Can Zion Williamson Really Steal MVP? 5 NBA Sleeper Bets You Can't Ignore
The NBA is quickly becoming the sports league that never sleeps.
The offseason is seemingly always very much on. Between the draft, free agency and perpetually bustling trade market, teams have just a few months to piece together their rosters before the next training camp opens and it's back to the 82-game grind.
For fans, this ability to stay permanently plugged into the hoops world's happenings is intoxicating. For those who play their cards right, it can even prove to be a fruitful pastime.
While the dawn of a new NBA season comes attached to all kinds of excitement, it offers just as many money-making opportunities for the basketball wagering world. That's where our attention lies today as we're dissecting some of the best sleeper bets on the board for the 2022-23 season using the latest odds from FanDuel.
Jalen Green for Most Improved (+3600)
The seeds of a Most Improved Player run are often sewn before the actual award-winning season itself. Just look at 2021-22's winner, Ja Morant, who first ascended to superstar status in the 2021 playoffs and was subsequently awarded for essentially sustaining that production.
Well, Jalen Green could follow a similar path to the podium.
Those who bailed on the rebuilding Rockets at midseason (or before) maybe didn't notice, but 2021's No. 2 pick made a massive leap from volume contributor to budding star late last season. He cruised into the All-Star break averaging 14.6 points on 38.7/31.1/81.8 shooting and sprinted out of it to post 22.1 points on 47.6/38.7/75.6 shooting over the final 24 contests, at one point clearing 30-plus points in five consecutive outings.
His rebounds and assists went up, while his turnovers were trimmed. His impact ballooned. Before the break, Houston fared 15.0 points worse per 100 possessions when he was on the floor; after, it was 13.3 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game.
Maybe time will prove otherwise, but this had all the markings of a full-fledged transformation. Those who paid attention will be expecting big things from Green this go-around, which should give him a decent spotlight to start. Those who hadn't noticed will be blown away and surely captivated by his easy-on-the-eyes play style.
Either way, that could mean very good things for him at the ballot box, particularly if this young Rockets club matures quickly enough to trample over preseason expectations.
Bennedict Mathurin Rolling to ROY Honors (+1200)
When oddsmakers laid out thir likeliest Rookie of the Year winners, Bennedict Mathurin trailed the same five players who preceded him on draft night.
That's defensible, although the gap between them is arguably wider than it should be. Paolo Banchero is the favorite at +300 (bet $100 to win $300). Jaden Ivey holds down the fifth spot at +800. Chet Holmgren, Keegan Murray and Jabari Smith Jr. all land somewhere in between.
Are any of those players that much better positioned to make major statistical noise than Mathurin? Look at what he's getting in the Circle City: a pass-first centerpiece in Tyrese Haliburton; a roster that should support Mathurin without blocking his path to substantial minutes; a shot-blocking and floor-spacing center in Myles Turner; and a tactical genius for a a head coach in Rick Carlisle, who sounds ready to give Mathurin a lot of leeway on the offensive end.
"He's an NBA scorer right now," Carlisle said this summer on NBA TV, via Rookie Wire's Cody Taylor.
This award often falls to the freshman with the best numbers, and Mathurin will have a chance to be exactly that.
His jumper works from everywhere, and he can make things happen on the ball or with his off-ball movement. He can ditch defenders off the dribble and finish around the basket. His defensive effort comes and goes (true of many rookies), but the physical tools are all there if he buys in to playing both ends.
Gary Payton II Keeping the DPOY in the Family (+16000)
The NBA waited from 1996 until 2022 for a guard (Marcus Smart) to follow in the footsteps of Gary Payton and bring home the Defensive Player of the Year award. The wait won't be nearly as long for the next one if Payton's son, Gary Payton II, has anything to say about it.
The suffocating stopper is fresh off a championship run with the Golden State Warriors and bounced for the big bucks with the Portland Trail Blazers.
