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NBA AM: MIP Favorites Signal Changing Trends

Top candidates for Most Improved Player signal changing league perception, writes Ben Dowsett.

Ben Dowsett

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You hear a lot about leaps in the NBA, and it makes sense. Every summer is a chance for guys to add new skills and conditioning, and a season that spans half the year offers plenty of opportunities for organic growth. The best guys get way, way better over their first few years in the league; the ones who don’t lag behind.

Not every leap is created equal, of course. There are too many factors involved. Certain broad patterns have appeared over the years, sure – point guards tend to take a year or two longer in many cases; four-year college guys don’t typically leap as much as blue-chip freshmen; bigs who can’t block shots when they get in the league rarely develop those skills later on.

The Most Improved Player award is a fascinating look at these leaps, and the league’s general perception of them. C.J. McCollum, last year’s winner, is a perfect example of one of the most common templates: A slightly “forced” leap where a guy sees a huge expansion in role that drives up his traditional statistics (to be clear, McCollum’s ability to markedly improve his efficiency on such an increased burden was incredibly impressive, and absolutely warranted the award).

There are others, too. Goran Dragic’s MIP hardware for the 2013-14 season was in part a nod to that late point guard development we occasionally see – he won in his sixth season, already at the age of 27. There are late-draft gems who simply force their way into the picture, like Jimmy Butler the following year. The occasional high lottery pick takes it home, like Kevin Love in his third season, though voters tend to shy away from guys like this who are “expected” to make these leaps.

There’s one particular category of leap, though, that feels under-represented within the recent history of the award: The leap from good/great to elite/borderline star.

It’s an imprecise science, of course, but many around the league will tell you this is the “hardest” leap of all, and simple logic and arithmetic might agree – fewer guys make this leap than most others, by definition. Love is the closest we’ve seen to a good example here in a decade or more; the most recent before that was probably Tracy McGrady in 2000-01 (sorry, Gilbert Arenas fans). We can pick a nit about the definitions of terms like “star” here or there, but the theme is apparent.

There could be a shift in motion, though.

It may have begun earlier, but some of the first signs came last year, when Stephen Curry and Draymond Green – the former the reigning MVP, the latter a breakout star from the previous season – both finished in the top seven for MIP voting (Curry was fourth, Green was seventh). Media voting didn’t end up reflecting it, but there was serious support behind each of their candidacies, especially among analytically inclined folks. Curry, in particular, was almost historically unique among guys who finished so high.

Fast forward to this year, and it’s possible nearly all the primary candidates will fit the bill to some degree. There’s still a lack of general consensus behind the presumed wide frontrunner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but maybe that’s precisely because of the lack of more traditional candidates – and it’s possible several of the slots behind Giannis could also go to more established players than we’d expect. In no particular order besides the guy at the top, let’s take a look at this new breed of MIP candidate and what they might mean for the league’s collective perception of “leaps.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis is in some pretty rarified historical air as far as the Most Improved Player award goes. He was third last year, a deserving finish after what would qualify as a perfectly fine leap season for nearly all NBA players. Assuming no big surprises this year, he should finish on the podium again, and that’s a lot rarer.

The only other guys since 2000 to pull off that particular feat? Kevin Durant and Steve Nash. Decent company.

Antetokounmpo still struggles with consistency and his jump shot, but he’s a force of nature when he’s locked in – and completely unstoppable when the J is falling. He’s shooting an obscene 71 percent at the rim on a ton of attempts, and drawing free throws at easily the highest per-possession rate of his career. In maybe his most impressive feat, he’s taken on a huge rise in usage while his turnover percentage has dropped – it’s now gone down every year he’s been in the league as his percentage of team possessions used has gone in the opposite direction.

His other big leap has come on the defensive end, where ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric rates him among the league’s 40 most impactful players. What’s scary is, he’s still putting it all together on that end – he’ll still space out or lose a simple assignment from time to time, and he isn’t engaged quite often enough. But he’s just so physically dominant, and so comfortable in his body at this point in his career. He makes up for as many lapses as any non-LeBron player in the league.

The Bucks could probably cement his title here if they sneak into the playoffs, and there’s a good chance the hardware is his regardless.

