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NBA PM: Draft Mistakes GMs Make

Misreading the potential of an international prospect like Jan Vesley is a common mistake NBA GMs make at the draft…

Joel Brigham

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We all make mistakes. Unfortunately, some people’s mistakes can end up costing their employers millions of dollars, and that’s why so much pressure is on NBA general managers to select the right player at each year’s draft.

That seems like it should be easy enough to do, but every year there are executives that make massive mistakes in the players that they select. Here’s a look at some of the most common of those errors, as well as a look at which players could trip up teams this year:

#7 – Drafting players with a questions about character

Why they do it: Because Dennis Rodman is a Hall of Famer. There’s more behind it than that, obviously, with questionable guys like Ron Artest and Amar’e Stoudemire having had tremendous careers despite questions about their character. Those guys are more the exception than the rule, however, and in many cases when a player comes in with a lot of behavioral issues, it’s better to just let them go. No talent is worth locking yourself into a guaranteed first-round pick if they’re going to make the locker room miserable somewhere down the road.

Case in point: Terrence Williams (New Jersey, 11th pick in 2009 draft), Sean Williams (New Jersey, 17th pick in 2007 draft), Sebastian Telfair (Portland, 13th pick in 2004 draft)

This draft’s potential culprit: Robert Upshaw. The seven-foot Washington center is so loaded with talent (and size and athleticism) that there are plenty of people that believe he’d be a top-ten pick were it not for all of his character concerns. He was kicked off of two different college teams and has a history of pretty serious drug use, but talent like his could be enough to hypnotize a team into giving him a guaranteed first-round contract anyway. He’s better off left to the second round, where a gamble like that makes more sense.

#6 – Drafting players with histories of injury

Why they do it: Because injuries heal, but talent is forever. At least, that’s what teams tell themselves when they use a first-round pick on a player who faced a lot of injuries in college. Every year, some player with injury concerns drops and drops and drops down the draft board, but every year there’s also a previously injured player who gets taken very, very high. In some cases, things work out okay (Kenyon Martin, Kyrie Irving), but other times (like with Greg Oden), it can be devastating. If all things are equal, and a GM has a choice between a player known for being hurt or a player with a clean bill of health, why not just draft Kevin Durant?

Case in point: Greg Oden (Portland, 1st pick in the 2007 draft), Brandon Roy (Minnesota, 6th pick in the 2006 draft), Wayne Simien (Miami, 29th pick in the 2005 draft)

This draft’s potential culprit: Rashad Vaughn, Chris McCullough. Almost every year it’s a high draft prospect coming off a serious injury who makes this conversation interesting: Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, Kyrie Irving. This year, though, the top guys are all pretty healthy, and while Tyus Jones has shut down workouts the rest of the way because of minor back injury, Vaughn is a guy who got shut down only 23 games into his freshmen year because of a torn meniscus in his knee. He opted to have the cartilage removed a la Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Eric Bledsoe, and that could cause issues for him down the road, just like it could for all those other players.

McCullough, meanwhile, a freshman power forward out of Syrcause, suffered an ACL tear back in January and hasn’t played since. He’s a bubble first-rounder, but it’s easy to wonder if a safer selection in the late 20s wouldn’t be wiser. Leave an injury risk like that to those offering non-guaranteed contracts.

#5 – Drafting for potential rather than experience

Why they do it: Because open air is better than a closed ceiling. How many times do we see teams go with a kid that might be good rather than a player who already is undeniably reliable? Usually, the “potential” guys that succeed are the ones that pretty much everybody agrees on. The ones with a considerably smaller success rate are the “hope-so” guys, and that’s where the problem lies. You’re probably not going to strike out with LeBron James over anybody else in that amazing 2003 draft, for example, but in 2001, when three of the top four players were high schoolers, we saw a lot of faith poured into young guys when plenty of proven college studs were available. It gets teams into trouble more often than it saves them, even in the years since high school kids were banned from the draft.

Case in point: Jonathan Bender (Toronto, 5th pick in 1999 draft ahead of Richard Hamilton, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, Jason Terry, and more), Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry (1st and 4th picks in 2001 draft ahead of Jason Richardson, Shane Battier, Joe Johnson, Richard Jefferson, and more), Shaun Livingston (LAC, 4th pick in the 2004 draft ahead of Luol Deng and Andre Iguodala), Marvin Williams (Atlanta, 2nd pick in 2005 draft ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams).

