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
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.
NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups
With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.
The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.
Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.
Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…
We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.
The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.
Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.
Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.
Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.
While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.
Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.
This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.
Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.
Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…
Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.
It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.
Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.
With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.
Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.
But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.
Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.
The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.