Every NBA Team's Most Improved Player So Far This Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 13, 2021

Every NBA Team's Most Improved Player So Far This Season

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    Name a better pastime for NBA fans than tracking player improvement.

    You can't.

    I know, it seems like a subjective challenge, and maybe you have a dozen different answers running through your head, but this is the correct one.

    When players take a step forward, then possibilities change—both for themselves and their teams. That's how role players become starters, starters become stars and stars become all-timers.

    Let's lean into that excitement, then, by spotlighting each squad's player showing the most improvement this season.

Atlanta Hawks: John Collins

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    Credit Trae Young for entering the conversation as an established All-Star, but John Collins takes the honor in Atlanta for excelling in the sport's subtleties.

    He won't enter the actual MIP race, because he has previously posted better numbers in the counting categories. Look under the hood, though, and you'll find a more complete version of him than ever.

    His defense has perked up from the paint to the perimeter. Perhaps most importantly, he has found a way to weaponize himself and frontcourt mate Clint Capela in pick-and-roll plays by continually connecting on lob plays out of Collins' short rolls.

    "When you're able to (create plays) with your 4 man, it does give you an advantage because those guys are not normally used to guarding perimeter players and pick-and-roll actions," Hawks coach Nate McMillan said, per The Athletic's Chris Kirschner.

    FiveThirtyEight credits Collins with 3.9 wins above replacement so far. That's not just a better mark than anyone in Atlanta, it surpasses everyone not named Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Rudy Gobert.

Boston Celtics: Grant Williams

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    In Grant Williams' first two NBA seasons, he searched for an offensive identity he never did find.

    In Year No. 3, he has positioned himself for potential 50-40-90 enshrinement.

    His shot profile now reads like an analytical dream. If he's not burying buckets from distance (career-high 43.2 three-point percentage, 96th percentile on spot-up shots), he is cleaning up from close range. Among players with 25-plus attempts inside of five feet, Williams' 81.5 percent connection rate ranks second-best.

    At the opposite end, his defensive versatility is shining. While he is a 6'6", 236-pound power forward, he spends more than one-third of his defensive possessions matching up with guards, per BBall-Index.com.

    His place in Boston's blueprint for the present and future might have been murky coming into the campaign, but he has rocketed up to essential status.

Brooklyn Nets: DeAndre' Bembry

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    The Nets are largely comprised of established contributors, so there aren't many areas to look for growth—especially with third-year big man Nicolas Claxton missing so much time.

    Still, DeAndre' Bembry has managed to raise his profile during his sixth NBA season.

    He is an annoying presence on the defensive end, pressing into his matchup and perpetually making them uncomfortable. Offensively, he is filling in the cracks like a human adhesive, showing his best-ever touch from three (40.9 percent, albeit on low volume) and impressing as an off-ball cutter (69th percentile).

    "He's good with the ball. He can push it in transition. He can draw and kick. He's a good cutter. He really makes a lot of good decisions offensively for a guy that's not a primary target," Nets skipper Steve Nash said, per Mark W. Sanchez of the New York Post. "You add it all up, and he does a lot for the team."

Charlotte Hornets: Miles Bridges

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    If the Association handed out individual hardware for the season's first quarter, Miles Bridges might walk away with MIP honors. Unfortunately, there's no trophy to commemorate that, but if he maintains this level, he might take home the real thing at season's end.

    He is breaking his previous bests almost across the board and shattering several of them. He went from never averaging more than 13 points to now pumping in 20.3 per night (at a more than respectable 47.2 percent clip, by the way). He's up 1.3 assists, 1.2 rebounds and 0.5 steals from last season. His 4.0 free-throw attempts double his previous high.

    "The explosiveness (and) athleticism was always ahead of the ball skills, but the ball skills and talents have caught up, and he's putting it out there on full display," one scout told The Athletic's David Aldridge.

    Bridges might do his best work on the back end of lob passes from Hornets' franchise floor general LaMelo Ball, but Bridges can trace much of this improvement to becoming a more self-sufficient scorer. Last season, 71.6 percent of his two-pointers came off of assists; now, that number is down to 57.2.

Chicago Bulls: Alex Caruso

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    Alex Caruso has been called plenty of things over his five-year career, but his newest label might be the most flattering yet: stat-category leader.

