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Head-to-Head: NBA’s Most Improved Player

Between Jimmy Butler, Evan Fournier and Klay Thompson, the race for Most Improved Player is heating up.

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While there are only a couple weeks of the 2014-15 NBA regular season in the books so far, the field for the Most Improved Player award is already starting to come together. We asked our 2014 intern class who are now featured writers to pick who stands out as the most deserving for the award to them so far:

The Bulls entered this season with high expectations. The addition of Pau Gasol paired with the return of Derrick Rose, to an already talented group led by Joakim Noah, have them as one of the favorites in the East. Unfortunately for the Bulls, both Rose and Gasol have already missed time due to injury. Despite having to play shorthanded, the Bulls have managed to get off to an encouraging start, sitting at 8-5 through their first 13 games. One reasons for the team’s success has been the emergence of guard Jimmy Butler. After starting in 67 games this past year it’s no secret how important Butler is to the Bulls’ rotation. Not only did he start in 67 games, but played over 38 minutes per game in those starts. In terms of minutes played so far this season it’s been more of the same for Butler, again averaging just over 38 minutes a night. While his role hasn’t changed much, his production in that role certainly has.

Early on it’s hard to argue that any player has looked more improved than Butler. He has become more assertive on the offensive end; his usage rate of 22 percent is 5.2 percent higher than that of last year. Butler is leading the Bulls in field goal attempts through the first 13 games of the season as well.

Often times when a player takes on a bigger role offensively their efficiency takes a dip, however this has not been the case with Butler. Last season, his first as a full-time starter, Butler shot just 39.7 percent from the field and was particularly bad from three point range, shooting 28.3 percent. His lack of success from deep didn’t stop Butler from jacking up 3.6 attempts per game on average during the 2013-14 season. This year has been a different story. Butler has been much more aggressive attacking the rim and his attempts from three are down. His improved shot selection has done wonders for his field goal percentage. Thus far he is shooting a career best 49.7 percent from the field despite his increase in usage.

Butler has developed into one of the Bulls’ first options offensively. He has excelled in the mid-post, using his strong frame to overpower smaller guards. His ability to knock down mid-range shots, combined with the fact that he has become one of the better finishers in the game, making Butler a nightmare cover for opposing guards in that mid-post area. He has improved his scoring numbers dramatically from a season ago, averaging a team best 20.4 points per game.

Another product of Butler’s improved shot selection is his increase in free throw attempts. This has played a major role in his scoring boost. Butler is one of the league leaders in free throws taken at 7.1 per game, which is up more than two a game from his attempts at the line last season. More importantly he is knocking down 79.5 percent of those shots from the stripe.

While his scoring may be the most noticeable improvement in Butler’s game, he has stepped it up in other areas also. For a guard Butler does a terrific job rebounding the ball. He is off to a career best start this season averaging 6.2 rebounds per game. In addition to his work on the glass, he has been sharing the ball effectively, to the tune of 3.5 assists per night.

When you factor this all together it’s no surprise to see Butler’s PER well above the league average, and well above his career average, at 21.6. He has been arguably the Bulls most important player to date this season. Any way you look at it, it’s clear that Butler has made significant strides as a player.

– John Zitzler

Draft night 2014 for the Orlando Magic was supposed to go in a much different direction than it really did. The team was “supposed” to draft Australian point guard Dante Exum with the fourth overall pick and then take sharp shooter Nik Stauskas at No. 12. A trade involving the team’s leading scorer in Arron Afflalo was certainly not in the cards, or at least Magic fans thought. But that’s exactly what happened on June 26.

The Magic traded away Afflalo to the Denver Nuggets just hours before the draft in exchange for Evan Fournier and a second-round draft pick which would be used to take Iowa guard Devyn Marble. The move was especially interesting because Afflalo was coming off of his best season as a pro and many believed the Magic could have gotten much more in the trade. The team then used the fourth overall pick to draft forward Aaron Gordon and acquired point guard Elfrid Payton from the Philadelphia 76ers with the 12th pick.

Following the trade that brought in Fournier, many were skeptical how it would all come together. After losing two good scorers over the summer in Afflalo and Jameer Nelson, questions were flying about who would be able to score for the Magic. Fournier arrived to Orlando averaging only about seven points a game during his two seasons in Denver and the two draft picks in Gordon and Payton were decent scorers in college, but concerns were raised on whether they’d be able to score immediately on a consistent basis at the NBA level.

