Every season the league’s Most Improved Player is always one of the most interesting individual awards given out. It’s usually an indication of a player taking a leap into another tier, whether from bench player to starter, starter to star, or star to superstar.
Last year, it was Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam who played a key role on a championship team while foreshadowing his first All-Star bid – as a starter nonetheless – this season.
The year prior it was Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo who, four years into his NBA career, finally found the right situation on a new team and lived up to his No. 2 overall draft selection from back in 2013 reaching his first of what would become back-to-back All-Star appearances.
The year before that, it was Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo who showcased the potential to become one of the most dominant players of all-time, which we’re now watching unfold right before our eyes three years later.
Throughout the 2019-20 season, the Most Improved Player hasn’t been clear-cut given the number of players that have taken their game to another level. We had 10 different players become first-time All-Stars this season, three of them as starters, the others as difference makers on their respective teams, whether it’s lead to winning or not.
This list could go on and on, but for the sake of this exercise, we’ve cut it to 10 players that have a strong case for earning this year’s award. Broken up into tiers of each player’s calibre, followed by my own personal ranking for this year’s award, take a look at some very deserving candidates.
The future superstars
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
This one speaks for itself as the 21-year-old phenom has graduated from Rookie of the Year last season to an MVP candidate this season.
I’m typically in the party that second-year players shouldn’t be able to win Most Improved, but this is a special case. Doncic has gone from a dazzling rookie destined for greatness “in the future” to, “oh wow, ‘the future’ is already here and this guy is magical.”
He was voted in as an All-Star starter for the first time in his career with averages of 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game while leading the NBA with 14 triple-doubles.
This time last year, the Mavericks were 13 games under .500. At this exact moment, Dallas is 13 games over .500. Doncic’s personal success has translated to wins, which always helps your case when it comes to end-of-season awards.
The Slovenian guard has shot more efficiently from the field, he’s getting to the free throw line at a superstar’s rate, he’s upped his scoring, assists and rebounds averages and his usage rate is just shy of the highest number in the league.
If he wasn’t a second-year player, he’d be a lock for this year’s Most Improved.
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
No player has ever won Most Improved Player of the Year twice, nevermind in back-to-back seasons, but the Raptors forward is making a strong case.
The 25-year-old’s game is growing rapidly, which isn’t shocking when you consider that he’s still fairly new to the game of basketball compared to his peers. After a massive season of growth during Toronto’s title run a year ago, Siakam was forced to take another leap as the Raptors’ go-to guy once Kawhi Leonard left for the LA Clippers in free agency.
He’s handled that role excellently, averaging career-highs of 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.9 blocks per game while his team sits firmly in second place in the East, exactly where they were a season ago despite losing one of the best players in the league.
Siakam’s play earned him his first All-Star selection and although he’s struggled at times this season, his overall production cannot be knocked. It’s unlikely that we ever see a player win two MIP awards, Siakam is doing his best to make history.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
After playing a key role in leading the Celtics one game shy of the NBA Finals as a 19-year-old rookie, there was a limitless ceiling placed on Tatum’s future. When the young star plateaued in his sophomore season, people grew skeptical of the projections assigned to the No. 3 overall pick of the 2017 NBA Draft.
This season, Tatum is back to looking like the player he was expected to be, taking over as the Celtics’ No. 1 scoring option. His numbers were encouraging leading up to the voting for the All-Star Game, enough for Tatum to earn his first career All-Star bid.
But it was what Tatum did after accomplishing that goal that makes him a Most Improved Player candidate.
The Celtics forward has taken his game to another level, looking like one of the best players in the entire NBA over the month of February. Averaging 30.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 49.4% from the field and 48.1% from 3, Tatum was on the verge of superstardom prior to the regular season suspension.
He’s posting career-highs in nearly every major statistical category and his play on the other side of the floor has him in consideration as a potential member of the NBA’s All-Defensive team.
The 22-year-old is more than deserving of consideration for this award.
Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Similar to Doncic, Young deserves to be mentioned as a Most Improved Player candidate even though he’s a second-year player
After coming up short for Rookie of the Year last season, the 21-year-old guard has been even better this year. He’s claimed his spot as one of the most talented offensive players in the league with his long-range shooting, crafty finishes around the rim and next-level court vision anchoring his 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game.