    The plucky combo guard has thieved an NBA-best 2.2 steals per game—technically, he's tied with Marcus Smart and Jimmy Butler—as a reserve who doesn't get 30 minutes a night. To put that in context, the other nine players in the top 10 all get more than 32 minutes per game.

    He's also tied for first in deflections per game, in case the steals alone don't properly highlight his hustle. His seemingly endless energy is bringing out the best in the Bulls, who have jumped from 12th to eighth in defensive efficiency and fared 11.8 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

    "He's a dog, man," DeMar DeRozan said, per Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. "There are times we look at the stat sheet after games, and he's like four or five steals. Just the energy he brings defensively, it triggers us because we try to live up to the standards that Alex is going to bring out there on the court."

Cleveland Cavaliers: Darius Garland

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    This is tricky, because the Cavaliers have two legitimate MIP candidates, and we aren't even talking about Ricky Rubio (suddenly a high-volume three-point threat), Cedi Osman (a more efficient scorer than ever) or Lauri Markkanen (an integral part of their jumbo-sized starting five).

    The focus instead is on Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen, the latter of whom would be an obvious choice if he wore one of 20-something different jerseys. In Cleveland, though, Allen just slightly settles in behind Garland, the lifeblood of Cleveland's offense and, statistically speaking, the most important player on the roster.

    He's one of only six players averaging 19 points, seven assists and 2.5 threes. Among that exclusive group—four established stars (Luka Doncic, James Harden, Trae Young and Damian Lillard) and a rising one (LaMelo Ball)—Garland has the best field-goal percentage (46.9), the third-best three-point percentage (38.4) and the third-fewest turnovers (4.0).

    Not too shabby for a third-year player who looked way over his skis as a rookie, right?

Dallas Mavericks: Jalen Brunson

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    In a way, Jalen Brunson lands here by default. The Mavs don't have many movers and shakers on the developmental front, so much of this roster is either performing up to expectations or falling short of them.

    It's different with Brunson. Sort of.

    There are areas where he hasn't improved and has actually regressed. His shooting rates, for instance, are down across the board, and they've taken his win shares per 48 minutes with them.

    Having said that, his growth as a playmaker is enough to take this distinction, particularly with Dallas' long-running search for non-Luka Doncic shot-creation. Brunson is simultaneously matching his career-high in assist percentage and posting a career-low in turnover percentage. Tack on the best defensive rating of his career, and there's enough to support a serious climb in FiveThirtyEight's RAPTOR (from 87th overall to 36th).

Denver Nuggets: Will Barton

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    Michael Porter Jr. was supposed to be a shoo-in for this spot (if not the NBA's Most Improved Player award at large), but his latest round of back trouble torpedoed that plan.

    Good thing Will Barton is around to keep things moving the right direction.

    He is, admittedly, a curious candidate for an article on improvement as a 30-year-old in his 10th NBA season, but several numbers say this is the best he has ever been and certainly much better than last year.

    His 16.3 points are a career-high. Same goes for his 2.6 threes, 39.2 three-point percentage and 4.2 assists, all critical contributions given the scoring, shooting and distributing Denver is missing without Porter or Jamal Murray. Barton is also up nearly four full points in player efficiency rating (11.8 to 15.5) and turned his box plus/minus from a negative (minus-2.0) to a positive (plus-0.7).

Detroit Pistons: Killian Hayes

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    Pistons fans, I have to level with you. Serious consideration was given to a "No Improvement Detected" answer.

    Jerami Grant's shooting rates have crash-landed back to Earth; Saddiq Bey's have fallen off a cliff. Isaiah Stewart remains a hustler without an offensive role.

    Last season, Killian Hayes ranked among the league's worst players. This season, he... well, still does. Saying that, there is a difference between ranking 386th out of 392 qualified players in RAPTOR and landing 225th out of 250.

    Hayes' three-point percentage is up (35.1), although he still doesn't launch from distance often—or really, take many shots from anywhere. His assists are down, but that always bound to happen with the arrival of top pick Cade Cunningham. More importantly, Hayes has sliced his turnovers in half in the same amount of floor time.

    It's still unclear what type of role he should handle and what type of career he will have, but he went from looking lost almost all of the time to looking lost some of the time. Maybe that's the least exciting form of incremental progress, but it's enough to get noticed in Detroit.

Golden State Warriors: Jordan Poole

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    If you filled out an MIP ballot now, you'd have to put Jordan Poole somewhere on it.

