Interest in the NBA world is driven by change. Modern free agency takes this idea and candy coats it, bombing the senses of sports fans with new possibilities and intrigue. Superteams become subjects of interest not for how they reign, but how they fall. And on a much smaller, quieter scale, each individual player will grow and fade within the season and between them, with the power to change the course of a franchise in the process. Something as gradual as player development can’t bring the same sugar rush as a July 1 frenzy, but it can offer something ultimately more satisfying—a richer, more complex dish with its own story. To understand how a player grows is to understand where he’s been. It’s not a coincidence that fans of a team tend to bond most closely with players who developed in front of their eyes, or that the franchise itself might value a player differently if they’ve “grown up” in the organization.
There’s a certain magic to the idea of a player you know coming back better. With that in mind, let’s take a look around the league for the most impressive developmental cases to date this season—the players who have done the most to improve their games and change their prospects over the course of this young season. This is the 2019-20 All-Development Team:
All-Development First Team
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Doncic seems like the front-runner for the Most Improved Player award, which is insane considering that, as a rookie, he was already doing some truly preposterous shit. It goes to show you that absurdity knows no bounds. There is always another level to this; Giannis Antetokounmpo can start draining 3s, James Harden can threaten to average 40 points a game, and Doncic can do almost everything on offense better than before. The Mavs were a below-average offensive team last season. This season, they’re the best in the NBA. Without warning, Doncic has vaulted to 29.3 points per game on 61.8 percent true shooting. Doncic is the slowest player in the league to make getting to the rim look easy, and it’s all because he’s patterned out enough of the fake-and-response possibilities to get anywhere he needs to go. Doncic has noticeably improved his conditioning (the literal limit of a player’s ability to impact a game), but this is a remarkable leap in a young star’s basketball literacy.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
If Graham were a Laker or Knick, he would be heralded as a messianic figure. Because he’s a Hornet, he’s instead compared at every turn to former Charlotte mainstay Kemba Walker, or Walker’s would-be replacement Terry Rozier. Graham may have usurped that title before Rozier ever had a chance to claim it. Although the two start and play together in the Hornets’ micro backcourt, it’s Graham—who didn’t even look like an NBA player as a rookie last season—who now leads the team by most every reasonable measure. It took just two years for Graham to go from a second-round pick to the engine for a modern offense. Only two other players have created more points by way of assists this season, and only Harden has made more 3s. You really cannot overstate that sort of transformation. Graham has completely changed the course of his career and emerged as exactly the kind of breakthrough talent the Hornets were desperate to find.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
There is no single skill in basketball more critical to a player’s upward mobility than his handle. Some of the best shooters in the league are role players. The same is true for many of the best rebounders and on-ball defenders. Dribbling ability is what lets a player grow his game from contributor to starter, and from starter to star. It is the mechanism by which a player brings everything to scale—and the means that allowed Siakam to become one of the best two-way players in the league. It’s not what Siakam is doing this season that is especially noteworthy, but how much of it. The all-league defense was already in place. So was the basis for his offensive game. Now, Siakam simply stretches everything further. Not every player could stay effective while essentially doubling their shot attempts from year to year, but Siakam has the foundational game to manage it. A strong handle gets him where he needs to go, even as the changes in his role have altered his shot profile and the angles available to attack. Toronto can only hope that Siakam—who is sidelined indefinitely with a groin injury—will be available sooner rather than later.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
It was touch and go for a minute there, but it seems that Ingram has grown beyond a Wigginsian purgatory of hollow, high-volume scoring. There is real substance behind the numbers he’s putting up in New Orleans this season, even as the Pelicans on the whole have floundered on both sides of the ball. This is the best that Ingram has ever looked when given the freedom to drive possessions; improved reads and a healthier shot distribution have helped the fourth-year forward to carry what is easily the heaviest workload of his career. Thanks to those changes, this has also been Ingram’s most efficient campaign yet. A player who lived and died in the midrange is now shooting the best 3-point percentage of his career (41.0) while nearly tripling his attempts. He even hit a career-high seven 3s in the team’s Christmas win over the Nuggets. Alvin Gentry’s offense can sometimes be a bit too improvisational for its own good, but the new-and-improved Ingram is the Pelican most qualified to wing it through open space.
