The NBA gives out an award each year to the player who improves most from one season to the next.
Arguably even more impressive is when a player clearly progresses his game in the middle of the season. There is less time to work on skills and break down your strengths and weaknesses during the hectic schedule of a season than there is during the summer.
Since there is no award dedicated to in-season improvement, USAbetting would like to give some credit to eight players who improved their games the most from the beginning of the season to now.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Tatum is the guy on this list whose leap was the most meaningful. Last season and early this season, the 22-year-old forward continued to flash his star potential in many games. He had the offensive talent and tools on defense to succeed, but many times he would settle for bad shots, fail to make the right offensive read or not play quite hard enough on defense.
In late January, Tatum flipped a switch. He ramped up his production and ended up averaging a sparkling 30.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks in 37.3 minutes per game in February. His shooting slash was 49.4/48.1/76.9, and that was with a high volume of shots from the three-point and free-throw lines. His improvement was really in every part of the game and he was also more aggressive.
With Tatum now looking like a full-fledged superstar, it is safe to say Boston will remain in the running for the Eastern Conference crown for the foreseeable future.
Shake Milton, Philadelphia 76ers
Injuries and awkward fits on the court have hampered the 76ers’ season. However, one massive silver lining is the development of Milton as a viable big-minute backcourt player for Philadelphia.
Through January 27, Milton’s production was modest — 4.5 points in just 10.7 minutes per game on a shooting slash of 38.6/29/66.7. No one could have expected that the 23-year-old guard’s next 18 games would yield 13.3 points in 25.7 minutes per game with lights-out shooting percentages of 53.8/52/80.6.
Whenever the NBA resumes, Milton will be a godsend to the Sixers as a ball-handler and scorer to play off of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. Philadelphia also has the former 2018 second-round draft pick signed to a very reasonable deal of $1.8 million per year through the 2022-23 season.
Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
I haven’t been very high on Sexton since he entered the league at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. I saw a shooting guard in a point guard’s body who couldn’t make plays for others, had a mediocre jump shot and just didn’t make the right basketball play often enough.
To be fair, some of those criticisms are still somewhat viable. However, he has proven over recent months that he is steadily improving his biggest weakness, playmaking, and his shot has gone from a relative weakness to a relative strength.
On December 31, Sexton was making just 0.8 three-pointers per game on a 27 percent success rate and dishing out only 2.3 assists in 30.6 minutes per game. Since then, he has made 2.2 threes per game at a 44.9 percent rate and passed for 3.6 assists in 35.4 minutes per contest.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
Injuries have been a consistent hindrance in LeVert’s basketball career since when he was a star in college at the University of Michigan. From the start of his junior season of college to now, he has played in just 240 out of a possible 378 games.
After returning from thumb surgery in January this season, LeVert was not good at all. He had a solid first two performances after his return then went into a major slump, averaging a mere 10.3 points and 2.8 in 23.3 minutes per game over his next 12 contests. His shooting slash was 31.4/27.3/65.8.
Then, out of nowhere, LeVert started playing like an All-Star. His final 16 games before the season’s suspension yielded 24.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. He thrived as the team’s No. 1 option with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant not playing and even had 51 points against the Boston Celtics.
The two questions for the 25-year-old now are whether he can stay healthy and whether he can stay effective in an environment next season where Irving and Durant are both getting a large chunk of touches and shots.
Christian Wood, Detroit Pistons
Wood should have found a role in the NBA long before this season. He entered the campaign with just 503 minutes with four teams since going undrafted in 2015, but concerns over his slight frame, basketball IQ and work ethic have prevented him from finding a home.
It turns out that all Wood needed was a fair opportunity. The 24-year-old big man’s minutes shot up once Blake Griffin injured his knee and Andre Drummond was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Detroit gave Wood 34.1 minutes per contest over the team’s most recent 15 games, and he has rewarded the squad with 22.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game while shooting 56.2 percent from the field, 41 percent from the three-point line and 75.9 percent from the free-throw line.
Wood can still stand to gain some muscle, but he is an aggressive and athletic finisher inside regardless. His outside shooting development is also very impressive. Is he a future All-Star? If he improves his defensive awareness and his strength, it’s not out of the question.
Cam Reddish, Atlanta Hawks
Reddish’s improvement this season is a reminder that sometimes young players struggle mightily as they adjust to the league, but that doesn’t mean they can’t turn into positive players.
Atlanta’s 20-year-old rookie wing just might have been the NBA’s worst player for the first few months of the season. Through January 15, he was averaging 8.2 points per game on pathetic shooting percentages of 32.3 from the field and 26.8 from three-point range.
The Hawks kept giving him consistent minutes, letting him work out the kinks in his game.
As a result, his confidence grew exponentially and he averaged 14.6 points per contest in his final 21 games before the NBA suspension. His shooting percentages in that stretch were 47 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three-point range. Not only that, he came into his own as a defender, often taking on tough opponents and succeeding much of the time.
Reddish’s stock as a project has soared in the past couple months and the Hawks deserve a lot of credit for sticking with him.
Malik Beasley, Minnesota Timberwolves
Beasley’s season took a positive turn at a very identifiable moment: the NBA trade deadline. The Denver Nuggets didn’t see themselves matching a free-agency deal for Beasley in the offseason and traded him with Juancho Hernangomez and Jarred Vanderbilt to the Minnesota Timberwolves in a four-team deal that netted them Gerald Green, Keita Bates-Diop, Shabazz Napier, Noah Vonleh and a first-round pick.
The Wolves probably didn’t realize it at the time, but they were acquiring the guy who would lead them in total points over their next 14 games (290). Beasley was stuck averaging just 7.9 points in 18.2 minutes for the Nuggets in a bench role, but the Timberwolves immediately featured him and reaped great rewards.
Beasley is a very talented scorer who can shoot and slash to the basket very well. Down the line, it will be interesting to see if he can fit next to All-Stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell. Both of those guys require plenty of touches and shots and are not good on defense. Beasley could turn into a fantastic third option if he accepts slightly lower usage and improves his defensive prowess.
Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
It is looking less likely the NBA will finish this regular season. If it does, I have a strong feeling the Pelicans will take over the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed from the Memphis Grizzlies. Between the Grizzlies’ tough schedule and the Pelicans’ very strong play in the last couple months, the aforementioned outcome shouldn’t surprise anybody.
Ball’s progression throughout the season has been a major factor in New Orleans winning 21 of its most recent 34 games after a 7-23 start. On December 28, Lonzo was averaging 11.8 points and 6.6 assists per game on 38.5 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from three-point range (2.3 makes per game).
Since then, he has averaged 14.1 points and 7.9 assists per contest on 48.5 percent from the field and 45.7 percent from three. His improved passing, shooting and defense made him an excellent complementary player to Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday.
Ball’s outside shooting development is going to be huge for New Orleans as it continues to move forward in a competitive Western Conference.
Jared is a lifelong sports fan and writer whose specialist subject is NBA. A 2015 graduate of Indiana Wesleyan University, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, Jared has been a sought-after freelance sports writer. In addition to his valuable USA Betting contributions, he has also written for other top media outlets. These are only Jared’s news articles, most of his articles for USA Betting are sports game previews and they can be found here.