Forecasting the Most Improved Player award is not an easy undertaking. Unlike other awards, the field for Most Improved cannot be narrowed down to a select few that usually are in consideration. Theoretically, any player in the NBA could make a significant enough improvement to win this award.
Rookies heading into their second year could be an easy choice, as a year of NBA experience usually translates to improvement on the court. The issue here is that the voters think it’s too easy, and second-year players who were high draft picks are rarely considered for this award.
De’Aaron Fox bucked this trend last year, finishing third in voting. Using that as a guide, it would be fair to say that it will take a Fox-like improvement for a second-year lottery pick to be considered for Most Improved.
The task becomes much more fun, and much more difficult, when looking beyond that batch of players. There are certain things to look for, such as an increased role or a player who has received praise for their work over the summer. In the end, it may just come down to a gut feeling.
Here are five players that check one or multiple of those boxes.
The third-year big man enters this season primed for improvement after a summer spent training with the USA Select team. Isaac has particularly shown flashes of defensive ability in his two seasons and could blossom into a disruptor on that end in this upcoming campaign.
Isaac’s coach, Steve Clifford, made it clear that he has high hopes for the Flordia State product this season in an interview he gave before training camp.
“He’s had a terrific summer. He looks good physically. He’s worked really hard with (assistant coach) Bruce (Kreutzer) and with (assistant coach) Pat (Delany) on his shooting, his range, his mechanics, his ISOs, his post-ups, his shot-making,” Clifford told Josh Robbins of The Athletic. “I think he’s in a really good place. Last year from Game 1 to Game 82 he made great strides. He was a big reason why our team improved so much. I think people will see he put a lot of hard work in. I think it’ll pay off.”
Clifford mentioned the improvements across last season, which were particularly seen in Isaac’s shooting. The versatile forward shot a dreadful 28.7 percent from deep prior to the All-Star break last season, but improved to 38.2 percent following that time off, per Basketball Reference.
Isaac is armed with a 7-foot-1 wingspan on a 6-foot-10 frame, giving him the ability to contest shots and take away passing lanes. One of his biggest weaknesses on the defensive end has been his skinny build, which makes it difficult for him to body up against some of the league’s brutes.
Isaac is reportedly up to 230 pounds, after ending last season at 209. This weight could not only help him guard in the post, but also score in the post on the other end. Isaac will likely be guarded by opposing fours starting next to Vucevic, and his length could give him a significant advantage over opponents at that position.
Last season, Isaac averaged 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. If those numbers jump up to 15 points and eight rebounds with strong defense for a playoff-bound Magic team, he could be in the running for the league’s Most Improved Player.
Another third-year big who teems with potential resides in Portland. Collins, who will likely start at power forward this season for the Trail Blazers, should see a large minute increase and has many excited for the possible leap he could take this season.
A lot of this excitement was brought about by Collins’ performance in the playoffs last season when he played a pivotal role in Portland’s series win over the Nuggets. Collins flashed his defensive potential late in that series, recording five blocks in Game 6 and four blocks in Game 7 – both Blazers wins.
Portland will ask Collins to stretch the floor this season next to the paint-bound Hassan Whiteside. Collins has shot 30 percent from deep in each of the last two regular seasons and will need to climb towards league average to give his team’s star backcourt requisite room to operate.
If Collins can better space the floor while being an impactful defender, he may emerge as Portland’s third-best player this season. With increased minutes and a more defined role, the stage is set for Collins to build on his playoff performance and put himself into contention for Most Improved.
As mentioned, it is very hard for second-year players to make a case for this award. Since the expectation for these players is to improve, they need to make a very significant leap to stand out for the voters. De’Aaron Fox did this last season, going from lost rookie to stud point guard that helped the Kings chase a playoff seed. Shai will need to do something similar on his new team in Oklahoma City if he is to make an impression.
Last season, the Kentucky product showed an ability to get into the paint and finish around the rim. He attempted 39 percent of his shots at the rim and finished 61 percent of those attempts. Those numbers ranked in the 78th and 72nd percentiles for his position, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass.
SGA also shot a serviceable 37 percent from beyond the arc and a very impressive 48 percent on long mid-range attempts, per Cleaning the Glass.
Now under the tutelage of Chris Paul, Shai may be able to take his all-around efficiency to the next level and learn how to get to his spots out of the pick-and-roll. The future Hall-of-Famer could also school SGA on the art of the pass, which is an area the second-year guard may have the most room to improve on.
While Shai had a very low assist rate for a point guard, he did show the ability to scan defenses and make the right play. With further experience and more teaching from Paul, he could make great strides in that department.
