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Summer Workout Plans for MVP Sleepers

The MVP race for the 2018-19 season is already on. (Seriously.) Here’s what a few dark horse candidates can do to vault themselves into the thick of the conversation from the jump.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not even August yet, but new Most Valuable Player odds dropped last week for the 2018-19 NBA season. LeBron James, fresh off signing with the Lakers, is the favorite. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Kevin Durant aren’t far behind, as you’d expect. But I’ve always been more interested in the sleepers, since they’re indicative of the changing tides of the league. It wasn’t too long ago that Derrick Rose went from MVP underdog to MVP favorite, and now he’s about a year or two away from signing a contract in China. But then there’s Steph Curry, who had odds as long as 40-1 before his unbelievable 2014-15 MVP campaign. Players pop out of nowhere, and their teams blossom as a result.

It’s not too early to start talking about the players who will either regain or enter the MVP conversation. Here are the five players—in no particular order and accompanied by their odds—who have a chance to make another leap this season and what they need to work on this summer to improve their chances of doing so:

Kawhi Leonard (+1,000)

New Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told the Toronto Star that Leonard “lit up like a Christmas tree” as Nurse diagrammed plays on a whiteboard last week during their first meeting in Toronto. Leonard asked Nurse how he’d be used on their team and Nurse named virtually everything there is to do on the court, from initiating the offense to shooting off pindown screens to posting up. “I said, ‘Did I miss anything?’ He’s like, ‘No, that’s about it.’ I said, ‘You’ll probably be doing all that stuff,’” Nurse recalled. There’s a chance Leonard isn’t the same player anymore following the quadriceps injury that caused him to miss the bulk of last season, but if he’s healthy he’ll quickly become a heavy MVP favorite just like he was the two seasons before his troublesome 2017-18 season.

Nurse should use Leonard’s 2017 playoff performance as a model for his first (and possibly final) season with the Raptors. Leonard averaged 27.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists while being utilized more frequently as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations, the area of Kawhi’s development I’m particularly interested in. Nurse played a central role in the changes to Toronto’s offensive system last season, including increasing DeMar DeRozan’s playmaking responsibilities.

Leonard is better than DeRozan at everything, except he never got the chance to be a primary playmaker like DeRozan because the Spurs ran an equal-opportunity system with a plethora of ball handlers. In 2016-17, 30.9 percent of Leonard’s offensive possessions were pick-and-rolls. By contrast, 52.8 percent of DeRozan’s last season were pick-and-rolls, per Synergy. But over 12 games in the 2017 playoffs, Leonard’s pick-and-roll usage increased to 40.6 percent of his plays. Leonard scored with tremendous efficiency, as you’d expect, and his passing was sharp.

It’s one thing to recognize an open shooter. It’s another to throw a strike in order to set him up. Leonard does a great job of passing accurately on kickouts to corner-3 shooters (like in the play above), dump-offs to cutters, pocket passes to rollers, and when pushing the pace in transition.

Leonard sometimes unnecessarily picks up his dribble before passing, an old habit from his college years at San Diego State, but he’s improved significantly at throwing darts off the dribble like in the video above on the pass to Danny Green, who was also traded to the Raptors. We already know that, if healthy, Leonard will defend at an elite level and score with efficiency through a diversity of plays. The interesting variable is his playmaking. If Leonard is empowered to handle the rock and facilitate, it won’t be long until he’s the favorite to win MVP.

Devin Booker (+20,000)

Booker is a deep-cut MVP candidate for good reason: The Suns probably won’t be very competitive, and they definitely won’t make the playoffs. Even if Booker has the season of his life, MVP winners are rarely ever on teams worse than a 3-seed; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, playing for the 40-42 Lakers in in 1975-76, is the only player who has won MVP after his team missed the playoffs. But Booker should be noted here because he’s gotten better in each of his first three seasons by taking on a heavier workload while increasing his scoring efficiency.

If Booker keeps progressing, the 2018-19 season could be his breakout campaign. (And if the Suns didn’t stink so much last season, he could’ve just had it.) Last season, Booker became only the 11th player to average over 24 points before turning 22 years old. LeBron James and Kevin Durant did it twice, and the five retired players who did it all made the Hall of Fame. It’s a good sign for Booker. And now he’s about to play with new teammates, with a new coach, and in a new system.

