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Which Players Have a Case for Most Improved?

Which players are in the mix for the Most Improved Player award one month into the 2014-15 NBA season?

EJ Ayala

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Every offseason, players put in extra work in an effort to make that next leap in their development and take their game to the next level. Everything from a return from an injury, a new role on a team, an increase in playing time or a team’s changing style can have an effect on a player’s individual impact. So far in the 2014-15 NBA season, which players have impressed and have a shot at winning this year’s Most Improved Player award? Here are a few names to keep in mind:

1. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

In seeing the kind of impact that Anthony Davis had on Team USA this summer, you couldn’t help but think we were going to be in for something special this season and he has not disappointed one bit. In fact, he has played so well that in many circles he’s being discussed as a potential Most Valuable Player candidate.

Right now, he’s posting a beastly stat line of 24.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 1.8 assists and 2.1 assists per game (which are all career-highs). While the statistical jump may not be as high as the one he made last season, the overall improvement in so many categories while playing relatively close to the same amount of minutes as last year is mind boggling. He’s just an incredibly efficient player, as he is also posting the highest player efficiency rating in the league (33.52).

The scary thing is that Davis is very much a team-first player, so all of this is coming within the flow of the system, and his head coach Monty Williams is becoming more vocal in demanding the team feed him more on the offensive end. If that indeed does happen, the man dubbed “The Brow” may still not have scratched the surface for the Pelicans this season as he continues to solidify his status as one of the NBA’s best players.

2. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

Following an offseason filled with trade rumors about the Golden State Warriors considering a trade package that would have swapped Klay Thompson among others for Kevin Love, the Warriors decided to pony up instead and sign Thompson to a near-max contract extension worth $69 million over four years. While many felt that was a bit hefty, it seems to have only fueled this Splash Brother into proving he’s been worth every penny.

Not only is he averaging more points (21.4), rebounds (3.6), assists (3.3) and steals (1.3) per game, he’s doing it while playing less minutes than last year. Watching him play, it’s also clear that his confidence is sky high right now. His shooting has always been superb, but he’s currently posting career highs in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and three-point percentage.

It’s worth noting that he has been much more well-rounded this year, as he’s now scoring all over the court, getting to the free throw line and seeming more comfortable putting the ball on the floor to score or make plays for his teammates. He has evolved into much more than a spot-up shooter who can defend, and he’s making the Warriors look like they made the right decision with that extension.

3. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

Breaking out as a star on a defensive-minded team like the Chicago Bulls that has struggled on the offensive side of the court is no easy task, but Jimmy Butler has done exactly that. As the last pick in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, not many expected him to be where he is today. He became a key member of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s rotation with his stingy defensive play and carved himself a nice support role on a team posting some modest offensive numbers.

However, this summer he worked hard and when the Bulls offered him an extension rumored to be worth more than $40 million over four years, he turned it down feeling he was not done showing this team what his true worth could be. That belief in himself is making him look like a genius so far, as he’s playing like one of the top five shooting guards in the NBA. His aggressiveness on the offensive end of the court now matches his intensity on the defensive end, and he’s gone from 13.1 points per game last year to 21.6 points per game this year. As an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, the Bulls will have to show him the money if they are hoping to retain his services.

4. Tony Wroten, Philadelphia 76ers

Talk about a diamond in the rough. Tony Wroten went down a tough path before being able to showcase his potential and ability in the league. As one of the more highly-touted recruits from the Washington area, many expected big things for him. However, he was drafted with the 25th pick in 2012 by the Memphis Grizzlies, and the flashy point guard found himself riding the bench as a rookie on a contending team with little time to spare for developing a young prospect.

After a trade that sent him to the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers last season, things were looking much better, but it wasn’t until his teammate Michael Carter-Williams went out with an injury to begin this season that he showed what he’s really capable of. While his shooting percentages still leave much to be desired, there’s still a lot to like as he did a solid job running the team in Carter-Williams’ absence and has posted career-highs in points (17.9), assists (6.3), rebounds (3.3), and steals (1.9) per game this year. He has played so well that even upon the return of Carter-Williams, head coach Brett Brown has felt comfortable playing both guards at the same time and Wroten continues to excel. He’s one of the few bright spots to watch on an otherwise dreadful 76ers team.

 

These players certainly have a case for Most Improved Player, as their hard work and dedication to the game has paid off now that they’ve been given an opportunity to succeed and taken full advantage. Some have shown that they’ve made the leap from great to elite, which is hard to do, while others have simply shown they are worth a lot more to their respective teams than initially thought. These are some players to watch throughout the remainder of the season in order to keep track of their development and their Most Improved chances.

E.J. Ayala is based out of Salt Lake City, Utah covering the NBA, NCAA, and international basketball. Currently serving as a newsline editor for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity

Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.

Spencer Davies

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If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.

Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.

19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.

But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.

Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.

Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already.  And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.

Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.

Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.

In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.

The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.

Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?

Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.

That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.

Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.

Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.

Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.

Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.

At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.

That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.

Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.

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Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East

The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.

Jordan Hicks

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After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.

The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.

As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.

Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.

Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.

This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.

Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.

Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.

A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.

In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.

Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.

On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.

He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.

The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.

The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.

Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.

The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.

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NBA Daily: Philadelphia Castoffs Finding Success Elsewhere

After failing to make it with the Philadelphia 76ers, three players have stood out by gaining traction with new franchises as solid contributors. Chad Smith sheds some light on how these individuals have changed the narrative of their careers.

