Ranking the Biggest NBA Player and Star Leaps This Season

Greg Swartz@@CavsGregBRFeatured Columnist IVDecember 5, 2022

Ranking the Biggest NBA Player and Star Leaps This Season

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    Oklahoma City Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (2) plays against the New Orleans Pelicans in the second half of an NBA basketball game in New Orleans, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Derick Hingle)
    AP Photo/Derick Hingle

    Whether it's been from fringe rotation member to starter or All-Star to "best player in the NBA conversation," we've seen big leaps from a number of players thus far this season.

    To rank these leaps, we're looking at improvements in efficiency, raw stats, per-minute stats, advanced stats and overall role, combining them all to see who's really made the biggest improvements overall.

    This is not a ranking of players themselves, but rather the "leap" each individual player has made.

    Here are the individuals who have impressed us the most with their improvement this season.

    Just Missed the Cut: Anfernee Simons, Yuta Watanabe, Kelly Olynyk, Bones Hyland, Kevin Huerter, Sam Hauser, Santi Aldama

    Notes: All stats are up to date through Saturday's games.

10. Tre Jones, PG, San Antonio Spurs

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 2: Tre Jones #33 of the San Antonio Spurs dribbles the ball during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on December 2, 2022 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 6.0 points, 2.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 49.0/19.6/78.0 shooting splits, minus-0.9 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 12.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 41.4/32.1/91.2 shooting splits, plus-10.9 swing rating

    Jones doubling his scoring and assist numbers has primarily come from an increase in playing time on the young Spurs. That said, the 23-year-old point guard has proven he deserves his new starting job.

    After starting just 11 games last season, Jones has been asked to step into a bigger role after San Antonio traded Dejounte Murray and released Josh Primo, leaving the team with few ball-handlers remaining on the roster.

    Jones was thrown into the fire by default, yet he looks like he can be the Spurs' floor general for the foreseeable future. He already ranks 12th in the NBA in assists and steals per game, all while turning the ball over just 2.0 times a contest.

    While he's not the biggest or fastest point guard in the league, Jones has a very Jalen Brunson-esque game with his ability to operate under control, make the right play and limit mistakes.

    After connecting on just 10 of his 51 three-point attempts last year (19.6 percent), Jones is not only shooting far more from the outside (23.4 percent of his total shots compared to 15.0 percent last season), but he's also connecting at much higher rate (32.1 percent).

    He may never be an All-Star, but going from a career backup to solid starter is no easy leap to make.

9. Devin Booker, SG, Phoenix Suns

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    PHOENIX, AZ - NOVEMBER 26: Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns moves the ball during the game against the Utah Jazz on November 26, 2022 at Footprint Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 26.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.1 steals, 46.6/38.3/86.8 shooting splits, plus-4.8 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 29.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 49.5/39.0/86.6 shooting splits, plus-9.9 swing rating

    Booker's raw stat increases may be modest compared to others on this list, but the role he's been forced into playing with Chris Paul sidelined shouldn't be overlooked.

    Paul has been limited to just 10 games with a heel injury this season, and even before that, a career-low 9.5 points on 36.8 percent shooting meant Booker had to do even more than usual. For those who doubted if Booker could still lead a Suns team without the Hall-of-Fame point guard by his side, Phoenix's first-place standing in the Western Conference and plus-7.0 net rating should serve as answers.

    Booker has worked his way from being an All-Star to a top MVP candidate thanks to both his individual success as well as his team's. Phoenix is scoring 122.6 points per 100 possessions (97th percentile) with Booker on the floor this season, compared to just 102.6 per 100 (3rd percentile) when he sits.

    The 26-year-old is averaging a career-high in scoring, an average that ranks 7th in the NBA this season. Booker recently joined Jamal Murray as the only players in NBA history to score 50 points or more in a game on 80-plus percent shooting overall and from three, and he's averaging a whopping 34.8 points over his past eight contests.

    Arguably the best shooting guard in the league, Booker has taken his scoring ability to another level all while proving he can carry an offense even without Paul.

8. Myles Turner, C, Indiana Pacers

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    INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 23: Myles Turner #33 of the Indiana Pacers reacts after making a shot in the third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on November 23, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 2.8 blocks, 50.9/33.3/75.2 shooting splits, plus-5.2 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 17.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 2.5 blocks, 54.0/38.5/81.3 shooting splits, minus-2.0 swing rating

    While most of the talk revolving around Turner over the past year has focused on his next potential home, it's time we start paying more attention to just how well he's performing in his current one.