This draft’s potential culprit: Myles Turner, Devin Booker. Coming out of high school, Turner was one of the top five prospects in the country, so expectations were extremely high for him his freshman year at Texas. He underwhelmed there, however, but it’s his athleticism and seemingly endless potential that still has him slated as a lottery pick despite his inability to dominate on the NCAA level. Any team drafting him would have to hope he wouldn’t be equally disappointing as a pro. There are plenty of players available in that range that are much surer things.

Booker’s issue, meanwhile, is the same as every other player coming out of Kentucky; they did a lot as a team this year, but no player on that roster has really been given the opportunity to shine as an individual. Booker’s drawing a lot of attention as the draft gets closer; it’s just impossible to know how he’d do as a team centerpiece rather than a role player.

#4 – Trying to find the next big international success

Why they do it: Because American stars are a dime a dozen, but international stars are harder to find. Also, there are times when a team wants to take advantage of a foreign market for financial reasons, and that helps fuel drafting an international prospect as well. There was a while there where European players were picked like crazy, but those selections have tapered off the last several drafts, where only a handful of international prospects are chosen in the first round.

Despite their popularity, though, not all of these Euro kids will work out. So few international players become superstars, and there’s huge flop potential for these unproven players. That’s why drafting them is so scary. As far as risk vs. reward is concerned, it’s about as bad a payoff as you can get in a draft.

Case in point: Yi Jianlian (Milwaukee, 6th pick in 2007 draft), Fran Vasquez (Orlando, 11th pick in 2005 draft), Darko Milicic (Detroit, 2nd pick in 2003 draft), Nikoloz Tskitishvili (Denver, 5th pick in 2002 draft), Frederic Weis (New York, 15th pick in 1999 draft)

This draft’s potential culprit: Mario Hezonja and Kristaps Porzingis. Both players are pegged as top-ten selections, and scouts love them, but it really has been challenging the last several years to determine which international players were going to prove worthy of a first-round gamble. A lot of these young European players are coming from storied Euro programs for which they aren’t even playing big minutes, so it varies greatly how they adjust to the league.

In recent years there have been some that have succeeded (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Mirotic) and some who did not (Lucas Nogueira, Jan Vesely, Bismack Biyombo), so it’s really anybody’s guess how Hezonja and Porzingis will pan out. For a GM to draft either just to look smarter than everyone else drafting American players is just silly. With more tape on some of the safer picks, it would be much easier to take the known commodities.

#3– Drafting big

Why they do it: Because you can’t teach height. The best seven-footers in league history have been borderline unstoppable, so teams often find themselves erring on the side of tallness. There have been myriad times when a tall, unskilled player has been selected over a smaller, much more skilled one, and it’s all done with the hope that they’ll strike it rich with an influential big guy. Unfortunately, the list of gigantic flops (pun intended) is pretty depressing, and this is a mistake GMs will never stop making because the potential payoff is entirely too big. Literally.

Case in point: Bismack Biyombo (Charlotte, 7th pick, 2011), Hasheem Thabeet (Memphis, 2nd pick in 2009 draft), Patrick O’Bryant (Golden State, 9th pick in 2006 draft), Mouhammed Saer Sene (Seattle, 10th pick in 2006 draft), Pavel Podkolzin (Utah, 21st pick in 2004 draft), Sagana Diop (Cleveland, 8th pick in the 2001 draft), Michael Olowokandi (LAC, 1st pick in 1998 draft)

This draft’s potential culprit: Frank Kaminsky, Myles Turner. In a lot of drafts there usually is a gigantic guy slated for the first half of the first round with no exceptional skill other than the fact that he’s huge. Jakob Poetl would have been that guy had he come out this year, but his having stayed at Utah doesn’t really leave a whole lot of candidates for this year. Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor are tall but highly skilled, as is Frank Kaminsky. Turner has a lot of questions about his game, and his seven-foot frame won’t hurt his stock, but he’s not just a get-in-there-and-foul-their-best-big-man kind of player, either. Perhaps GMs are wising up to how unsuccessful this drafting strategy has been in the past, or maybe this year is just an anomaly. Either way, if a team is going to draft a big guy, he needs to have a skillset that actually translates to the NBA. Very often in the past, this has not been the case.

