You hear a lot about leaps in the NBA, and it makes sense. Every summer is a chance for guys to add new skills and conditioning, and a season that spans half the year offers plenty of opportunities for organic growth. The best guys get way, way better over their first few years in the league; the ones who don’t lag behind.
Not every leap is created equal, of course. There are too many factors involved. Certain broad patterns have appeared over the years, sure – point guards tend to take a year or two longer in many cases; four-year college guys don’t typically leap as much as blue-chip freshmen; bigs who can’t block shots when they get in the league rarely develop those skills later on.
The Most Improved Player award is a fascinating look at these leaps, and the league’s general perception of them. C.J. McCollum, last year’s winner, is a perfect example of one of the most common templates: A slightly “forced” leap where a guy sees a huge expansion in role that drives up his traditional statistics (to be clear, McCollum’s ability to markedly improve his efficiency on such an increased burden was incredibly impressive, and absolutely warranted the award).
There are others, too. Goran Dragic’s MIP hardware for the 2013-14 season was in part a nod to that late point guard development we occasionally see – he won in his sixth season, already at the age of 27. There are late-draft gems who simply force their way into the picture, like Jimmy Butler the following year. The occasional high lottery pick takes it home, like Kevin Love in his third season, though voters tend to shy away from guys like this who are “expected” to make these leaps.
There’s one particular category of leap, though, that feels under-represented within the recent history of the award: The leap from good/great to elite/borderline star.
It’s an imprecise science, of course, but many around the league will tell you this is the “hardest” leap of all, and simple logic and arithmetic might agree – fewer guys make this leap than most others, by definition. Love is the closest we’ve seen to a good example here in a decade or more; the most recent before that was probably Tracy McGrady in 2000-01 (sorry, Gilbert Arenas fans). We can pick a nit about the definitions of terms like “star” here or there, but the theme is apparent.
There could be a shift in motion, though.
It may have begun earlier, but some of the first signs came last year, when Stephen Curry and Draymond Green – the former the reigning MVP, the latter a breakout star from the previous season – both finished in the top seven for MIP voting (Curry was fourth, Green was seventh). Media voting didn’t end up reflecting it, but there was serious support behind each of their candidacies, especially among analytically inclined folks. Curry, in particular, was almost historically unique among guys who finished so high.
Fast forward to this year, and it’s possible nearly all the primary candidates will fit the bill to some degree. There’s still a lack of general consensus behind the presumed wide frontrunner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, but maybe that’s precisely because of the lack of more traditional candidates – and it’s possible several of the slots behind Giannis could also go to more established players than we’d expect. In no particular order besides the guy at the top, let’s take a look at this new breed of MIP candidate and what they might mean for the league’s collective perception of “leaps.”
Giannis is in some pretty rarified historical air as far as the Most Improved Player award goes. He was third last year, a deserving finish after what would qualify as a perfectly fine leap season for nearly all NBA players. Assuming no big surprises this year, he should finish on the podium again, and that’s a lot rarer.
The only other guys since 2000 to pull off that particular feat? Kevin Durant and Steve Nash. Decent company.
Antetokounmpo still struggles with consistency and his jump shot, but he’s a force of nature when he’s locked in – and completely unstoppable when the J is falling. He’s shooting an obscene 71 percent at the rim on a ton of attempts, and drawing free throws at easily the highest per-possession rate of his career. In maybe his most impressive feat, he’s taken on a huge rise in usage while his turnover percentage has dropped – it’s now gone down every year he’s been in the league as his percentage of team possessions used has gone in the opposite direction.
His other big leap has come on the defensive end, where ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus metric rates him among the league’s 40 most impactful players. What’s scary is, he’s still putting it all together on that end – he’ll still space out or lose a simple assignment from time to time, and he isn’t engaged quite often enough. But he’s just so physically dominant, and so comfortable in his body at this point in his career. He makes up for as many lapses as any non-LeBron player in the league.
The Bucks could probably cement his title here if they sneak into the playoffs, and there’s a good chance the hardware is his regardless.
We covered much of Gobert’s overall rise to stardom earlier this year in this space, and he’s probably been even better on balance since then. He missed his first game of the entire year last week, a shellacking at the hands of the Thunder that exposed the degree to which the Jazz miss him – not only defensively, but on the other end as well.
Gobert has become one of the most impactful screeners in the game, sitting second in the NBA in screen assists. His gravitational pull on perimeter defenders as he rolls to the rim was visibly missing against Oklahoma City, as was drastically improved timing that’s quietly among the best in the league for guys his size. He’s leading the NBA in True Shooting Percentage, blocking shots at a higher rate than any other guy in the league and continuing to dominate defensively even in more small Jazz lineups than ever before. He should finish no lower than second for Defensive Player of the Year, and the discerning voter could have him in the same territory for MIP as well.
It feels crazy that this guy is only in his second year. Jokic had the efficiency metrics of a borderline star as a rookie, and now he’s in bona fide star territory. His combination of passing and shooting has basically never been duplicated by anyone else his size, and he’s barely 22. Surround him with shooters, and there simply is no good answer for guarding him.
Jokic is still a miserable defender, part of the reason he’s likely a hair short of the first two guys to this eye. He swipes at everything and doesn’t move his feet nearly well enough, something that could be an issue for his entire career. He’s also only sitting on about 27 minutes a night, partially due to a weird early-season stretch where coach Mike Malone tried to incorporate both him and Jusuf Nurkic.
Most guys still have another couple levels to hit when they’re this age, and that should scare the rest of the league.
Beal has been a trendy pick to win this one in the past, and some might say his top-three draft slot disqualifies him. That’s fine.
But Beal is another variation of the great-to-elite jumps: Some of his rise in acclaim is probably due to better health than we’ve come to expect, yes, but that partially obscures the fact that he’s simply been way better this year. This isn’t a big rise in role – he’s shooting a bit more often, but his overall usage hasn’t moved much.
Instead, Beal has streamlined his game, shooting a higher percentage of his shots from deep and at the rim than ever before. He’s cut down on some of his more careless turnovers, appearing more consistently sharp both with and without the ball. Any little bits of hesitation from beyond the arc are gone; if he’s got daylight, that sucker is going up, and it’s splashing down over 40 percent of the time again.
Beal and teammate Otto Porter could steal a vote or two from each other here, and the field is wide open enough behind Antetokounmpo that it could make a real difference. Both guys deserve consideration, though, and Beal’s performance feels a bit more under-the-radar.
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