    He spent a full month of last season on a G League demotion. He has spent the first month-plus of this season as either the second or third option on a full-fledged NBA juggernaut.

    Poole is proving he can co-exist with Stephen Curry and keeping the offense functional when its MVP sits. Poole can't power up to the same level as his backcourt mate—to be fair, very few scorers in the history of this game ever could—but he still brings the interesting combo of a fiery three-ball, slippery handles and feather-soft touch around the basket.

    Whether or not Poole remains in the season-long MIP race will hinge on two things: sustainability (duh) and the role he will handle upon Klay Thompson's return.

Houston Rockets: Garrison Mathews

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    Is 13 games a big enough sample size to declare anyone his team's most improved player? In the funky world of Space City, where a big chunk of the rotation is either rookies without a track record or up-and-comers who haven't gone through all of their growing pains yet, it sure is.

    Especially when Garrison Mathews is throwing fireballs like a long, lost Mario brother.

    Th 6'5" sniper, who was waived by the Boston Celtics in the preseason and settled for a two-way pact with the Rockets, is shooting approximately 1,000 percent since joining the rotation in mid-November. Over his first 13 outings with Houston, he has averaged 3.1 triples per night, burying them at a 40.4 percent clip. Only five players are averaging more threes, and all but Stephen Curry are shooting a worse percentage.

    Mathews might be a specialist, but when that specialty is capitalizing on smart, analytically approved scoring chances, the Rockets aren't complaining.

Indiana Pacers: Kelan Martin

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    Want to know a tough place to find improvement? On the veteran-heavy roster of a squad struggling to the point of reportedly "moving toward a substantial rebuild," as The Athletic's Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz recently reported.

    Still, the rapid rise of third-year swingman Kelan Martin has been a breath of fresh air.

    He spent October fighting for and eventually winning his roster spot. By the start of November, he made himself a regular in head coach Rick Carlisle's rotation.

    "This is a guy that a lot of people had written off coming into this year as a guy that could contribute, make a difference," Carlisle said, per James Boyd of the Indianapolis Star. "And from the very beginning of September when guys started filtering in, I really liked his game. He shoots the ball easy, (he's) physical, deceptively athletic and he has an edge."

    Martin didn't get his first opportunity until the eighth game of the season, but he has appeared in every contest since. None of his numbers jump off of the page, but the fact he has a chance to get numbers on a nightly basis is a huge step forward.

Los Angeles Clippers: Isaiah Hartenstein

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    I don't know how many entries are on the list of things Clippers' fans didn't see coming this season, but I'm pretty confident I know No. 1: An early December article opining that Isaiah Hartenstein might be pricing himself out of the franchise's future.

    For starters, it was very uncertain if he'd even have a present with this team. To make that happen, he had to survive a preseason battle with former first-round pick (and once decorated recruit) Harry Giles III for the final roster spot. Even now, Hartenstein can't be completely comfortable, since his contract won't fully guarantee until Jan. 10.

    Expectations, in other words, were nonexistent, but let's pretend there were a few present, just so I can say he has annihilated them. He's been good for 7.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 blocks in just 15.8 minutes a night, which translates to 16.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes.

    No wonder the Clippers have played 11.0 points better per 100 possessions with him than without.

Los Angeles Lakers: Malik Monk

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    The pickings are slim here, since Talen Horton-Tucker's third-year hasn't made it off the ground, and Kendrick Nunn hasn't made it to the hardwood (bone bruise).

    Does Carmelo Anthony deserve a nod for pairing his most threes per game (2.4) with his second-highest splash rate (40.6 percent)? Maybe, but he is more or less checking the same boxes as last season. Avery Bradley has a full-time rotation spot after failing to secure one last season, but you wonder (or at least I do) if that says more about the Lakers than it does him.

    So, let's turn the spotlight over to Malik Monk, who has entered the most pressure-packed environment of his career and responded with the best field-goal percentage of his career. His true shooting percentage, win shares per 48 minutes and box plus/minus are all personal-bests, too.

    He still hasn't discovered the key to consistency, and he can give back a lot of what he gets offensively at the defensive end, but he plays an exciting brand of basketball, is enough of a three-point threat to help the spacing issues and has never contributed more to winning.

Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant

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    Some will argue against this selection. Ja Morant himself might, since he has thrown his MIP support behind teammate Desmond Bane, a deserving candidate in his own right and one who would be the right pick if he played for almost any other team.

    In Memphis, though, Morant was up to something special before a sprained knee got the best of him. He appeared to be making the leap from good to great—a jump that started in last season's playoffs—that is the hardest to make in all of sports.

    Since last season, when he had some All-Star buzz (albeit without an All-Star selection), he has elevated his scoring, field-goal shooting, three-point shooting, free-throw shooting, rebounds, steals and blocks in the same number of minutes. He has never had a higher assist percentage or lower turnover rate. His PER rocketed from just-above-average to full-fledged elite.

    He could still stand to elevate his defense and hopefully is inspired to do so after seeing his teammates dominate that end without him. But the offensive end alone has him knocking on the door of basketball's superstar club.

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro

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    Based on Tyler Herro's bubble breakout, the MIP was supposed to be his to lose last season.

    He might just hook the hardware one year later than expected.

    His numbers are essentially peaking across the board, including significant spikes in scoring (20.7 points per game), three-point shooting (2.7 triples) and pull-ups (3.6 per game, including 1.4 triples per game). He went from dragging this offense down by 3.7 points per 100 possessions to pumping it up by 4.1.

    The Heat never really knew what to expect from him last season. Now, they're counting on him to play a critical role in this offense every night.

Milwaukee Bucks: Grayson Allen

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    Grayson Allen will never handle a big enough role for his offseason trade from Memphis to Milwaukee to rank among this era's biggest heists. But weighing what he's doing against the meager cost to get him—Mr. Irrelevant of the 2020 draft Sam Merrill, plus two future second-rounders—gives the swap serious larcenous vibes.

    Allen entered the Badger State with the reputation of a scoring specialist with an ignitable three-point stroke. He still fits the same role, but he has never come close to this level of execution.

    Just seven players are averaging more than Allen's 3.0 threes per game, and only one receives fewer than his 28.7 minutes a night. Staying in that same group of snipers, only Lonzo Ball and Patty Mills have a better hit rate than Allen's 41.7 three-point percentage.

    Allen is fifth on the Bucks in both points and minutes per outing. He is an essential part of a championship contender, making the two-year, $18.7 million extension he inked in October already look like a bargain.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Anthony Edwards

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    Anthony Edwards became the future of the Timberwolves the second he was announced as the top pick of the 2020 draft.

    Well, the future is apparently now.

    Edwards is doing a little of everything in his second go-round, including calling out 26-year-old, two-time All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns as a 20-year-old NBA sophomore. That's a bold move, but it shows the depth of Edwards' bag and the confidence he has in himself.

    And why wouldn't he be confident? He is one of only eight players averaging 21 points, five rebounds, three assists and two triples. Everyone else in that group is a household name. Based on Edwards' trajectory—his player efficiency rating wasn't even league average last season—he could reach that status sooner than later.

New Orleans Pelicans: Jonas Valanciunas

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    This isn't Jonas Valanciunas' first season as a highly productive player. In fact, he has been a double-digit scorer since 2013-14 and a walking double-double since 2019-20.

    Having said that, his offensive skills have never been sharper.

    That's a key development, since brute force and nifty footwork already made the 6'11", 265-pounder a tough cover. But now that there is more finesse—namely, career-highs in threes (1.1 at a 46.3 percent clip), assists (2.5) and free-throw shooting (82.0 percent, on a career-high 4.0 attempts)—to complement that power, he's a borderline nightmare matchup for anyone who crosses his path.

    It will be interesting to see what his skill upgrades mean for his fit with Zion Williamson—get well soon, big fella!—but Valanciunas' rapid rise as a more complete offensive weapon should make it easier to mesh with anyone.

New York Knicks: Obi Toppin

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    Obi Toppin was supposed to be a quick study. That's the main reason he landed eighth overall in the 2020 draft despite turning 22 years old several months earlier.

    It's also why red flags were likely raised when Toppin failed to make an impact as a freshman. Although with minutes leader Julius Randle blocking his path, one can argue about how much of a chance Toppin really received.

    His work load still isn't great (15.9 minutes a night), but he is seeing just enough floor time to flash major improvement from last season. Then, he was averaging 13.3 points per 36 minutes on 49.8 percent shooting. Now, he's at 19.7 on 53.0, and his rebounds, assists, blocks and free throws are all up, too.

