Predicting the 15 Most Improved Players in the NBA Entering 2013-14 Season

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistOctober 8, 2013

Predicting the 15 Most Improved Players in the NBA Entering 2013-14 Season

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    The 2013-14 NBA season features a large handful of talent waiting to step up into the top tier of the league.

    To be a significantly improved player in the Association, a competitor must not only embrace increased roles, but he must be more productive in those roles and continually expand his skills.

    A pair of Eastern Conference big men sit near the top of our most improved players rankings, but don't worry, the Western Conference is well-represented at each position.

    Who cracked our exclusive list? 

15. Jordan Hill, Los Angeles Lakers F/C

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    Our most-improved list tips off with a Los Angeles Lakers big man who's ready to crash the glass.

    Jordan Hill has never seen more than 15.8 minutes per game in any one season. That's about to change, as Chris Kaman and Pau Gasol will need help in the post.

    Hill might not have an advanced skill set or the quickest, most athletic build, but he is poised for a huge improvement in 2013-14 because he has excellent timing on his cuts and rebounds.

    Asking for 15 points and eight rebounds is probably too much, but Hill could feasibly score double digits and grab 8-10 boards per night.

14. Jeremy Lamb, Oklahoma City Thunder SG

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    Considering he averaged 6.4 minutes per game as a rookie, Jeremy Lamb has nowhere to go but up.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder shooting guard enters the 2013-14 season as a critical contributor for Scott Brooks, especially with Russell Westbrook sidelined for a month-plus.

    The jury is still out on Lamb as a legitimate nightly scoring threat for OKC, but I'm betting his high skill level will soon find a rhythm in the Thunder offense.

    Lamb's ability to quickly create shots or knock down open spot-up attempts could be the boost Oklahoma City needs to survive Westbrook's absence and earn a high playoff seed. Don't bank on outlandish scoring figures, but he'll be in the neighborhood of a dozen points per game.

13. JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets C

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    In order for the Denver Nuggets to remain in the top tier of the Western Conference, JaVale McGee needs to have a breakout season.

    This is the year when his athleticism meets a career-best display of fundamentals.

    The explosive 7-footer will get much more playing time, and more importantly, the assurance of his value to the team. He's going to get touches, and Brian Shaw expects him to deliver.

    It's time for him to start a new chapter in his career, and Nuggets fans hope that chapter starts with dominating defense. Offensive numbers are sexy, but McGee could wind up blocking the most shots of anyone in the league. 

12. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls SG

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    During Jimmy Butler's second season, we discovered his remarkable defensive wherewithal, and we also saw some stretches of scoring ability.

    The final six weeks of the regular season and the playoffs showcased his knack for finishing in the open floor and drilling open shots. Chicago Bulls fans hope Butler uses the 2013 postseason as a springboard for career-long success.

    In 2013-14, Butler will put together a more consistent offensive portfolio as he works to create his own shot more frequently and attack the rim.

    As a stopper, Butler has the drive, footwork and unselfishness to dominate opposing swingmen.

    Can he put it all together? Tom Thibodeau will give him ample opportunity.

11. Harrison Barnes, Golden State Warriors F

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    Even though the Golden State Warriors are loaded with talent at the wings, Harrison Barnes will make progress worthy of recognition.

    As long as his decision-making is sharp and he exerts himself on defense, he'll flourish in 2013-14 and help the Dubs secure a quality playoff seed.

    We found out in the 2013 playoffs that he can operate as a featured scoring weapon, as he hurt defenses several different ways en route to 16.1 points per game.

    Barnes is able to score for himself on drives or mid-range post-ups, but he's also able to play off the ball and cut to the tin while Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson occupy the attention of opponents.

    Another year alongside the Splash Brothers could turn Barnes into one of the best third options in the NBA.

10. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans PF

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    New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis enjoyed a solid rookie season, registering 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

    He may not see a dramatic inflation in his statistics, but he will improve across the board and his club will certainly earn more victories.

    Davis has a knack for finding high-percentage scoring chances, and newcomers Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans are going to make life easier for him. In two preseason games, he's already racked up 46 points.

    As a low-post defender, Davis is pretty much a lock to block 2.3-2.6 shots per game, and that statistic doesn't adequately portray all the shots he prevents due to excellent positioning.

    Overall, Davis' second NBA season will be a big step toward fulfilling his No. 1 draft pick status.

9. Iman Shumpert, New York Knicks SG

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    Through the first two years of his New York Knicks career, Iman Shumpert has primarily operated as a stopper specialist who occasionally gets hot offensively.

    His development as a consistent secondary scoring option alongside Carmelo Anthony might be the edge the Knicks need to truly compete in the East.

    Shumpert has shown the ability to sink spot-up outside shots, and he's also capable of putting it on the deck and scoring in traffic. Upgrading his efficiency and decision-making skills will result in 15 or more points per contest. If Shumpert can pick his spots and take some of the pressure off 'Melo, New York will be much better off late in the spring.

8. Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz PF

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    With Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap out the door, it's time for fourth-year pro Derrick Favors to impose his will in the paint for the Utah Jazz.

