NBA Most Improved Candidates Ready to Break Out
It feels like it's never been harder to win Most Improved Player honors in the NBA.
Once upon a time, incremental growth—the kind that'd take a middling talent to rotation viability—was good enough for consideration. Now, it takes a full star turn. The last three winners illustrate the new standard.
CJ McCollum became a star when he won the award in 2015-16, raising his scoring average from 6.8 to 20.8 points per game while becoming one of the league's most efficient perimeter shooters. The following year, Giannis Antetokounmpo bumped his numbers from 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists to 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists per contest. The Greek Freak became an All-Star for the first time in 2016-17 and hasn't looked back.
Then came Victor Oladipo in 2017-18—once thought to be overpaid at $21 million per season and now an All-Star. A player who earned his way onto the All-Defensive First Team while establishing himself as one of the scariest downhill attackers in basketball, Oladipo vaulted to stardom when he won the award.
The recent trend means the candidates we list here have to double as breakouts. These guys all have new levels to reach, and if they get there, they'll collect hardware and elevate their teams. These are Most Improved possibilities, but they're also bets on imminent stardom.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Everyone likes Turner's combination of perimeter shooting and rim protection, but the 22-year-old center was well-positioned to make a leap last year. Instead, he took a small step back. Sure, adding volume and accuracy to his three-ball helped, but Turner still shot just 2.4 triples per contest. The stretch in his game remains largely theoretical. What's more, Turner underwhelmed as a rebounder (6.4 per game) in his third season and saw his turnovers climb (1.5).
That said, the Indiana Pacers big man remains intriguing. He could easily break out in 2018-19, but it's hard to be confident in major growth after last year's stagnation.
D'Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets
Before getting to the health concerns that limited Russell to 48 games last year (which included November knee surgery), and before we consider the defensive apathy that has so far marred his career, we have to see the Brooklyn Nets point guard prove he can score efficiently.
Though Russell has obvious feel and vision in the pick-and-roll, he's a career 40.9 percent shooter from the field. From deep, he's at 34.4 percent on 1,032 career attempts. Those accuracy rates could climb with better shot selection and health, but as was the case with Turner, we'll need to see demonstrated growth before getting fully behind a Russell MIP push.
Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
If Exum learns there's a gear below fifth, he'll immediately get a heck of a lot better.
Gifted with upper-tier athleticism and comfortable playing at maximum energy, Exum is already a dynamite individual defender. He's also a blur in transition who has shown blow-by flashes in the half court. It's just that Exum, perhaps because he's missed so much time due to injury, has often seemed incapable of slowing down and reading the game.
Maybe he'll never figure it out. Maybe he'll always be a spot-use spark plug who can't be trusted to process the game in critical situations. Or maybe he'll finally relax during a fully healthy season and legitimize his draft pedigree (No. 5 overall in 2014). If the latter happens, the Utah Jazz will have a blossoming two-way star on their hands.
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
As a 20-year-old in 2017-18, Jamal Murray averaged 16.7 points per game with a 57.6 true shooting percentage, a statistical twofer achieved at that age by just six other players in league history: Magic Johnson, Anthony Davis, Shaquille O'Neal, Adrian Dantley, Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant.
Murray is a gifted scorer with a feathery stroke. His standstill accuracy (42 percent on catch-and-shoot threes in 2017-18), coupled with improving feel in other areas give him heaps of scoring upside. Passable as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Murray should enjoy growth in that area as he gains comfort. If he increases his efficiency in those sets from the 64th percentile to, say, the 75th, it'll go a long way toward rounding out his game. Similarly, Murray's body control and smooth stroke mean he's a lock to get better as a pull-up shooter.
We've already seen flashes of what he can do with a live dribble. Last year, several mismatched bigs fell victim to his step-back trey. This season, it'll be about consistently, decisively punishing switches—which can take the form of more cruel step-backs or, even better, more aggressive drives.
At 6'4", Murray has more bounce than you might think. Already a 62.1 percent finisher inside three feet, Murray should add around-the-rim success as he develops his interior craft.
Lucky enough to play with Nikola Jokic, who's one of the best facilitating bigs of all time, Murray should benefit from easy looks created by others. That he can get his own shots only makes him more dangerous.
Expect a scoring average north of 20 points per game as Murray flirts with the 50/40/90 club.
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
It's time for Brandon Ingram to validate his draft pedigree at 2016's No. 2 pick and prove last year's second-half run was only a hint of what's ahead.
From Jan. 1 on, Ingram averaged 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game while hitting 50.5 percent of his shots from the field and 45.3 percent of his triples. The shooting accuracy is subject to a 26-game sample-size caveat, and Ingram wasn't a high-volume shooter. He attempted just two threes per contest during that breakout stretch.
Still, we've seen Ingram showcase versatility, scoring punch and efficiency for a reasonably large chunk of a season. Entering his third year, he'll have to balance his shot profile. His three-point rate dipped in year two to 1.8 per game from 2.4, but Ingram replaced those threes with rim attacks. As a result, his free-throw rate spiked from 2.7 to 4.8. Ideally, the Los Angeles Lakers would get increases in both areas this year.
At 6'9", Ingram has the handle, quickness and length to excel as a scorer from everywhere.