    A split from Domantas Sabonis and a larger role on offense have helped unlock the best version of Turner we've ever seen, one that's been a huge part of the Indiana Pacers looking like a playoff team instead of the lottery dweller most expected.

    The 26-year-old is averaging career-bests in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage all while currently leading the NBA in block percentage (7.9 percent) for what would be the third time in his eight seasons. No player has challenged more shots at the rim this year than Turner's 8.7 per game, as well.

    His ability to knock down threes as a near 7-footer is big for a Pacers team that ranks No. 4 overall in makes per game, and Turner's 39.3 percent success rate on catch-and-shoot triples is way up from his 33.9 percent mark a year ago.

    Indiana could capitalize on his trade value or look to extend Turner now that he's proven to thrive on this new-look roster. Either way, he's made one of the better leaps we've seen this season.

7. Luka Dončić, PG, Dallas Mavericks

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    DALLAS, TX - NOVEMBER 29: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks dribbles the ball during the game against the Golden State Warriors on November 29, 2022 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 28.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 45.7/35.3/74.4 shooting splits, plus-0.2 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 33.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.9 steals, 50.5/33.1/71.2 shooting splits, plus-4.7 swing rating

    Can a borderline top-5 NBA player really be on a biggest leap list? If you're Luka Dončić, then yes.

    Dončić was already a three-time All-Star in his four NBA seasons coming into this year, a career 26.4 point-per-game scorer and one of the best playmakers in the league. This year, however, he's been asked to do more than ever while making some noticeable improvements to his already impressive game.

    The 23-year-old is on pace to lead the league in scoring for the first time, with James Harden standing as the only active player to have exceeded Dončić's 33.6 point-per-game average over the course of a season.

    Dončić is also shooting a career-best 50.5 percent overall and 59.9 percent from inside the arc, using his size to bump defenders off their spot before his 6'7" frame gently splashes a jumper over their outreached arm.

    Even after leading the NBA in usage rate each of the past two seasons, we knew Dončić would have the ball in his hands even more after Jalen Brunson left in free agency. This has proven true to the tune of a career-high 37.8 usage percentage, with a whopping 89.7 percent of his shots created without help from a teammate—up from the 72.9 percent Dončić registered as a rookie.

    With all this added responsibility, it would be natural for his turnovers to be up and defense to be down.

    This hasn't been the case, though, as Dončić's turnovers have dropped from 4.5 a season ago to just 3.6 now. This new 11.4 turnover percentage is a huge decrease from his 15.1 percent career mark. Although he's never going to be in the running for an All-Defense team, Dončić's 1.9 steals per game are the No. 3 in the NBA this season.

    Dončić is playing at an MVP level and deserves to be recognized as one of the game's most improved players, even if most of his raw stats have remained similar.

6. Desmond Bane, SG, Memphis Grizzlies

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 9: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies celebrates against the San Antonio Spurs on November 9, 2022 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photos by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Photos by Cooper Neill/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 18.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, 46.1/43.6/90.3 shooting splits, plus-3.8 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 24.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 0.6 steals, 46.5/45.1/91.2 shooting splits, plus-13.1 swing rating

    A toe injury has cost Bane some time recently, but his first 12 games of the season were enough to prove that he's one of the NBA's most improved players.

    After finishing as the third scoring option on the Grizzlies last year behind Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, Bane has established himself as the primary offensive option behind Morant while expanding his overall game.

    Following a second-place finish in three-point accuracy a season ago (43.6 percent), the 24-year-old has only gotten more deadly from beyond the arc, up to a 45.1 percent success rate this season. These aren't just easy catch-and-shoot attempts, either, as Bane is actually taking more pull-up threes (4.6) than no-dribble looks (3.8) per game. His pull-up percentage has jumped from 43.1 percent last season to a scorching 47.3 percent this year.

    Beyond his three-point marksmanship, Bane ranks in the 92nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler after finishing in the 31.6th percentile a season ago, all while increasing his frequency as an initiator from 14.5 to 19.7 percent. This places him ahead of players like Luka Dončić, Brandon Ingram and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander when it comes to efficiency.

