Success at the NBA level is predicated upon improvement.
Though every player in the Association has room for growth, some players have more room to elevate their standing than others.
Plenty of the league's athletes have failed to establish a clear-cut identity for themselves thus far. Cultivating skill sets and sharpening deficiencies is a way for players to change that, a way for them to enhance their reputation.
And nothing advances a player's influence like laying claim to the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. Just ask Ryan Anderson. Or Kevin Love.
Winning said honor is a source of immediate distinction. It changes nearly everyone's perspective of an athlete's ceiling; it serves as an affirmation that a player is on a proven path to success.
But such an adulation doesn't come easy. Only the players who have taken their game to new and self-unprecedented heights can be considered.
Who in the NBA fits such a bill, to the point where this particular award is within reach early on?
Let's find out.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of December 20, 2012.
Years Pro: 3
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 3.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.4 blocks on 38.9 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 9.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.7 blocks on 49 percent shooting.
Holy Eric Bledsoe.
After two years of being less than an afterthought with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe has finally come to blossom (we have the departure of Mo Williams and injuries to Chauncey Billups to thank for that).
Truthfully, I understand that his numbers, even though they have increased across the board, may not impress you. Thus, I offer you this: He's put up such numbers in just over 18 minutes per game.
That per 36 minutes, Bledsoe is averaging 18.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.9 steals and 1.4 blocks.
Yeah, that's impressive.
So is the fact that he's in the top 25 in steals overall and leads the NBA in steals per 36 minutes as well.
A far cry from the seldom-used bench warmer we saw this season, no?
Years Pro: 5
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 11.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.2 blocks on 46.2 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 15.0 points, 3.0 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals and 0.2 blocks on 46.2 percent shooting
Steve Nash who?
Okay, that's going extremely far, but you get my drift.
Like he did in Kyle Lowry's absence for Houston last season, Dragic has stepped up for the Phoenix Suns.
Not only have his totals increased nearly across the board, but he's become a much better (I said better, not great) defender than the stat line will ever show. Sure, he's grabbing 1.8 steals per game (ninth in the league), but he's also covering both the weak and strong side better when defending ball-handlers.
Dragic is also notching a career-best 19.8 PER, which happens to be 11th amongst all point guards. He's turning the ball over just 14.8 percent of the time as well, another career mark.
No, Dragic will probably not lead the Suns into the playoffs—though they are suddenly winning—but his efforts must not be discounted.
Nor should he be overlooked as one of the most improved players the league currently has to offer.
Years Pro: 3
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 8.9 points, 2.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.1 blocks on 43 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 12.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.1 blocks on 41.1 percent shooting
If you think the New Orleans Hornets are in dire straights now, just imagine what they would have been like without Greivis Vasquez in the fold.
With injuries plaguing Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, Vasquez has led the offensive charge in New Orleans. He's proved to be a crafty playmaker who can get into the paint at will and his 8.9 assists per game are currently tied for third in the league with Jrue Holiday.
Vasquez has also upped his three-point percentage by nearly six points to 37.1.
Most impressively, though? Vasquez is one of only three players in the league averaging at least 12 points, eight assists and four rebounds a night.
Considering that puts him in the company of Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, it's more than safe to say that he's improved his game.
Like a lot.
Years Pro: 3
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 3.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.0 blocks on 50.6 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 10.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 0.7 steals and 1.1 blocks on 49 percent shooting
Not playing for the Chicago Bulls has looked great on Omer Asik.
In the Windy City, Asik was buried on the bench. With the Houston Rockets, however, he has already seen almost as many minutes now as did he all last season.
Asik has become a double-double machine.
His touch around the rim and overall handle are still sources of concern, but he's proved to be a rebounding connoisseur who can run the floor rather well for a non-athletic big. He's fourth in total rebounds grabbed per game and is in the top 11 in offensive boards (3.3) as well.
Not impressed enough?
Well, there's also the fact that he's one of just five players averaging at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and one block per game. That puts him in the company of Dwight Howard and former teammate Joakim Noah.
For a guy who was a little more Andris Biedrins than Dwight or Joakim last season, I'd say that's pretty damn good.
Years Pro: 4
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 13.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.3 blocks on 43.2 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 18.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.4 blocks on 45.1 percent shooting.
Jrue Holiday should be an All-Star this season. He won't be, but he should. I just want you to remember that.
Currently, the point guard is averaging a career high in points, assists and shooting percentage. He's tied for third in the league with Greivis Vasquez in assists per game and is one of only two players to be averaging at least 18 points, eight assists and 1.5 steals a night, joining Russell Westbrook.
What has impressed me most, though, is Holiday's improved defense. Again, this is not something necessarily just measured by his steals. Those are great, but his footwork and willingness to contest shots has been even better.
It's also worth noting that the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 104.0 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, a number that climbs to 111 when he's off. That's impressive. His whole season has been impressive.
Which leads me to conclude that Jrue Holiday the star has officially arrived.
Years Pro: 2
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.3 blocks on 36.6 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 18.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.0 steals and 0.4 blocks on 43.9 percent shooting
Normally, I am reluctant to include sophomores on a list such as this one. Only having one year to compare their performance to usually troubles me.
But not with Kemba Walker.
Though I'm reluctant to say he's on the cusp of stardom, I very well may eat my own words by the end of the season.
Right now, few players are as exciting to watch as Walker. Given that he plays for the Charlotte Bobcats, that's saying something.
The point guard leads all sophomores in scoring and assists per game, and I cannot stress enough how much better both his shot selection and overall playmaking abilities are.
I'd like to see Walker improve upon his three-point shot (just 32.2 percent for the season) but I'm willing to overlook that in favor of his improved ball-protection and accuracy overall.
Yes, the Bobcats are still bad. Like really bad. But Walker has improved by leaps and bounds, and that's cause for hope as well as Most Improved Player consideration for Walker himself.
Years Pro: 3
2011-12 Per Game Stats: 9.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.3 blocks on 44.6 percent shooting
2012-13 Per Game Stats: 15.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 0.8 steals and 0.3 blocks on 44.1 percent shooting
The budding young swingman has really amped up his production. He's averaging a career-high in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game. He's also upped his three-point clip to 45.8 percent, another career-high.
Yet again, we have another guard who has improved his defense a great deal. Turner has been forced to play away from his natural shooting guard position quite often this season, but is holding opposing twos and threes to a combined PER of 13.5.
Turner is one of the most versatile players on the Sixers, and in the game. Two seemingly lackluster seasons into his career and he seemed destined for mediocrity.
After essentially exploding onto the scene this year, however, it appears he's actually destined for stardom.
And perhaps a Most Improved Player Award as well.