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The Many Faces of the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award Race

Pascal Siakam, De’Aaron Fox, Paul George, and others all have the bona fides to win the award. And each of their cases aligns with a larger historical precedent.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year Award was instituted in 1985-86 to celebrate the players who made the most progress from one season to the next. The award has many faces, because development isn’t linear. An endless list of variables factors into how a player progresses or regresses. It might be the way they train over the summer to improve weaknesses and enhance strengths, or possibly that changes made to their team’s system resulted in better numbers. Sometimes, it might be an injury to a starter that produced unexpected opportunities. Tracking the improvement of our favorite players is fundamental to our enjoyment of the NBA.

Winning the Most Improved award often foreshadows a career of sustained success: 16 of the 33 winners were named to at least one All-Star team, including seven of the past 10 winners. Over those 33 years, the award has established a few winning templates: players who self-actualize from “good young player” to All-NBA superstar like Giannis Antetokounmpo or Tracy McGrady; steady veterans who see a sudden spike in production like Jalen Rose or Goran Dragic; role players who bundle huge numbers in unexpected packages like Aaron Brooks or Dana Barros; or the sophomore who makes an unassailable leap like Gilbert Arenas or Kevin Johnson. That’s what makes 2018-19 so bizarre. Each of those historical templates has manifested this season. It’s been a defining story line of the season.

Here’s a look at the top candidates to win Most Improved Player during a season filled with important player development.

The Surprise: Pascal Siakam

Past winners: Boris Diaw, Zach Randolph

Decades from now, when you look up Most Improved Player in an encyclopedia, you may find a photograph of Pascal Siakam: In three seasons, he’s gone from a long-shot late-first-round pick to a high-energy reserve to an essential element in the starting lineup of an NBA Finals contender. The Raptors needed one of their draft picks to blossom to maximize their potentially brief window with Kawhi Leonard; now Siakam is so good that he could keep it propped open even if Leonard were to leave.

In his two seasons at New Mexico State, Siakam looked like an undersized big man who’d find NBA success by hustling his ass off in transition. Siakam’s rim runs have become folklore at this point of the season, channeling Tom Cruise in their elegance. It’s been his best skill since college, in addition to crashing the boards, diving for loose balls, and cleaning up around the rim. Siakam still does all the dirty work, but now he’s also an orchestrator of his own offense.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse has empowered Siakam to take the ball coast to coast—something he did for only five possessions in 68 games in college. Siakam has also made significant strides in the half court, evolving into a player who can get buckets by himself instead of relying on others to create for him. Siakam is now a threat attacking closeouts, or even scoring in isolations and post-ups. This season, 56.7 percent of Siakam’s made shots have been assisted, compared to 72.3 percent last season. Against the Wizards, a game that Leonard sat out for “load management,” Siakam exploded for a career-high 44 points, scoring from all over the court, to lead Toronto to a win.

The system and personnel help, of course. Leonard is usually guarded by the opponent’s best forward defender. But the Raptors will use on-ball screens to get Siakam a preferred matchup, which is a credit to just how much of a stud he’s become. Siakam’s favorite way to get a bucket is still at the rim, where he finishes at a 69.4 percent clip. He’s also flashed upside pulling up from the perimeter, hitting a few surprising pull-ups and stepbacks, though it’s not currently a strength. For now, Siakam’s shot is best in spot-up situations. Siakam has hit 37.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s, up from 21.9 percent last season. It’s critical that Siakam sustains this success into the playoffs, since Toronto is surprisingly lacking in shooters. In any case, he’s come a long way: Siakam couldn’t shoot from anywhere outside of the restricted area at New Mexico State.

Siakam’s numbers have nearly doubled across the board from 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists per game last season to 16.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 3.0 assists this season. And yet, despite receiving 5.4 more shots per game, Siakam’s scoring efficiency has risen and his defensive effort hasn’t waned. He’s quickly become exactly what any team would want in a role player: He excels within his role and can explode like he’s a star, which inspires hope for even greater rewards in his future.

The Big Leap: Paul George

Past winners: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Tracy McGrady

George’s flashes of transcendence were overwhelming in the past. Remember the first 20 games of the 2015-16 season, when he averaged 27.9 points? It was George’s first full season after he suffered a devastating leg injury, and it seemed like he had returned ready to take the throne from LeBron. We know how that went, though. George’s production returned to the norm. Even after he averaged 30.8 points in an unconscious run over the last 12 games of the 2016-17 season to thrust the Pacers into the playoffs, his efficiency then plummeted as the Pacers got swept in the first round. Flashes are all they were. As great as George was, he often left you wanting more.

