In a way, the Most Improved Player award is almost a pre-MVP award. It forecasts the next generation of superstars. Paul George won the Most Improved Player award last season and now he’s a leading candidate for MVP. Previous winners of the award also include Kevin Love, Danny Granger, Monta Ellis and Zach Randolph. Speaking of Love (who won the award in 2010-2011), he’s also a candidate for MVP this season, just showing what winning this award can foreshadow.
Lets talk about 10 players that have significantly improved their performance this season.
*** *** ***
10. KEVIN MARTIN, Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Martin had an off season last year in Oklahoma City. He was supposed to slide in as the replacement to James Harden, but that experiment never got off the ground. Martin averaged 14 points last season, a far cry from the 17.1 PPG in 2011-2012 and the 23.5 PPG in 2010-2011. For a second, it looked like Martin was just on the decline of his career… something that looked like it was happening to Jamal Crawford before he signed with the Clippers. This season has assured us all that Martin is on anything but a decline. With the ‘Wolves this season, Martin is averaging 20.2 PPG on 42 percent shooting from the field, 40 percent from the land of threes and 93 percent from the charity stripe with his unorthodox jumper. His shooting percentage is down from last season, but that happens when you take five more shots per game and average close to five more points per game.
Martin went to the perfect situation in Minnesota, with passing guru Ricky Rubio and stud power forward Kevin Love. With Rubio passing the rock like a mad man and Kevin Love drawing near triple teams, every time the ball touches his hands, there have been plenty of open shots for Martin to rain in. Martin is the perfect second option in Minnesota and he may be the missing link in the chain to get the Timberwolves into the playoffs. For now, Martin will have to settle for being in the running for the Most Improved Player award.
9. TONY WROTEN, Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers might be in purgatory right now, but Tony Wroten is showin’ out. The former first-round pick has exceeded any and all expectations in Philadelphia to the tune of 13.8 PPG on 43 percent shooting. That’s quite the improvement from the 2.6 PPG that Wroten averaged last year. The problem was that Wroten was glued to the bench in Memphis, and only scored 96 points all season while averaging 7.8 minutes per game. This season in Philadelphia, Wroten has already scored 358 points and is playing 26.1 MPG, almost triple the minutes he received in his rookie campaign.
Need more? Well, Wroten also scribbled his name in the NBA record books earlier this season. Filling in for an injured Michael Carter-Williams, Tony Wroten notched his first career triple-double in his first career start. Wroten was the first player in NBA history to record a triple-double in their first start, going off for 18 points, 10 boards and 11 assists in a victory against the Rockets. For a player that was traded to Philadelphia from Memphis for a top-50 protected second-round pick in 2014, Memphis might be sorry they let Wroten go.
Beside all the numbers, this guy might be the most fun player to watch in this league. All he needs is one layup or short jumper to heat up. There’s nothing like watching Wroten dribble like a mad man to the bucket and somehow get a crazy layup to fall in. Don’t forget about those pull-up transition threes for a guy who’s shooting 25 percent from deep this season — gotta love it. With Wroten, you get the good and the bad, but it’s acceptable. He’s exciting to watch, always playing like he’s been shot out of a cannon. No matter what the scoreboard reads, he’s always going to leave it on the court. His increase in numbers and minutes make Tony Wroten a definite candidate for Most Improved Player.
8. MILES PLUMLEE, Phoenix Suns
Turns out Miles Plumlee is good for more than keeping a seat warm for Roy Hibbert, huh Indiana? Last season in Indiana, Plumlee only played in 14 games, averaging 3.9 minutes, with barely two shots per game (1.5). With the Pacers, Plumlee only logged 55 minutes and scored 13 points for the season. Plumlee scored more points in his first game with the Suns (18) than a whole season with the Pacers (13). Indiana traded him (and Gerald Green) this offseason to acquire Luis Scola and assumed they were getting the better deal. Plumlee is actually getting minutes in Phoenix and has proven to be more valuable than the bench warmer he was in Indiana.
This season, Plumlee is averaging 9.7 points and 9.1 rebounds, along with nearly two blocks per game. Plumlee is playing 28.1 minutes per game. This is almost like his rookie season, since he never got the opportunity to play in Indiana, being stuck behind their mammoth frontcourt. Just like the Suns as a whole, Plumlee has been quite the pleasant surprise. He was drafted in the first round in 2012 by the Pacers, so it’s a surprise that they gave up on him this early. Whatever the case may be, Plumlee has found a new home in the deserts of Phoenix and has to be a leading candidate for Most Improved Player.
