It may be just a few weeks into the season, but a myriad of storylines have already made their social media and television rounds, chief among them players that seem to have taken a leap on the court and are emerging as game-changers or even potential stars.
Many of these spots could be taken by younger players — whether they surprise breakouts or guys that were just expected to improve as they take that next step in their respective careers. That said, they aren’t the only players that will take their game to the next level this season. Case-and-point, don’t always expect to see the same names here.
That said, here are five players who have jumped into the Most Improved Player race to start the season.
Honorable Mention: Luka Doncic, Wendell Carter Jr., Luke Kennard, Lonzo Ball, Aron Baynes, OG Anunoby, Donovan Mitchell, DeAndre Bembry
5. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac was expected to take a leap by many in 2019-20. And, thus far, the third-year forward has done little other than impress.
Isaac has taken strides in his offensive efficiency; he’s bumped his effective field goal percentage to 52 percent as he’s knocked down 37 percent of his three-point field goals and shot 53 percent from the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass.
Isaac has also boosted his assist percentage to the middle of the forward pack, per Cleaning the Glass, up from near the bottom of the position last season.
His improvements aren’t limited to the offensive end, however; while those are nice, Isaac’s true candidacy may come from his play on the defensive end. Thus far, Isaac has averaged three blocks per game, tied with Anthony Davis for the most in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s versatility has also been on full display. Not only does the forward have the size and length to battle other bigs on the block, but the foot speed to stick with smaller wings on the perimeter.
Issac’s elastic arms have made him in a menace in the passing lanes.
If he can continue to make a major impact on the defensive end, and keep up the offensive proficiency, Isaac should garner some major consideration for Most Improved come award season.
4. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
I know what you’re thinking: yes, Pascal Siakam has already taken home some Most Improved hardware.
And, yes, it would be unprecedented for Siakam to take home the award two years in a row; since the award’s first year, the 1985-86 season, no player has won it twice, let alone in back-to-back seasons.
That said, Siakam has been that good to start the 2019-20 regular season as he has led the Toronto Raptors to their 6-2 start.
With Kawhi Leonard gone, Siakam’s usage percentage season has jumped nearly 10 percent. While the uptick may have been expected, what’s impressive is that Siakam has maintained efficient numbers despite the extra, star-level touches every game.
Siakam’s three-point percentage, at the time of this writing, sits at 41.3 percent, up from 36.9 percent last season and on 5.8 attempts per game, up from 2.7. Also, unlike last season, Siakam has been deadly from around the arc rather than just in the corners; Siakam has drilled 44 percent of his non-corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass.
Per NBA.com, Siakam has hit on 36.4 percent of his pull-up threes, up from a measly 12.5 percent last year, also on significantly more attempts.
Something Siakam was unable to do last season was make defenders pay when they went underneath screens in the pick-and-roll. But, this season, it’s been a complete reversal, as he has attacked in these scenarios, launching threes and making defenders pay for not respecting his shot.
Siakam has averaged 27.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists through eight games. He’s the best player, on offense and defense, on a strong Eastern Conference contender. The Raptors, when Siakam has been on the court, have outscored opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions while they have been outscored by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
And, if all that doesn’t at least put him in the conversation for Most Improved, the NBA might as well get rid of the award.
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should fall squarely in the “De’Aaron Fox” category of the second-year player that has exploded onto the scene.
The disparity in his counting stats almost immediately make his case. Last season, the Kentucky product averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while he shot 36.7 percent from deep and 47.6 percent from the floor. In 2019-20? Gilgeous-Alexander has posted 22 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists through eight contests.
The sophomore also bumped his shooting numbers to 40 percent from behind the arc and 48.5 percent from the floor.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Gilgeous-Alexander has been the best player for the Oklahoma City Thunder thus far. With his length and solid instincts, he has proven a solid defender, while he has also led the team in scoring, ranked second in offensive rating (109.8) and fifth in net rating (4.2).
Gilgeous-Alexander’s best weapon is his right-handed running layup. He can use his length to skirt to the rim, extend and toss a layup off of the top of the backboard. Here, the guard breaks out to get the bucket over the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s assist rate is down from last season, but much of that can be attributed to the presence of Chris Paul and more time for Gilgeous-Alexander without the ball. Likewise, some of his increased production could prove due to the small sample size of the early season.
But, early on, his confidence and impressive play in a significantly larger role have given Gilgeous-Alexander the look like a star-in-the-making. That said, the opportunity to make an impact, and, more importantly, the touches, should be there for him; if he can maintain his current level of play, he should be in the thick of the award race come April.
