Picking the 10 Most Improved Players for the 2012-2013 Season

Stephen BabbFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2012

Picking the 10 Most Improved Players for the 2012-2013 Season

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    The NBA's Most Improved Player award has been claimed by big and small names alike, ranging from Monta Ellis and Kevin Love to Bobby Simmons and Aaron Brooks.

    Guys like Love used the recognition as a stepping stone to All-Star excellence. Guys like Simmons fell off the face of the earth entirely.

    Improvement can be a fleeting thing, apparently.

    But it's also one of the things a lot of teams bank on when attempting to take that next step collectively. When cap space is at a minimum and trade assets are few and far between, improvement from within the roster's ranks is sometimes the most for which a club can hope.

    More than a few teams will be hoping for such a revelation this season, and here are 10 guys who could rise to the occasion (in no particular order).

JaVale McGee–C, Denver Nuggets

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    JaVale McGee spent time working on his post-game with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, and it could very well have a transformative effect on this athletic 7-footer.

    He put himself firmly on the radar with a couple of superb performances against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, scoring a combined 37 points in Games 3 and 5. Before last season, he also showed flashes in his three-and-a-half years with the Washington Wizards.

    Those flashes were, however, too often overshadowed by mindless mistakes and inconsistency.

    McGee should be well beyond those missteps by now, but he could be a certifiable All-Star if he can supplement his natural talent with some well-developed skills.

    Look for him to average a double-double this season and begin making his claim as one of the league's elite centers.

Darren Collison–PG, Dallas Mavericks

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    Darren Collison took a step back in his second season with the Indiana Pacers, failing to even match the production he yielded in his rookie season with the New Orleans Hornets.

    He can't blame reduced playing time, and his shooting was significantly worse than it had been in 2010-11, when he averaged 13.2 points (in comparison to the 10.3 he averaged last season). Collison was, however, taking fewer shots and playing a more marginal role in the Pacers' offense.

    That should change with the Dallas Mavericks, who badly need a point guard to replace Jason Kidd. Though he'll have to share some minutes with Delonte West, he should be able to hold on to the starting job and become one of the team's preferred scoring options.

O.J. Mayo–SG, Dallas Mavericks

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    Could the Dallas Mavericks really be so lucky as to have two of their new additions make substantial improvements?

    Absolutely.

    That's what happens when an organization gives an expanded role to talented players who were under-utilized on their previous teams. And that expanded role is exactly what O.J. Mayo needs.

    The 24-year-old averaged 18.5 points as a rookie and 17.5 the season thereafter, but his minutes, production and efficiency all took a major hit when he was sent to the bench in each of his last two seasons.

    But he's projected to start with the Mavs, and he should have ample chances to score given the team's need for a consistent perimeter threat.

Omer Asik–C, Houston Rockets

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    Given the money the Houston Rockets coughed up in order to sign Omer Asik, you'd better hope he improves.

    General Manager Daryl Morey was clearly banking on the fact that a starting job and more minutes would allow Asik to flourish after backing up Joakim Noah in his first two seasons. There's certainly good reason to expect just that—the 7-footer has been an excellent rebounder when he's on the floor and he's a strong, mobile defender to boot.

    It's still not entirely clear whether he'll be able to remain as productive with the extended minutes, but it's hard to imagine him having anything but a breakout season.

    As meaningless preseason games wind down and teams start the unenviable process of cutting their rosters down to 53, it is becoming more and more evident that NFL football is on the horizon. The season is fast approaching, and the countless hours of speculation and projection will finally come to a halt once teams first step onto the field next week.

    The NFL is chock-full of league-wide parity, which makes it all the more compelling. Seasons can turn in the blink of an eye based on injuries, underperforming stars, or breakout contributors. A single tipped ball can mean the difference between a playoff berth and going home empty-handed.

    It’s no secret that the NFL is perhaps the most unpredictable of our four major sports; the 49ers went 6-10 in 2010, but skyrocketed to 13-3 with the same quarterback that had been the butt of “draft bust” jokes throughout his career, Alex Smith. Meanwhile, the Colts went from 10-6 division champions in 2010 to 2-14 thanks to a season in which they were struck by the injury bug, most notably to their franchise leader, Peyton Manning.

    We know certain teams will emerge from the dregs of the league to clinch unexpected playoff berths, so who will they be in 2012?

    Kansas City Chiefs

    Although the Chiefs finished at 7-9 last season—just one game off the pace of the AFC South champion Denver Broncos—Kansas City will have a legitimate shot to improve mightily and contend for the division this season. The Chiefs will get a number of players back from injury this year after a 2011 season in which they were bit badly by the injury bug.

    Quarterback Matt Cassel played just nine games last season, while key players Eric Berry and Tony Moeaki missed huge chunks of the year with torn ACLs. Getting these players back will be huge boosts to a team that wasn’t too far off to begin with.

    Most notably, the Chiefs have lead back Jamaal Charles at full strength this season after a lost year in which he tore his ACL in Week 2. Charles is a dynamic back who can make defensive players miss and change games with his big-play ability.

    The team also added Peyton Hillis, who will take the pressure off Charles with his pounding running style and ability to catch passes out of the backfield.

    While the Chiefs’ prospects at least partially depend on Manning’s health for division foe Denver, the Chiefs appear poised to take a big step forward this upcoming season.

    Carolina Panthers

    The Panthers are a popular pick to improve drastically this season after Cam Newton set the league on fire as a rookie last year. While Newton will be hard pressed to repeat his spectacular 2011 numbers, the franchise appears to be moving in the right direction after a 6-10 season which provided reason for optimism.

