Ryan Anderson. Kevin Love. Tracy McGrady. Gilbert Arenas. Dana Barros. Kevin Johnson. What do these guys all have in common? They all won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.
What are we taught as young players? The summer is the time to improve, right? If you’re not improving, you’re losing, right? Well, as great as the NBA’s MIP award is – and IT IS definitely great when you consider how many things need to go right for someone to have a shot at it – it doesn’t necessarily mean future greatness. In fact, it almost never does. Only 11 of the winners since 1986 went on to play in an All-Star Game.
But that won’t stop the 10 names on this list from taking advantage of their new opportunities. If I was putting money up, I’d bet one of these players ends up with his name on the aforementioned list next spring.
Today, we’re taking a look at the 10 guys – five from each conference – that I believe have the best chance to take home the MIP award in 2012-13.
*** *** ***
LOU WILLIAMS, Atlanta Hawks
Drafted directly out of an Atlanta-area high school seven years ago, Lou Williams is finally headed back to Georgia. The Atlanta Hawks signed the scoring specialist in July to help fill the 19-points-per-game-sized hole left by Joe Johnson. No other guard on the current Hawks roster averaged more than 13 points a game last season, so look for Larry Drew to rely heavily on Williams’ scoring ability.
Williams increased both his three-point attempts and three-point percentage each of the last four years and his 36 percent from downtown last season was a career-high. In an August interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Williams said he spent time this summer improving his catch-and-shoot game and he relayed his desire to play off the ball more. In Philadelphia, Williams was often paired with a non-ballhandler in the backcourt, forcing him to take up the task of initiating the offense. In Atlanta, Drew will pair Williams with point guards Devin Harris and Jeff Teague, allowing Williams to play to his strengths and focus on what he does best: scoring the basketball. In order to be in consideration for Most Improved Player this coming season, Williams’ scoring average will have to see a substantial bump from the 14.9 points per game he averaged last year. If Williams is ever going to be a 20-point per game scorer, it is going to be this season in Atlanta.
TAJ GIBSON, Chicago Bulls
Taj Gibson has shown that he can be a starting power forward in the league. He’s aggressive in the paint, active on defense, and is set to make nearly $13 million less than Carlos Boozer next season. According to 82games.com, the Bulls’ most used lineup last year was Derrick Rose, Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng, Boozer and Joakim Noah. However, swapping Gibson for Boozer increased the offensive points per possession and decreased the points allowed per possession. The Bulls were a better team when Gibson was on the floor. His 11.9 offensive rebounding rate last season was higher than Kevin Love, Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard. Though he only averaged 20 minutes a game in 2012, his 1.3 blocks per contest was 10th-best among forwards.
Gibson’s numbers over his first three seasons are eerily similar to another promising big man once trapped behind Boozer. Utah power forward Paul Millsap saw his scoring average jump nearly six points when he took over Boozer’s minutes two seasons ago. Expect Gibson’s to do the same if he gets the opportunity. When Gibson sees the increased playing time he deserves, his modest numbers (7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game) will balloon and make him a prime candidate for the Most Improved Player Award.
EVAN TURNER, Philadelphia 76ers
Evan Turner is poised for a breakout year. Philadelphia made major changes to their wing rotation this offseason and it will mean more minutes and touches for Turner. During the rare times Andre Iguodala was on the bench last season (he averaged 36 minutes a game), Turner slid to the small forward spot and showed that he can produce. According to 82games.com, when Turner was playing the three, the 76ers were an impressive plus-61. With Iguodala now in Denver, Turner will receive ample time at small forward and will be surrounded with floor-spacing shooters like Jason Richardson and Nick Young. Turner has an above average assist-to-turnover ratio for a swingman and will see plenty of opportunities to initiate the offense as the 76ers will lack ballhandlers when Jrue Holiday sits. Doug Collins revealed his plan in an interview with CSNPhilly.com:
“I could sub for Jrue early in the game with another perimeter guy and let Evan play out the quarter and then come back with Jrue as the point guard with our second unit and let Evan rest. I think what you will see is Jrue and Evan playing point guard with the second unit based on night to night.”
Turner has a lot to live up to as a former No. 2 overall pick, but Doug Collins should give him every opportunity to begin realizing his potential this season.
