Head to Head: NBA’s Most Improved Player?

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Each season a handful of players make a big leap forward, and this year is no exception. In today’s Head to Head, Alex Kennedy, Jessica Camerato and Jonathan Concool debate who has the best case for the Most Improved Player award so far this season.

C.J. McCollum

When the Portland Trail Blazers lost LaMarcus Aldridge, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum and Robin Lopez over the summer, it was clear that the team would need some of their young players to step up in a big way. Damian Lillard would obviously be the Blazers’ star and leading scorer, but it was unclear who would emerge as Portland’s second option.

Well, that’s exactly what shooting guard C.J. McCollum has done in his third NBA season. The 24-year-old has a strong case for the Most Improved Player award, as he is averaging career-highs across the board and taking advantage of the big opportunity the Blazers have given him.

McCollum’s numbers improved from 6.8 points, 1.5 rebounds, one assist and .7 steals last year to 20.1 points, 3.9 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 steals this season. His shooting percentages are also career-highs (43.9 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three-point range), even though he’s taking far more shots than ever before.

During his first two seasons, the 10th overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft averaged just 14.5 minutes and started only four of his 111 games. Now, he is a full-time starter for the Blazers and playing at a high level.

But, to be honest, we really shouldn’t be too surprised about McCollum’s success.

First of all, his increased productivity started during the postseason last year, when the Blazers faced the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. In Game 5 against the Grizzlies, McCollum scored a career-high 33 points (shooting 12-20 from the field and 7-11 from three-point range). In the final three games of that Blazers-Grizzlies series, he scored 77 points despite coming off of the bench in two of those three contests. He was remarkably efficient as well, shooting 60.9 percent from the field and 64.7 percent from three-point range.

Then, there’s the fact that he predicted he’d have a breakout year over the offseason. After he spent the summer working extremely hard to expand his game, he predicted that he would have a big 2015-16 season.

“I’m going to have ample opportunities and I plan on taking full advantage,” McCollum told Basketball Insiders in September. “I’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time, even when I wasn’t playing a lot or when I was out of the rotation. In the back of my mind, I always knew that there was going to come a time when I was going to get my chance to play and have an extended role. So I think I’m definitely ready. I definitely feel like I’m in a position now where, mentally and physically, I’m ready to handle whatever responsibilities they thrust upon me. I definitely relish the opportunity.

“This is when you prove yourself. This is when you prove why you were drafted where you were drafted. This is when you justify the organization’s decision to pick you and make them say, ‘This is why we drafted this kid; we always knew this was going to happen.’ That’s what I want them to be able to say when it’s all said and done.”

McCollum’s quote has been dead on thus far. With a significantly increased role, he has picked up right where he left off in last year’s playoffs and thrived for the young Blazers. If he continues to put up these numbers for the rest of the season, McCollum will certainly be in the Most Improved Player discussion.

– Alex Kennedy

Kawhi Leonard

The San Antonio Spurs made Kawhi Leonard a focal point of their long-term plans by signing him to a mega deal over the summer. This season, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year has expanded his role on the team to also become a major offensive contributor.

Leonard leads the Spurs in scoring with 21 points per game. He was tops in scoring last season as well, but this time around his average is up by 4.5 points.

When it comes to efficiency, he is shooting 50.9 percent from the field, an increase from 47.9 percent. His free throw shooting is also up from 80.2 percent to 87.5 percent.

However, the biggest leap comes from behind the arc. Leonard is leading the NBA with a career-best 49 percent shooting from three-point range. Last season, he shot 34.9 percent from long distance.

Overall, his plus/minus of +9.2 (11th in the league behind Tim Duncan) is a significant increase from last season’s +6.9. Leonard is stepping up on the offensive end this season, showing the he’s ready to be a star and the Spurs’ next chapter is promising.

– Jessica Camerato

Reggie Jackson

Reggie Jackson has elevated his game this season and is producing like the player Detroit thought they traded for last season. After a less-than-stellar beginning to his stint with the Pistons last year, Jackson finds himself as Detroit’s leader in assists per game and points per game almost 30 games into the season.

With a 40-point game, back-to-back nights dropping 30 points and several other 20-point performances, Jackson has put the league on notice.

With his scoring up from 14.5 points per game last season to 20.1 this year, Jackson has been much more aggressive offensively. This is mostly because of Jackson’s increased role with the Pistons, which he didn’t have with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Jackson seems to typically do good things for the Pistons when he’s on the court as he has a plus/minus of +4.8 and, in addition to scoring, he is contributing 6.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game. Jackson has made a leap forward offensively this year and developed an effective two-man game with big man Andre Drummond.

Jackson’s play has the Pistons four games over .500 and he’s looking to lead them to their first playoff berth in seven years.

– Jonathan Concool