The NBA season is hurtling towards Christmas and the landscape of the league is beginning to take shape. The Bucks and Lakers have separated themselves for the time being in their respective conferences, while groups of teams chase them and the dream of a championship.
Players who came out of the gate like gangbusters have fallen down to Earth, while others who started slowly have rounded into form. The race for each award has heated up, with none more constantly evolving than the race for Most Improved.
Here are the five players with the best case for this award and how their case has improved or gotten worse over the last two weeks.
5. Pascal Siakam
Siakam started this season at an admittedly unsustainable pace. His three-point shooting was off the charts and he was one of the most efficient scorers in the league. His percentages regressed as they were expected to, but since then he has settled nicely into a 25 point-per-game scorer that drives a potential top-four team in the East.
He is back up to 40 percent from three on the season and he is launching those threes from anywhere around the arc. His last two weeks have included two 30-point games as he helped his Raptors go 4-3 in a tough stretch of games.
The most impressive improvement in his game has been the pull-up three, which has not only gave him a new weapon in the arsenal but has also unlocked his dribble-drive game. Opponents weary of giving up an open three stay tighter to Siakam at the top of the arc than they did last season, affording him the opportunity to blow by slower defenders.
Unfortunately for the Raptors, Siakm was just announced as out indefinitely by the Raptors. If he misses significant time and comes back a step slow, he could drop out of this race.
4. Brandon Ingram
Ingram has continued to display his improved scoring ability in New Orleans. It almost seems safe to say that he is now a 40 percent three-point shooter and someone that needs to be feared when coming off a screen.
He is wiggling his way through pick-and-rolls and consistently making the right play. His assist percentage is at a career-high level while his turnover percentage is a career-low.
Over the last two weeks, Ingram has shown no signs of slowing from his torrid pace. He dropped 30 points three times and has only strengthened his case for Most Improved.
The biggest hindrance to his chances will be the Pelicans’ record. They are 7-22 and likely heading towards the top of the lottery. They may fall even further to the dregs of the league if the team finds a suitable trade partner for Jrue Holiday in the near future.
Whether it is fair or not, Ingram will be viewed as another player that can only put up big stats on bad teams when the games aren’t as meaningful. Still, Ingram is averaging seven points more per game and is at his most efficient as well. He deserves consideration for this award.
3. Luka Doncic
Doncic is the second player on our list to recently go down with an injury. The rising superstar sprained his ankle just a few games ago and should hopefully be back on the court in two weeks.
While his MVP chances may take a hit due to the injury, his Most Improved case should stay afloat as long as he doesn’t miss too much time. The leap he has taken this year is unprecedented and deserves recognition.
Prior to the injury, Doncic had one of his best game of the season, eviscerating the Pistons to the tune of 41 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists.
Doncic’s genius lies in his passing and his manipulation of NBA defenses. He is already a top-five passer in the league. The fact that he averages 29 points a game while not being known as a scorer is a testament to his all-around brilliance.
The leap from precocious rookie to superstar usually takes longer than one offseason. Looking for comparisons to this kind of sophomore jump brings you only to all-time greats. The best comparison is Lebron James, who averaged 27-7-7 in his second season after putting up 20-5-5 in his rookie year.
James did not win Most Improved that season. This went to a player named Bobby Simmons. Using that as a reference, it is tough to see Doncic winning this award due to his status as an MVP candidate, but his meteoric rise merits a look from voters.
2. Bam Adebayo
Shooting up the list for the second time in a row is the starting center down in South Beach. Adebayo has improved steadily as the season has gone on and is now beginning to garner early All-Star and even All-NBA consideration.
After a stellar last two weeks, Adebayo is up to 15 points and 10 rebounds per game on the season. He is the best defender on the HEAT along with being integral to their offense thanks to his screen-setting and rim-running ability.
The rim-protecting and lob-smashing archetype is something that could have been identified in Adebayo early in his career. What is more of a surprise, however, is how far he has taken the rest of his offensive game this season.
Eventually opposing centers will catch on that Adebayo is quicker than them. Until then, he will blow by the stone-footed fools that dare relax when he has the ball at the elbow. There is also the rise of his outside shooting, which has been buoyed by a bet with teammate Jimmy Butler that acts as an incentive for Adebayo to shoot threes.
Earlier this week Adebayo lit up the Hawks with 30 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. It was a dominant performance. If there are more of those to come, Adebayo could win the Most Improved award at the season’s end.
1. Devonte’ Graham
This piece should be renamed to honor Graham. He has owned the top spot since the first edition after the season started and has only separated himself since.
One year ago, Graham was deep on the bench in Charlotte and on his way to averaging five points per game. Now, Graham is the Hornets’ best offensive player, averaging 19 points and 7 assists while shooting 40 percent from three.
Just a week ago, Graham diced up the Brooklyn Nets for 40 points, a new career-high. He shot a Curry-esque 7-12 from deep in that game.
There is not much more to say about Graham in this space. He has been the star of the column since day one. A second-round rookie barely getting playing time turned potential All-Star in just one season.
Barring injury or a dramatic fall from grace, Graham will be the favorite for this award come April.
That wraps up this look at the Most Improved Players. If you’ve been following along all season, you’ll notice that these five are the same as two weeks ago. These five listed here have separated themselves a bit as the season nears its middle.
The door is open, however. Both Doncic and Siakam are injured, leaving room for some new faces to insert themselves into the conversation. Stay tuned into Basketball Insiders to track this race along with all of the other award races throughout the season.
In The Hunt: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Malcolm Brogdon, Trae Young, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard, Jonathan Isaac, Andrew Wiggins, Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, Davis Bertans
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