It may be just a few weeks into the season, but a myriad of storylines have already made their social media and television rounds, chief among them players that seem to have taken a leap on the court and are emerging as game-changers or even potential stars.
Many of these spots could be taken by younger players — whether they surprise breakouts or guys that were just expected to improve as they take that next step in their respective careers. That said, they aren’t the only players that will take their game to the next level this season. Case-and-point, don’t always expect to see the same names here.
That said, here are five players who have jumped into the Most Improved Player race to start the season.
Honorable Mention: Luka Doncic, Wendell Carter Jr., Luke Kennard, Lonzo Ball, Aron Baynes, OG Anunoby, Donovan Mitchell, DeAndre Bembry
5. Jonathan Isaac, Orlando Magic
Jonathan Isaac was expected to take a leap by many in 2019-20. And, thus far, the third-year forward has done little other than impress.
Isaac has taken strides in his offensive efficiency; he’s bumped his effective field goal percentage to 52 percent as he’s knocked down 37 percent of his three-point field goals and shot 53 percent from the midrange, per Cleaning the Glass.
Isaac has also boosted his assist percentage to the middle of the forward pack, per Cleaning the Glass, up from near the bottom of the position last season.
His improvements aren’t limited to the offensive end, however; while those are nice, Isaac’s true candidacy may come from his play on the defensive end. Thus far, Isaac has averaged three blocks per game, tied with Anthony Davis for the most in the NBA.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s versatility has also been on full display. Not only does the forward have the size and length to battle other bigs on the block, but the foot speed to stick with smaller wings on the perimeter.
Issac’s elastic arms have made him in a menace in the passing lanes.
If he can continue to make a major impact on the defensive end, and keep up the offensive proficiency, Isaac should garner some major consideration for Most Improved come award season.
4. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
I know what you’re thinking: yes, Pascal Siakam has already taken home some Most Improved hardware.
And, yes, it would be unprecedented for Siakam to take home the award two years in a row; since the award’s first year, the 1985-86 season, no player has won it twice, let alone in back-to-back seasons.
That said, Siakam has been that good to start the 2019-20 regular season as he has led the Toronto Raptors to their 6-2 start.
With Kawhi Leonard gone, Siakam’s usage percentage season has jumped nearly 10 percent. While the uptick may have been expected, what’s impressive is that Siakam has maintained efficient numbers despite the extra, star-level touches every game.
Siakam’s three-point percentage, at the time of this writing, sits at 41.3 percent, up from 36.9 percent last season and on 5.8 attempts per game, up from 2.7. Also, unlike last season, Siakam has been deadly from around the arc rather than just in the corners; Siakam has drilled 44 percent of his non-corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass.
Per NBA.com, Siakam has hit on 36.4 percent of his pull-up threes, up from a measly 12.5 percent last year, also on significantly more attempts.
Something Siakam was unable to do last season was make defenders pay when they went underneath screens in the pick-and-roll. But, this season, it’s been a complete reversal, as he has attacked in these scenarios, launching threes and making defenders pay for not respecting his shot.
Siakam has averaged 27.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists through eight games. He’s the best player, on offense and defense, on a strong Eastern Conference contender. The Raptors, when Siakam has been on the court, have outscored opponents by 13.1 points per 100 possessions while they have been outscored by 10.4 points per 100 possessions when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass.
And, if all that doesn’t at least put him in the conversation for Most Improved, the NBA might as well get rid of the award.
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should fall squarely in the “De’Aaron Fox” category of the second-year player that has exploded onto the scene.
The disparity in his counting stats almost immediately make his case. Last season, the Kentucky product averaged 10.8 points, 2.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while he shot 36.7 percent from deep and 47.6 percent from the floor. In 2019-20? Gilgeous-Alexander has posted 22 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists through eight contests.
The sophomore also bumped his shooting numbers to 40 percent from behind the arc and 48.5 percent from the floor.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Gilgeous-Alexander has been the best player for the Oklahoma City Thunder thus far. With his length and solid instincts, he has proven a solid defender, while he has also led the team in scoring, ranked second in offensive rating (109.8) and fifth in net rating (4.2).
Gilgeous-Alexander’s best weapon is his right-handed running layup. He can use his length to skirt to the rim, extend and toss a layup off of the top of the backboard. Here, the guard breaks out to get the bucket over the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s assist rate is down from last season, but much of that can be attributed to the presence of Chris Paul and more time for Gilgeous-Alexander without the ball. Likewise, some of his increased production could prove due to the small sample size of the early season.
