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NBA Daily: Most Improved Watch — 11/22/2019

A month into the season, the field is beginning to separate for the Most Improved Player Award. Quinn Davis takes a look at the players that would be at the top of the race if the season ended today.

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In today’s NBA, the offseason is almost as exciting as the regular season and playoffs. There is Free Agency, of course, but outside of the normal player movement storylines, there is also the neverending cycle of workout videos and hype generation.

Every summer brings footage of players dominating an LA Fitness gym or of a previously paint-bound player draining threes with a trainer. Most times, these grainy videos tell us nothing other than that NBA players sans NBA competition are always going to look amazing — because they’re just really freaking good at basketball.

Sometimes, though, these videos and subsequent social media hype can foreshadow a leap year. Sometimes, it turns out they did add some range or a better repertoire of post moves.

A month into the season, here are the players that have made a leap so far. Unlike two weeks ago, this Most Improved Watch will include more than five players. With so many players looking better than ever, there will be a few lumped together to make sure no one is forgotten. Here we go..

Luka Doncic/Trae Young

After not making this list two weeks ago, both of these second-year dynamos have forced their way into the Most Improved conversation. While it’s rare for players of their pedigree to win due to an expectation of improvement, both of the leaps that Young and Doncic have taken are nearly unprecedented.

Doncic has been incredible. He has blossomed into an MVP candidate quicker than anyone has expected. His raw averages of 30 points, 10 rebounds and 9 assists would be the best ever for a player his age. His assist rate of 49.1 percent is the second-highest number in the league.

Even after a few games of hot shooting, his three-point shooting has not significantly improved. He is only up to 35 percent after hitting 34 percent of those shots a year ago. His finishing at the rim has taken a big jump, however, up to 72 percent in that area after finishing 61 percent of those shots in 2018-19, per Cleaning the Glass.

Doncic exists in the LeBron James category of players who are excellent scorers despite being better at another aspect of the game. Doncic’s true genius has been his ability to manipulate defenses and consistently make the right pass. He has become one of the best pick-and-roll players in the NBA.

This brings us to Young, who has also excelled offensively in the pick-and-roll. While Young is not quite on the plane that Doncic is, he has been a vital part of the Hawks’ solid start to the season. Youngs averages of nearly 27 points and 9 assists would be a much bigger storyline in a Doncic-less league.

For more on Young, take a look at Basketball Insiders’ column from last week about his impressive start.

Andrew Wiggins/Brandon Ingram

Here we have the category of former high draft picks that were almost written off, but might be finally taking the leap. Both of these players failed to meet their lofty expectations but have had very promising starts to this season.

Wiggins, the number one overall pick in 2014, has come slightly down to Earth after a hot start, but he is still on track for his best season. He is averaging 25 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists while achieving a 52 percent effective field goal percentage, the highest of his career.

Maybe the most impressive improvement in Wiggins’ game has been his passing. His assist percentage of 17.6 percent is by far his best, and his turnover rate of 6.6 percent is his lowest, per Cleaning the Glass.

The Timberwolves’ offense has been 7 points per 100 possessions better with Wiggins on the court than with him off, per Cleaning the Glass. If he keeps up his improved passing and efficiency, he will be a viable candidate as the season goes on.

Ingram, the second overall pick in 2016, has been even better. In his new role on the Pelicans, he is averaging 25 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. His biggest improvement has been in his three-point shooting. He is hitting 45 percent of his three-point attempts, up from 33 percent a year ago.

That number is likely unsustainable. Ingram is not putting up a huge volume of threes, albeit more than last year, and his long mid-range percentage is relatively unchanged from last season. It’s likely that Ingram regresses as the season goes on, but it’s reasonable to think that he will settle closer to 40 percent, an impressive number.

Like Wiggins, Ingram has improved his passing. His assist percentage is higher than it’s ever been while his turnover percentage has remained constant. Ingram has more space to operate playing alongside a true point guard in Jrue Holiday, and he has taken advantage. If he continues to shoot at an elite level, he will be in consideration for Most Improved come April.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander

Why does Gilgeous-Alexander get his own section ahead of Doncic and Young? Simple, the expectations for the former were not as lofty as those for the latter. Gilgeous-Alexander, a late lottery pick, was not expected to immediately take a leap like he has this season, and therefore should receive more consideration for Most Improved.

Gilgeous-Alexander has nearly doubled his scoring from last season and is hitting a higher percentage of his three-point attempts at a much higher volume. His overall efficiency is actually slightly lower than last season, but this is more than made up for by the increased usage.

Under the tutelage of Chris Paul, he has improved his ability to maneuver on offense and manipulate players around him. He also knows how to use his length and size at guard to shoot over and around smaller players when going to the rim.

Like a lot of the players on this list, Gilgeous-Alexander got off to a hot shooting start which inflated his numbers a bit. He has since regressed, but the other areas he has improved and his increased usage should keep him in this conversation.

Pascal Siakam

Siakam’s rate of improvement over his first three years in the league has been unprecedented. After winning the award a season ago, he has only made an even bigger leap. It can be argued that going from borderline All-Star to superstar is harder than jumping from bench player to borderline All-Star.

His three-point shooting has come back to Earth a bit after a scorching start. He is still averaging 25 points a game and controlling the Raptors’ offense. The team craters when he sits, going from a plus-11.4 net rating with him playing to a minus-6.0 net with him sitting, per Cleaning the Glass.

His defense is on the level of his offense, if not better. He can guard 1-4 well, and the team has a similar drop in defensive rating whenever he takes a rest. He has almost single-handedly made the Raptors a threat in the East after many expected the conference to be a two-team race.

For the record, it is highly unlikely he wins this award. Voters will be wary of giving someone Most Improved for the second year in a row. That said, if he continues to play at an absurd level that was unfathomable for him just two years ago, he will always get a mention in this space.

Devonte’ Graham

The leading candidate for this award remains Graham. As noted before, the seemingly out of nowhere jump from rookie project to quality point guard is what will get the most attention and deservedly so.

At the last check-in for this award, Graham was the Hornets’ sixth man and contending for that award as well. Now, coach James Borrego has made the decision to move him into the starting lineup.

Graham is still averaging 18 points and 7 assists while being lights out from three. His pull-up in transition is deadly and he uses it to punish defenders anytime they take even a small step backward.

The Hornets are operating at a minus-20 net rating when Graham sits and a minus-1.7 rating when he plays, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the equivalent of going from the worst team in the league to a slightly below-average one.

Outside of the impressive shooting, his command of the floor has been a revelation. He is using his gravity to find shooters and create open looks like a veteran. He has been a bright spot for a Hornets team that is in the very early stages of rebuilding and he should be a fixture in the Most Improved conversation.

There you have it, the leading candidates for the Most Improved Player. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders to track this award and the others.

Notable Mentions: Jonathan Isaac, Malcolm Brogdon, Bam Adebayo, Jabari Parker, DeAndre Bembry, Jaylen Brown, Daniel Theis, Luke Kennard, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, Frank Ntilkina and Furkan Korkmaz

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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