    Putting the ball in his hands more has resulted in a jump in assist rate from 13.5 to 22.3 percent, leaving little on offense than Bane can't do.

    Memphis uses the third-year pro as a floor-spacer, cutter, ball-handler and screener, leading to an offense that ranks in the 93rd percentile when Bane's on the floor.

    A serious candidate to lead the NBA in three-point shooting, Bane is becoming a complete player and first-time All-Star candidate this season.

5. Tyrese Haliburton, PG, Indiana Pacers

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    Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) in action during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Friday, Oct. 28, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
    AP Photo/Nick Wass

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 47.3/41.4/84.2 shooting splits, minus-1.5 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 19.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 10.9 assists, 1.8 steals, 46.1/36.9/83.9 shooting splits, minus-5.9 swing rating

    Haliburton's first full season with the Indiana Pacers couldn't be going much better, as the 22-year-old is currently leading the NBA in assists while keeping Indy in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

    His numbers have all jumped despite a slight decrease in playing time from last season (33.2 minutes a game, down from 35.0), although Haliburton's usage is understandably up. He's not only proven himself capable of handling full-time point guard duties, but the third-year guard has also shown the rest of the league that he's elite at dissecting defenses.

    While a high turnover rate often accompanies a high assist rate, this simply isn't true for Haliburton.

    His 51.2 assist percentage ranks No. 1 overall, yet a turnover rate of just 13.8 percent ranks 98th this season. After coughing the ball up 86 times in his 26 games following the trade to the Pacers last year, Haliburton sits at just 58 turnovers now 22 games into the 2022-23 season.

    His 6'5" frame can see over most defenders, and Haliburton is quickly becoming a master of looking opponents off before finding an open shooter or cutter for an easy assist.

    While his own shooting efficiency has dropped a bit this season, Haliburton's leap as a playmaker earns him a top-five spot on this list.

4. Devin Vassell, G/F, San Antonio Spurs

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    SAN ANTONIO, TX - DECEMBER 2: Devin Vassell #24 of the San Antonio Spurs celebrates a three point basket during the game against the New Orleans Pelicans on December 2, 2022 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images)
    Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 12.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 42.7/36.1/83.8 shooting splits, plus-1.2 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 20.9 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 45.8/42.2/80.4 shooting splits, minus-1.3 swing rating

    Just two years ago, Vassell was a rookie chipping in 5.5 points a game on 40.6 percent shooting. At that time, he had yet to show the promise of even being a future full-time starter in the NBA.

    Now, Vassell is leading San Antonio in scoring, shooting a better clip from three than teammate Doug McDermott and ranking second to Tre Jones for the team lead in assists. His numbers aren't simply better because of an uptick in playing time, but also thanks to years of work and development in the Spurs' system.

    Only five other players are matching/exceeding Vassell's 20-plus points, 3.5-plus assists and 42.0 percent mark from three, a list that includes Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, Brandon Ingram, Tyrese Maxey and Desmond Bane.

    His jump as a playmaker is real, as Vassell's assist rate has nearly doubled from last year (17.1 percent, up from 9.7 percent). He's also getting to the free-throw line more than ever as well.

    Vassell does all of this while limiting his mistakes, with averages of just 1.5 turnovers and 1.6 fouls per game. He's the only player in the NBA to average 1.5 or fewer turnovers per game while still averaging 32-plus minutes per game.

    The opportunity for growth was going to be there when Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV left this summer, and Vassell has certainly taken advantage of it.

3. Bol Bol, F/C, Orlando Magic

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    Orlando Magic's Bol Bol (10) grabs a rebound during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game against the Memphis Grizzlies, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
    AP Photo/John Raoux

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 2.4 points, 1.4 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 0.1 blocks, 55.6/25.0/40.0 shooting splits, minus-0.6 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 12.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 1.9 blocks, 60.8/41.3/77.1 shooting splits, plus-1.0 swing rating

    Anyone who watched Bol's short college career at Oregon shouldn't be surprised by his emergence this season, as the 7'2" big man looked like a top-five pick before undergoing surgery just nine games into his freshman season.

    Injuries and a reluctance to play the young forward/center on a competitive Denver Nuggets team derailed his first three seasons. Bol is more than making up for that lost time now in Orlando.

