One of the most intriguing NBA awards each year is for Most Improved Player. There are always so many legitimate candidates and lots of stimulating discussion about how good each player is in the current year compared to how good he was previously.
Generally, voters like to reward players who take advantage of a significantly increased opportunity. Guys who improve from one year to the next in the same role aren’t usually strongly considered.
Minutes and scoring are the big categories to monitor. In the past 13 years, every winner has averaged at least 31.9 minutes and 16.1 points per game. The average statistical increase from the previous year has been 7 minutes and 7.4 points per game.
This year, there will probably be dozens of significantly improved players yet again. However, there are five players who I believe are the most legitimate candidates to take home the hardware.
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Adebayo has been ready for a full-time center’s workload for a while now, but the Heat’s trade of Hassan Whiteside in July finally showed that the franchise is ready for him to fulfil that role.
There’s a very good chance Bam plays more than 30 minutes per game this year after averaging only 23.3 minutes as a sophomore in 2018-19. The other key bigs on this Heat roster (Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard and James Johnson) have more perimeter-oriented games and can’t anchor a defense nearly as well as Adebayo.
Adebayo won’t be the focal point of the Heat offense, but he is a great pick-and-roll finisher with some playmaking abilities as well. Expect averages of somewhere around 15 points, 11 rebounds and three assists per game for the Heat’s 22-year-old building block.
Caris LeVert, Brooklyn Nets
LeVert had three general segments of his season last year: October/November, February/March and April. He played very well prior to dislocating his foot in November, came back very rusty in February but then turned it on again at the start of April and maintained his production through the playoffs.
If you take out LeVert’s 21 games in February and March, he averaged 18.4 points in just 28.8 minutes per game on a 57.7 true-shooting percentage in 24 games (including the playoffs). However, because of those post-injury months, the young wing’s season averages look rather underwhelming.
If LeVert can just replicate what he did in the aforementioned 24-game stretch, he should have a strong case for Most Improved Player. I think that’s very realistic, too. Brooklyn has Kyrie Irving and Spencer Dinwiddie as key offensive options, but there’s definitely a significant opportunity for LeVert to get lots of touches and shots in Brooklyn this year.
Markelle Fultz, Orlando Magic
There’s really no direction to go but up for Fultz’s career. His first two years have been tumultuous, to say the least. Peculiar injuries and a complete lack of confidence have threatened his chances at ever becoming a star player, but he’s back on the floor in the preseason and showing more confidence, even though the results aren’t really there yet.
After two years as somewhat of an afterthought among the Philadelphia 76ers’ young prospects (behind Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons), he now moves to a Magic team that is really depending on him to succeed as a big part of its backcourt rotation.
With Fultz, the key to remember in the Most Improved Player voting is that his baseline of last season was quite low. If he can somewhat find his jump shot again, he has the opportunity to drop something like 14 points, five rebounds and six assists per game with the Magic this season.
Luke Kennard, Detroit Pistons
I strongly believe that Kennard has been underutilized on offense in his two seasons with the Pistons. Despite being a capable on and off-ball player with a reliable 40-percent three-point shooting stroke, he’s used fewer than 18 percent of the Pistons’ possessions in his time on the floor throughout his two years.
That usage is the main hurdle standing between him and a breakout season. I think we’ll see a big jump in minutes from 22.8 to close to 30 per game, but if the Pistons don’t give him more offensive responsibility, he might not have the counting stats to win the award.
If Detroit does give Kennard more opportunities, though, it wouldn’t be a stretch for him to break out to the tune of 17 points and four assists per game as a top-two or top-three offensive option on the team.
Terry Rozier, Charlotte Hornets
One thing’s for sure: Rozier pretty much has to break out this season if the Hornets want to be feeling good about their future. Charlotte dedicated three years and $57 million to Scary Terry in the offseason, adding to some other questionable big-money contracts the team has recently signed (Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller).
While I don’t love Rozier’s game, he has shown flashes of being a potentially solid starting point guard in the league. He had a nice stretch late in the 2017-18 regular season and playoffs when Kyrie Irving was injured, showing that he could be a solid three-point shooter and stat-sheet stuffer in a consistent starting role.
I could see Rozier either exploding this year after finally being trusted as the sole point guard, or he could crash and burn without much support on a terrible Hornets squad.