accompanied by only a slight increase in turnovers. Meanwhile, his true shooting percentage jumped from 58 percent to over 64 percent while his PER increased by nearly five points. All this was accomplished with a modest three percent increase in usage.

All of this equates to an offensive, creative force that will have NBA coaches losing sleep for the next decade-plus. How do you guard a player near seven-feet tall that can pass like a point guard and stretch the floor like a shooting guard? The only downfall for Jokic is that opponents are shooting five percent above their season average when he guards them, an increase of six percent compared to last season.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

If you look at ESPN.com’s stats page for the Milwaukee Bucks, you see a whole lot of the Greek Freak’s smiling face under the team leaders header. He might have become the first player to lead an NBA team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks, steals and field goal percentage for a full season, but he currently trails Greg Monroe and Michael Beasley in the latter category.

Antetokounmpo’s PER jumped by more than seven points, which is astounding even with an accompanying increase of nearly six percent in usage. He distinguishes himself from Jokic by holding opponents 3.4 percent below their season average. And his true shooting has jumped from 57 percent to nearly 61 percent while he’s added a rebound, half a steal, half a block and a full assist per 36. To be an NBA fan right now is like watching the night sky come alive with new stars forming new constellations. Giannis is the latest iteration of something the NBA seems to continuously gift us with … something we’ve never seen before. Needless to say, Antetokounmpo has a very strong case for this year’s Most Improved Player award.

 

 

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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