The second-year guard also has defensive potential thanks to a 6-foot-6 frame and 6-foot-11 wingspan. He already showed an ability to block shots and swipe passes as a guard last season and could immediately become a strong defender if he reduces his foul rate and stays focused off of the ball.
While he is poised to build off a strong rookie year, Shai’s candidacy may come down to the construction of the Thunder roster as the season goes along. It may be difficult to stand out while playing next to a ball-dominant point guard like Chris Paul.
If Paul is traded, SGA may have the opportunity he needs to control the offense and make a large enough leap to vault into the Most Improved conversation.
There have been few players that have had as tumultuous first two seasons as Ball. Coming out of UCLA with his father as a hype man, Lonzo was drafted by the Lakers and asked to turn the franchise around.
After two seasons that featured a LeBron free-agent signing sandwiched between them, Ball was sent to New Orleans this summer as part of the Anthony Davis trade. He will now have the luxury of being away from the spotlight and could put more focus on his game. The early returns on this focus have been encouraging.
Multiple videos have come out of the Pelicans training camp showing an improved jump shot form from Ball, and he’s looked confident putting it up in the preseason. If the confidence translates to the real games, Ball could truly take his game to the next level. Already a brilliant passer and strong defender, Ball could go from an internet punching bag to an above-average NBA player this season with improved scoring ability.
The threat to shoot off the dribble would instantly improve his pick-and-roll game, which has been a weakness thus far in his career. This improvement could be amplified with the presence of Zion Williamson, who could make for a great partner in those plays.
Maybe more important than his on the court improvements are his lack off the court distractions. Without the constant attention of the Los Angeles media, Ball could quietly make a case for Most Improved if his jumper is indeed improved this season.
Yes, it would be quite an achievement for a player to win Most Improved after already being an All-Star the year before; but Ben Simmons has the room to improve, specifically in one area, and could take a leap this season that warrants consideration for the award.
Simmons authored maybe the biggest moment in a preseason game thus far when he drilled a 27-foot three-pointer off the dribble in a game against the Guangzhou Loong Lions. The shot sent the crowd into a frenzy and gave many Sixers fans hope for a new Ben this season, one that isn’t afraid to launch from deep.
While it is unclear whether this newfound brashness from beyond the arc will translate to games against actual NBA teams, the fact that he took the shot in any game is encouraging. If the shot attempts keep coming and a few makes come along with them, Simmons could go from All-Star to All-NBA this season.
The best comparison for Simmons’ Most Improved campaign would be Giannis Antetokounmpo in the 2016-2017 season. In 2015-16 Giannis averaged about 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists on 50 percent shooting. The next season, he averaged about 23 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists on 52 percent shooting on his way to being named Most Improved Player.
Last season, Simmons averaged about 17 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, on 56 percent shooting. It’s plausible that an improved jumper and increased confidence could give Simmons the push he needs to make a similar jump that Giannis did.
Both players have proven to be impactful defenders. Giannis has longer arms and is a better rim protector, but Simmons can lock down perimeter players when he needs to, as seen in his total erasing of D’Angelo Russell in the Sixers’ playoff series against the Nets. If Simmons further engages on that end he could make himself an even more viable candidate.
Simmons making this leap would be a surprise and a fun story, but it would not be unprecedented. If the jump shot proves viable, he will certainly garner some consideration for Most Improved.
All of these players share the ability and the opportunity to make a run at Most Improved this season, but that is not to say that they will be the only candidates. It is likely that multiple players will surprise us with a breakout season and throw their hat into the ring for this award.
Be sure to stay up to date and check out Basketball Insiders’ postseason award watch, for all of the awards, this season.
NBA Daily: Pat Connaughton Making Most Of Chance With Bucks
David Yapkowitz speaks with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Pat Connaughton about finding his way in the NBA, what he learned from being in Portland and how he’s looking to grow his game as a pro.
Opportunity can be everything in the NBA. A player unable to get off the bench isn’t always indicative of that player’s talent, nor is it an indictment on the coaching staff if said player ends up flourishing on another team.
The right situation and proper fit play a huge role in whether or not a player has success in the league.
For Pat Connaughton, he seems to have found that fit with the Milwaukee Bucks. Initially drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft, he didn’t play all that much his first couple of seasons. He played in a total of 73 games during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, averaging only 6.2 minutes per game.
He was a free agent following the 2017-18 season and chose to sign a two-year deal with the Bucks. His decision to come to Milwaukee had a lot to do with finding that right situation and a team that would allow him the freedom to develop.