Those averages rank him fourth and second in the league, respectively – a ridiculously impressive feat for any player, mind alone a player in his second season.
Young was named a starter as a first time All-Star this season despite his team owning one of the worst records in the league. His efficiency has improved and he’s upped his averages in every major statistical category. Most seasons, he’d be featured more prominently in this award.
Stars in the making
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Adebayo has been a key cog to the Heat’s success this season and his emergence has made him one of the favourites to win this award.
Adebayo’s potential was always there. His limited playing time in his first two seasons just didn’t allow him to fully put it on display. After Miami traded Hassan Whiteside this offseason, it paved the way for Adebayo to have the season he’s had this year.
Making the leap to become an All-Star, Adebayo is averaging a double-double of 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds while also acting as the Heat’s defensive anchor. He’s posting over one block and steal per game, and his size, length, quickness and athleticism gives him the ability to guard just about any player in the league, allowing head coach Erik Spoelstra to get creative with his matchups. According to data compiled by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus, Adebayo guards primarily power forwards and centres but spends a decent amount of time guarding point guards, shooting guards and small forwards, making him one of the most versatile defenders at his position.
Arguably the most impressive and unexpected improvement from the 22-year-old has been his playmaking, as Adebayo is averaging 5.1 assists per game and has recorded three triple-doubles on the season.
All of the aforementioned stats are career-highs and without Bam’s rapid growth, it’s unlikely that Miami would be as great as they have been this year.
Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Ingram is listed as the favourite to win this award on most sites and it’s hard to argue that logic.
When the 22-year-old forward was traded by the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, many questioned Ingram’s potential as the No. 2 overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft.
Following the knee injury that sidelined Zion Williamson to start the season, Ingram took over as the Pelicans’ go-to guy, showing exactly why he was selected where he was back in 2016.
Averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.0 steals per game, Ingram has made significant progress as an all-around scorer and playmaker. He’s been much more efficient shooting the 3-ball and he’s made a drastic improvement at the free throw line, now shooting 85.8% (up from 67.5% last season).
Without his efforts, New Orleans wouldn’t have been anywhere near a playoff race to this point in the season and it appears that the Pelicans have more than just one franchise cornerstone in Zion.
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Sabonis was a runner-up for Most Improved Player of the Year last season and he’s back in contention for the award again this season.
Continuing to evolve as a player, Sabonis has gone from a stretch-four in his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder to one of the most gifted back-to-the-basket bigs in the league. He’s a walking double-double, averaging career-highs of 18.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game, scoring efficiently at 56.5% on 2-point shots.
Like Adebayo, Sabonis has impressed as a passer, averaging a career-high 5.0 assists while posting four triple-doubles this season alone after failing to record the feat once in his first three years in the league.
The 23-year-old kept the Pacers alive while awaiting the return of Victor Oladipo. Even now that Oladipo’s back, it’s still Sabonis’ team. He was a first-time All-Star and has proved to be one of the most promising young centres in the NBA.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
Gilgeous-Alexander went from being primarily a defender and playmaker on the Clippers last season to the Thunder’s leading scorer this season, averaging 19.3 points per game. He’s been terrific in playing alongside future Hall of Famer Chris Paul, helping OKC reach the unexpected levels they have, all while flashing a scoring dimension most would have never expected after watching SGA as a rookie.
Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Although his name doesn’t resonate with the rest of the players on this list, there is no denying that Graham has as good of a shot at this award than anyone else. After receiving a number of “DNP – Coach’s Decision” last year, only appearing in 43 games and bouncing between the G League and NBA, Graham has emerged as a consistent starter for the Hornets. He’s averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game – up from 4.2 points and 2.6 assists per game last season – and ranks in the top five in the league in both assists and 3-pointers made.
Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns
Oubre Jr.’s breakout season was cut short by a knee injury but he was stellar in his 2019-20 campaign. Averaging career-highs of 18.7 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.7 steals per game, Oubre began to show that he can score efficiently and make an impact on both ends of the floor. He shot 45.2% from the field and 35.2% from 3, both marks being the best of his career.
The Most Improved Player of the Year ladder
1. Bam Adebayo
2. Domantas Sabonis
3. Brandon Ingram
4. Devonte’ Graham
5. Luka Doncic
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