    The duo of Newton and Steve Smith garners most of the attention for the Panthers, but the defense should be vastly improved this season. Perennial Pro Bowler Jon Beason will return after an Achilles injury limited him to just one game last season, and the team drafted Luke Kuechly in the first round to beef up a linebacking core that should lead the defense.

    The team also added free safety Haruki Nakamura, who was buried as a special teamer in Baltimore but will have a chance to perform for a defense that could use some stability in the secondary.

    Mike Tolbert was also brough in from the Chargers to add to an already deep offensive backfield. Tolbert will give Newton a nice safety outlet in the passing game and brings more experience to a young offensive squad.

    An extra year of experience will do the Panthers well, and this hungry team will be ready to pounce if NFC North rivals New Orleans or Atlanta falter.

    Tennessee Titans

    After going 9-7 in 2011, it’d be a stretch to call the Titans an under-the-radar team as this season begins. However, the team has a great opportunity to grow offensively under the leadership of second-year pro Jake Locker.

    After starting Matthew Hasselbeck throughout last season, the Tennessee offense will be given the opportunity to open itself up with the more dynamic Locker under center. Locker has the ability to be mobile as a dual threat quarterback and has some new weapons to play with this season.

    Rookie Kendall Wright is expected to perform well in the early going while replacing suspended lead wideout Kenny Britt, while tight end Jared Cook is an athletic talent who showed his pass-catching potential towards the end of last season.

    The Titans’ defense should also be much improved under the leadership of Colin McCarthy, perhaps the best middle linebacker you’ve never heard of. Jason McCourty also established himself as a lockdown corner last season opposite Alterraun Verner, and the team added a solid pass rusher in Kamerion Wimbley in the offseason, who will wreak havoc in opposing backfields.

    In a relatively weak conference and division, there’s no reason the Titans shouldn’t take a step forward and contend for at least a playoff spot.

Paul George–G/F, Indiana Pacers

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    Paul George already took a big step forward in his second season, improving his scoring average by more than four points and playing nine more minutes per game.

    He won't lead the league in scoring next season, but you should expect to see similar progress. He improved his three-point stroke significantly last season, and it wouldn't be at all surprising if his mid-range game follows suit.

    The only thing working against George is the extent to which he has to share shots with the likes of Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, David West and George Hill.

    It's getting to the point, though, where he's so effective that Indiana won't have any choice but to run more of the offense through him.

Tristan Thompson–PF, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Now that Antawn Jamison is playing for the Los Angeles Lakers and center Anderson Varejao is healthy, the 6'9" Tristan Thompson will be able to play the vast majority of his minutes at the power forward position.

    He should thrive in what is unquestionably his natural position, and it would be surprising if there aren't vast improvements in both his offensive and defensive skills.

    When the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Thompson with the fourth-overall pick in 2011, it wasn't necessarily because he was the most NBA-ready player. 

    But he has the talent and physical tools to become an outstanding contributor and one of the league's very best rebounders. 

Josh Selby–G, Memphis Grizzlies

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    You have to like what Josh Selby did at the Las Vegas Summer League, scoring so prolifically that the rarely-used member of Memphis Grizzlies shared co-MVP honors with the Portland Trail Blazers' Damian Lillard.

    Selby only played 8.5 minutes a game in his rookie campaign, and that was in just 28 games.

    But that was before Memphis let sixth-man O.J. Mayo walk in free agency. The loss of Mayo not only opens up some minutes at the shooting guard position—it means the Grizzlies will have a pressing need for a scorer to come off the bench.

    Scoring is just about the only thing Selby does especially well, but that should be more than enough to keep him in the rotation.

    You can count on him scoring more than the 2.3 points per game he averaged last season.

Jrue Holiday–PG, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Jrue Holiday is poised to become a star in this league, and we should see signs of him becoming just that now that he has a supporting cast that will take some of the defensive pressure off of him.

    The Philadelphia 76ers not only landed an All-Star center in Andrew Bynum; they also added sharpshooters Jason Richardson, Nick Young and Dorell Wright, ensuring Holiday has plenty of targets to whom he can kick the ball.

    That means he should build upon the 4.5 assists he averaged last season.

    Plus, defenders will have to think twice about leaving Holiday's teammates open, meaning he should get a few more open shots of his own.

Kemba Walker–G, Charlotte Bobcats

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    The only thing Kemba Walker has to worry about is sharing minutes with Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon.

    The Charlotte Bobcats are now overstocked with small, shoot-first guards, and Walker will have to earn his playing time by separating himself from the pack. The good news is that, regardless of whether its in the Bobcats' short-term interests, their long-term plans depend heavily upon Walker turning into a star.

    That means new head coach Mike Dunlap might be willing to give him more than the 27.2 minutes he averaged last season.

    The other good news is that Dunlap will encourage a more up-tempo approach on offense, meaning Walker should have plenty of opportunities to score in the open floor (along with more opportunities to take shots in general given that there will be more shots to be taken).

Kawhi Leonard–G/F, San Antonio Spurs

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    San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich gave Kawhi Leonard 24 minutes per game last season, and that's a lot more than he usually gives rookies.

    Needless to say, Leonard earned those minutes.

    He should play even more this season, though he'll have to contend with a deep rotation of swingmen that include Manu Ginobili, Stephen Jackson, Danny Green, and Gary Neal. His defensive ability should ensure he stays on the floor one way or the other, and his surprising ability to consistently nail that corner three won't hurt either.

    Leonard still needs to work on his mid-range game and ability to finish in traffic, but he's a hard worker and quick learner, so don't be at all surprised if he averages more than the 7.9 points he scored last season.