“I was just trying to find a team where I liked everything that was going on. Milwaukee believed in me,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “Last year, I was able to do some things on the floor that helped us out, and it kind of paid off. I think for me when you have coaches and management that believe in you, it goes a long way because you’re ready to take advantage of your opportunity.”
Connaughton actually saw his role increase a little bit during his final year with the Trail Blazers. He suited up in all 82 games and saw his minutes jump up to 18.1 from 8.1 the season prior. He put up 5.4 points per game and shot 35.2 percent from the three-point line.
But following the conclusion of the 2017-18 season, it seemed like moving forward he wouldn’t have as big a role in Portland, which is what led him to Milwaukee. Last season, his first with the Bucks, Connaughton became a valuable contributor off the bench on a team that made a run to the Eastern Conference Finals.
He put up a career-high 6.9 points per game and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. He credits Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s system for the reason why he’s able to produce as well as he has.
“I think it’s the freedom that coach lets us play with. We’re able to have different options on ways to score and ways to make a positive impact on both ends of the ball,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I think that’s been a big benefit to me and I think the next step is obviously consistency. You’ve got to try to be as consistent as you can in this league.”
In order to maintain that consistency in terms of playing time and production, players often need to add elements to their game. Becoming a much more rounded player instead of limiting yourself to certain aspects of the game can often spell doom for players.
Back when he was in college at Notre Dame, Connaughton was always known as a good three-point shooter. In his four years with the Fighting Irish, he shot 38.6 percent from distance. Shooting is something that can definitely carry over to the NBA, and Connaughton actually shot 51.5 percent from three in his second year in the league.
But the advice he got from some of the Blazers veterans is what has stuck with him throughout his career thus far.
“When I came out of college people knew I could shoot, but I don’t think they necessarily knew how athletic I was. What I’ve been trying to do is continue to grow on that,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “When I got to the league and I was following and learning from guys like Allen Crabbe and CJ McCollum and Damian Lillard, the biggest thing I got was that – in order to not just stick around in the league, but to have success in the league – there were some things I had to improve.”
Starting last season and continuing into this season, not only do you see Connaughton spotting up at the three-point line, but you see him doing other things as well. He’s out there putting the ball on the floor and making plays for himself or his teammates. He shows his defensive versatility in being able to guard multiple positions.
“Looking at those weaknesses, instead of harping on them, I’m trying to improve on them and trying to work every day on my ball-handling, work every day on my body and athleticism, lateral quickness, things like that so I can guard multiple positions,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I can do things other than just shoot. You try to put those things together and on any given night you might be asked to do any of those things, and you’ve got to be prepared for it.”
It’s not always easy for players to make the adjustment to the NBA, especially when they’re not playing. The majority of players in the league know what it’s like to be the main focal point of a team either in high school or in college. The NBA can be a huge eye-opener and a humbling experience.
Sitting on the bench can be frustrating. Having gone through that in Portland, Connaughton knew that he had to keep a positive outlook and continue to work. He stayed prepared so that when this opportunity in Milwaukee came around, he was ready to take full advantage.
“You have to have the right mindset when you’re not playing. You can’t sulk, you can’t be a bad teammate with your body language. You have to understand it’s about more than one game, it’s about more than one year, it’s about the bigger picture. If you want to stick around in this league, you’ve got to try to improve day in and day out regardless if you’re playing or not,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders.
“There’s always things you can do to improve your game so that when your opportunity comes, you’re ready for it. If you can stay ready, you don’t have to get ready. I think that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve learned is if you can continue to improve day in and day out and be ready to produce when you’re number is called, whenever that moment does come, you’ll be able to take full advantage of it.”
At the end of this season, Connaughton is going to have a big decision to make. He’ll be a free agent and could possibly be looking for a new home again. Although it’s still very early, all things considered, he wouldn’t mind staying in Milwaukee.
“At the end of the day, there’s a business side to the NBA. Regardless of what happens with me or what the team wants to do moving forward, this is a place I really enjoy being,” Connaughton told Basketball Insiders. “I enjoy the guys on the team, I enjoy the coaches, I enjoy the management, the owners. Really from the top down, I’ve found a place I really like being at. I’ll stay here as long as I can if they’ll let me.”
NBA Daily: Load Management Draws Negative Attention for Clippers and NBA
Load Management seems to be a spreading trend across the NBA with no clear solution in sight, writes James Blancarte
The Los Angeles Clippers gotten off to a solid start this season, winning six of its first nine games. This has included wins over the Los Angeles Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. The first twenty-plus games of the season for the Clippers includes contests against several playoff-worthy opponents and certainly qualifies as a tough way to start the season. The addition of Kawhi Leonard has added the superstar talent and missing element that the team lacked last season.
