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Dunc’d On: NBA Rookie Report

Nate Duncan takes an early look at Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Dante Exum, Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic.

Nate Duncan

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A look at the rookie PER leaderboard is a stark reminder of how unprepared almost all rookies are to contribute to winning basketball. This is especially the case in the modern era, where the highest-drafted players are usually 20 or younger and the more polished older players often lack the talent to make an immediate impact. At this point, all that can be hoped for are flashes indicating what these rookies can someday be, as well as confirmation that they can compete athletically.  Let’s check in on some of the more heralded rookies.

Andrew Wiggins

Minnesota had played well in the early going, but a severe ankle sprain for Ricky Rubio has torpedoed even their limited hopes of competing for the playoffs. With reports indicating Minnesota is trying to trade Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger, it would appear that GM/Coach Flip Saunders has now realized this as well. That will open up minutes and shots for Wiggins on the wing. He already has a near-average usage rate, but that should increase as the season goes on and the Wolves seek to develop him further.*

*The Wolves’ acknowledgement of their inevitable lottery fate casts even more doubt on the Thaddeus Young component to the Wiggins trade, in which they took Young rather than a first-rounder (which originally belonged to Miami) from Cleveland. Young can be a free agent at the end of the season, so it looks like Minnesota surrendered a first-round pick to grab Young for a playoff push that lasted exactly five games before Rubio’s injury. After this year, they will have to pay a steep price to re-sign Young or see him leave for nothing.

At this point Wiggins still basically has two moves, namely a stepback moving to his left and an extremely quick rip through move to his right from the triple threat position.

Wiggins Dunk

These are both good moves, and he can get the stepback off whenever he wants. He also looks to be comfortable already from the NBA three-point line, where he shoots with no hesitation and solid form.

Overall though, Wiggins shoots 50 percent of his shots from between 10 feet out and the three-point line, and that is not a recipe for efficiency. Getting to and finishing at the basket in the halfcourt is a potential concern, and Wiggins still has only three dunks on the year.

Jabari Parker

By contrast, Wiggins’ theoretically less athletic classmate Jabari Parker already has 16 dunks in about the same number of minutes. Parker too has a slightly below-average usage rate, which may surprise many since it was assumed he would start firing away immediately. But the Bucks have unexpectedly looked the part of a playoff contender so far, ranking second in defense per NBA.com. That means less license for Parker to fire away. The encouraging part for Parker is that he has played quite a bit at the four and the Bucks’ defense is only slightly worse in his 29.1 minutes per game. It was believed he would be atrocious on that end, and while he’s no stopper he at least has executed well enough that the Bucks have been able to work with him.

Meanwhile, he is shooting only 42 percent from the field and clearly is not yet comfortable from the NBA three-point line, where he has bricked away at 23 percent. However, Parker has shown the ability to get good shots against NBA defenders, and he is an absolute terror on grab and gos. At 6’9 and over 250 pounds, he is unstoppable with a head of steam and his athleticism pops off the screen.

Jabari Euro Step
Parker had perhaps his best outing of the season Sunday against Miami, in which he and Giannis Antetokounmpo showed flashes of what a nightmare matchup they can become at the two forward spots. Parker is much too quick and skilled for most fours, so teams have been putting a wing on him. That has left Giannis with the quickness advantage on the four. And it will allow Parker to make more plays like this:

Parker Post Spin
That is Luol Deng, one of the bigger threes in the league, and Parker treats him like a rag doll.

Dante Exum

The book on Exum was that he would play little this year as he struggled to adapt to the NBA game due to his lack of high-level experience. But despite some rough moments, he has been much more solid overall then hoped.

In particular, he has avoided being a total liability defensively. Although he suffers from the typical rookie foibles, he is able to make up for it with his quickness and length. His defensive effort has certainly come a long way from a year ago in the Australian high school championships. In time, Exum could be a real problem for opposing point guards with his quick reflexes, anticipation and, most importantly, length.