But, early on, his confidence and impressive play in a significantly larger role have given Gilgeous-Alexander the look like a star-in-the-making. That said, the opportunity to make an impact, and, more importantly, the touches, should be there for him; if he can maintain his current level of play, he should be in the thick of the award race come April.
2. Malcolm Brogdon, Indiana Pacers
After he expertly filled a secondary role in Milwaukee last season, Brogdon jumped ship to the Indiana Pacers and earned a leading role for his trouble.
And, through the first three weeks, the former Rookie of the Year has made the four-year, $85 million deal he signed looked like a bargain. In the Pacers’ nine games thus far in 2019-20, Brogdon, as their offensive fulcrum, has averaged 21 points, 5.1 rebounds and 9 assists per game, all improved from a season ago.
With the uptick in usage, Brogdon has seen a dip in his efficiency: his 45.8 and 31 percent shooting from the floor and three, respectively, are both down from last season (50.5, 42.6). However, that drop is due, at least in part, to an early-season slump, and should regress closer to Brogdon’s career averages (48.2, 40.5) as the season goes on.
Brogdon’s passing has been crucial to the Pacers, as he ranks third in the NBA in assists behind only Lebron James and Luka Doncic. When Brogdon’s on the floor, the Pacers’ offense is also nine points better per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Brogdon’s game isn’t particularly flashy. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as he plays at his own pace and, more often than not, makes the right play. Despite an increased usage rate, Brogdon’s turnover percentage has remained low.
Here, running the pick-and-roll with Myles Turner, Brogdon doesn’t press. Instead, he takes what the defense gives him and makes his way into the paint. Then, holding DeAndre Jordan in his path, Brogdon fakes the layup before whipping a pinpoint pass to a wide-open Domantas Sabonis in the corner.
That’s a sub-par defensive effort by Jordan, but taking advantage of poor defense is a necessary trait for a starting point guard.
Brogdon isn’t Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving; he doesn’t particularly stand out on any given play. That said, should he continue to prove himself one of the league’s best assist-men, voters would be hard-pressed to pass on him once his shooting percentages climb back to normal levels.
1. Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
The best candidates for Most Improved are often the surprise ones. And Devonte’ Graham, a second-round pick in 2018, has been one of the biggest surprises in the season’s early going.
Behind Terry Rozier, Graham has solidified himself as the Charlotte Hornets’ top backup guard and first player off the bench. Through eight games, Graham has averaged 17 points, 7 assists and 3.9 rebounds in 31 minutes per game, a far cry from the 5 points and 3 assists he managed in 46 appearances last season.
Graham’s three-point shooting has proven his most effective weapon. 52 percent of his total shot attempts have come from deep, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, the sophomore guard has knocked down 41.8 percent of those shots.
Graham has punished defenders that would dare give him space with a deadly pull-up jumper. These shots haven’t exactly been easy, either; per NBA.com, the majority of his three-point attempts are pull-ups and he is converting on an otherworldy 50 percent of those attempts.
Graham often sprints down the court in semi-transition, hoping his opponent backs off a tad to prevent a drive. That one step has proven all he’s needed, as he launches without hesitation at the first sign of daylight.
Of course, it would seem as if this could prove unsustainable for Graham. For reference, in his record-breaking 2015-16 MVP season, Curry hit on just 44 percent of those same shots.
That said, even if he comes back to earth, Graham has improved across the board. He has increased his shooting fouls drawn rate to 12.5 percent, up from 7.3 percent last season, per Cleaning the Glass. Meanwhile, Graham’s assist percentage has jumped by nearly 10 percent.
Beyond that, his impact for Charlotte has been easy to see. When Graham’s on the floor, the Hornets have operated at a near-even net rating. But, when he hits the bench, that number plummets to -20.3, per Cleaning the Glass.
Right now, Graham should be considered the leader in award race. And, while it’s still early, his gargantuan leap has been fun to watch; should he maintain any semblance of it throughout the season, Graham could prove a runaway winner.
There is a lot of basketball left to play but, thus far, these five have stood out from the crowd of Most Improved candidates. The NBA season is a long one, and anything — slumps, injuries, etc. — could happen. Another, relatively unknown candidate could even break onto the scene and steal the show.
And, because of that uncertainty, make sure to follow along with Basketball Insiders’ award watches as we track them throughout the season.
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