So, what’s the problem? If you caught much of the dialogue around the league last week, the issue is the Clippers resting Leonard (notably on nights when the Clippers are playing on national TV). So far Leonard has sat two games, both of which the Clippers lost. So yes, this is an issue for the team (though Paul George is set to make his Clippers debut as soon as this week). But much of the criticism came from national spectators who felt that resting a seemingly healthy Leonard came at the cost of those who paid for tickets and viewers eager to see Leonard and the Clippers in nationally broadcasted games.
Then came the question and dialogue about whether Leonard is actually healthy. Star players not playing is not a new issue but the key is whether the player is healthy or not. Combatting the assumption that the Clippers were resting a healthy Leonard, the league put out a statement that Leonard was sitting due to issues relating to his knee.
“Kawhi Leonard is not a healthy player under the league’s resting policy, and, as such, is listed as managing a knee injury in the LA Clippers injury report. The league office, in consultation with the NBA’s director of sports medicine, is comfortable with the team medical staff’s determination that Leonard is not sufficiently healthy to play in back-to-back games at this time,” the League office stated.
With the criticism leveled down, Clippers Head Coach Doc Rivers put the situation back in the spotlight by stating that the Leonard was healthy and the team chose to rest him seemingly out of precaution.
“He feels great, but he feels great because of what we’ve been doing. We just got to continue to do it. There’s no concern here. We want to make sure. Kawhi made the statement that he has never felt better. It’s our job to make sure he stays that way,” Rivers stated.
The league turned around and fined the Clippers for this response. The NBA put out a statement affirming that Leonard rested for health purposes relating to his “patella tendon in his left knee and has been placed by the team at this time on an injury protocol for back-to-back games,” League office stated and fined Rivers $50,000.00.
After a recent game against the Trail Blazers, Leonard was asked his thoughts regarding the NBA’s response to Rivers including the fine.
“That was just disappointing that it feels like they want players to play when they’re not ready,” Leonard said.
While Leonard made a point to stick up for his coach, it appears Leonard and the NBA have the same stated goal of protecting a player’s health so long as there is an injury concern. When asked more specifically whether he is healthy enough to play back-to-back games, Leonard provided some more detail.
“No. That’s not what the doctor is prescribing right now,” Leonard shared. “That’s all I can say about it. We’re going to manage it and keep moving forward.”
On the topic of Leonard’s game management, Toronto Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse’s recent comments with Eric Koreen of The Athletic also highlights how Leonard paced himself last season.
“I’m not sure I ever said this publicly last year, but about February of last year, I was like: ‘He’s not playing to his full capabilities. He’s cruising to his 30 points a night.’ I figured it could go one of two ways. He was going to cruise on out of here or he was going to flip a switch and try to win the whole damn thing. Obviously, we saw what happened,” Nurse told the Athletic.
Whether Leonard is healthy and pacing himself during the long season as Rivers seems to have suggested or managing an injury as the league stated, the result is the same. Leonard is resting on back to back games. That leaves the Clippers trying to overcome an additional hurdle to win and maintain pace in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
The team has continued to rely on the spectacular two-way play of bench stars Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams. Much like last year, the Clippers are also getting by with a balanced team approach. Of course, a superstar like Leonard helps to soothe a team’s occasional shortcomings. The Clippers’ 107-101 win over the Trail Blazers was aided in no small part due to an 18-point 4th quarter outburst by Leonard to elevate the team and come back.
Asked how he was feeling after the game, Leonard stated plainly he was fine.
“I feel good,” Leonard stated. “We won tonight.”
Moving forward, Leonard didn’t deviate and made clear the plan remains the same.
“We’re going to manage it the best way we can to keep me healthy and that’s the most important thing is me being healthy moving forward,” Leonard stated regarding load management. “It just helps from me from pushing forward from something that’s not ready.”
Again, where does all of this leave the Clippers and Leonard? The team has stayed afloat during this tough stretch of games to start the season. As Nurse pointed out, the Raptors won a championship resting Leonard and being careful with his health. He turned the proverbial switch on and the rest is history. The Clippers have picked up where the Raptors left off. Aiding their quest is the hope and assumption that the team will be further aided by the return from injury for their other star forward Paul George.
Beyond the Clippers, the NBA faces the ongoing issue of managing other teams that are sure to start resting their cornerstone players periodically throughout the course of a season. In fact, the Memphis Grizzlies just rested rookie Ja Morant less than 10 games into his NBA career.