LeBron James' presence can sometimes marginalize role players, as secondary options tend to populate the perimeter as spectators when the King operates. But it's worth noting James' ball-dominant ways hardly curtailed Kyrie Irving's development into a star. Ingram is talented enough to follow a similar track, finding his opportunities in conjunction with and in relief of James as the situation demands.
As long as Ingram isn't too deferential to James, he should get his scoring average up over 20 points per game. And if he comes anywhere close to the peak accuracy he flashed last season, Ingram could become one of the league's more efficient high-volume scorers—one whose length on defense and passing make for a well-rounded, star-caliber profile.
Josh Richardson, Miami Heat
The Miami Heat need Josh Richardson to complete his transition from 2015 second-round afterthought to unequivocal star. Loaded with good players on deals that are at or above market value, Miami is kind of stuck.
If Richardson pops in his fourth season, he's their way out of mediocrity.
It starts on D for the 6'6" wing, and if Richardson gets no better on that end, he'll still be one of the best stoppers in the game. A ball hawk with deft hands and the motor to pursue plays even when he's seemingly beaten on the initial move, Richardson is a relentless force on D—one who routinely checks the opponent's best wing. Among players 6'7" or shorter, only Draymond Green and Danny Green totaled more than Richardson's 75 blocks last year.
Richardson got a few votes this offseason, but in 2018-19, an All-Defensive First Team nod is in play.
Offensively, Richardson shot 37.8 percent from deep last year on 4.1 attempts per game. Capable as an in-between scorer as well, he's adept at converting floaters and flip shots when he can't get all the way to the hole.
Speaking of which, Richardson's path to MIP may depend on his attacking the basket more effectively. Despite solid athleticism and impressive fluidity with the ball in his hands, he struggled to draw contact inside. To become a more efficient scorer, Richardson must increase his 2017-18 average of 1.8 foul shots per game.
It always feels safer betting on improvement from a dedicated defender because so much of a player's success on that end comes down to work, study and drive. If Richardson applies those traits to his offensive development, the Heat will have their two-way star.
You could easily make the case that Richardson is already Miami's best player. This year, he'll move beyond that designation and push for All-Star consideration in the East.
Dejounte Murray, San Antonio Spurs
The unquestioned starter entering his third season, 22-year-old Dejounte Murray is about to operate without training wheels.
Expect him to excel.
Murray, like Richardson in Miami, is a defense-first weapon. He was one of just four qualified players to average at least 2.0 steals and 0.6 blocks per 36 minutes last year. The others: Oladipo, Kent Bazemore and Eric Bledsoe.
Those on-the-margins contributions don't always draw notice, so for Murray to make a leap toward MIP, he'll have to sustain all those less-heralded qualities and marry them with old-fashioned glamour numbers. That means more aggression on offense—especially in transition, where the plodding Spurs could use the boost.
His points and assists need to spike, and there's reason to believe they will.
Murray hasn't been a reliable shooter, but he got markedly better on two-point jumpers in his second season. From 10 to 16 feet, he increased his conversion rate from 18.2 percent in 2016-17 to 34.4 percent. From 16 to 23 feet, he went from 16.7 percent to 36.7 percent. These are still uninspiring percentages, but the growth is striking. They show Murray is working, and we should see dramatically increased volume from the field and from three.
If everything goes as it should, Murray ought to get up at least a dozen shots per game, with at least four coming from beyond the arc. Development from deep will be vital, as the Spurs figure to devote a significant portion of their offense to DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay—three players who like to get their own shots and who tend to gravitate toward unassisted mid-range jumpers. Murray will spend plenty of time as a spacer, so he'll have to be ready.
Watch this season as he cements himself as the league's best defensive point guard while also taking a leap offensively.
Markelle Fultz, Philadelphia 76ers
Before you ask: Yes, it's a little scary out here on this limb.
We don't have much to go on with Markelle Fultz, who played only 14 games as a shoulder injury and/or the shooting yips derailed his rookie season. The 2017 No. 1 pick took just 111 shots in his first year. For context, Westbrook took 117 shots in the final four games of the Oklahoma City Thunder's playoff series against the Utah Jazz.
With such limited information, and considering the depths to which Fultz fell as a rookie, this prediction would fit better if the NBA still called MIP "Comeback Player of the Year."
Fultz is so obviously loaded with talent that even if his shot never comes around, he'll still be a useful player. Shifty, gifted with an unteachable change of pace and blisteringly fast in transition, Fultz is an athletic dynamo—one lucky enough to also have exceptional feel and body control. If all he ever did was attack the rim, he'd be a handful.
But what if that shot comes around? What if Fultz, who took 150,000 jumpers this summer, according to head coach Brett Brown, looks more like the guy who hit 41.3 percent of his five three-point attempts per game in college?
Well, suddenly, you'd have the consensus No. 1 pick back on track and ready to dominate.
It's easy to reduce Fultz's future to the accuracy of a jumper, but in becoming the youngest player to record a triple-double last year, he proved his contributions won't be confined to getting buckets.
If we scale our expectations, Fultz could easily be a dynamite sixth man who consumes second-unit defenders this season. If he excels in that role, don't be surprised if he's closing games that matter as the Sixers make a deep playoff push.
It's too early to call it quits on a talent like Fultz, even if his rookie season went worse than anyone could have imagined. The skills are there. The pedigree is unimpeachable. The fantastic first year we all expected in 2017-18 is coming...just a season late.