Chad Smith

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Trust The Process.

That was the slogan that the Philadelphia 76ers plastered on billboards and etched into the minds of their fans. They stressed patience to their fan base and were transparent about the entire plan. The tanking of not just games — but seasons — delivered the Sixers’ front office what they so desired: draft picks.

More valuable than cash considerations and better than expiring contracts, the draft picks offered an unknown quantity. Hope and potential for greatness were the selling points for their dynamic plan. It was easy to convince anyone and everyone that would listen. At the time, it appeared to be a solid plan, so long as everyone could stomach the losing.

While the exciting element of a draft pick is the unknown, that has also proven to be a double-edged sword. If selecting the right talent was easy, Michael Jordan would have never worn a Chicago Bulls uniform. Kevin Durant would have never played in Seattle and the Detroit Pistons probably would have rather had one of Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh instead of Darko Milicic.

Maybe that wasn’t the plan, though. Perhaps the plan was just to get as many bites out of the apple as possible and hope to strike gold on a couple of the picks. If indeed that was the plan, it would be difficult to argue that it didn’t work. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are already All-Star players and the faces of the franchise.

Philadelphia finally molded into a playoff team during the 2017-2018 season. The organization quickly went to work on tweaking the roster, trying to find the right pieces to fit this puzzle together. But outside of its two cornerstones over the past five years, there were three notable players that were labeled as busts or clearly were not going to make it with the Sixers. And many wondered if these guys would even still be in the league in the coming months.

These guys needed a fresh start. They needed a reset button on their careers. Now, they appear to be in the right environment with the right people bringing out the best in them. They have thrived in their new roles and, ultimately, have changed the narrative of their careers.

Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic

The most obvious success story seems to be playing out right before our eyes. The Sixers selected Fultz with the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, but it turned sideways very quickly. After captivating college basketball fans at Washington, expectations were extremely high as he prepared for his rookie season.

The Orlando Magic have been starving for a star point guard for quite some time. They took a gamble on the 21-year old, and it is paying off in a big way. Fultz being used as a combo guard alongside a strong and youthful roster seems to be an ideal fit. He is getting to the basket and finishing strong. He is also knocking down his free throws (82 percent) and collecting steals (1.3 per game) at a high rate.

Heading into tonight’s game in Toronto, Fultz is averaging just under 11 points and 3.1 assists per game. He had an effective field goal percentage of 42 percent in his 33 total games as a member of the 76ers. Through 13 games this season, he’s upped that to 51.4.

Both Embiid and Simmons missed their entire first season in Philly and turned into All-Stars. This small sample size is just that, but things are definitely trending in the right direction for Fultz to develop into the caliber of player everyone thought he would be when he was drafted. The mental hurdle has been cleared, and his confidence seems to have been been restored.

Jahlil Okafor, New Orleans Pelicans

The 2015 NBA Draft had some exceptional talent. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell went just before Okafor, but many people thought that was a mistake. While the former third overall pick won’t ever reach the same pinnacle as those two in his career, he has been a tremendous success story nonetheless over the past two years.

After three seasons of below-average production in Philly, Okafor was traded to the Brooklyn Nets where he was seeking a fresh start. His 26-game stint there did not yield positive results, and it appeared as though the promising big man’s future was near the end. In the summer of 2018, Okafor signed a minimum salary contract with the New Orleans Pelicans. He remains on a partially-guaranteed deal, but is outperforming that so far this season.

With so many athletic wings and a bevy of guards in New Orleans, Okafor has found the perfect role as the man in the middle. No longer seeming rushed, the big man is patient with the ball and has the ability to finish himself or find the open guy on the perimeter. He is much more efficient shooting the ball and is averaging 1.1 blocks per game.

Despite suffering an ankle injury that has him temporarily sidelined, Okafor has been playing well. With the absence of rookie sensation Zion Williamson, New Orleans has needed his solid play to keep the train rolling. He won’t be what many had envisioned him becoming after leaving Duke, but Okafor has carved out a nice role for himself in the league.

Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings

Another member of Philly’s 2015 draft class has found his opportunity in a different zip code. Despite playing 156 games for the Sixers, Holmes was never really given the opportunity to become a vital role player for the team. He started just 20 of those games and played less than 17 minutes a night. With so many injuries in Sacramento, that opportunity has come for him, and he has stepped up and excelled in his new role.

The overall numbers for Holmes have risen quite a bit, but the blocks are what stand out the most. Through 13 games this season, the active big man is averaging nearly as many blocks per game (1.4) as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. He is averaging career-high numbers in virtually every statistical category.

The former second-round pick has always been known as an energy guy, and he is thriving off of that on this young and hungry Kings squad. His rebounding has been tremendous, especially on offense. Sacramento ranks in the top half of the league in second-chance points, largely due to Holmes being so active on the glass.

Whereas many of the trades that the 76ers executed involved more talent coming back in return, this one was different. Philly traded Holmes to the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2018 for $1 million. Nearly a year later, Holmes signed a two-year deal with the Kings for $9.77 million. Consider that money well-earned by Holmes, and well spent by Sacramento.

For every Embiid and Simmons that comes along, there are guys like Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. What is important for these guys is to embrace a fresh start and a different role with a new team.

By doing so, they can assure themselves of a future in the league as opposed to watching from the sidelines.

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