Picking the 10 Most Improved Players for the 2012-2013 Season
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
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
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
Could the Dallas Mavericks really be so lucky as to have two of their new additions make substantial improvements?
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
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.
Paul George–G/F, Indiana Pacers
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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