#2– Drafting undersized players

Why they do it: This is most common when it comes to drafting 5’11 point guards and 6’7 power forwards, and success stories like Muggsy Bogues, Spud Webb, Charles Barkley, and Dennis Rodman are enough to make GM’s think that success can be repeated. Modern examples like Isaiah Thomas and Carlos Boozer haven’t helped buck the trend, either, but too often we see teams take risks on guys that are clearly too small to play their best position in the NBA because there’s the hope that talent transcends size. Occasionally that can be true, but more often the end result is players who are physically overpower at the next level.

There’s a reason guys like this often slip to the second round; teams don’t want to guarantee contracts to players they aren’t sure can make it to the next level. Occasionally, though, these guys go way, way higher than they should, and that’s where the biggest mistakes are made.

Case in point: Johny Flynn (5’11, 6th pick in 2009 draft), Ike Diogu (6’8, 9th pick in 2005 draft), Sean May (6’8, 13th pick in 2005 draft), Mike Sweetney (6’8, 9th pick in the 2003 draft), Speedy Claxton (5’11, 20th pick in 2000 draft)

This draft’s potential culprit: Montrezl Harrell, Jordan Mickey. Teams don’t really want undersized guys anymore; they want tall people who play like small people, and for that reason there seem to be fewer and fewer undersized point guards and power forwards finding their way to the top of teams’ draft boards. Isaiah Thomas, at 5’11, has proven it can be done, but it’s not anywhere near the norm. Teams just don’t take those kinds of risks anymore. Harrell and Mickey are both slightly undersized as power forwards at 6’8, but they’re as close as it gets to undersized studs in this draft.

#1– Drafting for need over best player available

Why they do it: Because it’s the logical thing to do. Logic doesn’t always equal success, however, and that means we’ve seen some very logical picks go very wrong in the past. If you’re the Portland Trail Blazers in 1984 and you’ve already got Clyde Drexler, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to draft Michael Jordan, does it? Go with size instead, you tell yourself. The rest of this story you know, but it dramatically illustrates how drafting for need can go wrong.

It can also go right, but occasionally this tactic gets GMs into trouble. In the big picture of big mistakes, however, this isn’t the worst one by far.

Case in point: Sam Bowie (2nd pick in 1984 draft ahead of Michael Jordan), Darko Milicic (Detroit, 2nd pick in 2003 draft ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade).

This draft’s potential culprit: Philadelphia at pick #3. Everybody assumes that Towns and Okafor will be the first two picks in the draft, but if D’Angelo Russell or someone else leapfrogs one of those two players, Philadelphia will have a really interesting decision to make at #3. They truly do not need another big man, having taken Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid with their top picks in the last two drafts. But would it really be wise to pass on Okafor or Towns for, say, Emmanuel Mudiay? Not a chance. The smart pick is to take player with the surer path to All-Stardom, even if they don’t necessarily need him.

Like Billy Bob Thornton’s character says in the movie Bad Santa, “They can’t all be winners, kid,” and that’s really the truth. All of the players selected in any given draft can’t be a success. They just can’t. And sometimes, team executives simply can’t avoid making the sorts of mistakes mentioned in this article. All fans can do is hope that the people in charge make the best choices, and that the right players end up on the right teams.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA Daily: Davis Bertans Joins Ranks Of NBA’s Elite Marksmen

Not even his most ardent supporters knew what the San Antonio Spurs were losing and Washington Wizards were gaining with Davis Bertans. Nearing two months into the season, he’s suddenly among the best shooters in basketball. Jack Winters writes.

Jack Winter

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Not even the best shooter in the world can inform his team’s effectiveness from beyond the arc alone.

The assumption otherwise was put to the test in last year’s NBA Finals, when the Golden State Warriors — with Kevin Durant watching sidelined — proved hapless offensively without both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson on the floor. If one of the Splash Brothers can’t turn a lineup of non-shooters into a threatening attack from deep, no one can.

But watching Davis Bertans this season, it’s tempting to think just how much better the San Antonio Spurs would be if he still played in the Alamo City. It’s not a complete hypothetical, either. Gregg Popovich is on record confirming the Spurs never would have traded Bertans to free up cap space if Marcus Morris had no interest in coming aboard. Less than a week after he agreed to terms with San Antonio, though, Morris reneged on his commitment to take a one-year deal with the New York Knicks.