    He has nearly doubled his PER (12.7 to 20.0) and flipped his BPM from the red (minus-1.0) to the green (plus-1.1). It's obvious he is taking a big step forward, even if his modest minutes allotment doesn't always allow him to show it.

Oklahoma City Thunder: Luguentz Dort

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    This is Luguentz Dort's third NBA season, which doesn't seem right when it feels like his reputation as an elite stopper has been around even longer.

    His on-ball defense is relentless and among the very best you'll find. But his offense has often been an eyesore, as he couldn't find a comfortable scoring range at any level.

    That has changed this season.

    Dort, who's still playing his signature shut-down defense, is up to 17.3 points per game on career-high shooting rates from the field (42.4) and at the line (83.3). He has seen nearly a 10-point spike on his shooting inside of three feet (65.9, up from 56.4) and made even more progress from three to 10 feet (42.9, from 29.6).

Orlando Magic: Cole Anthony

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    The Magic may not win enough for Cole Anthony to be seriously considered for the MIP, but the eye test and the stat sheet both swear he's one of the top candidates league-wide.

    Last season, he teetered dangerously close to unplayable territory. As a score-first point guard with defensive deficiencies, he needs to pair major eruptions with at least solid efficiency. He never came close as a rookie (12.9 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting), and it torpedoed his impact. He wound up 286th among 295 qualified players in RAPTOR, nestled in between Isaiah Roby and Darius Bazley.

    Fast-forward one season, and Anthony's statistical company exists on the other end of the basketball world.

    He is tied for 112th in RAPTOR, just behind the likes of Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis (both tied for 109th). Anthony is one of 12 players averaging 20 points, five assists and five rebounds, a distinction shared with All-Star regulars and a few players who should soon become them (Ja Morant and LaMelo Ball). Anthony is 17th in clutch scoring, and the only players above him bettering his 58.8 field-goal percentage are Davis and Chris Paul.

Philadelphia 76ers: Tyrese Maxey

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    Tyrese Maxey wasn't always a rotation regular as a rookie. He watched more of Philly's postseason run than he played, topping 24 minutes only twice in 12 games and getting fewer than seven minutes five different times.

    This isn't new information, but it's all worth refreshing just to highlight how stinkin' good his sophomore season is going.

    It's like some basketball god snapped a finger, and in one summer, Maxey evolved from a relatively unreliable scoring guard to a trustworthy floor general who can be entrusted with one of the heaviest workloads around. He's more than doubled his averages in points, rebounds, and minutes from last season, all while increasing his three-point shooting percentage by six percent.

    Given how much time has passed since Ben Simmons voiced his trade request, the Sixers should theoretically be looking for the best option and closing the door on that sooner than later. Maxey's massive jump gives Philly more leverage to practice patience and keep trying to find the coveted return.

Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker

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    Collectively, the Suns seem to perpetually rise, but individual improvements are harder to find within the progress. Essentially every relevant contributor has broken out already, so it's hard to find anyone to spotlight.

    Mikal Bridges is an option, but he averaged slightly more points on slightly better shooting last season. Deandre Ayton has elevated his scoring and rebounding, but his shot-blocking and shooting have dropped.

    There really isn't a great answer, as more than a few of you are surely raising your eyebrows upon the selection of Devin Booker, a two-time All-Star averaging his fewest points in five seasons.

    This isn't an across-the-board kind of improvement, obviously, but there are a few progressions worth noting. For starters, his three-ball is becoming the lethal weapon his shooting form says it should have been all along (2.4 makes at a 40.3 percent clip). His turnovers also keep coming down and are lower now (2.7) than they've been since he was a rookie without a full-time starting spot.

    Perhaps most notably, though, Booker is entering assassin territory in the clutch. He has 30 points in 27 clutch minutes with a 73.3 field-goal percentage, a 60 percent splash rate from distance, four assists, four rebounds, one steal, one block and zero giveaways.

Portland Trail Blazers: Nassir Little

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Ask a dozen Blazers backers for their most improved player so far, and you might get an even split of six responses for Nassir Little and six for Anfernee Simons.

    There really isn't a wrong answer between the two. Little has proved invaluable for his energy and defensive versatility. Simons remains an ignitable offensive weapon—only he's more reliable and more efficient with his expanded role.

