With the 2016-17 NBA regular season less than a week from starting, Basketball Insiders has been look at the race for each of the league’s annual awards. We’ve analyzed the race for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year thus far.
Today, let’s forecast the NBA’s 2016-17 Most Improved Player race. This particular award is always fun to monitor (and the hardest the predict) since it generally revolves around players taking the next step in their development or surprising everyone with a breakout season that few saw coming.
Last year’s well-deserved winner C.J. McCollum saw his playing time more than double from 2014-15 (15.7 MPG) to 2015-16 (34.8 MPG), and he clearly made the most of his increased role as he posted career-highs in just about every statistical (and advanced) category. As a result, the Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard ran away with the award. Guards and swingmen have dominated the award over the past 15 years, winning 10 of the last 15 years (even if you count Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love exclusively as big men) due to the shift to more perimeter-oriented play.
With so many players changing teams or walking away from the game altogether in the offseason, there are plenty of minutes and touches up for grabs entering this season. The players who can make the most of their expanded opportunity will certainly be in the mix for this award.
It is important to note this list isn’t necessarily ranking the players in a best-to-worst order, but rather by the likelihood of them winning the award. Here is a look at some of the names to keep an eye on throughout the regular season (which tips off on Oct. 25):
- Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns – 13.8 PPG, 2.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 42.3%/34.3%/84% shooting in 2015-16
After impressing as a rookie, the sky is the limit with Booker moving forward. He’s already one of Phoenix’s best players even though he’s still just 19 years old, and there are more and more people around the NBA who feel that Booker could continue to develop into a potential star at this level. It will be interesting to see if the front office ultimately looks to move last year’s starter, Brandon Knight, in order to open even more playing time for Booker (who played 27.7 minutes per game as a rookie). Either way, it’s clear that Booker is going to be a major part of the Suns’ present and future plans. This preseason, Booker has played very well, averaging 21.5 points (on 50 percent shooting from field), four assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 25.3 minutes per game. Keep an eye on the core of Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Alex Len (among others) over the next several years.
- D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers – 13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 41%/35.1%/73.7% shooting in 2015-16
Not only is an increased opportunity there for the taking, Russell also seems to be jelling with the new coaching staff. That’s a great sign, and it appears Luke Walton’s system is a much better fit for what Russell brings to the table, at least offensively. The key for Russell will be consistency, as is the case for any young guard. This not only goes for his offensive production, but on the defensive end as well. His overall effort has been much better throughout the preseason and, by all accounts, he’s continuing to improve as a young leader. The Lakers may not win a ton of games this year, but they should be far more exciting to watch and Russell’s potential emergence as a cornerstone is definitely something for fans to look forward to this season.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – 16.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 50.6%/25.7%/72.4% shooting in 2015-16
Why is the “Greek Freak” still on a list like this, you ask? The craziest thing about him and his potential is that he’s still just 21 years old. Khris Middleton’s injury was a huge disappointment and it may limit how much damage the Bucks can do in the Eastern Conference, but there’s still plenty to be intrigued about in Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo will be at the center of the action. Regardless of where head coach Jason Kidd plays Antetokounmpo, he’s going to exciting to watch and fill the stat sheet. The more you watch Antetokounmpo, the more you’ll appreciate his unique game because he is going to amaze you with some of the freakishly athletic stuff he can do on the court. If he’s able to add a three-point shot to his arsenal (as he reportedly wants to do, despite shooting just 28 percent from long distance for his career), the rest of the league needs to watch out. General managers across the league recently voted him the NBA’s top international player and it is hard to disagree if you’ve taken the time to watch him play. With another season of experience under his belt, it’s not hard to imagine Antetokounmpo being increasingly comfortable this season and putting up even better numbers. In 28 games after last year’s All-Star break, he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the field. If he can produce at (or near) that level for the entire season, he will certainly be in the mix for this award.
- Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers – 10.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 49.8%/72.7% shooting in 2015-16
Turner’s 2015-16 numbers may not have jumped off the page if you didn’t pay much attention to him as a rookie, but we can assure you the former Texas big man was truly impressive in his 22.8 minutes of action per game. Now, locked in as the team’s starting center from the beginning of the season, we love that Indiana also brought veteran Al Jefferson in to back him up and mentor him. Turner worked really hard to expand his game this summer and told my colleague Alex Kennedy that he expects to have a breakout 2016-17 campaign. “I’m looking forward to making a big jump forward next year,” Turner said. “I know I did some good things last year, and I want to build off of that.” In that same interview, he also predicted that he’ll be “a very dominant player in this league” in the near future. Turner certainly doesn’t lack confidence, and it seems that the next step in his development is extending his range. He has attempted a three-pointer in all four preseason games thus far (shooting just 1-4, but it’s a very small sample size), and it will be interesting to see if he takes more as we get into the season. Either way, he’s someone who will be playing more minutes this year and could post some monster numbers if he continues to progress as expected.
- Jusef Nurkic, Denver Nuggets – 8.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 41.7%/61.6% shooting in 2015-16
We could have easily thrown another two or three Nuggets players onto this list, but Nurkic, in particular, has looked really solid in the preseason. Through six games, the 22-year-old big man is averaging 13.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.2 steals in just 24.5 minutes per contest. He seems to be developing good chemistry with second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and he actually works well alongside fellow big man Nikola Jokic, providing twin towers for head coach Mike Malone. Not that preseason statistics and productivity should be taken as any sort of basketball gospel, but Nurkic looks like even more of a load in the post, has displayed a soft touch by the basket and has proven to be a willing and able passer from the center position. Big men may not get as much love as they once did, but keep an eye on year three from Nurkic in Denver.
- Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks – 11 PPG, 4.4 APG, 2.6 RPG, 42.1%/32.2%/79.1% shooting in 2015-16
After three years as a backup, Schröder now finds himself running Atlanta’s offense as the starting floor general following the departure of two longtime pillars (Jeff Teague and Al Horford) this offseason. Schröder averaged just 20.3 minutes per game last year and that was actually his career-high, so this will be the first time he’s playing such a big role. The 23-year-old did enough in his relatively limited minutes to prove to Mike Budenholzer, the team’s head coach and president of basketball operations, that he could handle running things on a permanent basis. Now, Schröder will play a crucial role in getting Dwight Howard acclimated; Atlanta needs the point guard and center to develop chemistry in order for the team to play to its full potential. Major tests could come if the Hawks get off to a slow start, but there should still be enough talent on the roster for the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference and potentially keep their nine-year postseason streak. Schröder’s numbers and production should increase with his added playing time and responsibilities, but he could really help his case for this award if he can also lead the Hawks to another high seed in the East.
- Clint Capela, Houston Rockets – 7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 58.2%/37.9% shooting in 2015-16
Capela is another one of those players who should benefit from a drastic increase in playing time. With Dwight Howard moving on to Atlanta and Donatas Motiejunas’ status (and future with the team) remaining an uncertainty, all eyes will be on Capela. The 22-year-old was strong in a reserve role last season, but he’s actually a better fit for what the Rockets are trying to do this year and is a slightly more versatile defender than Howard at this stage in his career. Plus, you don’t have to worry about keeping Capela happy with post touches and you won’t hear him complain about primarily being used as the “roll” man in any two-man action. The Rockets should show improvement under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, at least offensively, but Capela should really make his greatest impact on the defensive end and on the glass. Couple his increased minutes with his internal development, and it seems inevitable that Capela’s numbers and efficiency will improve this year.
- Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks – 11.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 46.6%/38.3%/76.1% shooting in 2015-16
Not to pile on, but if anyone still had questions about whether Barnes can be the No. 1 option (or even No. 2 option) for a team on a consistent basis, let’s just say the preseason hasn’t exactly eliminated all doubts. So far, Barnes is shooting just 12-51 (23.5 percent) from the field and 3-16 (18.8 percent) from three-point range. Not to mention, he has just three assists and 20 boards in 120 minutes of action. But that isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s time for Dallas to panic. The Mavericks essentially made a four-year, $94 million bet that Barnes can settle in and be a viable offensive option alongside veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Wes Matthews among others. Again, this is just the preseason and a transition period is always expected after a player changes scenery and has to adjust to a new system, team, coaching staff and role. It’s not all that surprising that Barnes has gotten off to a slow start with this in mind. The contract will make more sense as he grows increasingly comfortable in head coach Rick Carlisle’s system and gains chemistry with his new teammates. It would be nice to see Barnes ultimately flourish with the new opportunity. Dallas sure seems to be counting on it.
- Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic – 9.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 47.3%/29.6%/66.8% shooting in 2015-16
As is always the case with Gordon, he’s in phenomenal shape. Sore ankles have slowed him a bit this preseason, but expectations are high for him as he adjusts to playing at the small forward position with head coach Frank Vogel now running the show in Orlando. Gordon has mainly played power forward since being drafted by the Magic, but with Serge Ibaka taking over the power forward spot, Vogel appears comfortable with the idea of Gordon moving to the three and working from the perimeter when not attacking or slashing off-ball. He shot just 29.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but the floor would absolutely open up for him (and his teammates) if he were able to consistently hit the corner three this year. He has been working on his three-point shot and told Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy over the summer that he’s ready to have a breakout year by doing a little bit of everything (which is what Coach Vogel has asked of him).
- Justise Winslow, Miami Heat – 6.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 42.2%/27.6%/68.4% shooting in 2015-16
With Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng departing and Chris Bosh’s stint with Miami coming to an unfortunate end due to his health issues, there will be plenty of room for Winslow to take a step forward and embrace new responsibilities. Winslow showed glimpses last season, but struggled to consistently produce on the offensive end. But with that said, he wasn’t very high on the list of guys being asked to assert themselves on that end. He won’t necessarily be propelled into the “go-to” player role just yet (that may be Hassan Whiteside, who inked a max deal in July), but there will certainly be more opportunities for Winslow and touches seem largely up for grabs at this stage. Don’t be surprised if head coach Erik Spoelstra leans on Winslow as a multi-purpose or hybrid player this season. If that happens, Winslow’s numbers could see a significant spike.
Honorable Mentions: Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks), Zach LaVine (Minnesota Timberwolves), Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics), Tyler Johnson (Miami Heat), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Detroit Pistons)
Again, these are just some of the players to keep an eye on this season, and you can always count on one or two surprise contenders for this award emerging once the regular season gets underway. If you think we left anyone off who has a legitimate chance at competing for the award, leave a comment below!
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