It’s remiss to suggest retaining Bertans would make a season-altering difference for the Spurs. But what’s absolutely clear is that San Antonio’s loss has been a bigger gain for the Washington Wizards than anyone could have realistically anticipated.

The best suggest Bertans’ value in a league-wide vacuum this summer is what Washington gave up to get him. Aaron White was the team’s second-round pick in 2015 and played the last four seasons overseas. He might have a chance of finding his way to the league going forward, but it’s telling that White has expressed interest in transitioning to the NBA on multiple occasions only to head back to Europe toward the end of each offseason.

For all intents and purposes, it seems, the only thing of value Washington used to acquire Bertans was a trade exception. Take a bow, Tommy Sheppard. But it’s safe to say that not even the Wizards general manager saw this long-range onslaught coming.

Bertans cashed five more threes on Friday night in his team’s loss to the Miami Heat, bringing his season-long total to 78 on just over eight attempts per game. Only James Harden and Devonté Graham have connected on more triples than Bertans, and neither of them sniffs his 44.8 percent shooting from beyond arc. There are 35 players with at least 50 made threes this season; just four of them are have been more accurate than Bertans, per NBA.com.

Maybe some Spurs fans aren’t shocked by Bertans’ prowess from deep. He made a mini leap as a shooter in 2018-19, adding a bit of versatility to his long ball while upping his accuracy more than five points to 42.9 percent. Bertans isn’t some seasoned veteran, either. He was drafted in 2011 but only entered the league in 2016-17, and just turned 27. Some growth was to be expected from Bertans, basically, especially as the game’s emphasis on three-point shooting continues reaching new zeniths.

But the jump Bertans has made to join the exclusive shooting club reserved for the likes of J.J. Redick and Joe Harris is stunning nonetheless. After mostly serving as a weak-side floor-spacer and pet play shooter, Bertans is hunting threes this season while exuding the confidence and conviction of a true marksman with every step he takes on the floor.

Wonder why Bertans leads the NBA in points per possession in transition? He routinely sprints to open spots when the floor changes sides, and Washington ball-handlers know to look for him.

It’s hard enough for most guards to stop on a dime and launch catch-and-shoot triples in transition, which makes Bertans’ ability to do so all the more impressive. He stands 6-foot-10, but you’d never know it by the speed and footwork he often utilizes to create enough space for himself to launch.

All players Bertans’ size not named Durant are supposed to need an extra blip before letting fly. It’s hard enough for them to set their feet and square their shoulders to the rim on the move without worrying about getting a shot off in time to avoid an effective contest. But Bertans gets to his shooting form with remarkable ease, sometimes even hopping on the catch when his air space is closing fast, and owns one of the quickest releases in basketball.

Coming into 2019-20, Bertans had connected on just 20 off-dribble triples over three full seasons. He’s over halfway to that total through 21 games, regularly using a bounce or two to find some extra breathing room between he and the defense.

Is this Durant or Bertans?

Of course, Bertans would be the talk of the league even more than he is already if the skill he exhibits as a shooter fully translated to the rest of his game.

He can drive hard close-outs or turn the corner after a dribble hand-off with two or three dribbles to get to the rim, but has little workable wiggle in his handle. More problematic is his tendency to finish like a guard, too. Bertans is far better described as a fluid athlete than an explosive one, but that doesn’t mean he should regularly opt for floaters and scoops when challenged by rim-protectors in the paint.

His ceiling is also limited by his lack of positional versatility. Bertans is surprisingly light on his feet and fights hard defensively, but is way overstretched checking smalls. He possesses natural timing as a shot-blocker, but has short arms and vertical oomph needed to compensate. Bertans is a four-man, and that’s pretty much the extent of his positional scalability.

That’s why he’s probably best suited coming off the bench for the remainder of his career, perhaps closing games not just for Washington, but a title contender. Bertans is already proving himself as a high-impact offensive player, leading the Wizards – who boast a top-five offense, remember – in offensive rating and ranking behind only Bradley Beal in terms of net offensive efficiency. Lineups featuring that tandem are scoring 120.1 points per 100 possessions, almost 16 more than when Beal is on the floor without Bertans, per NBA.com.