The Magic made some moves over the offseason to help with scoring, including signing Channing Frye and Ben Gordon – two players that have proven the ability to shoot the three ball. After adding those two shooters, the team’s projected lineup looked like it could feature Nikola Vucevic, Channing Frye, Maurice Harkless, Victor Oladipo and Elfrid Payton. Training camp injuries to Frye and Oladipo forced Magic head coach Jacque Vaughn to use different lineups throughout the preseason and experiment with different rotations. Ultimately, Frye only missed the team’s regular season opener, but a facial fracture to Oladipo forced Vaughn to call upon the newly acquired Fournier to start in Oladipo’s place at shooting guard.

So far this season, Fournier has made the most out of his opportunity and is running away with the shooting guard job. Fournier is currently third on the Magic in scoring with 17.3 points per game, which is more than double what he averaged last season in Denver when he scored 8.4 points per game. Fournier’s numbers are up across the board as his field goal percentage is up to 48 percent (compared to 42 percent last season), three-point percentage is up to nearly 51 percent (from 37 percent) and his is playing time is about 15 minutes more per game at 34. When Oladipo came back to the starting lineup from his injury, Fournier’s hot start forced Vaughn to keep him in the lineup and ultimately sent Payton to the bench.

Fournier has proven to be a player to count on as one of the team’s top scorers on a nightly basis. Fournier’s 50.9 percent from three-point range is currently tied for fourth in the league and the team as a whole ranks second in the league in three-point percentage after finishing 19th last season. Fournier recently missed a game due to a heel injury and his absence was greatly missed. During that game against the Clippers, the Magic shot just 39 percent from the field and 33 percent from three. The offense seemed to have little movement and it was clear that Fournier wasn’t out there playing. Considering that Fournier came to Orlando as a relatively unknown player, he has become a pleasant surprise for the Magic.

It’s safe to say that analysts and fans across the league are starting to take notice of this young team. Slowly but surely, the team is beginning to earn more respect each game. Before the team took on the Clippers earlier this week, Clippers head coach Doc Rivers called Vucevic the best player in the league that no one has heard of before. In a recent roundtable discussion on NBA.com, one writer gave Fournier the same distinction and added that Fournier is “providing better shooting and production than Denver is getting from Afflalo,” which only makes Magic general manager Rob Hennigan look even better for executing that trade back on June 26. While it’s certainly too early to start handing out awards, if Fournier and the Magic continue to be in the hunt Fournier could find himself among those in the running for the Most Improved Player Award.

– Cody Taylor

Last offseason, the Golden State Warriors were presented with a tough decision. The question was whether they should offer shooting guard Klay Thompson to the Minnesota Timberwolves in exchange for Kevin Love.

The Warriors ultimately resisted and held onto Thompson. It wasn’t an obvious choice. Love is one of the most productive big men in the league, and Thompson was up for a contract extension (which eventually was agreed to at four-years, $69 million). So far, it looks like the Warriors made the right call.

After playing for the USA National Team that won gold at the FIBA World Cup Tournament, Thompson looks like a new player. He was already considered by many to be the best two-way shooting guard in the NBA, and now that claim seems more valid than ever (at least until James Harden becomes an impact defensive player).

In the Warriors home opener, Thompson scorched the Los Angeles Lakers for 41 points on 14-of-18 shooting from the field. In doing so, Thompson became the first player to score 40-plus points on 75 percent-or-better from the field since Paul Pierce in 2012.

Last season, per 36 minutes, Thompson averaged 18.7 points, 3.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals and shot 41.7 percent from beyond-the-arc. This season, per 36 minutes, Thompson is averaging 25.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals and is shooting a blistering 44.6 percent from beyond-the-arc (on 7.3 attempts per game).

The biggest indicator that Thompson has evolved as a player is his aggressiveness and playmaking. Last season, Thompson only shot 2.3 free throws per game, whereas this season he is taking 6.3 free throw attempts per game (also note that he is shooting a career high 87.5 percent from the line). This is a huge jump and shows that Thompson is now comfortable taking the ball off the dribble and attacking the basket. This is especially valuable for the Warriors since opponents have to close out extremely hard on Thompson when he sets up to shoot a three-pointer, which means when he drives to the rim, the opposing team has to rotate, which opens up his teammates on the perimeter (which partially explains his increase in assists per game).

Thompson was already one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, and arguably the second best three-point shooter behind teammate Stephen Curry. Now, Thompson is a complete player that can knock down shots, setup teammates for easy baskets and lockdown opposing wings. Maybe the Warriors should have traded Thompson for Love. But through the first few weeks of the season, Thompson is making Warriors general manager Bob Meyers look awfully smart.

– Jesse Blancarte

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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