Introducing the NBA's 2020 MVP Race Sleepers

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 12, 2019

Introducing the NBA's 2020 MVP Race Sleepers

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The NBA MVP race isn't as predictable as you might think.

    Last year's winner, Giannis Antetokounmpo, had never previously finished within the top five of the voting. Paul George, a finalist in 2018-19, only had a ninth-place showing before last season. Nikola Jokic, the No. 4 finisher, had never previously factored into the voting.

    Even if you're convinced Antetokounmpo is looking at a repeat—that's what we predicted—or another household name will capture the crown, this is your reminder not to overlook the sleepers.

    We've compiled our top six here, using only players who didn't collect an MVP vote last season and currently suit up for teams with a record of .500 or better. Simple enough, right?

    Let's get to it.

Devin Booker, G, Phoenix Suns

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Something has apparently clicked for Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns. Or a lot of somethings have, actually.

    He had long appeared as a volume scorer with good-not-great efficiency (or worse). Suddenly, he's on course to become the fourth 25-point-scoring member of the 50/40/90 club, or the first qualified double-digit scorer to crack the 50/50/90 threshold.

    The Suns, meanwhile, have followed his lead and ascended from forgotten cellar-dwellers to the season's most surprising juggernauts. They've knocked off the previously unbeaten Philadelphia 76ers. They've embarrassed the Brooklyn Nets. They've only lost three games in nine tries, two of which were one-point defeats at the hands of the Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz.

    Oh, and they only got a single appearance out of building-block big man Deandre Ayton before he was hit with a 25-game suspension.

    "You can feel the vibe here. It's different," Booker told The Undefeated's Marc J. Spears. "Our team is in a different state than we have been in the previous years. I don't want to get ahead of myself. ... But the culture around, you can feel it."

    If sustained, the Suns' newfound success would surely get Monty Williams tons of (deserved) Coach of the Year support. But don't be surprised if it throws some MVP votes in Booker's direction, too. He's their leader in points, triples and minutes, and they've fared 21.5 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

Luka Doncic, G/F, Dallas Mavericks

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Luka Doncic is ahead of the curve.

    Sure, we knew that last season (and probably even earlier than that), but he's ahead of even the curve set during his Rookie of the Year debut. His field-goal percentage has jumped more than five points. He's added more than three ticks per game to his assist category and nearly that many to his rebounds. His player efficiency rating has skyrocketed from 19.6 to 28.7.

    He won't turn 21 until after the All-Star break. He'll have an argument for the label "NBA's best passer" before that.

    "Doncic is thinking two steps ahead of everyone," ESPN's Zach Lowe wrote. "His trademark pass as a rookie was probably the LeBron-style crosscourt laser to corner shooters. Already this season, he has shown mastery of other tricky dishes that reveal themselves—only for a flash, and only to the very best passers—in the run of play."

    Doncic is doing things we hardly ever see. He's on pace to become just the third player ever to average at least 27 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. The others were Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson, both former MVPs.

Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    Credit the Utah Jazz for clearing the runway so Donovan Mitchell could take flight. While he had starred in spite of an oft-cluttered offensive end before, his franchise ensured that wouldn't happen this time around by investing in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic.

    But give even more credit to Mitchell for propelling himself to new heights. He could've eased up after snagging an All-Rookie first-team spot with an impressive 20.5 points per game. He could've spent the summer celebrating a successful sophomore season in which his points, rebounds and assists all trended up.

    He spent the offseason in the lab instead, discovering new ways of attacking and, in the process, unlocking new layers of efficiency.

    "I've seen everything," Mitchell told The Athletic's Shams Charania. "But now, I have to understand where to get shots, where to be efficient. It's not just shooting, but when to find guys, when to make the right pass, when to get off the ball. That really took me a while to figure out, and once I did, I got to prepare for it all summer and into the season."

    The results are already manifesting in a major way.

    Mitchell had never shot 44 percent from the field before; now he's north of 48. His three-point percentage has jumped more than nine points from last season. He's never had a higher assist percentage (23.6) or more assists per turnover (1.79 percent).