That activity alone is enough to help the narrative-driven voters. Payton should have extra eyes on him after playing a pivotal role for a major-market champ, and now he'll get a big bump if he can dramatically improve a Portland defense that has rated in the bottom five in defensive efficiency each of the past three seasons (29th in 2021-22).
To be clear, Payton may not actually need any narrative lifts, as his numbers are already top-notch. FiveThirtyEight's Defensive RAPTOR graded him as a top-five stopper this past season. Basketball-Reference's Defensive Box Plus/Minus did the same. Dunks & Threes' Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus slotted him second overall. The eye test sometimes grades him even better.
"He's analytically off the charts and that’s part of showing how much value he brings to our team," Warriors president of basketball operations Bob Myers said in January. "Defensively, he's one of the best defenders in the NBA. I really believe that. If he stays healthy and gets the minutes, there's no reason why he can't be an All-Defensive player in the NBA."
Myers hit it on the head. The only thing holding Payton back to this point has been opportunity. This past season was his first as a full-time rotation player, and even then, he logged fewer than 1,300 minutes.
That's what made his move to Portland so smart. The Blazers are desperate for defense, and Payton could make himself invaluable to this team. If he does enough to see nearly 30 minutes of floor time a night—he was only at 17.6 in 2021-22, so the jump would admittedly be monstrous—he'll force his way onto every ballot and perhaps form one half of the Association's first father-son duo to win the Defensive Player of the Year award.
Philadelphia 76ers as World Champs (+1500)
The Sixers could have stood pat this summer and entered the 2022-23 season on the short list of contenders.
James Harden had other ideas. The former MVP declined a lucrative player option, took an eight-figure paycut and granted the front office enough flexibility to acquire De'Anthony Melton and sign both P.J. Tucker and Danuel House Jr.
"I told [Sixers president of basketball operations] Daryl [Morey] to improve the roster, sign who we needed to sign and give me whatever is left over," Harden told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. "This is how bad I want to win. I want to compete for a championship. That's all that matters to me at this stage."
That's a powerful message, particularly when paired with the action of sacrificing money for the betterment of the squad.
Philadelphia could be an absolute buzzsaw. The quartet of Harden, Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and Tobias Harris already bulldozed opponents by 17.6 points per 100 possessions last season. And that's without the benefit of a full offseason to integrate Harden or more developmental time for Maxey, both of which Philly has now.
This roster looks scary good. Oddsmakers might want to rethink this one, as the Sixers currently hold the same championship odds as a Brooklyn Nets team on the brink of a top-to-bottom overhaul and a Miami Heat team that did nothing to fix its seemingly fatal flaws in the half-court offense.
Zion Williamson for MVP (+3600)
If this comes off as remotely outlandish, it's probably worth firing up some old film and refreshing on how just absurdly dominant a healthy Zion Williamson can be.
Granted, the healthy qualifier is a huge one, since we're talking about a player who has suited up just 85 times since arriving in New Orleans as the first overall pick of the 2019 draft. Still, if his body ever held up, those 85 games offer a good glimpse into the kind of elite production he'd put up.
As a rookie, he averaged 22.5 points on 58.3 percent shooting, plus 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. No other freshman has matched those marks. For a follow-up, he put up 27.0 points on 61.1 percent shooting to go along with 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists. Those numbers were also the first of their kind.
During his second season, the Pels began tasking him with more opportunities and allowing him to create more offense down the stretch. He responded with post-All-Star production of 28.8 points (60.9 percent shooting), 7.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists.
When he hits the hardwood, he's great. And his greatness may have more league-wide relevance than ever, since the Pelicans have kept busy improving themselves. He hasn't played with Jonas Valanciunas, CJ McCollum or any of the intriguing up-and-comers yet. Stan Van Gundy was still calling the shots the last time Williamson played; now, it's Willie Green, who helped the club rebound from a 3-16 start in time to make the playoffs during his debut season.
Williamson, whose career 26.3 player efficiency rating would rank sixth all-time if he played enough to qualify, could be the missing puzzle piece that launches this team into title contention. If he pushes the Pelicans into championship talks, voters should have no problem backing him as the campaign's top performer.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.