The bad news for Washington? Bertans is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and an uninspiring list of marquee free agents assures he’ll be getting major upgrade on his $7 million salary. The Wizards should have enough flexibility to bring him back, but there’s no guarantee he’ll want to remain in the nation’s capital. It bears mentioning that Bertans has made clear he still considers San Antonio home.

But his future is a concern to be addressed another time.

For now, Bertans is a problem for Washington’s opponents to deal with, and unfortunately for them, there’s no workable answer to limiting his influence – just like that of every other shooter his increasingly rarified caliber.

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NBA Daily: Horton-Tucker Making Most Of Time With South Bay Lakers

David Yapkowitz has a chat with Los Angeles Lakers rookie guard Talen Horton-Tucker about getting reps in the G League with South Bay and what he sees his role being in the NBA when that time comes.

David Yapkowitz

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When the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Talen Horton-Tucker this summer, the expectation was that he probably wouldn’t receive much playing time. On a veteran-laden team with championship expectations, there wasn’t going to be much of a role for a rookie.

That was further accentuated when Horton-Tucker suffered a stress reaction in his right foot, causing him to miss all of Summer League, which kept him limited during training camp. When he was finally cleared to return to the court, the Lakers assigned him to their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.

He has suited up in only one game for the Lakers this season, but he’s played in every game with South Bay so far. In 11 games in the G League, he’s shown flashes of why the Lakers still drafted him despite suffering the foot injury during the draft combine.

His time in the G League was his first meaningful court action since leading Iowa State to the NCAA Tournament last spring.

“It feels great to be out here finally. I’m just trying to catch a rhythm with South Bay,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it a day at a time. I feel like it’s been pretty good for my overall growth, that’s what’s important.”

Horton-Tucker has fit in well with the South Bay roster. He’s shown an ability to shoot from the perimeter at times, and he’s looked comfortable in putting the ball on the floor and making plays off the dribble.

His shot hasn’t always been on point, though. He’s shooting only 32.4 percent from the field and 24.2 percent from the three-point line, but he’s gotten good looks from the perimeter within the flow of the offense. And despite that, he’s made himself valuable on the court by contributing in other ways. He’s attacked the glass well, and he keeps the ball moving while looking to set teammates up for easy shots.

He’s managed to average double-digits in scoring with 11.8 points per game, and he’s put up 5.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists as well. Being able to be a positive on the court when his offense isn’t quite there yet is something he believes will help his career moving forward.

“I feel like if you play basketball, you’ve got to learn how to do everything. It’s just something I got to do,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Whenever my shot is not falling, I know I can stay involved and rebound. I’ll still be able to contribute to a winning environment. I feel like I’ve been doing that the last few games that my shot hasn’t been falling.”

A few years ago, Horton-Tucker wouldn’t have had this opportunity to work on his game. The G League was much smaller than it is now, and most teams didn’t have affiliate they could send young players down to for development. NBA teams didn’t use the league as much, and many players viewed being sent down as punishment rather than a positive.

Without the G League, Horton-Tucker would likely have spent the majority season gathering splinters on the Lakers bench. With the growing expansion and usage of the G League, he’s able to get actual game reps in against legitimate competition to stay fresh.

He knew coming into this season that he wasn’t going to play much for the Lakers, if at all, so he’s grateful for being able to play with South Bay.

“It’s good to get your run in when you need to. I understand that I’m probably not going to get minutes with the Lakers right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just taking it one day at a time. I feel like the G League has been great. It helps us get our reps in and it helps our careers get started.”

While Horton-Tucker is still very young — he was one of the youngest players in the draft and just recently turned 19 years old last month — he has a skill set that should be able to eventually translate to regular NBA minutes. He’s a big guard who can generate his own offense, and he’s strong enough and skilled enough to be able to match up defensively against multiple positions.

He was recalled to the Lakers this weekend for their game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He only played in two minutes of garbage time and missed his only shot, a three-pointer. He’ll likely return to South Bay sometime soon, and when he does get brought back to the Lakers, garbage time minutes will be his role. But the NBA can be unpredictable at times, and injuries and whatnot can strike at a moment’s notice forcing players into immediate action.

In the event that he is called upon for regular minutes at some point this season, Horton-Tucker is confident in what he can bring to the team.