The Suns loaded up their roster with versatile wings who can shoot and switch screens and drafted rookie center Deandre Ayton, who can space the floor to the 3-point line. Expect them to play more small ball this season with newly signed forward Trevor Ariza playing some 4 alongside Ayton at the 5. They have a variety of options to fill out the other wing spots when playing five-out lineups, including rookie Mikal Bridges (who shined at summer league), Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, and Davon Reed. Jackson needs to prove he’s more of an Ariza and less of an Andre Roberson from 3, but the pieces are there in theory to space the floor for Booker.

Booker was projected as a pure shooting guard in the Klay Thompson mold after his freshman season at Kentucky, but he’s drastically improved his ball handling to become a more dynamic scorer. He’s crafty once he gets in the lane, utilizing floaters and off-balance layups; and if a shot isn’t available, he’s a willing, capable passer. Booker must get better at whipping cross-court passes and putting more velocity on the ball, but that’ll come in time.

The mold for Booker should be James Harden, who also fit more of a combo-guard role in his early years in the NBA until Houston unleashed him. Booker lacks Harden’s elite handle and doesn’t draw fouls like a magnet, but their games and bodies are similar. The fact that the Suns didn’t draft Luka Doncic likely has something to do with their belief that Booker can be even more of a ball-dominant force than he was last season; he certainly has the skills.

The Suns gave the Rockets a taste of their own medicine here (well, sort of, since they were down 13 points with less than five minutes to go) by isoing Booker against a mismatch, forward Ryan Anderson. Booker jukes, steps back, and splashes a 3—he hit 36.4 percent of his dribble-jumper 3s last season, per NBA.com. If the Suns space the floor and Booker runs a heavy dose of pick-and-roll, then he’ll naturally end up isolating against slower players on a switch, much like Harden does. Then it’s on Booker to finish the job.

The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since 2010, when Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire pushed the eventual champion Lakers to six games in the Western Conference finals. They won’t break the streak this year. But Booker gives them a chance to be really good, really soon.

Victor Oladipo (+8,000)

I’ll always remember Oladipo, even when he’s long gone from the NBA. Not to Freezing Cold Takes myself, but after the Paul George trade in 2017, I wrote that Oladipo was overpaid: “I view Oladipo as a sixth man … but [the Pacers] must see something more.” Oladipo was my top-ranked prospect in the 2013 draft, but after three forgettable seasons in Orlando and another one in Oklahoma City, I gave up. The Pacers didn’t. Oops.

Oladipo is a prime example of how every player’s trajectory is different. Not all players will be late bloomers. (Most won’t.) But you can never say never. What Oladipo needed was the right opportunity, the right coach, and the right supporting cast, and he got it in Indiana. Oladipo also helped matters by changing his body and enhancing his game last summer. All of that combined led to his earning two fifth-place MVP votes, a spot on the All-NBA third team, a spot on the All-Defensive first team, and the Most Improved Player of the Year award.

It’d be just as much of a mistake to doubt Oladipo’s ability to further improve. He’s only 26, and he just pushed LeBron and the Cavs to the brink in his first taste of the playoffs as his team’s alpha. Oladipo is obviously already quite good, but he can still get better as long as he doesn’t become complacent after his immense success last season. He put up good box-score numbers (he averaged 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists last season). He’s an excellent defender. He was also one of the NBA’s most efficient isolation scorers, and excelled in the pick-and-roll, on spot-ups, and off handoffs. And he was clutch.

The next step is shooting 3s at a higher volume while maintaining or increasing efficiency. Oladipo was an incredibly streaky shooter. He shot 44.4 percent from 3 through December 10, then 31.3 percent until April (maybe because of the Ringer Curse), and then 43 percent through the end of the regular season and playoffs. The odds are Oladipo will always be a fairly inconsistent shooter. But he needs to take more shots. Oladipo attempted 5.8 from 3 per game and seven per game from midrange.

If Oladipo instead were to take 7.7 triples per game (the same as George), and decrease his midrange shots to 5.1 per game, he’d score an additional 39 points over the course of a season and increase his scoring average from 23.1 to 23.7. If he were to start shooting 40 percent from 3 at this volume, his scoring would increase to 24.3. This is a lot of math, but it’s only meant to illustrate how only a subtle tweak to his workload would lead to a noticeable bump in production.

Any significant improvements that resemble his massive leap last season could propel Oladipo to another level as a pro, whether that’s as a passer, rebounder, or just a player who’s even deadlier in the pick-and-roll. No matter what’s to come, don’t underestimate Oladipo.

