Predicting the 5 Most Improved Players for 2012-13 NBA Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 10, 2012

Predicting the 5 Most Improved Players for 2012-13 NBA Season

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    You never know when an NBA player is about to blow up.

    Sometimes, it’s a summer of hard work in the weight room that shifts the course of an NBA career. Occasionally, a change of scenery makes the difference. A new role can do it, too.

    However it happens, a handful of NBA players make a quantum leap every year.

    But growth is relative, right? Earning a place in the discussion of the league’s most improved players can mean going from being a good sixth man on a great team to a great player in a new locale. That player’s improvement is just as impressive as someone who goes from being buried on the bench to making major rotation contributions.

    So we won’t discriminate in our examination of players who look like they’re ready to take their games to the next level—whatever that next level is.

    Some of the players who made the cut were already stars, while others are just beginning to carve out a niche in the league.

    Although the year’s still young, here are five guys whose early brilliance means they’ll definitely be among the NBA’s most improved players in 2012-13.

Darren Collison

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    Apparently, all this guy needed was a change of scenery.

    That might sound cliche, but Darren Collison is putting up career highs across the board as the Dallas Mavericks’ new point guard this season. One of a number of Mavs currently on a one-year deal, Collison is thriving under the increased demands of coach Rick Carlisle’s system.

    The key for Collison has been a remarkable improvement in his field-goal accuracy. And while he won’t continue to hit 44.4 percent of his threes, it certainly looks like his stroke has improved enough to bump his career rate of 36.5 percent up a few points.

    Right now, he's the leader of a surprising Dallas team that has played well without the services of Dirk Nowitzki in the early going. Collison’s production proves another cliche is also true: Everything is bigger in Texas.

Klay Thompson

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    It would be a little difficult for Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson to improve on his shooting numbers from a year ago. For a jump-shooting wing, 44.3 percent from the field and 41.4 percent from beyond the arc are already excellent percentages.

    But Thompson is showing signs in the early season of improving his game in other areas.

    For starters, Thompson has doubled his rebound rate, which is somewhat of a predictable progression for a guard of his size (6’7”).

    In addition to his work on the boards, Thompson has also slightly bumped up his assists and free-throw attempts per game. He’s clearly made an effort to become a complete offensive player.

    Thompson’s real leap, though, has been on the defensive end. Though not blessed with elite athleticism or quickness, Thompson has learned to use his length and solid footwork in his second year. As a result, Thompson has gone from being a player other teams attacked last year to a better-than-average defender.

    As his shooting numbers regress to the mean (anecdotally, he’s had an inordinate number of shots rim in and out so far), his growth on defense will put him in the conversation for “most improved” at season’s end.

James Harden

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    James Harden is about as likely to win the MVP as he is to win the Most Improved Player award at this point.

    Firmly entrenched in Houston as “the man,” Harden has been one of the NBA’s most devastatingly efficient offensive forces. On a per-minute basis, he was among the league leaders in that area last year, too. But now that he’s playing big minutes, his efficiency has somehow gotten even better.

    The result? Harden is tearing up the league.

    Right now, he ranks in the NBA’s top 10 in a number of key per-game categories. He’s first in points (27.8), second in free-throw attempts (10.0) and second in minutes (40.8). Plus, he’s averaging a pair of steals per game and boasts a PER north of 20. Those are elite numbers.

    Harden was already a great player in Oklahoma City, so it feels like cheating to mention him here. But he’s not only playing more minutes this year, he’s also doing more with the minutes he’s playing.

    For that, he’s a sure candidate to be the Most Improved Player in 2012-13.

Eric Bledsoe

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    Playing behind Chris Paul is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Eric Bledsoe gets the chance to learn at the hands of the NBA’s most capable point guard sensei. On the other, the mere presence of Paul makes it unlikely that Bledsoe will ever see more than 20 minutes per game this season.

    In some ways, that’s unfair to Bledsoe. Theoretically, even if he improved enough to become the second-best point guard in the league, he still wouldn’t deserve playing time ahead of CP3.

    Bledsoe’s not going to become an All-Star this season (nor will he as long as Paul’s around), but it’s clear that he’s picking up plenty from his mentor.

    He’s currently sporting a PER nearly twice as high as he did last season and is putting up better than 20 points per 36 minutes. Add in the fact that he’s made himself a very tough on-ball defender, and it’s clear that Bledsoe has taken a major leap forward.

Jrue Holiday

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    The Philadelphia 76ers handsomely compensated Jrue Holiday just before the season started, and now they’re hoping to get their money’s worth.

    So far, Holiday is looking like a sound investment.

    The fourth-year point guard leads the Sixers in minutes (39.4), points (18.6), assists (10.4) and three-point shooting (40.9 percent) through the first two weeks of the season. And he’s doing all that without Andrew Bynum or Jason Richardson (for the last three games) to help take the defensive pressure off.

    As the only Sixer capable of creating opportunities for himself and others, Holiday is shouldering a heavy load. If he keeps his level of production anywhere near where it’s currently at, he’ll blow his former career highs out of the water.

    For the Sixers, who are struggling to squeeze offensive production out of a mismatched, undermanned roster, Holiday has been a savior.

    Now that’s money well spent.