    "Everyone talks about the Victor dude from France," Magic teammate Paolo Banchero told HoopsHype's Michael Scotto. "I'm not trying to compare them, but Bol's 7-foot-2, shoots threes, brings it up the court, makes passes, and blocks shots. I feel like people kind of forget about him."

    There may be no more accurate comparison to Victor Wembanyama than Bol given their size, ball-handling and shooting ability, something that would have been scoffed at just a few months ago.

    Bol can grab a rebound, bring in all the way up the court in just a few strides before dribbling behind his back and throw down a monstrous dunk before the opponent even realizes what's happening. He's done a good job of defending at the rim without fouling, as Bol's 1.9 blocks per game rank fifth in the NBA, while his 1.5 fouls per game rank 219th.

    Going from the outside of a rotation to becoming a legitimately good starter has been a huge turnaround for Bol. Still just 23, the Magic have found a franchise cornerstone.

2. Lauri Markkanen, F, Utah Jazz

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    LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 21: Utah Jazz forward Lauri Markkanen (23) runs during an NBA basketball game between the Utah Jazz and the LA Clippers on November 21, 2022 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 14.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 0.5 blocks, 44.5/35.8/86.8 shooting splits, minus-4.1 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 22.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 blocks, 52.8/41.3/83.3 shooting splits, plus-9.7 swing ratinglauri

    The Utah Jazz playing better than .500 basketball this deep into the season is one of the biggest surprises thus far, and no player has meant more to their success than Lauri Markkanen.

    Always good but never truly considered a great player in his first five seasons, Markkanen's all-around game has finally been unlocked by landing in a position where he needs to be more than just a spot-up shooter.

    This was a change inspired by need, but also by how well he played this past summer for Finland at Eurobasket.

    "They used him as a ball-handler, they put him in isolation, they used him as a screener, they moved him around off the ball—and so really, the thing I learned from that is don't put him in a box," Jazz head coach Will Hardy said via Fox Sports' Melissa Rohlin. "Be willing to live with a few mistakes here and there. And just live with the fact that he's a really, really good player, and his size and athleticism and skill is a rare combination."

    After 54.1 percent of his total shots came from three as a floor-spacer with the Cleveland Cavaliers a year ago, this number is down to just 42.6 percent now. While his offensive game has been expanded, Markkanen is shooting a career-high 41.3 percent from three, including making 43.0 percent of his catch-and-shoot looks.

    He ranks in the 92nd percentile as an isolation scorer this season, a mark higher than players like Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. The Jazz also use Markkanen as a cutter, in post-ups and on the receiving end of the pick-and-roll.

    Perhaps no player has expanded their overall game more than Markkanen this season, which is a testament to him and Utah's coaching staff.

1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA - NOVEMBER 09: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrates a late basket in the fourth quarter at Paycom Center on November 09, 2022 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ian Maule/Getty Images)
    Ian Maule/Getty Images

    2021-22 Stats Per Game: 24.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.3 steals, 45.3/30.0/81.0 shooting splits, plus-2.9 swing rating

    2022-23 Stats Per Game: 31.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.9/34.4/92.4 shooting splits, plus-3.9 swing rating

    Going from never making an All-Star game to a dark-horse MVP candidate is a remarkable leap—one that Gilgeous-Alexander has successfully made this year.

    Gilgeous-Alexander ranks third in points per game this season, dropping 30 points or more in 16 of his 21 games. This kind of offensive production has the Thunder sitting at a 10-13 record despite possessing the youngest roster in the league—and that's with No. 2 overall pick Chet Holmgren out for the season with a foot injury.

    While Gilgeous-Alexander's three-point shooting is nearly five percentage points higher, it's his driving ability that truly stands out.

    After finishing second to Ja Morant last year in points off drives, the 24-year-old now ranks first in the NBA with 16.3 drive points, and he's finishing off 51.7 percent of his looks on such attempts.

    Gilgeous-Alexander also leads the league in made free throws (182) and is third in free-throw percentage (92.4 percent)—a jump from 62nd a year ago. His steals per game have also gone from 1.3 (21st last season) to 1.8 (tied for 3rd now).

    Gilgeous-Alexander has always been talented, but this season he has established himself as a lock for the 2023 All-Star Game. He could continue to garner MVP attention if the Thunder can finish the season around .500 or better.

    Very few players can make the leap from star to true superstar, but Gilgeous-Alexander has begun that process this season.

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