The NBA's Most Improved Player award is normally given to players who have been in the league for at least a few years—those with a comparative body of work. In just his second season, however, Kendall Marshall is making a strong case for his candidacy.
Marshall was basically a washout after 48 appearances as a rookie. To date, he has played in just 74 regular-season NBA games.
So how does this guy deserve an MIP trophy? Through one of the most jaw-dropping transformations you’re ever likely to see.
Marshall was a high draft pick by the Phoenix Suns in 2012 but never caught on, averaging just three points and three assists per game in his freshman season. To say he was buried on the bench is putting it mildly.
The situation didn’t improve over the summer—Marshall was used as filler in a multiplayer trade to the Washington Wizards and was immediately waived. The young point guard then did what other fringe ballers do—he joined the D-League.
In late December, the Los Angeles Lakers, having basically run out of healthy bodies, plucked Marshall from obscurity, tossed him onto the floor and then watched with the rest of the league as the unthinkable happened:
The 22-year-old reclamation project averaged 11.9 points and 11.5 assists during the month of January, along with an impressive 44.1 percent from behind the arc.
Just who was this kid?
One of the best passers you’ll ever find, for one thing, and somebody with a shooting motion out of the dark ages. Marshall is a practitioner of that old-time standard—the set shot. When Jeff Hornacek was hired as the new head coach of the Suns last summer, he urged Marshall to rethink his strategy.
Bob Young of The Arizona Republic relayed the concern voiced by Hornacek during training camp:
“I talked to him about getting his shot up higher, and I’m not sure he has yet. It’s a tough thing to do.”
Hornacek went on to explain the pitfalls of having such a low release point—that it makes it easier for opposing players to get up and defend the shot.
Marshall is well aware of the knock on his shot mechanics and has worked hard to improve his accuracy and adjust against defenders. Dave McMenamin for ESPN Los Angeles notes that the point guard sometimes compensates for his slow release by letting fly from a foot or two behind the 3-point line. As Marshall himself explains:
“I need time to get it off. So, if a defender has to close out farther, it's to my advantage. Again, with the way I shoot, I don't have a lot of motion so I feel like I'm strong enough to shoot from there."
If there’s any doubt about Marshall’s improved shooting, it should be noted that he’s currently the league leader in three-point accuracy at 47.6 percent.
And, while his minutes have dipped as other guards work back from injury, he's still averaging 10.7 points and 9.8 assists through 26 games played. On Wednesday night, during a loss to the Houston Rockets, he scored 20 points and recorded 16 assists.
During his two years at North Carolina, Marshall demonstrated an uncanny ability as a ball-handler. In a DraftExpress scouting report, Roy Williams of UNC described the point guard as “The best passer I’ve ever coached in 24 years as a head coach.”
As a sophomore, Marshall averaged 9.8 assists per game and led the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 before breaking his wrist in a win over Creighton. It was later discovered that he had fractured his elbow as well.
As a result of his injuries, Marshall couldn't fully participate in draft combines. Nonetheless, the Suns took a chance on him as the 13th overall pick. During his brief stay in Phoenix, however, he had three different head coaches—Alvin Gentry, Lindsey Hunter and Hornacek.
That kind of instability is hard on any player. In fact, only four members of last year’s roster remain—Goran Dragic, P.J. Tucker and the Morris brothers.
The MIP is one of the stranger awards in the NBA—It’s basically a celebration of going from mediocrity to something better than that. Sometimes, it’s the acknowledgement that someone who is supposed to be great, is finally living up to the hype—Tracy McGrady for instance, during the 2000-01 season.
Or, the selection of Paul George, who steadily improved his numbers each and every year until being named the league's Most Improved Player last year. Was George really that bad the season before? Hardly.
Marshall, however, presents the true surprise factor. Rob Mahoney for Sports Illustrated's Point Forward describes Marshall’s “jaw-dropping change” as an optimal interpretation of the award.
Ultimately, the Most Improved Player should be determined at face value—the player who has shown the most progress from the prior season. It shouldn’t be about prior failed expectations, nor should it be about an ultimate upside. It’s simply about getting better in a big way, within a finite period of time.
During an abysmal season for the Lakers, Kendall Marshall came out of nowhere and took everybody by surprise. A guy who was only expected to be a placeholder has more than tripled his points and assists from last season. In fact, he's second only to Chris Paul in assist per game this season.
That's pretty good company for a guy who was playing for the Delaware 87ers less than two months ago.
He may not be a perfect player but that’s not what the award is about. It’s about demonstrable, unarguable improvement.
Marshall has delivered that, and more. He may not have a long resume, and he may not have been given a real opportunity to succeed in Phoenix. For the Lakers, however, he has been a ray of hope in a dark and stormy season.