ERSAN ILYASOVA, Milwaukee Bucks
In order for Ersan Ilyasova to be considered for the Most Improved Player Award next season, he’ll need to have a huge year. He opened a lot of eyes around the league in 2012 when he posted a higher PER than Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh. As a stretch four with a sweet stroke, Ilyasova could see his scoring numbers skyrocket next season by jacking up more threes, Ã la last year’s Most Improved Player Award winner Ryan Anderson. Ilyasova was actually tied for second in the league in three-point percentage as he shot a staggering 45 percent from downtown last season (Anderson shot 39 percent).
Ilyasova’s minutes have increased every season and expect them to again this year. His 8.8 rebounds a game ranked him in the top 10 for forwards and it’s not farfetched to see that number reach double digits next season as his court time increases. Anderson used his extra playing time and increased three-point buckets to boost his scoring average by six points last year. If Ilysova can follow Anderson’s lead, he would be a near 20 and 10 guy and a legit Most Improved Player candidate.
Watch highlights of his 29-point, 25-rebound game again the Nets:
PAUL GEORGE, Indiana Pacers
Paul George, the high-flying swingman from Fresno State, electrified the league last year with his impressive mixture of size, athleticism and stellar defensive instincts. George saw his minutes jump to just under 30 a game and his production increased across nearly every statistical category. When his minutes increase again this coming year, expect his numbers to make another significant leap. With a usage rate below 20 last season, he scored a decent 12 points a game on less than 10 shots – but a lot of his contributions came on the defensive end of the floor. Among shooting guards, he ranked third in steals, second in total rebounding rate, and seventh in PER.
George’s ability to guard multiple positions will get him plenty of run on a Pacers team with aspirations to be a contender in the East. There is no question he has the tools to be an elite wing player in the league, and with another year under his belt, look for George to cultivate his raw talent into consistent nightly production next season.
NIKOLA PEKOVIC, Minnesota Timberwolves
Nikola Pekovic had a great season in 2012. He put up a solid 14 points and seven rebounds per game and provided the Wolves with sturdy inside toughness. Posting 16 double-doubles in only 27 minutes a game last season, Pekovic is set to explode this year as his minutes (and responsibilities) increase. He will benefit from the Wolves’ lack of frontcourt depth and should see plenty of opportunities for easy looks as Love commands more double-teams.
His incredible field goal percentage (3rd best in the league at 56%) should result in a hefty boost to his scoring averages as he sees more court time. When he did log over 30 minutes in a game last season (which he did only 20 times), his field goal attempts per game jumped from seven to over 13. Playing alongside the rebounding juggernaut that is Kevin Love may keep Pekovic’s rebounding numbers modest, but his offensive rebounding rate (second-best in the league) combined with an increase in minutes (9.9 boards per 36 minutes in 2012) will have Pekovic averaging a double-double next season. In addition, various reports out of Minnesota claim that Pekovic spent the offseason reworking his body. He is noticeably leaner, but was able to shed the pounds without sacrificing his impressive strength.
NICOLAS BATUM, Portland Trail Blazers
Nicolas Batum enters his fifth NBA season after a particularly interesting summer. He went public with his desire to play for Rick Adelman in Minnesota, but the Blazers matched the Wolves’ hefty offer and Batum remained a Blazer. Known as an extremely passionate fanbase, the Blazers faithful expect Batum to earn every penny of his new $45 million deal. There’s no doubt the lanky forward from France has the tools to be an impact player, but many wonder when he will start approaching his vast potential. His points, rebounds and steals numbers have increased marginally each season but he has yet to make a large leap in any category. This will be Batum’s first full season without having to compete for starter’s minutes at small forward, and he shows the ability to excel when given the opportunity.
Among qualified small forwards last season, Batum ranked eighth in PER (17.32) while posting only the 20th-highest usage rate. Under new head coach Terry Stotts, Batum can expect an increase in shot attempts and more opportunities in the open court. Stotts has also been vocal about Batum getting looks in pick-and-roll sets – both as the ballhandler and the screener. Playing for France in the Summer Olympics, Batum showed his ability to stuff a box score and excel as a team’s secondary option on offense (which he will now be in Portland). Batum’s performance will need to exceed expectations this year, and when they do, look for him to be a solid candidate for Most Improved Player.