    How do you choose between them? Well, I thought about flipping a coin, but here's what it really boiled down to: Little's rise seems more significant given what the Blazers need around Damian Lillard. It's easier for Little to fit with Lillard than it is for Simons, yet another undersized, score-first guard in this rotation.

    Little needs his jumper to come around to fully settle this debate, but even without it, his growth is obvious and noteworthy. He's seen a sizable increase in both his BPM and win shares per 48 minutes. 

Sacramento Kings: Richaun Holmes

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Ready for a bold prediction? The MIP won't come from the Kings this season.

    De'Aaron Fox is backtracking, while Tyrese Haliburton and Harrison Barnes are—to borrow the words of late, great NFL coach Dennis Green—who we thought they were.

    Even Richaun Holmes isn't dramatically different than he has been in the past, but the brick-by-brick nature of his maturation has continued.

    Last time around, he checked enough boxes to secure a four-year, $46.5 million deal. This time, he is punching up his production almost across the board. His 70.7 field-goal percentage and 80.7 free-throw percentage are both career-highs, as are his per-36-minute points and reboundsPER, BPM and win shares per 48 minutes.

San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray

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    Darren Abate/Associated Press

    Whether speculated or reported, the Spurs have been connected to virtually every trade candidate on the market because of one major assumption: That they don't have a star on their roster.

    That's technically true in terms of actual All-Star honors, but Dejounte Murray is working feverishly to change that. After previously popping as an elite defender, the 6'4" floor general is now stuffing the stat sheet at both ends of the floor and positioning himself as the possible focal point of the franchise going forward.

    His production levels have pumped up every season, but this latest lift might bring him over the threshold to stardom. He's sitting on nightly contributions of 18.4 points, 8.3 assists and 8.2 rebounds. The only other player in possession of an 18/8/8 stat line is Luka Doncic.

    RAPTOR ranks Murray as a top-25 talent. Last season, he didn't even crack the top 100.

Toronto Raptors: OG Anunoby

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    If you've tracked the process of OG Anunoby living up to the Kawhi Leonard comparisons, then you knew the significance of the fifth-year leap. If you haven't, then just know year No. 5 was when Leonard first became both a 20-point scorer and an NBA All-Star.

    Anunoby appeared on his way to mirroring that rise before being sidetracked by a hip pointer.

    Last season, he averaged 15.9 points and shattered his previous best by more than five points per game. This year, he turned all the way up to 20.1, and while the usage increase hurt his shooting rates (43 from the field, 36.6 from range), the opposite happened with his turnover percentage, which dropped to a personal-best 8.1.

    Maybe this wasn't quite Kawhi 2.0 levels of two-way domination, but the fact Anunoby has kept this comparison alive in this critical season is a testament to his fifth-year growth.

Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert

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    George Frey/Associated Press

    Who says you can't teach a 29-year-old, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and two-time All-Star new tricks?

    Rudy Gobert has been rubbing elbows with basketball's elite for a while now, but he has never seemed so comfortable with that company.

    He has taken all the things that make him great and made them greater. More rebounds (league-best 14.6). Better shooting (NBA-high and wholly ridiculous 73.4 field-goal percentage). Improved analytics (career-high in PER and leading the league in win shares).

    "I just do my job, come in every night," Gobert said recently. "... I'm just gonna keep going, keep playing for my team and keep getting wins."

    The domination feels familiar, but it's cleaner and more powerful than ever.

Washington Wizards: Deni Avdija

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Deni Avdija's counting categories won't blow you away. It's possible they never will.

    When he arrived as the ninth overall pick in 2020, scouts weren't excited by his ability to dominate the box score. His appeal was tied to things like two-way versatility, competitive drive and polish, and all of those things are surfacing as part of his sophomore jump.

    Individually, the growth seems subtle. There aren't any major moves on his stat sheet, save perhaps for the spikes in PER (11.4, up from 7.6) and win shares per 48 minutes (.085, from .046). Taken altogether, though, it's like a bunch of mini-steps leading to one big leap—especially when considering Avdija's greatest strength, defense, is the one hardest to measure in numbers.

    With more depth on the wings, Washington has slow-played its sophomore and actually given him fewer minutes than last year. The Wizards might want to rethink that, as Avdija has the best net differential of their entire rotation (plus-12.3 points per 100 possessions).


    Statistics through Saturday's games and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted. Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.