George averaged 23.4 points per game over his final two seasons with the Pacers, but he wasn’t quite securing his place in the elite-scorer echelon. It was more of the same last season, as George played Robin to Russell Westbrook’s Batman while also defending at an All-NBA level. It’s not like anybody complained: George even at last season’s level was one of the game’s most aesthetically pleasing players. Luckily for us, the explosion finally happened this season: George is averaging a career high in points (28.4) on 21.1 shot attempts per game, and his scoring efficiency hasn’t faltered. George’s true shooting (58.6 percent) and effective field goal (53.2 percent) are mere percentage points behind his career-best totals, and he’s posting career bests in assist-turnover ratio (1.6), assists (4.2), and rebounds (8.1). The Thunder haven’t exactly changed George’s role, they’ve just pumped him full of oxygen. He’s doing more of everything, at all times of the game.

George 5G’d his offense while maintaining his excellent defense, and the Thunder needed all of it. The season-long absence of Andre Roberson only put more pressure on George to defend, and with Westbrook having one of the worst high-volume scoring efficiency seasons in history, George helped make up for Westbrook on that side of the ball, too. The Thunder outscore teams by 9.2 points per 100 possessions when George and Westbrook share the floor and by 8.1 points per 100 possessions when George plays without Westbrook, but they get outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook plays without George. Westbrook is the face of the franchise, but George has become the team’s best player.

George has won the Most Improved Player Award already. If he did again, he’d become the first player to win it twice. He certainly doesn’t have great odds; the award isn’t necessarily built to celebrate a leap greater than one into stardom, and George has already made four All-NBA teams and six All-Star teams. But PG13 has forced us to reconsider his career all the same: It seems there was plenty of reason to expect more from George, after all.

The Sophomore: De’Aaron Fox

Past winners: Gilbert Arenas, Monta Ellis

The 2017 draft class was historically good, but the draftees’ individual development this season has been spotty. Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma, and Jayson Tatum more or less stagnated from their eye-opening rookie seasons. Lonzo Ball and Josh Jackson still can’t shoot well. Go down the full list of draftees: Most sophomores can’t even get consistent minutes. Zach Collins and Frank Ntilikina are out of the rotation. Markelle Fultz is still dealing with whatever he’s dealing with. Several players have been given bigger opportunities in Year 2—like Lauri Markkanen, John Collins, and Bam Adebayo—but none of them has come close to making the same type of leap as De’Aaron Fox.

Fox is not only an outlier in his class, but all time. He’s made one of the most significant year-to-year jumps ever, according to advanced metrics like real plus-minus (minus-4.3 as a rookie to plus-2.2 as a sophomore) and box plus-minus (minus-4.4 to plus-1.0), NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman wrote last month. Fox’s numbers are up across the board because he put the work in on his body. Fox added muscle this offseason, which has helped him hold off defenders on drives and finish through contact. He’s hitting 64 percent of his shots around the rim, and attempting two free throws for every five shots—both significant improvements from his rookie season. Speed is Fox’s ultimate gift, but it couldn’t get him where he needed to go until he built up his strength.

Portland Trail Blazers v Sacramento Kings
De’Aaron Fox
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Fox is also shooting 37 percent from 3 after hitting just 30.7 percent last season (and 24.6 percent in college), likely also the result of a stronger lower body and improved conditioning, allowing him to generate power for his shots from distance on fresher legs. Beyond the numbers, Fox is hitting tough dribble jumpers and shots off screens, but it’s his ability to hit spot-up jumpers at a 38.2 percent clip that allows him to be versatile. It’s critical for Fox to become an adaptable off-ball player instead of a ball-reliant player, so he can fit well with high-level competitors. That’s partially why his game is working so well alongside versatile perimeter weapons like Buddy Hield, another Most Improved candidate, and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Of course, Fox is on the MIP short list because of the magic he can conjure with the ball in his hands.

There isn’t a pass that Fox can’t make now that his feel for the game has caught up with his blurring speed. He keeps the ball on a string and can fire precise darts to shooters and squeeze passes through closing windows inside. It’s showing on the stat sheet, too. Fox is posting 7.2 assists and 13.1 potential assists and only 2.9 turnovers. In simple terms, he’s gone from a terribly inefficient, negative overall player as a rookie to an improving scorer, reliable playmaker, and competitive defender while leading the Kings to their first winning season since 2005-06. The Kings have won 33 games with 17 games remaining, and Fox is the main reason: They score 6.8 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor.

Yet Fox has been overlooked in the Most Improved Player conversation. It’s abundantly clear that many writers and fans just wouldn’t vote for a lottery pick in his second year, since youngsters who are given the kind of green light Fox is getting are supposed to get better. The average age of the 33 MIP winners is 24.2, and their average years in the league is 3.7. Only seven of the 33 winners were second-year players, including only two over the past 25 years: Gilbert Arenas and Monta Ellis. Most players win the award in their third or fourth season, just before their second contract. It’s much rarer for a second-year player to make an impact, and it’s seldom rewarded—like when Bobby Simmons won in 2004-05 for turning into a competent role player over LeBron and Dwyane Wade emerging as actual superstars as sophomores. It seems twisted that Fox could also get penalized for being young when he’s the exception in his draft class who’s made improvements across the board, seen a huge boost in numbers, and led his team to a playoff push. The “sophomore slump” is the norm in sports. Fox symbolizes the sophomore surge.

The Good Stats, Bad Team Guy: Zach LaVine

Past winners: Kevin Love, Pervis Ellison

LaVine is averaging 23.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists—all career highs—and he’s posting a 57.3 true shooting percentage (up from 54 percent through his first four seasons). Over his past 14 games, he’s been even better at 26.9 points per game—including 39 points in a win over the Sixers and 42 in a win over the Celtics. The Bulls have the league’s fourth-worst record, but the guard has made exciting progress right along with Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. LaVine likely won’t win the award this season, but as a longtime doubter who ranked him 26th in the 2014 NBA draft, I am now increasingly intrigued by his potential.

At UCLA, LaVine avoided contact like the plague, even though he could bury defenders with his top-tier athleticism. And this season is the first time LaVine has been effective both getting to and finishing at the rim in the pros. LaVine attempts about one free throw for every three shot attempts, which is up from less than one for every four in the past. He is no longer overly reliant on his jumper to produce points. This season, 44.2 percent of his shots come in the restricted area, up from 36.9 percent last season. LaVine had a high, loose handle at UCLA, which left him prone to being stripped, but he’s tightened it over the years. The ball doesn’t slow him down anymore.

LaVine still settles for too many midrange jumpers early in the clock when he should instead be trying 3s (he shoots 35.1 percent on pull-up 2s, compared to 36.3 percent on pull-up 3s), he still wears blinders when attacking, and his defense remains frustratingly lackadaisical. There are limitations still to be overcome, but he’s gotten much better at the primary skill that can carry him to a long career.

The Good Stats, Good Team Guy: D’Angelo Russell

Past winners: CJ McCollum, Jimmy Butler

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets
D’Angelo Russell
Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The injury to Caris LeVert was supposed to ruin Brooklyn’s season, but Russell saved it with his playmaking and clutch shotmaking. The fourth-year guard is averaging 20.4 points and 6.8 assists with career-high scoring efficiency metrics across the board. I noted in my column last week that we shouldn’t be that shocked by his development. He’s always had it in him: In his rookie season with the Lakers—unanimously regarded as the Kobe Farewell Tour—he posted tremendous per-possession numbers when Bryant was off the floor. Point guards take time to develop, and it didn’t help that he had three coaches over his first three seasons and a significant injury in his first season with the Nets. This season is the first time he’s benefited from continuity on his roster. Situation plays an undeniable role in success, and Russell is fortunate that he landed in an organization that has invested heavily in his development.

There’s still plenty of room for him to grow. He scores 0.92 points per possession in the half court, a subpar mark driven by his continued struggles to finish around the rim. Russell is a below-the-rim finisher and still needs to develop crafty finishes, much like Steph Curry did to become a complete scorer, and get better at drawing fouls. Russell has posted the lowest free throw rate in league history of players that have attempted at least 27 shots per 100 possessions. Russell told SNY’s Anthony Puccio last week to “put it on record” that he thinks he’s going to win Most Improved Player. In a normal season, Russell probably would be the favorite, but with so many nominees, he might end up disappointed. Which is nothing that a fat contract can’t fix this offseason.

The Veteran: Nikola Vucevic

Past winners: Jalen Rose, Darrell Armstrong

Vucevic is scoring a career-best 20.7 points per game, but it’s not like he wasn’t an effective offensive player in the past. It’s the way that he’s influenced the offense that has changed. In 2014-15, Vucevic averaged 19.3 points, but he wasn’t the offensive hub that he is today. Orlando can’t survive without him now. The Magic are good when Vucevic is on the floor, as they outscore teams by 2.2 points per 100 possessions—about the equivalent of a 47-win team. Without Vucevic, however, they get outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions—similar to a 22-win team. The Magic are one game behind the Heat for the 8-seed in the East.

Magic head coach Steve Clifford has moved Vucevic all over the court in the team’s playoff push this season. One possession, he’ll post up, where he can pick apart defenses with the pass. The next, he’ll set an on-ball screen and short-roll to the line, where he has a choice to drive or swing a pass to a shooter. Now that he has honed his 3, at 38.0 percent on the season, the Magic can spot him up. He’s become potent at making passes off the dribble to shooters and cutters. Vucevic is posting a career-high usage rate and dropping four assists each game (and only a pair of turnovers), on top of his career highs in scoring (20.6) and rebounding (12 per game). If the Magic make the postseason in the East, it’ll largely be due to Vucevic. The looming question is whether the Magic or another team will pay him when he becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer, and how much.

Honorable Mentions

Buddy Hield, Kings: Hield has been one of the NBA’s best shooters since he entered the league, and Sacramento head coach Dave Joerger has finally unleashed him. Hield is attempting 4.9 more shots and 2.6 more 3s, and scoring 7.5 more points than last season. Few players are as versatile as Hield is when shooting the ball, and the progress he’s made as a pick-and-roll ball handler has been striking. Hield won’t earn as many votes as his teammate Fox, but in a normal season he’d be a leading candidate to win.

Josh Richardson, Heat: Richardson has long been a solid 3-and-D player, but this season he turned from a player who relied on others to create for him into a player who can create for himself and others. Richardson hits 45.5 percent of pull-up 2s and only 28.2 percent of his pull-up 3s, but his increased frequency, as Jonathan Tjarks explained recently, suggests that there’s untapped scoring upside. Richardson moved toward reaching it.

Montrezl Harrell, Clippers: Harrell remains a dunking machine who grinds on defense, and now he’s become a more reliable offensive player who’s cut down on fouls and made unfathomable improvements as a passer.

New Orleans Pelicans v Indiana Pacers
Domantas Sabonis
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Domantas Sabonis, Pacers: Sabonis’s true shooting percentage has risen from 46.9 percent as a rookie to 56.7 percent as a sophomore to 64.5 percent this season. He keeps getting better at finishing inside via cuts and post-ups, and he’s even facilitating more from the elbows. If Sabonis comes back next season with a larger role over more minutes, he’ll contend for votes for the award for a third consecutive season.

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets: Jokic finished second for Most Improved Player behind Giannis in 2016-17, and likely won’t receive many votes this season. He should be noted, though, since he’s the type of player who’s been significantly better even if his progress is only marginally reflected in the stat sheet. Jokic has taken a more expansive role, initiating the offense as frequently as the league’s top point guards and adapting to whatever his team needs, as detailed in my feature on the Nuggets. If the Nuggets need points, Jokic provides them even though his preference is to facilitate. Jokic is also playing the best defense of his life, as he’s led the Nuggets to the 2-seed in the Western Conference. Jokic has managed to play himself into the fringes of the MVP conversation.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: Antetokounmpo won the award in 2016-17, but he’s leveling up again under new Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer. Antetokounmpo is filling a brand-new role: He’s handling the ball more (6.0 assists) and playing more like Shaquille O’Neal inside (3.9 dunks and 12.6 rebounds per game). Antetokounmpo’s scoring efficiency is at a career high too. The man won’t stop getting better, and he only recently started to hit his 3s, shooting 38.6 percent on dribble-jumper 3s since the new year began. Antetokounmpo is more likely to win MVP than MIP, but if George is in the conversation for both, then Giannis should be, too, for making continued strides in his development and being adaptable in a new system.

John Collins, Hawks: The pre-draft criticism of Collins was that he couldn’t shoot and didn’t defend. The former has been addressed: Collins has hit 37.7 percent of his 3s and 77.2 percent of his free throws. The second-year big man is averaging 19.8 points and looks like the Amar’e Stoudemire to Trae Young’s Steve Nash in the Hawks offense. Collins is a lob machine off of dives and cuts, and he’s a constant threat to rip down boards. But like Stoudemire, Collins still can’t defend. That’s the next step in his development as a pro, and to be a serious candidate for Most Improved Player in the future.