“I feel like I can bring the same things I bring to this team right now,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “It’s my versatility, being able to do things like rebounding, passing, just doing whatever they need me to do, I can do that.”

The Lakers are clearly going to be in win-now mode for the duration of LeBron James’ contract, but if Horton-Tucker continues with his development, it’s going to be hard to keep him off the court. He’s going to use this year to continue to learn, with the hopes of being able to play a meaningful role next season.

“I just want to get better all around. I want to play on the Lakers next year, that’s just my goal,” Horton-Tucker told Basketball Insiders. “Not being cocky or anything, but that’s just my goal, to play with the Lakers next season. That’s something that I’m going to work hard towards.”

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NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch – 12/6/2019

A quarter of the way into the season, multiple players have begun separating themselves for the Most Improved Player award. Quinn Davis takes a look at five of these players and why they are worthy of the consideration.

Quinn Davis

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The NBA season is now a quarter of the way through and the sample size is nearly large enough to make meaningful assessments of players and teams. This sample size is especially important when evaluating the Most Improved Player, as an early-season hot streak could prove to be fool’s gold by Christmas.

Two weeks ago, Basketball Insiders grouped certain players together to encapsulate a large number that could then be reasonably considered for Most Improved. Now, some of those players have separated themselves, rendering those groups unnecessary.

Andrew Wiggins has fallen closer to Earth since his early-season shooting barrage, while Brandon Ingram has continued his hot start and has shown no signs of cooling off. Luke Doncic has been a revelation and an MVP candidate, while Trae Young has continued to put up impressive numbers but is stuck on a 5-17 Hawks team.

I’ve already given away two, but here are the five names that have stood out from the rest.

5. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Siakam has cooled a bit after his scorching start to the season, but his vast offensive improvements still make him worthy of a spot on this list. He is still hitting 38 percent of his non-corner threes and has been the central cog of the Raptors’ offense.

The Raptors’ offense is blitzing opponents with Siakam on the court, scoring about 114 points per 100 possessions. With him off, that number plummets to 99.8 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the second-best offense in the league to two points below the New York Knicks’ league-worst number.

Siakam is using three more possessions per game than last season in isolation and is scoring 0.90 points per possession on those plays. That’s only slightly below the 0.97 number he put up last year on the much lower volume. His post-game has also stayed efficient with higher usage. He is taking two more possessions per game in that department and is scoring 1.01 points per possession, compared to 1.08 last season.

His unique combination of strength and balance allows him to make multiple moves while staying in complete control. Here he overpowers a very good defender in Royce O’Neale, before flipping up a nifty turnaround bank shot.

The most impressive part of his game this season might be his pull-up shooting. This was simply not in the repertoire last season. He can dribble at the top of the arc and launch a three on a sagging defender with confidence like he does here over Bojan Bogdanovic.

Siakam has been great, but the biggest hindrance to his Most Improved campaign will be the fact that he won the award the last year. If his efficiency continues to dip, he will likely not receive consideration. That said, his jump to near-superstar this season is worthy of praise.

4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Next on our list is a player who has also made a leap to superstardom. Doncic has taken the league by storm in his second season, blossoming into a genius point-forward that can dominate as a scorer or a passer on offense.

He is putting up stat lines that can only be described as Lebron-esque. Just earlier this week, he put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 5 assists against the Pelicans, physically overpowering their frontcourt at only 20 years old.

Per Cleaning the Glass, his usage is at 40.5 percent, which is second in the league to only James Harden. Doncic has been asked to completely control the offense in only his sophomore season and has done so better than anyone could have expected.

Despite the increased usage, his effective field goal percentage has increased six percent from last season. Doncic’s three-point percentage has stayed constant at 34 percent, so this increased efficiency is coming almost solely from his dominance at the rim.

He is finishing 72 percent of his shots at the rim, up from 62 percent in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass. Doncic is also drawing fouls at a higher rate. He looks comfortable attacking NBA bodies and using his size to get where he wants on the court.

His scoring is bested only by his virtuoso passing. Better, Doncic’s assist rate is up a whopping 17 percent this season to 48.7 percent, putting him second in the league in that category.