“At the end of the day, our player care is the most important thing,” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said. “We want to make sure our guys are always put in successful situations, and it starts with our health and knowing we’re doing everything possible for them on and off the court.”
The NBA season is arguably excessively long with 82 regular-season games and the postseason afterward. This is another issue that the league is going to continue to deal with on a case-by-case basis. There is no perfect answer that will make everyone happy, so some sort of balance will have to be reached. For a team like the Clippers, taking a fine from the NBA every once in a while will be worth it if resting Leonard will lead to the same result that it did for the Toronto Raptors last season.
NBA Daily: Gordon Hayward’s Short-Lived But Crucial Return
Gordon Hayward has dealt with adversity. Now, despite a recent injury setback, he would seem to be himself again on the basketball court. Chad Smith examines what that could mean to the Boston Celtics going forward.
Gordon Hayward’s career was flapping in the breeze just two seasons ago. A devastating leg injury left many questioning whether he would ever be the star player that shined with the Utah Jazz again.
Since, Hayward’s journey toward a complete recovery had been an arduous one. But, to start the 2019-20 season, it seemed as if the Boston Celtics’ patience was finally paying off.
Then, it happened.
With less than two minutes left before halftime against the San Antonio Spurs, Hayward was blindsided by LaMarcus Aldridge on a screen. He left the game and, later, x-rays confirmed that he had sustained a fracture in his left hand and was set to miss time.
Through their first eight games, Hayward was one of Boston’s best and just one of three Celtics to average more than 20 points per game this season. He had led the team in field goal percentage (56.4 percent) while also shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from beyond the arc, by far his shooting from distance since his rookie season.
His 39-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a near triple-double that tied a career-best scoring mark, in the very same Quicken Loans Arena where he suffered that gruesome leg injury was almost a signal: Hayward was back. He was dominant in every facet of the game, as he also finished with 7 rebounds, 8 assists and shot 16-for-16 inside the three-point line.
To provide some context, the only other player in NBA history to match that stat line was none other than Wilt Chamberlain.
After the game, the 10-year veteran said that the injury is gone from his mind; a crucial hurdle in his return to the fromer-Hayward. Without nagging, troublesome thoughts at the forefront of his brain, Hayward’s instincts with the ball in his hands proved better than ever, while the aggression he often displayed in Utah that pushed him into elite company had returned.
Heading into their duel with the Spurs, Hayward had averaged 20.3 points per game, a career mark second to his last season with the Jazz. Likewise, Hayward’s rebound (7.9) and assist (4.6) numbers were the best or near the best of his career.
And his rejuvenation couldn’t have come at a better time for Boston; with Jaylen Brown out with an illness and Enes Kanter nursing a leg injury, Hayward’s contributions were necessary for the Celtics to start the season the way they have. He isn’t the most athletic body, but Hayward knows the game well and understands how to utilize his tools on both ends of the floor, stepping up and filling in quite nicely on either end of the floor
That, coupled with the context of Hayward’s last two seasons, has only made this most recent setback all the more awful. The former All-Star appeared well on his way to a second appearance in the mid-season classic.
Meanwhile, Boston, after a season that can only be described as confusing and disappointing, was back to playing fun, winning basketball.
Even without Hayward, the Celtics made quick work of the Spurs. But, going forward, they are going to seriously miss their star on the wing. While, in the midst of a seven-game win streak, they sit atop of the Eastern Conference, Boston still has to deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and other potential top-dogs in the conference.
For however brief a time he was back, Hayward was back to his old ways; he was aggressive on offense, stout on defense and put the team in a position to win every possession and every game. While his injury robbed us, the viewer, of his talent for the last two seasons, he overcame some major obstacles and was better for it.
With that Hayward, a key piece to the team’s Larry O’Brien puzzle and the same player that Danny Ainge and Co. inked to a four-year, max salary, the Celtics could go toe-to-toe with any of those aforementioned teams, or any teams in the NBA en route to an NBA Finals bid, for that matter.
But now, with him sidelined once again, Boston is certainly in for their share of struggles.
In a post on his website back in September, Hayward gushed about the upcoming season. And, amidst the chat of his return from injury and his prior relationship with Kemba Walker, his message was clear: “I’m ready to be the player I came here to be.”
Hayward will return, his injury not season-ending. And, while it may seem cruel or unfair, this minor setback is just that: a minor setback, a pitstop near the end of Hayward’s journey.
And, despite that setback, Hayward, if he hadn’t already, is well on his way to proving that he is, in fact, the “player [he] came here to be” (or better, even), something that not only the Celtics, but the whole of the NBA is glad to see.