7 NBA Players Who Look Like They've Made Huge Improvements Since Last Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 18, 2014

7 NBA Players Who Look Like They've Made Huge Improvements Since Last Season

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    If the first few weeks of the 2014-15 NBA season are any indication, this year's Most Improved Player award field is going to be crowded.

    Stars are being born, role players are becoming cornerstones and ceilings are being raised all across the basketball world.

    The seven players here didn't finish last season in the same spot. Some had already flashed superstar ability, while others had only hinted at a bright future if they could tap into their full potential.

    No matter where they left off, all have since sent their stocks soaring.

    In order to compile this list, a couple requirements were put in place.

    One, all players had to have a player efficiency rating of at least 20 (league average is 15.0). It isn't easy jumping from bad to mediocre, but it's not something that should be celebrated like a guy pushing himself somewhere between good and great.

    Also, players need to have seen at least 20 minutes of action a night. As incredible as Dennis Schroder and his 21.0 PER have been out of the gate, it's hard to fully gauge the level of his improvement when he's spending more than 60 percent of the game on the sideline.

    Other than that, everyone was eligible for selection. And these are the seven who stood above the rest.

Brandon Knight, PG, Milwaukee Bucks

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 PTS, 4.9 AST, 3.5 REB, 1.0 STL, .422/.325/.802 shooting, 16.5 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 17.9 PTS, 6.6 AST, 5.8 REB, 1.3 STL, .444/.391/.860 shooting, 20.0 PER

    PER Increase: 3.5

    Life is good for Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Knight right now.

    His head coach, Jason Kidd, sits No. 2 on the NBA's all-time leaders in assists (12,091) and steals (2,684). For a young floor general still learning the tricks of the trade, it's hard to imagine him finding a better mentor.

    "He's been through every situation as a point guard so it definitely benefits us as a team," Knight said of Kidd, per The Associated Press via USA Today.

    Knight isn't hurting for help inside the lines either. He has above-the-rim finishers who are never more than a lob pass away, and Milwaukee's disruptive defensethird in steals (8.9), 12th in blocks (4.8)—helps create a steady stream of transition opportunities.

    With the freedom to shift between scorer, shooter and distributor, Knight has positioned himself to set career marks nearly across the board. And the 22-year-old just so happens to be emerging during the season before he'll hit the restricted free-agent market.

    It's not a bad time to be Brandon Knight.

Derrick Favors, PF, Utah Jazz

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    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.3 PTS, 8.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.5 BLK, 52.2 FG%, 19.0 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 16.3 PTS, 8.2 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.5 BLK, 58.3 FG%, 23.6 PER

    PER Increase: 4.6

    NBA fans have been waiting for Derrick Favors' breakout since he was taken with the third overall pick of the 2010 draft. Favors has been waiting for the right situation to enjoy such a season.

    Everything seems to have fallen into place this year for the explosive 6'10" force.

    Favors had tantalized with per-36-minute production before (15.2 points over the past three seasons), but he's found a way to raise that bar (19.0 points) despite logging a career-high 30.9 minutes per game. An upgraded supporting cast has eased his ascent, but the biggest difference might be the individual offensive strides he has made.

    He is punishing defenders inside the paint to the tune of 75.0 percent shooting within five feet of the basket (minimum five such shots per game), good enough for the third-best in the league. But he's also showing a different comfort level away from the rim. He has converted 41.4 percent of his shots from eight to 16 feet away from the basket, a higher percentage than Tim Duncan (40.7) and LeBron James (36.0).

    Favors has never had a higher assist percentage (10.6) or a lower turnover percentage (10.5). At the opposite end, he's one of only 13 players averaging at least 1.5 blocks and 5.0 defensive rebounds.

    He's never been short on upside, but neither his ceiling nor his basement have ever appeared higher.

Courtney Lee, SG, Memphis Grizzlies

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    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 9.6 PTS, 2.4 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, .480/.371/.884 shooting, 13.8 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 14.9 PTS, 3.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.2 STL, .566/.621/.917 shooting, 20.7 PER

    PER Increase: 6.9

    As scary as this sounds for the other Western Conference contenders, the 10-1 Memphis Grizzlies may have found an explosive offense to complement their dominant defense. The Grizzlies sit ninth in offensive efficiency after shredding the Houston Rockets and their top-ranked defense in a 119-93 rout.

    Plenty of factors go into the Grizzlies getting offensive. There is Marc Gasol's creativity, Mike Conley's steady hand at the point and Zach Randolph's gritty play underneath the basket.

    There is also Courtney Lee nailing everything he throws within the vicinity of the rim.

    He is stringing together comical shooting percentages. While some search for the next 50/40/90 shooters, Lee is cooking with 50/60/90 grease.

    Granted, this doesn't feel very sustainable. Not for a career .452/.387/.847 shooter.

    But Lee is making strides outside of his shooting. He has a personal-best 11.9 assist percentage and a career-low 7.9 turnover percentage. His 103 defensive rating is also the lowest he's ever had.

    The Grizzlies haven't put too much on his plate, and he has feasted on what's available. As a supportive scorer and long-range sniper, Lee should remain an efficient offensive weapon even if his otherworldly shooting numbers come back to reality.

Gordon Hayward, SF, Utah Jazz

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 16.2 PTS, 5.2 AST, 5.1 REB, 1.4 STL, .413/.304/.816 shooting, 16.2 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 18.7 PTS, 4.6 AST, 5.4 REB, 1.3 STL, .472/.328/.885 shooting, 22.1 PER

    PER Increase: 5.9

    Maybe it was the $63 million contract he signed over the summer. Perhaps it was the fact he was left off Team USA's FIBA Basketball World Cup roster. Maybe he just fits incredibly well into new Jazz coach Quin Snyder's offense.