7. DeMAR DeROZAN, Toronto Raptors
DeMar DeRozan has been on the rise for a few years, but this year he’s really making a statement. Usually known for highlight-reel dunks and top flight athleticism, DeRozan is showing a better all-around game in his fifth season. To date, DeRozan is averaging 21 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists on 42 percent shooting. DeRozan is shooting a career-best percentage from beyond the arc at 32 percent, a four percent increase from his 28 percent last season. DeRozan is also sporting a 52 percent true shooting percentage. He’s really stepped up as a leader for the Toronto Raptors.
These numbers are much improved from his already stellar numbers last season of 17.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. DeRozan had been averaging around 17 points his last three season and this season he’s finally broken the 20-point plateau. With Rudy Gay no longer taking shots away from DeRozan, and having a pass-first point guard in Greivis Vasquez, things might get even better for DeRozan. The wins won’t be coming that often, but DeRozan will have an opportunity to fill up the stat sheet every single night.
Air DeRozan has 10 performances this season scoring 25-plus points, including four 30-point performances. He’s not just a dunker anymore (although he can still throw it down), he’s an elite NBA scorer. DeRozan is 15th in the NBA in scoring, proving to be more than a middle-of-the-pack player. His improvements have him as a top candidate for Most Improved Player and his chances should only increase with Rudy Gay taking his talents to Sacramento.
6. EVAN TURNER, Philadelphia 76ers
Turns out, trading away your best player and filling a roster with players that shouldn’t be in the NBA actually leaves room for improvement for the “veterans” still on the team. Every season since Turner was drafted with the No. 2 pick in 2010, there has always been an excuse for his play. Whether it was Andre Iguodala or Jrue Holiday, there was something holding Evan Turner back. Until this season, that is. Even though Turner has been at the center of a lot of hate in Philly (there’s always one player in Philly this happens to every season), his scoring numbers have increased every season and he’s always been a great rebounder for his position. Last season, Turner averaged 13.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Mediocre numbers for the expectations placed on Turner, but he has turned it around this season.
Turner has been the main scoring option for the Sixers, scoring 19.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists. He’s taking four more shots per game this season and his increased aggressiveness is undeniable. One of the most improved facets of Turner’s game is his ability to get to the free throw line. Turner has never averaged more than 2.5 free throw attempts per game for a season. His highest was last season, while his two previous seasons had him under two per game. This season, Turner is getting to the line 4.4 times per game, while knocking them down at an 83 percent clip. There aren’t a lot of scoring options on the Sixers, but Turner seems to be finally proving his worth as a No. 2 overall pick. Turner’s increased scoring and aggressiveness has his stats on the rise and also his chances for winning the Most Improved Player award.
5. LANCE STEPHENSON, Indiana Pacers
Just a few seasons ago, Stephenson was known more for giving LeBron the choke sign than anything significant he did on the court. Now, that clown act is almost forgotten and Stephenson is proving that he is a capable NBA player. Each season, his minutes have increased and so has his play. Last season, “Born Ready” averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 boards on 46 percent shooting as a starter with Indiana. Stephenson saw the court for 29.2 minutes per game, which was a huge boost from the ten minutes he was receiving in his first two season. Stephenson’s improved game just got better when the playoffs rolled around. In the playoffs last season, Stephenson averaged 9.4 points, 7.6 boards and 3.3 assists. His improved play last season, along with Granger’s continued absence, gave coach Frank Vogel no choice but to play Stephenson even more this season.
To date, Stephenson is playing 35 minutes per game for the Pacers and has started all 28 games. He’s scoring 13.4 points, while chipping in 6.7 boards and 5.1 assists a game. Not only has his scoring increased, but his rebounding and assist numbers have skyrocketed also, not to mention he’s shooting a career-high from the field and three-point line, at 48 percent and 38 percent respectively. Stephenson also has recorded three triple-doubles already this season, pacing the league in that category. He’s emerged as a legitimate scoring option for the Pacers. He’s almost what Paul George was to Danny Granger, before Paul George became a superstar. This leaves Stephenson as an early candidate for Most Improved Player this season.
4. ARRON AFFLALO, Orlando Magic
News flash people: Arron Afflalo is a really good basketball player. If you weren’t sure of that in previous seasons, this season is confirming it. Every season Afflalo has been in the league, his scoring has increased. Last season it was at 16.5 PPG and this season it has increased to 21.9, which is good for 10th in the NBA. He’s become the proverbial leader of a very young Magic team and has stepped up to face every challenge thrown at him.