    In past years, Mitchell may have split any of Salt Lake City's MVP votes with defensive anchor Rudy Gobert. But given the former's big offensive strides and the latter's regression at that end, Mitchell is the clear-cut leader of this Western Conference power.

Pascal Siakam, F, Toronto Raptors

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    Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

    Kawhi Leonard's exit was supposed to torpedo the Toronto Raptors. Pascal Siakam is the biggest reason they're still slotted among the Eastern Conference's elite.

    All reasonable expectations for Siakam stopped several stories shy of his current level. Even those soaked in optimism couldn't have seen this coming.

    He's a top-10 scorer in the entire league. He's sinking better than two triples per night with a solid 35.0 percent conversion rate. He holds Toronto's top spot in points and rebounds, and he averages more assists than any of the Raptors' non-point guards.

    He's the ultra-rare glue guy-turned-superstar, and Toronto is a whopping 19.2 points better per 100 possessions when he's on the floor against when he's not.

    "Obviously we based everything around Kawhi last year, so I think now it's shifting to being more around Pascal," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said, per NBA.com's Shaun Powell. "He's playing as well as we thought he would and has gotten better each year, and we're seeing that so far this year."

    It took Siakam three seasons to score 30 points in a game, and he did so five times in all of 2018-19. He has already cleared that mark four times in this young season, including when he matched his career high with 44 points on 60.7 percent shooting from the field and a 5-of-10 performance from distance.

Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Not to open with a downer here, but this caveat feels critical.

    There's a decent (or better) chance the Minnesota Timberwolves aren't very good, or at least not good enough to have a player in the MVP discussion. They lost 46 games last season, and their summer seemed notable more for the subtractions (Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, Dario Saric) than the additions (Jarrett Culver, Jake Layman, Treveon Graham).

    That said, the Wolves have won enough to meet our .500-or-better criteria so far, meaning Karl-Anthony Towns must be mentioned.

    Calling him the NBA's best offensive big man feels closer to an objective observation than a subjective opinion. Other players might have arguments, but good luck finding another 6'11", 248-pounder who drops in long-distance shots like a Splash Brother (3.8 makes per game, 41.7 percent success rate) or provides better than 25 points per game, plus essentially four assists and three offensive boards every night.

    He has the skills and finesse for the perimeter, plus the brute strength and footwork for the post. He's also basically ditched the dreaded long two in favor of more triples, and he's making more trips to the free-throw line than ever. He's even giving better effort on defense, evidenced by matching or setting personal bests in defensive boards (9.4) and blocks-plus-steals (3.2).

    He'll need his team to stay inside the playoff race to have even a puncher's chance at the MVP honor, but he's doing everything in his power to make that happen.

Kemba Walker, G, Boston Celtics

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    This isn't the first time Kemba Walker has supplied the statistics needed to join the MVP conversation. But when he was balling and the Charlotte Hornets still weren't going anywhere, those stats lacked the league-wide substance necessary for an honor of this regard.

    That's no longer an issue for Walker after he relocated to the Boston Celtics this summer. His numbers have more purpose now that they're attached to a team fighting for control of the Eastern Conference, and if that weren't enough, the Shamrocks even supplied a nifty narrative to help drive home his impact.

    Their locker room was a wreck last season, and fair or not, a lot of the chemistry problems were pinned on Kyrie Irving. Walker is Irving's replacement. The chemistry seems smoother this season. Maybe this narrative comes from convenience, but it's too easy to trace that improvement to the point guard, as Tom Keegan did for the Boston Herald:

    "Walker's a high-volume shooter but doesn't play in a way that makes teammates feel left out. His personality gives him that rare gift of making others around him feel better about themselves, and in turn they play better. Teammates don't walk on eggshells around him and they seem to have shed the self-consciousness with which they sometimes played last season."

    Walker needs more than a good story to take home the hardware, of course, but that's hardly the only thing in his corner. He's the high scorer for the Association's hottest team and one of only eight players averaging 25 points, five rebounds and four assists.

                       

    All stats, unless otherwise noted, used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference and current through games played on November 11.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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