The NBA season has officially passed its midway point. All-Star voting has wrapped and players will now prepare for their short vacation. When they return from the break, there will only be a month-and-a-half of regular season left until the real games begin.
With almost 50 games played for each team, there is now ample data to judge the race for each award. In this space, there has been the same leader since day one. That changes today. Here are our five candidates for Most Improved Player.
5. Duncan Robinson
Not only is there a new number one, but there is also a first-timer. Last week, this spot went to Jaylen Brown. Since the players in the fifth spot are very unlikely to win this award, from here on out this spot will rotate to showcase some players that deserve a mention, unless a certain player makes it impossible to leave him off.
This time, the honor goes to Robinson, who has quietly become a key contributor to a bona fide playoff team in Miami. The second-year guard saw about 10 minutes per game last season and averaged a measly 3.3 points. He is up to 12 points per game this season and his three-point shooting has shot up from 28 percent to almost 44 percent.
Robinson is no stranger to quick improvements. He started his college career at Division III Williams College before transferring to Michigan. After a rookie season spent learning the ropes, Robinson is now playing almost 30 minutes a night and getting his number called often.
The HEAT has had ample success running him through dribble-handoffs. Per NBA.com, the HEAT score 1.51 points per possession in those situations. That is the highest figure in the NBA out of players that have one or more of those possessions per game. Paul George is behind him for the second spot.
Robinson has not yet developed his game past the outside shot. He takes nearly all of his attempts from behind the three-point line and posts an assist rate of only 5.9 percent.
Still, the HEAT rely heavily on his shooting and score five more points per 100 possessions with Robinson on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. His name has not been mentioned in the race for Most Improved yet this season, but he deserves praise for the leap he has taken.
4. Luka Doncic
Doncic remains on this list as the poster-boy for second-year players that make a larger leap than expected. Both Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Trae Young make impressive arguments for themselves to be considered, but Doncic’s leap to MVP candidate and best player on a playoff team overshadows the other sophomore candidates.
Doncic is still averaging nearly 29 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists. He was recently voted an All-Star starter at guard next to James Harden.
There is not much more to say about Doncic that hasn’t already been said. If he has a slump through the second act of the season, this spot will go to someone else who deserves a shoutout. Until then, this seat is his.
3. Bam Adebayo
Adebayo continued his impressive third season after getting voted to his first All-Star team earlier this week. His stout defense at the rim and increasingly versatile offensive game have been key in keeping this HEAT team near the top of the East.
Adebayo notched his second triple-double of the season in a win against the Orlando Magic on Monday night, tallying 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
The HEAT are scoring 1.18 points per possession with Adebayo as the roll man, per NBA.com. His offensive burden has steadily increased throughout the season as his skill set emerged. His usage rate is up to over 20 percent and he will occasionally lead the break and initiate the offense in transition.
Adebayo’s defense continues to impress as well. His foul rate has dropped significantly from the past two seasons, and the HEAT allows significantly fewer attempts at the rim with Adebayo on the court.
He is still slightly behind the top two in the race for Most Improved, but Adebayo has a very strong case.
2. Devonte’ Graham
Graham has been the leader for this award since day one, but his recent play has moved him back to number two.
His three-point percentage is still very strong, sitting at 39 percent with a number of his attempts being of high difficulty, but his finishing ability has slipped dramatically. He is only finishing 48 percent of his attempts around the rim, per Cleaning the Glass. That puts him in the 19th percentile of the league at his position.
Despite the efficiency slip, Graham still has one of the strongest arguments for Most Improved. He is averaging 18 points and 7 assists, carrying the load for a rebuilding Charlotte Hornets bunch. The team’s offensive rating jumps 12 points with Graham on the court.
His hot start has yielded him more attention from NBA defenses. The next step for Graham will be adapting to the increased attention and bettering his efficiency. If he can improve his overall field goal percentage while maintaining his raw production over the season’s second half, he will regain the top spot for this honor.
1. Brandon Ingram
The new leader in the clubhouse is Ingram, who is the third member of this list to be named to his first All-Star team. He has been the best player on a Pelicans team that now finds itself back in the race for the eighth seed in the West.
His averages of 25 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists on 47-40-85 shooting splits put him in rare territory among the league’s elite.
Early in the season, it was mentioned in this space that Ingram’s hot start from beyond the arc could be unsustainable, but not to the point where he dips below average. That proved correct, as he has tapered off now at the 40 percent line, the mark of an elite shooter.
With the return of Zion Williamson, there have been some growing pains as Ingram tries to feel his way into chemistry with the rookie phenom. Once the duo develops a rapport, Ingram could become even more devastating off the ball or in pick-and-roll situations.
If that does happen, he could run away with this prize.
That wraps up this edition of the Most Improved Watch. Be on the lookout for new faces or a shuffle in the order on the next check-in. Also, be sure to stay tuned into Basketball Insiders for a look at every award race this season.
In the Hunt: Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaylen Brown, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Jonathan Isaac (injured), Norman Powell, Donte Divincenzo, Devin Booker, Richaun Holmes, Lonnie Walker IV, Pascal Siakam, Davis Bertans
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