Rudy Gobert

We covered much of Gobert’s overall rise to stardom earlier this year in this space, and he’s probably been even better on balance since then. He missed his first game of the entire year last week, a shellacking at the hands of the Thunder that exposed the degree to which the Jazz miss him – not only defensively, but on the other end as well.

Gobert has become one of the most impactful screeners in the game, sitting second in the NBA in screen assists. His gravitational pull on perimeter defenders as he rolls to the rim was visibly missing against Oklahoma City, as was drastically improved timing that’s quietly among the best in the league for guys his size. He’s leading the NBA in True Shooting Percentage, blocking shots at a higher rate than any other guy in the league and continuing to dominate defensively even in more small Jazz lineups than ever before. He should finish no lower than second for Defensive Player of the Year, and the discerning voter could have him in the same territory for MIP as well.

Nikola Jokic

It feels crazy that this guy is only in his second year. Jokic had the efficiency metrics of a borderline star as a rookie, and now he’s in bona fide star territory. His combination of passing and shooting has basically never been duplicated by anyone else his size, and he’s barely 22. Surround him with shooters, and there simply is no good answer for guarding him.

Jokic is still a miserable defender, part of the reason he’s likely a hair short of the first two guys to this eye. He swipes at everything and doesn’t move his feet nearly well enough, something that could be an issue for his entire career. He’s also only sitting on about 27 minutes a night, partially due to a weird early-season stretch where coach Mike Malone tried to incorporate both him and Jusuf Nurkic.

Most guys still have another couple levels to hit when they’re this age, and that should scare the rest of the league.

Bradley Beal

Beal has been a trendy pick to win this one in the past, and some might say his top-three draft slot disqualifies him. That’s fine.

But Beal is another variation of the great-to-elite jumps: Some of his rise in acclaim is probably due to better health than we’ve come to expect, yes, but that partially obscures the fact that he’s simply been way better this year. This isn’t a big rise in role – he’s shooting a bit more often, but his overall usage hasn’t moved much.

Instead, Beal has streamlined his game, shooting a higher percentage of his shots from deep and at the rim than ever before. He’s cut down on some of his more careless turnovers, appearing more consistently sharp both with and without the ball. Any little bits of hesitation from beyond the arc are gone; if he’s got daylight, that sucker is going up, and it’s splashing down over 40 percent of the time again.

Beal and teammate Otto Porter could steal a vote or two from each other here, and the field is wide open enough behind Antetokounmpo that it could make a real difference. Both guys deserve consideration, though, and Beal’s performance feels a bit more under-the-radar.

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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NBA Daily: Jaylen Hands Makes Good Showing at the NBA Combine

Jaylen Hands made a good showing at the NBA Combine by displaying his offensive skills and defensive intensity.

Jesse Blancarte

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UCLA has produced a few of the NBA’s top point guards over the last decade or so, including Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday. Jrue’s younger brother, Aaron Holiday, has declared for this year’s draft and is projected by several NBA insiders to be selected with a first-round pick (likely in the 20-30 range). But Aaron Holiday isn’t the only UCLA point guard who may end up taking his talents to the NBA this offseason. Jaylen Hands, who is still just 19 years old and finished his freshman season, has also entered his name into this year’s draft.

While Hands has entered his name into the draft and participated in the NBA Combine, he has not hired an agent, which preserves his ability to return to college (Hands has until June 11 to make a final decision). Considering Hands’ young age and raw skill set, he isn’t projected by many insiders to hear his name called on draft night. But he certainly helped his cause in the Combine, showcasing his offensive talents, the muscle he has added to his slight frame since the end of his freshman season and aggressiveness on defense.

Basketball Insiders spoke with Hands at the Combine about his development, going through the pre-draft process, competing against familiar faces and more.

“It’s crazy, it’s crazy because when we were younger, they said the exact thing: ‘You guys are going to see each other forever.’” Hands said when asked about competing against many of the same players over the years and now at the Combine. “And you don’t really believe what they’re saying. But now you go through high school, you’re a senior, All-Star activities and you go to the Combine, you see the same people. It’s crazy.”

Hands has a notable skill set but is a raw prospect that many believe would be better served spending another year in college. While Hands needs to continue filling out his frame, he did register decent measurements at the Combine in relation to a top guard prospect – Trae Young of Oklahoma. Hands weighed in at 1.2 lbs heavier than Young, and outmatched Young in height (with and without shoes), standing reach and wingspan. Ironically, Hands has the smallest hands of all players that participated in the Combine. While these measurements don’t mean that he is currently a comparable prospect to Young, they could address some concerns about his current physical profile and how it may ultimately translate to the NBA.