Ben Simmons (+3,000)

As much as Simmons dazzled last season with his beautiful passing, versatile defense, and ferocious right-handed dunks on his way to Rookie of the Year, he wasn’t all that efficient of a scorer. Simmons averaged only 0.89 points per possession, which ranked in the 32nd percentile in the NBA.

Ben Simmons Scoring Efficiency

Play Type Points Per Possession Percentile
Play Type Points Per Possession Percentile
Pick-and-Roll 0.81 52%
Post-Up 0.69 17%
Isolation 0.88 56%
Spot Up 0.65 10%
Hand Off 0.8 33%
Off-Screen 0.67 10%
Statistics via Synergy Sports

Simmons ranked near the top of the NBA in efficiency when factoring in the points scored off his passes, so this isn’t meant as a slight. The man is already a beast. But he’s not close to his ceiling as a potential Face of the NBA. Simmons is too predictable, as most young players are. In the post, he often turns to a right-handed hook shot even in situations when he should go left. When driving the lane, he uses his right hand more than 80 percent of the time on layup attempts, which results in shot alterations rather than makes or drawn fouls by using a strong left hand. If Simmons develops his left hand on the inside, it’ll make scoring easier.

The perimeter is a whole different issue. Simmons shoots with the wrong hand and was reluctant to launch last season, not taking a single legitimate 3 all season (his 11 missed attempts were end-of-clock heaves). If Simmons were to become even a competent 3-point shooter off the catch, it’d open up new dimensions for him offensively.

Simmons, with an already-chiseled 6-foot-10 physique, could be used more frequently as a screener on the roll, or pop for a shot, or catch and drive. He’s a smart player without the ball, which he displays when cutting and crashing the boards. The reemergence of Markelle Fultz could help matters for Simmons, but Simmons’s high-IQ game could still be better utilized from the perimeter if he becomes a threat from there. Once he is, Simmons has no limits.

Donovan Mitchell (+8,000)

Mitchell was a unique rookie. The only rookies to ever log at least 1,400 minutes with a usage over 29 are Michael Jordan, Glenn Robinson, Ben Gordon, Mark Aguirre, and Mitchell. Jordan became Jordan. Robinson and Gordon didn’t get much better. Aguirre, meanwhile, became a high-volume yet efficient scorer during his prime years, which is what Mitchell needs to do to carry over his first-year success.

The Rookie of the Year runner-up led Utah to the second round of the playoffs and provides hope in a post–Gordon Hayward world. But many of the same things said of Simmons are true for Mitchell, who finished in the 49th percentile for scoring efficiency, per Synergy. Mitchell posted average numbers in play types such as pick-and-rolls, handoffs, isolations, and screens—in other words, almost everything. That’s fine now, because Mitchell is only 21. But to make the leap from great young player to MVP candidate, he must become more efficient.

Mitchell improved over the course of the season at scoring in the paint with one-foot finishes, and his 3-pointer has come a long way since college. He’s also a far better passer than he gets credit for, which he displayed in the playoffs while point guard Ricky Rubio was sidelined. But there’s always room for improvement, and the easiest way for Mitchell to see an uptick in his efficiency is by drawing more free throws.

Of the 205 players in NBA history to average at least 15 shots with a usage over 25, per Basketball-Reference, Mitchell ranked 163rd in free throw rate. That’s fine for a rookie, and even some veterans. Curry doesn’t draw a lot of fouls. Alex English never did. Michael Finley had a perfectly productive career without living at the charity stripe. But most transcendent scorers eat at the line. Players have logged 239 seasons in which they’ve averaged at least 25 points per game in league history; only 27 posted a free throw rate under 0.3. There’s a correlation coefficient of 0.4 between free throw rate and true shooting percentage, which basically means there’s a moderately positive relationship between drawing fouls and scoring efficiency. Mitchell didn’t draw a lot of fouls over his two seasons at Louisville, either, and more often than not, players’ free throw rates don’t change drastically during their pro careers.

Mitchell’s progress has been rapid, and he checks a lot of the boxes as an elite athlete unafraid to take clutch shots. He can defend, pass, and score from every area of the floor. He’s improved significantly already, and is part of a player-development system that typically gets the best out of its young players. If there’s any young player who can continue exceeding expectations, it’s Mitchell.