Additionally, Doncic has the ability to manipulate defenses with his eyes. In the play below, he stares down the cutter on their move to the rim. Jordan Clarkson notices this and shifts to the paint to help. As soon as he veers too far from Delon Wright in the corner, Doncic whips the pass that way for a wide-open three.

Doncic’s MVP consideration may overshadow his Most Improved consideration, but the leap he made this season is certainly one of the league’s biggest.

3. Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT

Adebayo makes his debut on this list after throwing his hat into the ring over the last few weeks. His defense has been key in the HEAT’s strong start to the season, anchoring the middle and keeping opponents out of the paint.

Opponents take only 31.4 percent of their total shots at the rim when Adebayo is on the court per Cleaning the Glass. That places in the 90th percentile of the league. When Adebayo takes a rest, that number soars to 40.9 percent, which is in the fifth percentile of the league.

His raw numbers are up across the board as well. The center is averaging a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds while shooting an efficient 56 percent from the field. Adebayo is up over 40 percent from mid-range for the first time in his three seasons.

The most impressive improvement in his game might be his off the bounce ability. He can consistently roast unsuspecting defenders with a quick dribble move to the cup. Here’s Jaylen Brown, thinking he is safe to relax guarding a center at the elbow. Adebayo uses one devastating jab step to shake Brown and get all the way to the rim for the dunk.

There are not many centers in the league that can move that quickly to the rim against a wing defender. If Adebayo keeps up the stellar defense and starts making a bit more of an impact on the stat sheet, he should garner serious consideration for Most Improved.

2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

Brandon Ingram’s hot start was written off by some as streaky shooting, but it seems apparent now that he is well on his way to the best season of his career. He is still at 43 percent from deep and he seems more comfortable than ever before at shooting off the catch.

Ingram’s catch-and-shoot three-point percentage is up to 46.5 percent, a steep increase from his 31 percent last season. Even his free throw percentage, which has hovered in the ’60s through his first three years, is now up to about 84 percent.

Most of all, his raw stats are probably his best argument for the award. Ingram is up to 25 points, 7 rebounds and four assists with an effective field goal percentage of 56 percent, career-highs in all categories. As of now, he is having a rare year in which there’s an increase in both usage and efficiency.

He has significantly improved his pick-and-roll game this season as well. The Pelicans have scored 0.94 points per possession with Ingram as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, per NBA.com. That is up from the 0.79 number the Lakers posted in those situations last season.

In previous seasons, Ingram had a tendency to settle for long mid-range jumpers out of the pick-and-roll. He has decreased his attempts from that area now, opting instead to either take the three or get closer to the rim for a floater.

The talented youngster also has had more success attacking switches. If a smaller defender picks up, Ingram is able to use his size and length to get to the rim and easily convert the layup, as he does here against Devin Booker.

If Ingram’s statistics stay at their current levels, he will be right a the front of the race for Most Improved.

1.Devonte Graham, Charlotte Hornets

Simply put, Devonte Graham has been the leader of this race since day one. His meteoric rise from second-rounder seeing minimal court time to stud sixth-man to flamethrowing starting point guard has been a joy to watch.

Graham’s three-point barrage has been unprecedented. After canning 10 triples against the Warriors Wednesday night, Graham is up to second in the league in made threes, behind only the incomparable Harden.

The way Graham hits these threes is a work of art. In the first look at Most Improved, Graham was posting an unreal 50 percent mark on his pull-up. He is down to 41 percent now, but that number still ranks among the best in the league.

If he comes off a high screen and sees daylight, that ball is going up. His release is quick and fluid, leaving no chance for a sagging center to affect the play.

Graham has carried the Hornets’ offense through the first 20 games. The Hornets score about 112 points per 100 possessions with Graham playing. That number drops to an abysmal 95 when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.

His pull-up shooting combined with much-improved passing — his assist percentage is up to 35.7 percent — has been the lone bright point for a mediocre team.

Being drafted in the second round and seemingly coming out of nowhere makes his story the most likely to gain Most Improved traction throughout the year. If his shooting keeps up, he will be the clear frontrunner for this award.

Those five are the stand-outs, but there is a lot of the campaign left to play. Any number of players could turn a corner and vault themselves into this conversation. Be sure to stay locked to Basketball Insiders as track every major award throughout the season.

In the hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon, Trae Young, Andrew Wiggins, Jonathan Isaac, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, OG Anunoby, Jabari Parker

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