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NBA PM: 2015-16’s Most Improved Player Race

A look at some NBA players who may be in the mix for the 2015-16 Most Improved Player award.

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When it comes to determining the NBA’s Most Improved Player every year, there are a lot of ways that voters ultimately can decide to go with their ballots. Typically, though, the winners of these awards either emerge as a solid role player from what previously may have been a negligible role, or they jump from being a role player into something much closer to perennial All-Stardom.

In recent years, it definitely has been more of the latter, with Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, Paul George and Kevin Love winning four the last five MIP trophies, but that isn’t always the case. Ryan Anderson, Aaron Brooks, Hedo Turkoglu and Boris Diaw also have won Most Improved honors in the last decade, and Hassan Whiteside certainly garnered plenty of consideration for the accolade a year ago.

This season, there are a ton of reasonable candidates for Most Improved Player. There will be an eclectic mix of players on the cusp of stardom or even just a more efficient, consistent level of play in their respective rotation.

Knowing that burgeoning All-Stars have been given the benefit of the vote the last five years, those are the kind of players who appear to have the strongest likelihood of winning the award this year. Let’s take a look at some potential MIP candidates, all of whom are relatively young players on the cusp of a breakout campaign.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – Very obviously one of the most physically gifted players in the NBA, Antetokounmpo is a 20-year-old blooming talent that still has nowhere to go in his career but up, even though he did finish seventh in Most Improved Player voting a year ago. Defensively, he’s absolutely frightening because he’s big enough to defend centers and long enough to frustrate point guards, but he’s also figuring out how to be aggressive offensively and attack the rim more or less whenever he wants. With Jabari Parker back and Greg Monroe ready to gobble up offensive touches, it might be tough for Antetokounmpo to see a big uptick in points scored, but he’s going to be stronger, more efficient and more mature than a year ago, and sometimes that does manifest itself in enough improvement to be accolade-worthy.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards – Beal’s biggest concern so far in his young career has been health, as he’s played an average of 64 games in his first three NBA seasons. Last year, he scored a career-high 17.1 PPG as a sophomore in what proved to be his healthiest all-around campaign. To see enough growth over that number to be considered for Most Improved Player, Beal will have to score significantly more points per game this year and very likely shoot a higher clip than his 41.9 percent career field goal percentage. With a bigger offensive role on a burgeoning Washington Wizards team, Beal absolutely could accomplish both things, and if he does average 22-23 points a night this year, there’s a very good chance he’ll also be named to the All-Star team. That’s exactly the type of player who typically wins this award, so Beal looks primed for serious consideration.

Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz – As the third-place finisher in MIP voting just a year ago (including 12 first-place votes), Gobert already made a huge leap from his rookie to sophomore season. He went from playing only 45 games and averaging a scant 2.3 PPG and 3.4 RPG to putting up 8.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG and 2.3 BPG last year, clearly catapulting himself into the discussion as one of the NBA’s best young big men. But the question is, how much better can Gobert be in his third season? He already is among the most dominant shot-blockers in the league and actually led the NBA in some advanced defensive statistics a year ago. That will continue, but what would push him into the conversation for Most Improved Player again would be a significant jump on the offensive end. He already is insanely efficient (he shot 60.7 percent from the floor last year), so the Jazz would have to get him more involved for further consideration to be possible, but if he’s averaging 14 PPG, 10 RPG and leading the league in blocks, he very likely will get even more first-place votes in the spring of 2016.

Reggie Jackson, Detroit Pistons – Any Pistons fan can recite Jackson’s post-trade stats rote at this point, mostly because people have been talking about them all summer. The fact that he put up 17.6 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.7 RPG as a Detroit Piston following his trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder speaks volumes to his potential as a point guard capable of getting voted onto an All-Star team. John Wall, already established as an elite NBA floor general, threw a bit of a hissy fit this summer when Jackson was given an $80 million contract similar to his own, but the reality is Jackson’s Pistons numbers weren’t all that different from Wall’s averages last season. If Jackson is as good as Wall (an All-Star, by the way) for a full season, he’ll be at the forefront of this conversation. Winning Most Improved Player would, at the very least, go a long way toward justifying that huge summer contract.

Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers – While Noel didn’t have a bad rookie year (9.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG and 1.8 SPG), the fact that he plays for a team with so few difference makers gives him a tremendous opportunity to break out even further in his second healthy season in the NBA. While Jahlil Okafor could make it challenging for Noel to get his rebounding numbers up much higher, he certainly can score more efficiently after shooting just 46.2 percent last year. Considering how many of his shot attempts are in close, that should easily boost his scoring numbers up quite a bit. He may be one of the league’s better all-around defenders, too, which if added to scoring and rebounding numbers that are both in the double digits, could give him some sway as a Most Improved Player candidate despite playing for what is sure to be an atrocious team in Philadelphia.

Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic – The Orlando Magic are one of those teams that continue to inch closer to perennial playoff status, and Victor Oladipo is a huge reason for Orlando’s success. Not only does he have the charisma, leadership and drive to be a great player in this league, he also has shown steady improvement in just a couple of seasons in the league. Last season, he turned the ball over less often, took better shots and got more aggressive attacking the basket. If these are the sorts of things that continue to improve this coming season, the statistics are almost certain to improve as well, and that combined with a strong showing from the Magic as a team could be enough to generate buzz for Oladipo as an MIP candidate. Oladipo finished last year on a very strong note, averaging 20.3 points, 4.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals after the All-Star break. If he picks up where he left off this season, he’ll receive serious consideration.

Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors – For two consecutive seasons, Valanciunas has averaged over 11 PPG and 8.5 RPG for a Raptors team that has won the Atlantic Division, so he has the advantage of playing a big role for a good team. However, he’ll have to take a significant leap in his fourth NBA season if he’s to have any chance at being the league’s Most Improved Player. Thus far, it looks like the coaching staff is trying to get Valanciunas more involved offensively, which would be a great thing for his chances here, and with Amir Johnson getting replaced by Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo, Valanciunas could see over 30 MPG for the first time in his career. A bigger offensive role and more minutes spell a potential breakout season.

Honorable Mention:

Meyers Leonard & C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers – With so many of Portland’s starters having run off to greener pastures, plenty of opportunities now present themselves to some of the younger Blazers players that were left behind, including both Leonard and McCollum. Leonard is expected to start at center for the new Blazers, and his ability to run up and down the floor unlike many other seven-footers in the league, knock down threes and defend at a potentially elite level make him an intriguing prospect, despite a crowded young frontcourt rotation that features a lot of potential rising stars. McCollum, meanwhile, is really the only credible scorer in the backcourt outside of Damian Lillard and should get plenty of minutes as a scorer off the bench in 2015-16.

Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls – Assuming Mirotic gets the minutes, he could be a dominant three-point shooter and rebounder at his position. However, the biggest question for him this season is whether he actually will get the minutes. Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah and, of course, Pau Gasol all are accustomed to big chunks of playing time, and rookie Bobby Portis seems to have played himself into more minutes than expected too. Mirotic is going to be a heck of a player soon, but his ability to contend for this award relies entirely on how much playing time he ends up getting.

Last year, Jimmy Butler’s meteoric rise surprised a lot of people, and Hassan Whiteside literally came out of nowhere to establish himself as a quality NBA center, so it’s possible that this year’s Most Improved Player isn’t on this list. All of the above have a great chance at winning, however, and all should see significant growth in the upcoming season.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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