    He has a chance to be a force on both sides of the ball now that he'll see extensive minutes regularly. In the past couple seasons, he's produced at a high level when called upon for extra playing time.

    There's a solid foundation of a back-to-the-basket game, as he can turn either way and finish with either hand, as well as pass effectively from post-ups. More reps as a jump-shooter and slasher will make him a dangerous all-around post player.

    Defensively, he's turning heads as a shot-blocker, but he's also ready to upgrade his footwork and discipline. Utah was a more respectable defensive unit when he was on the floor last year, a sign that bodes well for his increased role in 2013-14.

7. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs F

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    Gifted with an abundance of tools and exceptional instincts, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard has what it takes to contend for Most Improved Player honors in 2013-14.

    The 2013 playoffs were a preview of this upcoming campaign, as his versatility was on full display. Leonard seemed to be everywhere on the floor, scoring 13.5 points on 55 percent shooting while hauling in 9.0 boards per night.

    He can move in the open floor with the coordination of a swingman, yet he has the length to rebound and finish among post players. It's this mix of mobility and physical range that allows him to defend at an elite level.

    Gregg Popovich rarely leans on youngsters for extensive minutes and vast responsibilities, but Leonard is a unique piece that can hold this club together. San Antonio needs a "most improved" type season from Leonard if it wants to return to the Finals.

6. Tobias Harris, Orlando Magic F

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    We would rank Tobias Harris a bit higher, but he already enjoyed drastic improvement when he joined the Orlando Magic midwinter. Thus, his 2012-13 statistics don't have quite as much room for improvement as other candidates on this list.

    Harris is out to prove the last 27 games of the season were no fluke and that he belongs in the discussion of best young talent in the Association.

    If he can shore up his isolation defense and exhibit more consistency from behind the arc, he will maintain plenty of minutes and have a critical role on the Magic.

    It might be tough to sustain 17-plus points and 8.5 rebounds throughout an entire season, but Harris will find the rim enough to give those marks a scare. 

5. John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks PF

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    He may not post remarkable numbers because he's in a packed frontcourt, but Milwaukee Bucks power forward John Henson will bring much more to the table during every outing.

    As a rookie, he served well as a pick-and-roll finisher, feasted off well-timed cuts and earned some second-chance points with his prolific rebounding.

    Henson will continue the expansion of his mid-range game in 2013-14, and he'll also improve significantly as a back-to-the-basket post-up player. He doesn't always have enough power to grind for position on the block. However, when he does get the ball deep, he uses his long arms to finish strong.

    He may not be a "star" by the end of the 2013-14 campaign, but opposing frontcourts in the Eastern Conference will sure as heck know who he is.

4. Enes Kanter, Utah Jazz C

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    Along with fellow Utah Jazz frontcourt competitor, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter looks to benefit from a promotion in a big way.

    From his rookie to his second year, he became increasingly assertive and threw his weight around a bit more offensively. Now that he has a starting role and will be a featured member of Utah's attack, he will take things up another notch.

    Kanter does a superb job of using his body to clear space, so expect a steady diet of post-ups to accompany his pick-and-roll work.

    He played just 15.4 minutes per game in 2012-13, which means his playing time will double this season. After notching seven-plus points and four-plus rebounds last year, he'll step up to the double-double club and thrive as Utah's anchor.

3. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons C

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    Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond posted fewer than eight points and eight rebounds per contest during his rookie campaign. Those modest numbers will quickly become a thing of the past as he embraces a greater role on the squad.

    Up to this point, most of his production has been fueled by his physical prowess. He's extremely difficult to contain due to his immense power and vertical aptitude.

    Once he utilizes some basic post moves and becomes more comfortable as a close-range shooter, he's going to be one of the top centers in the league. 

    Coach Maurice Cheeks hopes Drummond can dictate the complexion of games on both ends of the floor. He's already protecting the rim by altering shots and monopolizing the boards, so the X-factor in his sophomore year is his offense. An increase in playing time will breed confidence and yield improved per-minute results.

2. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns G

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    Entering his fourth NBA season, Phoenix Suns guard Eric Bledsoe hasn't even come close to actualizing his potential.

    He shows tremendous promise as a floor general and scorer, and he owns the tools and motivation to be an elite defender in the near future.

    Bledsoe figures to be one of the best (if not the best) players on the Suns by the end of the year. With a more substantial and regular role, he'll become more comfortable diagnosing defenses and attacking foes.

    He's more than ready to keep opponents honest with his jumper, and his defense is all any coach can ask for. That's just the kind of combo guard coaches love to have, and Phoenix lucked out when it landed him this summer.

1. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors C

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    Topping our list is Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, the Lithuanian star who had a busy summer.

    First, he ruled the paint during Vegas Summer League play, earning MVP honors in the process. Then he helped his Lithuania national team win a silver medal in EuroBasket 2013.

    Valanciunas aims to transfer his low-post aggressiveness and high-post finesse to the 2013-14 NBA season. He is noticeably stronger now than he was at the end of the 2012-13 season, adding some bulk to his frame.

    This all adds up to a monumental improvement, including double-double numbers and a highly efficient 54 percent from the field.