Afflalo is playing close to 38 minutes per game, which is the highest of his career. The best thing about Afflalo’s increased scoring is that his shooting percentages haven’t taken a hit. Afflalo has always been an efficient shooter (46 percent from the field for his career) and that hasn’t changed as he’s become the magic man in Orlando. This season, he’s shooting 47 percent from the field and 44 percent from deep. His three-point shooting is most improved, as he only shot 30 percent from deep last season, while he’s only taking about two more threes per game this season.
Afflalo has had some stud performances this season, which include a 43-point performance against the Sixers (the Sixers actually won this game). So far, there have only been five other players that have scored 40-plus this season. Those five others were ‘Melo (45), Paul George (43), Chris Paul (42), Durant (42), and Kyrie Irving (41). Including his 43-point performance, Afflalo also has three other games where he scored 30-plus points. Afflalo is still only 28 years young and with his outburst this year, he might be the winner of Most Improved Player when the season closes.
3. ISAIAH THOMAS, Sacramento Kings
The little man that could, aka Isaiah Thomas, has put the league on notice this season. Thomas may not be Allen Iverson, but the 5-9 guard is carving out his own legacy with the Sacramento Kings. Since being drafted with the last pick in the draft in 2011, Thomas has used that adversity to become more lethal season by season. He’s been impressive every season so far, but this season is something else. After posting numbers of 13.9 points and 4.0 assists last season, Thomas is now averaging 18.9 points and 5.7 assists.
The most impressive thing about Thomas is his improved shooting. He’s shooting a career-high in three-point and field goal percentage, shooting nearly 47 percent from the field and 41 percent from beyond the arc. Thomas has an arsenal of weapons in Sacramento in DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. He has never been much of a passing point guard, but how could you not pass to those two? While Gay and Cousins might take away from Thomas’ explosive scoring, we might see his game develop as an all-around point guard this season.
Isaiah Thomas is one of the hardest working players in the league and it’s showing. Thomas is not only growing on the court as a leader, but off the court as well. He is gaining respect in the league and people are starting to notice the little man. No matter the case, Isaiah Thomas has improved leaps and bounds this season and there’s no sign of him slowing down anytime soon.
2. ANTHONY DAVIS, New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis exploded onto the scene last year, but injuries kept him out frequently and he only played in 64 games. His stats in his 64 appearances last year were 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. Regardless of his stats, Davis is the type of player that can affect a game without putting any points up. Just his presence at the rim puts a profound effect on an opponent’s gameplan. If it wasn’t for injuries, he might have beat Damian Lillard for Rookie of the Year. He might have lost out on that last year, but he’s in the running for Most Improved Player this season.
Even though Davis missed a few weeks with a fractured left hand, he returned in a big way. In his first game back against the Clippers, Davis scored 24 points, pulled down 12 boards and recorded three steals. This season, Davis is averaging 19.3 points, 10.3 rebounds and an insane 3.2 blocks. (Roy Hibbert is second in the league with less than 2.8.) According to Nba.com/stats, he’s the best rim protector in the league and has a defensive rating of 104.2. The Pelicans are just a superior defensive team with Davis on the court. Per 82games.com, with Davis on the floor, New Orleans is nearly five points per 100 possessions better defensively.
The impact Davis has on a game is undeniable, even if he isn’t scoring the ball. The difference this season is that he’s scoring the ball in bunches and doing it consistently. His improvements on offense and his continued prowess on defense should have Davis right in the conversation for Most Improved Player, provided he can stay healthy.
1. ERIC BLEDSOE, Phoenix Suns
Eric Bledsoe’s page on Basketball-reference.com shows his nickname as “Mini-LeBron,” which might tell you all you need to know about his play this season. The 24-year-old guard really exploded onto the scene last season with the Clippers, proving to be one of the best reserve guards in the league. Where Chris Paul would surgically pick apart defenses, Bledsoe would come in and fly to the rim for some of the craziest dunks we saw last season. Last season, Bledsoe averaged 8.5 points, 3.1 assists and three rebounds in 20.4 minutes per game. The Phoenix Suns have looked like a possible playoff team after being in the tanking talk for much off the offseason. A huge reason is Eric Bledsoe.
This season, Bledsoe is averaging a staggering 18.9 points, 6.3 assists and 4.5 boards in 34.2 minutes per game. Bledsoe is taking on the “Mini-LeBron” nickname quite well, shooting just below 50 percent from the field. After playing a reserve role in L.A. for his first few seasons, Eric Bledsoe is finally getting the minutes and his play has been off the charts this season. He’s one of the most electric guards in the league and he’s at the top of my list for Most Improved Player this season.
Who do you think will win MIP?
Follow Drew on Twitter at @dcorrigan50.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.