ExumBlock
Another area where Exum was supposed to struggle was his standstill shooting. That has predictably regressed a bit after a hot start, but he is good enough out there that he requires a closeout, and has a reasonably quick release. The Australian’s vision has also been excellent as anticipated. He has developed a particular synergy with Rudy Gobert on alley oops. An area to work on is his passing speed. A lot of times he will see the open man on the weakside, but throw a wounded duck that allows the defense to recover.

The only mildly disappointing aspect for Exum has been his ability to get to the basket in the half court. He’s quick, but he doesn’t really have any moves right now one-on-one. Exum also is still overly dependent on his right hand. As a result of his inability to beat his man, only 21 of his 50 shots have been twos, though he has made 12 of those.

Nevertheless, it is very encouraging that he has not killed the Jazz so far, and even closed for a Jazz victory in Detroit. While calls for him to supplant Trey Burke as the starter are premature, especially given the fact that Exum likely isn’t in good enough shape to play more than about 25 minutes yet, given where he’s coming from this is an encouraging performance so far.

Elfrid Payton

Payton’s skill set is about as advertised so far. He is going to be a monster on defense with his intensity, length and quick hands. Payton surprises veteran players by getting to the ball, and on one memorable sequence he straight up ripped Andre Miller’s dribble two possessions in a row. Any loose ball in his vicinity is immediately vacuumed up.

The Magic point guard has also looked excellent setting his teammates up, with 5.1 assists in only 24.8 minutes per game. Payton has a fun game that has had the NBA Twitterverse abuzz.

Unfortunately, he also has an Achilles Heel that may torpedo his efforts to be a high-level starter: He may be the worst shooting point guard to enter the league in the last 10 years. Payton doesn’t even think about shooting NBA threes at this point, even when absolutely wide open. In fact, he barely thinks about shooting any jumper at all. As a result, he takes 69 percent of his shots within 10 feet. Yet overall, he is shooting 32 percent with a 35 percent true shooting percentage.

He is not a good finisher, and this is exacerbated by teams lying in wait for him at the rim since he can’t shoot. Payton also turns the ball over on 22 percent of his possessions, again in part because there is no space for him to operate.

If he cannot improve his outside shot immensely, it is almost impossible to imagine him as a high-level starter. The fact his free throw shooting has been under 60 percent throughout his college and pro careers unfortunately casts some doubt on his ability to improve his shooting.

Nikola Mirotic

Mirotic is on a different plane of development from the rest of these rookies at age 23. He already has years of high-level experience in the Euroleague and Spanish ACB for Real Madrid. Nevertheless, he has had a short leash from Tom Thibodeau with three more established bigs on the Bulls’ roster. When one of them has been injured Mirotic has played normal reserve minutes as the third big, but otherwise he averages about five minutes per game at the start of the second quarter. The Bulls have generally been awful in these minutes, but that is due as much to the lineup choices as Mirotic’s own failings. Mirotic usually plays power forward next to Taj Gibson at center, while also playing with fellow rookie Doug McDermott. These units get owned on the boards while making tons of mistakes defensively with the two rookies.

Despite his ineffectiveness in these minutes, Thibodeau needs to get him more time in units with a real center and without McDermott. Pau Gasol has been logging minutes in the high 30s many games, and that is unnecessary because Mirotic can help the Bulls right now. It is telling that he has been most productive in games where he has gotten the most minutes. Although his shot has not gone down with the frequency he would prefer, Mirotic’s ability to run pick and pop, space the floor and drive and kick off closeouts is very useful. In particular, he can abuse larger players trying to guard him, like Spencer Hawes last night.

Mirotic Up and Under
Here is a really slick action the Bulls run. His man must respect the possibility of a handoff to the guard and hang back a bit, but immediately Mirotic himself gets a pick off the dribble. He can either pull up for three going to his right, or drive by his defender.

Mirotic Drive
And how many power forwards can throw this pass?

MiroticPass

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Mirotic’s game so far is how hard he plays. He sprints the floor every time down, and looks to be in outstanding cardio shape. He also looks quicker and stronger than in his European days, perhaps due to really lifting weights hard for the first time.

Thibodeau should look to get Mirotic more time, because he can be a unique weapon. He could be particularly deadly in pick and pops with Derrick Rose once he returns.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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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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