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Those in and around the league clocked Adebayo as a player to watch from the start of the season, but even his most committed boosters couldn’t have anticipated that the 22-year-old would blossom into one of the NBA’s best centers so quickly. This kind of play—15.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game—is worthy of All-NBA consideration. Miami’s balanced offense is at its best when relying on Adebayo as a connector between one action and the next. It’s not just making catches on the roll and kicking out the ball to the next open man in sequence; the flexibility of Adebayo’s game is that he can work the top of the floor, drive to compromise the defense, or dribble into a handoff with complete comfort. Defensively, it’s Adebayo who limits points of liability and patches over lapses. His work isn’t just a catalyst for the Heat at this point. It’s the foundation for the team’s entire equation.
All-Development Second Team
Ben McLemore, Houston Rockets
In his seventh season in the league, McLemore has finally moved from being effective in theory to effective in reality. It was never difficult for NBA teams to talk themselves into the McLemore as an idea; in controlled, isolated circumstances, he could look like the exact sort of athletic, range-shooting wing that excels in the modern game. In action, however, McLemore would too often lose his bearings and fall between the cracks of possessions. Working alongside Harden has given McLemore just the sort of structure he needed, and he’s raised the level of his play in kind. The new and improved McLemore is altogether more solid — the kind of player who, in eight spot starts this season, could average 17.4 points per game while shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. Houston, in particular, always seems to be in need of wings who can hold down a role. McLemore has made himself into the kind of player who could.
Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
Part of the reason there isn’t more curiosity around Kyrie Irving’s ambiguous injury situation is that Dinwiddie has fared so spectacularly in his absence. This is the fourth straight season in which Dinwiddie has increased his scoring output—not only per game, as it would with an expanded role, but per minute. Opponents have more reason than ever to key in on Dinwiddie without Irving or former Net D’Angelo Russell around, but it’s hardly mattered; Dinwiddie is slippery enough off the dribble to elude defenses, dangerous enough as a pull-up shooter to force opponents into mistakes, and increasingly comfortable running an offense full time. Only nine other players (10 if you count Irving) have managed 22 points and six assists on average this season, a class that includes former MVPs, All-Stars, and some of the future stewards of the league. Then there’s Dinwiddie—the twice-waived former second-round pick who climbed all the way from the edge of the league to running the show for a playoff team.
Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Playing for the most stacked team of his career has somehow coincided with Harrell’s most productive basketball yet. Maybe you could attribute some of that to the extended recovery of Paul George to start the season, the periodic absences of Kawhi Leonard, or the various games lost to injury up and down the roster, but none of that accounts for the critical contributions Harrell has made to a full Clippers roster. Like so much of Harrell’s career, it almost defies explanation. A 6-foot-7 center shouldn’t be able to beat bigger opponents to the rim for dunks, but Harrell does so with increasing frequency. His face-up game from the wing and the block has become a tremendous weapon this season, augmenting Harrell’s already spectacular work in the pick-and-roll. There was a time when the redeeming quality of Harrell’s game was that he dunked extremely hard. Now he’s routinely embarrassing some of the best defensive centers in the league, often by way of his own creation.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
No Celtic seemed to suffer more for last season’s science experiment than Brown, who oscillated between sitting idly on the edges of an overstuffed offense and forcing his way into the action out of apparent frustration. Something had to give. Ultimately, it was Irving; moving from Irving to a point guard like Kemba Walker might seem like a difference of degrees, but with it came a material transformation for the entire offense. Brown is the chief beneficiary, largely because his game has settled down enough to be ready for the chance. Even when Brown popped off for a 20-point night in previous years, there was something haphazard about the way he got there—something not exactly replicable about stringing together wild drives and streaky jumpers. This version of Brown is more poised, but without entirely losing the qualities that made him so unpredictable. It’s a healthy balance that has come with breakout production: a career-best 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game to complement Brown’s typically stout defense.
Richaun Holmes, Sacramento Kings
Holmes has always been an exclamation point player: emphatic, attention-grabbing, and best used in small doses. His play this season has changed that premise. Like Harrell before him, Holmes has made the transition from energy player to impact player—and not a moment too soon, considering the Kings’ pressing need for quality center minutes. There are still games when Holmes jumps his way into early foul trouble, but in general his defense is noticeably calmer than in years past. There’s a lot of good in a big who is quick on his feet and understands when—and when not—to leave them. Holmes is getting there, and is far enough along already to help support Sacramento’s best defensive lineups. This is big news for a player who was already a tantalizing rim runner, and one of the saving graces that has kept the Kings within range of what could be their first playoff appearance in 14 years.
Obligatory honorable mentions: Trae Young, Davis Bertans, Luke Kennard, Malcolm Brogdon, Jonathan Isaac, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Evan Fournier, Donte DiVincenzo, OG Anunoby.