Hands proved himself to be a confident and aggressive player in his freshman season at UCLA – something that he believes has led to misconceptions about his game.

“I’m not a point guard,” Hands said when asked about what misconceptions people have about his game.

I wouldn’t say it’s common, like it’s the main thing. But I’ve heard that I shoot first or something like that. I just feel like I attack a lot. I think I attack a lot and I’m of size to being a [two guard], so I think some people get it misconstrued. I just think I’m attack first, set my teammates up, get what I get.”

Hands is clearly aware of the common perceptions and current shortcomings in his game, which is why he is working hard to improve his overall skill set and is testing the NBA waters to get feedback from teams.

“Before I came here, just being more steady working on my shot, making good reads out of the pick and roll, finishing.” Hands said when asked about what parts of his game he was working on before coming to the Combine.

Hands was asked to clarify what he believes is his best strength at this point. Hands didn’t hesitate and pointed toward his ability to make plays off the dribble.

“My best strength is getting in the paint. So I get in the paint and make plays,” Hands said.

Hands is also clearly aware of UCLA’s history of producing quality point guards and has a chance to one day develop into a quality guard at the NBA level. However, with Holiday heading to the NBA and no major competition for the starting point guard position at UCLA next season, it may benefit Hands to hold off on turning pro for at least another year.

Whether he stays at UCLA or commits to this year’s draft, there’s no doubt that Hands is going to keep pushing to develop into a quality NBA player.

“I want to be the best player I can in the league,” Hands said. “That’s my goal.”

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NBA Daily: 2018 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 5/22/18

The final 2018 NBA Draft order is set and Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler offers up his latest 60-pick NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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Lots of Draft Movement

With the draft order now set for the 2018 NBA Draft, there is some sense of how the draft might play out.

The buzz coming out of the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago is that a number of picks could be had in trade include all three of the top selections. Word is the initial asking price is very high and more of an indication to the San Antonio Spurs that if they do want to part with disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard, they are open for business.

It’s also worth noting that there is a growing sense that both the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawk may be far higher on some of the domestic bigs in the draft more so than euro sensation Luka Dončić. Both teams are expected to take a long look at Dončić, so their views on him could change as we get closer to the draft, but for now, Dončić may go lower.

Here is the latest 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft, reflecting the final draft order and the latest buzz, rumors, and intel from in and around the NBA:

Dates To Know:

The NCAA requires all players wishing to maintain their college eligibility, without penalty, to withdraw from the NBA Draft by 11:59 pm on May 30. That is an NCAA mandated date, not related to anything involving the NBA, and that notice must be delivered in writing.

The NBA’s draft withdrawal date is June 11 by 5:00 pm ET. The NBA’s date allows a prospect to remain NBA draft eligible for future NBA drafts and is not related to any NCAA rule or date. There are ways for college players that did not accept benefits to return to college. However, they may be subject to NCAA penalties.

The 2018 NBA Draft is June 21.

The Pick Swaps:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer. The Brooklyn Nets traded several unprotected picks to Boston as part of the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trades in 2015.

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers’ 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015. The 76ers traded that pick to the Boston Celtics as part of the draft pick trade that became Markelle Fultz before the draft; it has 2 through 5 protections. This pick will convey.

The LA Clippers are owed the Detroit Pistons first-round pick in 2018 as a result of the Blake Griffin trade.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the final NBA standings.

The Phoenix Suns were owed the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick would only convey if the Bucks pick landed between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the final NBA standings did not convey. The Suns will now receive the Bucks 2019 first-round pick assuming it falls between the fourth and 16th pick.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves’ first-round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey to Atlanta based on the final NBA standings.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Jazz/Wolves Ricky Rubio trade this past summer. The Jazz acquired the pick as part of the Thunder’s deal to obtain Enes Kanter in 2015. The pick was lottery protected and would convey based on the final NBA standings.

