The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is the prize with the most moving parts. Voters not only have to assess each player’s value in the current season, but they have to compare that player’s value to what he supplied in past seasons. Not only that, they need to make determinations on how improvement is measured and which types of improvement are more noteworthy to them.
With that said, I’ve put together my top 10 candidates for the Most Improved Player award this NBA season. The list is a mixture of what I think voters will value as well as my personal opinion, which is backed up by statistics and my judgment from watching these players play.
Top Most Improved Player Candidates for 2019-20
1. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
I totally saw Adebayo’s improvement coming but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. Last year, he was unfairly stuck in a minutes-sharing situation with Hassan Whiteside and had his impact muted for that reason.
While Whiteside puts up gaudy numbers in the points, rebounds and blocks categories, Adebayo is the better player. He contributes selflessly to his team’s efforts on both ends of the floor and has improved significantly as a passer this year. He has a shot at making one of the All-Defensive Teams this year.
Adebayo has improved from 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game to 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Not only that, the Heat are on a surprising 52-win pace after overhauling their rotation prior to this season and despite being projected by Vegas to win just 43.5 games this season.
2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
For whatever reason, players in their second season rarely place highly in the Most Improved Player voting. Monta Ellis in 2006-07 is the last sophomore player to win the award. The MIP also is rarely a legitimate MVP candidate. Tracy McGrady was named Most Improved Player in 2000-01 and finished sixth in MVP voting, but that is the highest anyone has gotten.
Doncic has a great case to buck both of those trends this year. Despite being the focal point of every opposing team’s scouting report, he has made significant increases in pretty much all of the major statistical categories. Some of the main ones are scoring (21.2 to 28.7 points per game), assists (6.0 to 8.7 per game) and true-shooting percentage (54.5 to 58.4). Maybe most impressively, he leads the most efficient offense in the NBA and his team is on pace to win 49 games in an 82-game season, which would be a 16-game improvement from last season.
Usually, we are drawn to players who go from mediocre to good or good to great. But what Doncic has done in his second season is arguably the most impressive — making the leap from fringe All-Star candidate as a rookie to a bona fide superstar with MVP aspirations in just one year.
3. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Ingram’s candidacy has cooled in the past few weeks, as he hasn’t been that great since the All-Star break. His outside shot has been very off in a few different games, he is not getting to the free-throw line as much and his assist-to-turnover ratio could definitely use some work.
However, Ingram’s improvement is still extremely impressive. He showed flashes in his first three years with the Los Angeles Lakers that he could potentially be a go-to scorer someday, but the consistency wasn’t there.
This year, with the help of a vastly improved three-point shot, he has become a deadly scorer (24.3 points per game) and a respectable facilitator (4.3 assists per contest) and is really taking advantage of the physical tools that he has always possessed. Consistency is still a bit of an issue, but it is not nearly the problem it was in prior years. We’ll see if voters think his campaign is still worthy of hardware in spite of its warts.
4. Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
There are just seven players in the NBA averaging at least 18 points and 7 assists per game this season. Six of them were All-Stars, and four of those six (LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Doncic and Trae Young) even were starters in the All-Star game. The seventh is Graham.
Regardless of how good the team is, it takes some major talent to be the leading scorer and assist man on an NBA team. Graham is leading the Hornets in both categories with 18.2 points and 7.5 assists while putting the squad on a 29-win pace, which isn’t bad considering how devoid of talent Charlotte’s roster is.
Graham’s efficiency is somewhat mediocre (53.7 true-shooting percentage and 2.6 assists per turnover), but it is not terrible given the load he is asked to carry. Overall, it is pretty rare to see players make the leap from being a net negative as a fringe rotation player to being a net positive as a key starter and primary offensive option in just one season. That is why Graham gets the nod here.
5. Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Young’s case for the Most Improved Player award is similar to Doncic’s. Both are sophomore studs whose stats and overall impact have taken massive jumps. In fact, Young’s digits might have made even bigger leaps — from 19.1 points, 8.1 assists per game and a 53.9 true-shooting percentage to 29.6 points, 9.3 assists and a 59.5 true-shooting percentage.
The major differences between their cases have to do with defense and overall team success. While Young has definitely learned a lot about how to attack NBA teams on the offensive end, his defense is still a mess. He is at a major size and strength disadvantage, but his inability to make the right play and at least be somewhat crafty on that end makes him arguably the worst defender in the NBA. Atlanta is also on just a 24-win pace over 82 games, which makes his impressive statistics feel slightly less genuine.
I’m still very high on Young’s future in the NBA. He is just 21 years old, after all, and he has definitely improved vastly since last year, which is the entire concept behind this award.
- Honorable mentions: Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder), Duncan Robinson (Miami Heat), OG Anunoby (Toronto Raptors), Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics).