Individual improvement can take several forms in the NBA. Sometimes it’s conditional, boosted by a change in teammates, coaches, or an offensive system. Sometimes an intense summer in the gym softens weaknesses, sharpens strengths, and fortifies a body for the rigors of an upcoming season. Sometimes the aging process, and all the experience that comes with it, leads to a natural breakthrough. Sometimes an opportunity presents itself and a role expands. Sometimes it’s all of the above.
At the end of the day, in a results-oriented league, the why is less meaningful than the how. But when it comes to gleaning growth, my own fascination (and who will be covered in this column) lies with those who are familiar enough to have already established a reputation. The progress those players make is less predictable and up against quieter expectations than those entering their second or third season.
These evolutions aren’t necessarily more important, but it’s far more interesting, to me, when someone thrives in a way that dramatically transforms how they’re perceived. Here are a few players doing that this season.
De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
I will always cape for anyone who is leaping from “low-rung All-Star” to “conceivable MVP candidate.” Flame to inferno. It’s a significant threshold that some of the most premier talents never cross. But by reconsidering his relationship with the 3-point line, Fox is doing it.
Coming into this season, Fox’s highest 3-point rate was 28.8 percent back in 2021. Now it’s 40.6 percent and he’s drilling 40.3 percent of his 8.8 attempts per game. We’ll see how much all this sustains over the next few months, but so long as Fox’s volume and the accuracy behind the arc are what they’ve been, Sacramento has a real superstar who can be the best player on a championship contender. He’s now scoring 30 points per game with the fourth-highest usage rate in the entire league. This should be a much bigger story than it is.
Last year, Fox made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams. He won the inaugural Clutch Player of the Year award and helped lead his Kings to their first playoff appearance since George W. Bush’s presidency. Reaching that level was never a certainty. The first five years of Fox’s career were spent as a tantalizing, theoretical franchise point guard whose jump-shot-related shortcomings tended to overshadow any actual ability to impact winning.
That’s no longer the case. Right now Sacramento is 19-12 and currently the 5-seed in a congested Western Conference. The Kings own an exceptional starting five, too, but everything falls apart when Fox is off the court. That includes when he’s staggered with star center Domantas Sabonis. When Sabonis takes the floor without Fox, Sacramento’s offensive rating plummets to 111.4. When it’s Fox and no Sabonis, that number skyrockets to 125.5.
His speed and downhill tenacity have always been a fantastic weapon that opponents had to consider in transition, or when he’s driving toward the basket. But simply keeping Fox out of the paint and goading him into a bunch of floaters or midrange jumpers is no longer an option. Drop too far back in the pick-and-roll, or duck under the screen, and he’s happy to put a 3 up. Play too far off him in isolation? Same result. And even defenders who’ve realized they can’t afford to ignore him out there have fallen victim to his vicious stepback. (Only Luka Doncic, Tyrese Haliburton, and Trae Young are making more pull-up 3s in every game.)
The way Fox creates space for himself now makes him truly unguardable in a way few can claim. He’s not a finished product, but what he’s doing now is what many saw as a best-case scenario when Fox entered the league. It’s incandescent.
Duncan Robinson, Miami Heat
As defenses experiment with different strategies that stifle the 3-point shot, outside shooters who can’t do anything in the face of a hard closeout become a greater liability every year. Counters are invaluable.
Robinson is a terrific example. Once someone who’d get played off the floor despite his size and gravity, he’s now punishing opponents after they run him off the line. It’s a reputation-shifting evolution. Here’s how many 2-point shots Robinson attempted per 100 possessions in the first five seasons of his career: 3.3, 1.8, 2.3, 2.5, and 3.2. This year he’s up to 6.0. These aren’t pull-up jumpers one foot inside the arc, either. A whopping 21 percent of his shots are coming at the rim (up from 7 percent last season), many off passes like this, where he’s more confident driving by that initial defender and getting into the paint:
From 2020 to 2023, Robinson averaged 1.6 drives per game. This season, he’s at 5.6. Not all lead to wide-open layups, but he’s decisive on the catch and creative around the basket, doing a terrific job of leveraging the fact that opponents will always sprint out to contest his jump shot:
Robinson is more confident with his handle, too, which allows him to attack in different ways against defenses that can’t afford to give him any cushion on the perimeter:
And while he’s diversified his offensive repertoire, he’s also somehow improved on his calling card, which is as good as it’s ever been. Robinson is making 44 percent of his 3s this year, and an absurd 47.7 percent off the dribble. The sixth-year forward has long been able to create space for himself with a dribble or two, but the footwork and craftiness on display this season can make corralling him in space a borderline impossible task:
Robinson probably won’t receive too many actual votes for Most Improved Player, but it’s nice to see someone his age (29) still building on a skill set that already rewarded him with a $90 million contract.
Dillon Brooks, Houston Rockets
Tangible improvement comes in many forms. Sometimes, all that’s required is a splash of self-awareness. In Brooks’s first season outside of Memphis—where his inefficient, high-volume shot taking was accepted—he has finally chiseled away the fat from his minutes and become a potent offensive threat in his seventh season.
There’s an alternate universe where Brooks uses his $80 million contract to justify the nightly hijacking of his own team’s offense, indiscriminately launching 3s on a whim, breaking off sets whenever he feels like doing so. Instead, in what’s so far been by far the most efficient and productive season of his career—averaging more minutes than ever before!—Brooks is taking nearly six fewer shots per 100 possessions than he did over the past two years, with absurd 47.6/40.8/83.3 splits.
He still isn’t a very good playmaker and has an alarmingly high turnover rate, but ballhandling services aren’t required on a team that plays through its center and employs Fred VanVleet. Instead, Brooks’s pick-and-roll chances have been slashed in half, replaced by purposeful post touches when an obvious advantage presents itself. The Rockets weaponize Brooks against opponents who hide their weakest defender on him, clearing out for duck-ins that usually lead somewhere beneficial. His touches have purpose. His decisions are simple. He drives closeouts with force and doesn’t settle for long 2s, all without any letup on the other end, where Brooks stalks the other team’s top scorer up and down the floor.
Sometimes less is more. Houston should be thrilled Brooks came to that realization once he put on a Rockets jersey. It’s helped him become the type of two-way veteran Houston’s young core needs.
Anfernee Simons, Portland Trail Blazers
Highlighting someone who’s played only 11 games this season feels ever-so-slightly premature. But as a hair-raising athlete who’s now spending more time as a true point guard/lead ball handler, Simons has done his part to ease the pain of Damian Lillard’s departure.
His assist rate has skyrocketed while his free throw attempts per 100 possessions are double what they were last season. Simons is suddenly one of the more productive pick-and-roll operators in the league, generating 20.1 points per game on those plays. (He finished last season at 13.2.) Only Tyrese Haliburton, Trae Young, Luka Doncic, LaMelo Ball, and Lillard rank higher, per Synergy Sports.
This feels like the beginning of a sharp turn north for a 24-year-old who’s already in his sixth season. A couple of weeks ago, the Jazz opened a game breaking out the seldom-used box-and-1. Star treatment for Simons, who’s averaging a career-high 27.1 points and taking more shots inside the arc, finishing with his left hand better than most southpaws wish they could.
Simons used to look emotionless on the court. Now he’s a walking flex, mean-mugging defenders who couldn’t stop him from converting in the paint. This is someone cracking his own shell, unleashing advanced footwork, touch, and one-on-one skill, brushing off blitzes and double-teams every night.
With Scoot Henderson, Malcolm Brogdon, and Shaedon Sharpe, Portland’s backcourt is loaded. Right now, though, Simons has separated himself as the best of the bunch, with plenty of room to grow.
Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
Sometimes the path to superstardom is like a rock-climbing wall. It’s uneven, jagged, full of missteps, hesitation, and strain. Haliburton has mostly avoided that type of hardship. Instead, he’s riding an escalator, glancing at his watch, waiting to reach the top.
As a zippy maestro leading the most efficient attack in NBA history, Haliburton is averaging a hyper-efficient 24.7 points and a league-high 12.7 assists. That’s four more points and two more assists per game than last year, when he made his first All-Star team. If the great Jack McCallum were embedded with these Pacers, his book would be called 2 Seconds or Less: How a Taller Version of Steve Nash Learned to Dominate an Era That Optimizes Every Trait That Already Made Him Great. (OK, that title might need a little workshopping.)
There’s world-class vision and shotmaking, with a brain that can diagnose the defense’s intention at warp speed. He’s steely, too. No player has taken or made more shots in the second half that have given their team the lead. On those attempts, Haliburton’s effective field goal percentage is 68.3! He empowers and galvanizes his teammates better than anyone not named Nikola Jokic, who has spent most of this season battling Haliburton for the top spot in offensive estimated plus-minus.
Even if Hali’s actual MVP candidacy is already kaput thanks to his team’s porous defense, the jump from highly appealing novelty act to someone who will merit real first-team All-NBA consideration deserves a shout-out here. There’s also a good chance he gets voted in as a starter and is the All-Star Game’s unofficial host in Indianapolis this year.
Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
In Michael Mann’s new film, Ferrari, there’s a scene in which Enzo Ferrari chastises his drivers for not doing whatever it takes to win. “Brake later,” he snarls. Watching it unfold, my brain could not help but superimpose Nick Nurse’s face on Adam Driver’s body and then imagine his first conversation with Maxey, ordering his point guard to be aggressive in every second of every play in every game.
In a heightened role that was thrust upon him when James Harden demanded a trade, Maxey has taken the advice. He’s averaging 26.1 points, 6.5 assists, and nearly 20 field goal attempts per game—all career highs. Maxey is slightly less efficient, but that’s understandable given his elevated spot on scouting reports. He’s taking more challenging shots with a significant uptick in touches—which are about 20 per game higher than last season and rank sixth-most in the league—more defensive attention, and teammates that lean harder on him than ever before.
He’s also, right now, the only player in NBA history to have an assist rate above 25 with a turnover rate below 7.0. Part of that is thanks to the confidence Maxey displays in his ability to get wherever he wants on the floor. It’s 0-100 mph in the blink of an eye, explosive enough to render ball screens unnecessary:
Maxey is willing to keep it simple and take what the defense puts on a platter. When running a pick-and-roll with Joel Embiid against opponents that load up and pack the paint, Maxey quickly responds by shoveling a pass to whoever’s nearby and behind the 3-point line. He trusts teammates. It helps explain why the Sixers are still awesome when Maxey is on the court without Embiid; he’s, so far, been the sugary ingredient that keeps their Embiid-less offense from going sour.
Maxey’s physical shortcomings on defense haven’t gone anywhere. But the effort is more noticeable. He’s now hard to put in jail guarding the pick-and-roll, recovering over screens and fighting to get a solid rear-view contest against shooters who are reluctant to test Embiid at the rim:
He still gets targeted in crunch time but has held up OK this season, aware of where his help is coming from while offering more resistance than a 6-foot-1 speed bump should:
Big picture, Maxey’s emergence as a legitimate All-Star has changed everything in Philadelphia. He’s the odds-on favorite to win Most Improved Player for a reason. The Sixers have the second-highest net rating in the league, and there’s no pressure on Daryl Morey to use all the trade assets he received in the Harden deal to get a third star. As the Nuggets proved last year, so long as you surround an MVP with a tough-shotmaking point guard and a supporting cast that capitalizes on all the attention they attract, the title can be yours.
Coby White and Patrick Williams, Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are spinning their wheels with Zach LaVine and DeMar DeRozan still on the roster, but White and Williams are starting to give this organization some direction and purpose. Both are maturing in ways that go beyond just impressive shotmaking.
Let’s start with Williams, who wouldn’t qualify for a list like this if you looked only at Basketball Reference. His basic stats remain flat, and he’s shooting just 56 percent at the rim. That said, I don’t care and choose to ignore it all! Sometimes improvement gleaned in the moment isn’t quantifiable. Take the beginning of a game against the Sixers earlier this month, when Williams missed three jumpers in the first three minutes but didn’t take his foot off the gas or hesitate to take—and make—his fourth:
For a 22-year-old—yes, he’s still only 22!—stuff like this matters.
A quick tangent here for the three or four people (including me) who still refuse to move on from an increasingly fantastical scenario in which Williams becomes 75 percent of what Kawhi Leonard has been: Statistical similarities exist. Williams consistently channels Leonard’s deadpan, robotic meticulousness in ways that should have general managers around the league in constant dialogue with Arturas Karnisovas about a trade. Good luck to them.
Since he was reinserted into Chicago’s starting lineup five weeks ago, Williams has been more efficient, confident, and methodical; taking his time, finding his spots, overpowering smaller defenders, blowing by bigger ones, and elevating over just about anyone for his midrange pull-up. This is quietly one of the most aesthetically alluring forwards in the league, particularly when he’s decisive against a hard closeout:
Bulls broadcaster Stacey King reacted to the shot above by singing “If I Can Be Like Mike” live on the air. Immense physical advantages are also on display when Williams stabs at a 50-50 ball or skies for a momentum-tilting rebound:
Most of his assists are quick hitters, finding shooters along the perimeter. But Williams now recognizes openings and identifies advantages that used to go over his head—a proactive approach that will make opponents take Williams more seriously than they do.
It’s subtle but important in a once-stagnant offense that led the league in hockey assists by a decent margin in December. Speaking of hockey assists, Chicago’s new point guard sparks a ton of them. White is more than a dude who spent several weeks approximating Damian Lillard’s logo range. He can facilitate, too, with early skip passes that force long rotations:
The real reason he’s here, though, is everything that’s happened since LaVine went down. In those 15 games, White is averaging 22.7 points and 5.8 assists, making 39.8 percent of his eight 3-point attempts per night. In spite of a recent slump, he’s drilling 28-footers off the bounce and has already run over 100 more pick-and-rolls than all of last year, according to Synergy Sports.
White has also already scored more points on drives than he did all of last year, leveraging his pull-up game to blow by big men who are guarding him higher on the floor, or taking advantage of the attention someone like DeRozan commands and bursting into the paint off a catch. Here he is below doing just that:
White and Williams have made strides in expanded roles since their team’s highest-paid player hurt his foot. They’ve adopted and embraced egalitarian basketball that isn’t complicated so long as everyone buys in. Where they go as individuals will help define the rest of Chicago’s season—the Bulls went 9-5 in December, with the fourth-highest net rating in the Eastern Conference—and, in all likelihood, how successful it can be over the next few years.
Honorable mentions: Derrick White, Jalen Brunson, Desmond Bane, and Naz Reid