    Something seems to have lit a fuse under Gordon Hayward. And the versatile swingman shows no signs of slowing down.

    His field-goal percentage hasn't been this high since he was a complementary piece as a rookie. Despite being tasked with a career-high 23.7 usage percentage, he has pushed his efficiency to heights he had never before seen.

    He's putting up elite numbers. Only four other players are averaging at least 18 points, five rebounds and four assists: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard and LeBron James.

    But most important, Hayward has grown as a team leader. He simplifies things for his teammates, which is the mark of a true star.

    "He makes it easy for everybody else," Derrick Favors said of Hayward, per Sports Illustrated's Chris Johnson. "He makes it easy for myself. He improved a lot since last year."

    Whatever the reason, Hayward looks like a completely different player. And that's a good thing for the Jazz.

Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 18.4 PTS, 3.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.9 STL, .444/.417/.795 shooting, 14.3 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 PTS, 3.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.2 STL, .466/.467/.889 shooting, 22.7 PER

    PER Increase: 8.4

    Klay Thompson's gargantuan $70 million contract extension with the Golden State Warriors doesn't actually kick in until next season, but he clearly has no intentions of waiting to earn those checks.

    The 8-2 Warriors are off to their best start since 1975-76, and Thompson might be the key behind their early-season explosion. During his 299 minutes of action, the Warriors are outscoring their opponents by an astounding 24.8 points per 100 possessions. In the 181 minutes they have played without him, they have been outscored by 11.0 points per 100 possessions.

    Thompson is a two-way force, capable of changing the outcome of a game on either side of the ball. His defense has been phenomenal. Opposing 2s have produced a paltry 4.5 PER against him this season, per 82games.com.

    At the opposite end, Stephen Curry's Splash Brother has still been doing damage from distance (3.1 made threes a night). But Thompson has also rounded out the rest of his repertoire. Only 45.0 percent of his two-point field goals have come off assists. Entering this season, that number was 66.8. He's also established a career-high .370 free-throw rate, more than doubling his previous best (.147).

    "He understands how good he is, and he knows when you can shoot from 30-feet and guys are in you, there's a lot of floor to work with," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, per USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "He's doing a good job working with all that space."

    The Warriors invested heavily in his future, and he's already delivering significant returns.

Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 13.1 PTS, 4.9 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.9 STL, .397/.283/.769 shooting, 13.5 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 21.3 PTS, 6.2 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.4 STL, .508/.370/.806 shooting, 22.5 PER

    PER Increase: 9.0

    Chicago Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler ended last season in search of a shooting stroke that had gone missing and in need of adapting his game to fit with a finally healthy Derrick Rose.

    He has since found that shooting touch, as evidenced by his career-best field-goal percentage. And he has managed to successfully change his game, though not in the way it seemed he would need to.

    The Bulls have only had Rose available in five of their first 11 games. So, rather than needing Butler to complement the former MVP, the Bulls have had to throw Butler in as the substitute No. 1 option.

    As difficult as that sounds, Butler has kept himself and his team from missing a beat.

    "One of the truly great stories of the 2014-15 NBA season has been the play of Butler, an amazing jump from not only a player drafted No. 30 overall, but a reluctant offensive player his entire time with the Bulls, a shooting guard who seemed out of place given questions of how much he could even score," wrote Bulls.com's Sam Smith.

    Butler had five 20-point games all of last season. He already has six to show for his first nine appearances. He's also dished out five-plus assists four times, something he did on only nine occasions last year.

    He's scoring better and more efficiently, having a greater impact on the glass, working his way to the free-throw line, setting up teammates and still defending at an elite level. Butler is headed for restricted free agency at season's end, where a major payday is sure to greet him.

Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2013-14 Per-Game Stats: 20.8 PTS, 10.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 1.3 STL, 2.8 BLK, 51.9 FG%, 26.5 PER

    2014-15 Per-Game Stats: 25.5 PTS, 11.4 REB, 2.0 AST, 2.3 STL, 3.9 BLK, 57.9 FG%, 36.1 PER

    PER Increase: 9.6

    New Orleans Pelicans menacing big man Anthony Davis shouldn't even be eligible for this list.

    Before the start of this season, he was already an All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist. He finished the 2013-14 campaign tied for 14th in scoring, 10th in rebounding, first in blocks, fourth in PER and 14th in total win shares (10.4).

    By no means had the 21-year-old exhausted his upside. But there should not have been enough room for him to grow so dramatically to snag a spot here.

    Then again, that's assuming the 6'10" forward with the 7'5.5" wingspan (per DraftExpress) is bound by the same rules as everyone else. That clearly isn't the case.

    Davis has, somehow, found a way to grow in every aspect of his game. He ranks inside the top 10 in points (third), field-goal percentage (seventh), rebounds (fourth), steals (tied for first), blocks (first), PER (first) and total win shares (first). Both his PER and win shares per 48 minutes (.346) are on pace to set new NBA single-season records.

    "Everything about him seems hyperbolic except that Davis is apparently operating in an alternate reality where impossible basketball feats have suddenly become possible," wrote Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal.

    Davis won't turn 22 until March. It doesn't seem out of the question that he could have a historically significant year, then find his way back onto a most-improved player list again next season.

    Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.