The Chicago Bulls are owed the New Orleans Pelicans first-round pick as a result of the Nikola Mirotic trade. The pick was top-five protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The LA Lakers are owed the Cleveland Cavaliers first-round pick as a result of Jordan Clarkson/Larry Nance Jr. trade. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors’ first-round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick was lottery protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets’ first-round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick was top-three protected and based on the final NBA standings would convey

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects – http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @mike_yaffe, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Shamet Comfortable With Steady Self Going Into Draft

With a natural feel for the game, Wichita State guard Landry Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

Spencer Davies

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No matter what professional field a person wants to work in, there are multiple ways to show why they belong.

A positive attitude is everything, confidence goes a long way and honesty truly is the best policy.

Speaking with Wichita State product Landry Shamet this past week at the NBA Combine in Chicago, it’s clear that he has all three of those boxes checked off.

“It’s been great,” Shamet said of the event. “Just trying to absorb everything, soak everything up. It’s a big learning experience for sure. A lot of knowledge to be attained (at the Combine). With interviews and playing on the court, being coached by NBA guys, it’s been cool so far.”

During his three years with the Shockers, the 6-foot-4, 188-pound guard accomplished quite a few feats, but his junior season was arguably the most spectacular. Not only did Shamet lead his team in multiple ways, but he also topped out in four statistical categories in the American Athletic Conference—the school’s first year there after moving on from the Missouri Valley.

Shamet’s 166 assists (5.2 per game average) were the most in the AAC by far. In addition, his true shooting percentage (65.5) and three-point percentage (44.2) ranked number one among his peers.

From entering the program in 2015 to now, he feels that he’s grown dramatically as a player—but in what areas, specifically?

“I would say being a point guard honestly,” Shamet said. “I was recruited in as a two. But just kinda that leadership role, that accountability. Knowing that you’re gonna get a lot of scrutiny (after) a loss and you’re gonna be responsible for a win. Regardless of how the game goes, it’s your responsibility.”

Much of his development at Wichita State was courtesy of a hands-on approach with Gregg Marshall, one of the most revered head coaches in college basketball. Thanks to his guidance, Shamet feels ready, even in aspects outside of his offensive ability.

“On the defensive end, I feel comfortable with my positioning,” Shamet said. “Obviously, need to get better. You can always get better on the defensive end. That’s one thing I’ve been focusing on. Trying to get more athletic. Just be better defensively. He gave me the groundwork for sure. 100 percent.”

Shamet has kept in touch with Marshall throughout the entire pre-draft process. He was told to “smile and relax” in interviews and to be confident, which he’s certainly followed through with.

A similar message has come from Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, two former Shockers who have each made their mark at the professional level.

“Just be yourself, you know,” Shamet said of VanVleet’s pointers. “That’s really what it boils down to I think. He’s been great to have him in my corner—a guy like that who’s been through a lot of adversity on his way to the NBA, so I’m gonna listen to him 10 times out of 10.”

VanVleet’s career is already taking off with the Toronto Raptors as a part of their young and hungry bench. But with four more inches of height and a similar feel for the game, Shamet has more than enough of a chance to carve his own path of success in the NBA.

And it won’t require flash or making a daily highlight-reel to do so.

“I’d like to just say versatile,” Shamet said of his game. “Just try to stay solid. I don’t ever try to make spectacular plays all the time. Try to just do what I feel I can do—play multiple positions, both positions, on or off the ball. I’m comfortable at either spot, honestly. Whether it’s facilitating, scoring, whatever the case may be.

“I feel like I have a high IQ as well. Just a cerebral player. Not gonna ‘wow’ you with crossing people up and doing things that a lot of the guys in the limelight do all the time. But I feel like I’m a solid player. Pretty steady across the board.”

However, just because he rarely shows off on the court doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability to do it.

“I feel like I’m a little more athletic than I might get credit for,” Shamet said. “I think I’m a better athlete than I get credit for.”

Shamet is projected to go anywhere from the middle-to-late first round of the draft in June. Whoever lands the Kansas City native will be getting a tireless worker who does things the right way and is all about the team.

But for now, he’s soaking in everything he possibly can before that night comes.

“I don’t have all the answers,” Shamet candidly said. “I’m a 21-year-old kid, man I guess. So just trying to learn as much as I can, gain some knowledge, get good feedback—because at the end of the day, I’m not a perfect player. I know that.”

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