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
After he expertly filled a secondary role in Milwaukee last season, Brogdon jumped ship to the Indiana Pacers and earned a leading role for his trouble.
And, through the first three weeks, the former Rookie of the Year has made the four-year, $85 million deal he signed looked like a bargain. In the Pacers’ nine games thus far in 2019-20, Brogdon, as their offensive fulcrum, has averaged 21 points, 5.1 rebounds and 9 assists per game, all improved from a season ago.
With the uptick in usage, Brogdon has seen a dip in his efficiency: his 45.8 and 31 percent shooting from the floor and three, respectively, are both down from last season (50.5, 42.6). However, that drop is due, at least in part, to an early-season slump, and should regress closer to Brogdon’s career averages (48.2, 40.5) as the season goes on.
Brogdon’s passing has been crucial to the Pacers, as he ranks third in the NBA in assists behind only Lebron James and Luka Doncic. When Brogdon’s on the floor, the Pacers’ offense is also nine points better per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Brogdon’s game isn’t particularly flashy. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he plays at his own pace and, more often than not, makes the right play. Despite an increased usage rate, Brogdon’s turnover percentage has remained low.
Here, running the pick-and-roll with Myles Turner, Brogdon doesn’t press. Instead, he takes what the defense gives him and makes his way into the paint. Then, holding DeAndre Jordan in his path, Brogdon fakes the layup before whipping a pinpoint pass to a wide-open Domantas Sabonis in the corner.
That’s a sub-par defensive effort by Jordan, but taking advantage of poor defense is a necessary trait for a starting point guard.
Brogdon isn’t Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving; he doesn’t particularly stand out on any given play. That said, should he continue to prove himself one of the league’s best assist-men, voters would be hard-pressed to pass on him once his shooting percentages climb back to normal levels.
1. Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
The best candidates for Most Improved are often the surprise ones. And Devonte’ Graham, a second-round pick in 2018, has been one of the biggest surprises in the season’s early going.
Behind Terry Rozier, Graham has solidified himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ top backup guard and first player off the bench. Through eight games, Graham has averaged 17 points, 7 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 31 minutes per game, a far cry from the 5 points and 3 assists he managed in 46 appearances last season.
Graham’s three-point shooting has proven his most effective weapon. 52 percent of his total shot attempts have come from deep, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, the sophomore guard has knocked down 41.8 percent of those shots.
Graham has punished defenders that would dare give him space with a deadly pull-up jumper. These shots haven’t exactly been easy, either; per NBA.com, the majority of his three-point attempts are pull-ups and he is converting on an otherworldy 50 percent of those attempts.
Graham often sprints down the court in semi-transition, hoping his opponent backs off a tad to prevent a drive. That one step has proven all he’s needed, as he launches without hesitation at the first sign of daylight.
Of course, it would seem as if this could prove unsustainable for Graham. For reference, in his record-breaking 2015-16 MVP season, Curry hit on just 44 percent of those same shots.
That said, even if he comes back to earth, Graham has improved across the board. He has increased his shooting fouls drawn rate to 12.5 percent, up from 7.3 percent last season, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, Graham’s assist percentage has jumped by nearly 10 percent.
Beyond that, his impact for Charlotte has been easy to see. When Graham’s on the floor, the Hornets have operated at a near-even net rating. But, when he hits the bench, that number plummets to -20.3, per Cleaning the Glass.
Right now, Graham should be considered the leader in award race. And, while it’s still early, his gargantuan leap has been fun to watch; should he maintain any semblance of it throughout the season, Graham could prove a runaway winner.
There is a lot of basketball left to play but, thus far, these five have stood out from the crowd of Most Improved candidates. The NBA season is a long one, and anything — slumps, injuries, etc. — could happen. Another, relatively unknown candidate could even break onto the scene and steal the show.
And, because of that uncertainty, make sure to follow along with Basketball Insiders’ award watches as we track them throughout the season.
Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player
Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.
The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.
But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.
Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112 – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.
Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.
What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.
First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.
But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.
However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.
It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.
While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.
It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.
So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.
Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.
“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”
But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.
Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?
Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.
But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.
The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in 2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!
Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.
It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.
The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.
NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans
Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.
Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.
But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.
In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.
Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.
Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.
That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.
So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.
When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.
But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?
That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.
Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.
While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.
He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.
That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.
The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.
In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.
The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.
Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.
Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.
What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4
It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.
But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.
The Clippers Hit Their Stride
Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.
So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.
With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.
After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.
So far, they’re off to a great start.
Injury Woes Continue in Portland
Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.
Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.
It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.
But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.
Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant
Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.
However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.
Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.
As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.
What’s Going On In New Orleans?
The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.
5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.
Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.
They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.
Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.