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NBA Award Watch: Most Improved Players

The season is still young, but Jonathan Concool breaks down the early candidates for Most Improved Player.

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We are almost a fourth of the way through the NBA season, which means we can now take a very early look at potential candidates for the Most Improved Player award. The usual star players have continued to put up big numbers this season, as we have seen guys like Stephen Curry break league record after league record and James Harden put up 40-point game after 40-point game. Curry, in particular, is setting a new standard of excellence and has hit the next level in his development. But today we’re taking a look at five guys who are putting up big numbers in comparison to what they were doing last year.

Evan Fournier: The Orlando Magic swingman has quietly made his way into the top-25 in points per game this season. Fournier opened up a lot of eyes when he scored 30 points on 12-20 from the field in a win against the New Orleans Pelicans and 29 points on 11-21 shooting in an overtime loss against the Houston Rockets. Now that we are roughly 17 games into the NBA season,  it seems safe to say Fournier’s improvement this season is no fluke.

As a focal point of the Magic’s offense, Fournier has increased his scoring from 12 to 18 points per game. Fournier’s shooting percentage (46.2 percent) is hovering around the same number as last season (44.0 percent), which is notable considering his field goal attempts per game have increased significantly this season. The Magic are in the mix for the final playoff spot in the East and a big reason for that is the improved play of Fournier. He has been Orlando’s best offensive player thus far and he should get a big pay day when he becomes a free agent after this season.

Reggie Jackson: Jackson is playing like the player the Detroit Pistons thought they were getting when they traded for him last season. After a rather unimpressive first season with Detroit after coming from Oklahoma City at the trade deadline, Jackson has come into his own to start the 2015-16 season. He exploded for 40 points in a come from behind win against the Portland Trail Blazers and has now scored 20 or more points in seven game this season. Furthermore, he leads the team in scoring and assists per game.

Jackson had a hard time finding his way with Detroit when he was brought in last year, but he now seems more comfortable with Stan Van Gundy’s offense and is simply taking what the defenses are giving him rather than forcing the issue. Reggie’s points are up from 14.5 last season to 19.4 this season as he is seeing more time on the court and has become Detroit’s go-to guy. Jackson is also contributing 5.9 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. If Detroit is going to make the jump to the playoffs this year, Jackson’s play is going to be a big reason why.

Brandon Knight: After being traded a couple times already in his young career and learning the business side of the NBA, Knight seems to have found a home in Phoenix. Knight has been doing everything on the court for the Suns this season. In multiple games this season, he has led the Suns in points, assists and rebounds, including a 30-point, 15-assist, 10-rebound performance against the Los Angeles Lakers. Knight also posted 38 points, six assists and 11 rebounds against the Denver Nuggets.

Knight has upped his offensive production, as his points increased from 17 a game last year to 21.4 per game this season. He has improved his shooting percentage from three, as he is currently shooting an efficient 41.1 percent from behind the arc. Knight, who is still just 23 years old, has made impressive strides in his game and is in the mix for the Most Improved Player award.

C.J. McCollum: In his third year out of Lehigh, McCollum has impressed everyone with the jump he has made this season. McCollum spent most of the summer in gym, which is paying off for the young guard. His scoring is up from just 6.8 point per game last season to 19.9 this year. McCollum seemed eager to showcase his offense coming into the season as he scored 37 points on 14-22 shooting from the field on opening night for the Blazers. McCollum’s success has come, in part, as a result of increased playing time (his minutes are up from just 15.7 to 34.9 minutes per game).

With several veteran players leaving Portland over the offseason, McCollum has looked much more aggressive in an increased role. If he can keep up his current pace, McCollum should be in the Most Improved Player discussion for the duration of the season.

Andre Drummond: There’s a reason why the Pistons are one of the best rebounding teams in the league and his name is Andre Drummond. Drummond has registered 15 points and 15 rebounds in seven outings thus far this season. This includes a monster 25-point, 29-rebound performance against the Indiana Pacers, a 29-point, 27-rebound outing against the Portland Trail Blazers, and a 25-point, 18-rebound contest against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Drummond’s numbers are up across the board, as he is averaging a dominant 18.1 points and 17.6 rebounds per game, which is up from 13.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per game last season. Drummond has made the jump to an elite center this season and, at 22 years old, has plenty of room to keep improving.

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We still have a long way to go in this season, so the race for Most Improved Player could change significantly between now and the end of the campaign. Nonetheless, through roughly 17 games, these five players have been consistently putting up big numbers in comparison to what they were producing last year. If they can continue to produce at a high level, these players should be in the conversation for the Most Improved Player award when all is said and done.

Jonathan Concool is an NBA writer based out of San Francisco, CA entering his third season with Basketball Insiders.

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