NBA Saturday: The Next Most Improved Player
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Who Will Be Next Year’s Most Improved Player?
Just like with the MVP award, there are a lot of different ways to interpret what “Most Improved Player” means in the NBA. As defined, it’s an accolade given to the most improved player of the regular season, and that’s all we’re given. Over the course of the 28 years that the league has handed it out, though, it’s gone to a bevy of different kinds of players.
Sometimes, it’s handed off to a player that many expected to be good, but not as good as they ended up being. Other times, it goes to a player that came completely out of nowhere to make himself a relevant pro. Only 12 of the 28 Most Improved Player award winners were All-Stars at some point in their career, and not a single one of them has won a championship as a player, so deciding which guy deserves the crown at the end of a season where so many different players showed massive improvement can be a particularly challenging choice to make.
Take last year, for example. Paul George was given the award for blossoming from a respectable role player into a full-fledged All-Star and franchise cornerstone. Jrue Holiday and James Harden received votes for the same reasons. But then there were players like Larry Sanders, Greivis Vasquez and Nikola Vucevic, whom nobody predicted would be anything other than career rotation guys—not league leaders in major statistical categories.
This season will likely be just as unpredictable. There will be surges from the players we expect (or at least hope), but some guys will just come completely out of the blue. Here’s a look at some players we could very well be talking about in the Most Improved Player conversation by the end of the 2013-14 NBA season:
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns – So far, all anybody has really said about Eric Bledsoe’s move to Phoenix is that he’ll be stuck behind Goran Dragic in the depth chart at point guard, but there’s little question that new head coach Jeff Hornacek will play both guys together, giving Bledsoe plenty of opportunities to score as the team’s pseudo-two-guard. This is an explosive kid playing for an up-tempo team that’s really going to need him to score. Even if he doesn’t start at the beginning of the season, he’ll get his chance to shine as a Sun, and by the end of the year he could very well look like the kind of player teams build franchises around.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls – When Butler was selected with the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, nobody expected much out of the swingman from Marquette, but as we saw in the playoffs last year, Jimmy Buckets could be on the cusp of a breakout season in Chicago. Currently the only two-guard on the Chicago roster, Butler definitely has a ripe opportunity in front of him, and with an improved three-point shot and elite defense, he could be even better playing off of Derrick Rose, who will be returning from an 18-month absence to help rejuvenate the Bulls. Butler, however, will play a big role in that rejuvenation, too.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs – Leonard is a classic example of a player like Paul George—someone drafted in the middle of the first round who then came into the league severely underrated yet still impressed a lot of people right off the bat. Like George, Leonard has been a solid pro almost since day one and, like George, it’s taken him a while to come along statistically. Leonard came darn close to averaging a double-double in the 2013 playoffs, however, and should have a bigger role than ever in the San Antonio offense this coming season. When he was drafted, people said he had the chance to eventually be an All-Star, and this may be the season he finally realizes that potential.
Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors – The MVP of the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas fought off some injuries last year, which kept him from really finding a groove in his first full year as a pro. But with Andrea Bargnani off to New York, he will be the new full-time starting center with the Raptors and that could equate to some of the bigger statistical jumps we’ll see from a player this year. He shoots a very high percentage from the floor, is pretty versatile offensively and showed in Summer League how far he’s come as a defender, as well. Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan might be flashier scorers, but Valanciunas could soon be the best all-around player on that Toronto team.
JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets – Though he may be bit of a knucklehead at times, McGee is one of the best shotblockers in the league. However, he hasn’t really been given the opportunity in Denver to show what he can do with a starter’s minutes. George Karl had a thing about not giving McGee those minutes, but with Kosta Koufos traded and Karl put out to pasture, McGee has never had a better opportunity to show how good he can be. He finished eighth in the league in blocks last season, averaging 1.99 per game in only 18.1 minutes. Per 36 minutes, he’s at 3.9 blocks, which would place him almost a full block ahead of last year’s league leader, Serge Ibaka.
John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks – Like Valanciunas, Henson had himself an excellent Summer League, but since Henson plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, almost nobody heard about it. He scored, rebounded and blocked shots seemingly at will—all of which he also did at points during the regular season. It’s hard to tell whether he’ll get the kind of minutes he needs in that loaded Milwaukee frontcourt to really become a breakout star, but Larry Sanders did it last year in a similarly crowded rotation. Why not Henson, too?
Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz – The former third overall selection has taken some time to come along, but it’s hard to blame him when he’s spent the last three seasons playing behind Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson in Utah. The good news for Favors (and Enes Kanter, for that matter) is that Millsap and Jefferson are both gone, meaning the floor is all his for a potential breakout campaign. He averaged 9.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game playing only a shade over 23 minutes a contest last season. Bump those minutes up to 33-35, and he’s a double-double waiting to happen.
Of course, this list doesn’t include all the players that will be in consideration for Most Improved Player because part of the way this works is that a small handful of players come from completely out of nowhere to put themselves in contention for the award. For all we know, we could be talking about Wayne Ellington or Khris Middleton for MIP next spring. That’s the beauty of Most Improved Player; improvement comes from all over the place in this league and some of most pleasant surprises, like Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris and Larry Sanders, are the ones that are the most unexpected.
Why Greg Oden Chose Miami
You know it’s been a slow news week in the NBA when one in every three stories printed about the league over the course of the last several days has had something to do with a player that hasn’t played an NBA game since 2009.
But when that player is a former No. 1 overall pick that swears up and down he’s as healthy as he’s ever been, people tend to pay close attention. When that player decides to join up with the two-time defending NBA champion Miami HEAT, he generates even more buzz.
The player, obviously, is new HEAT center Greg Oden, and he’s taking his talents to South Beach in an attempt to resurrect his career and hopefully win a championship. That, at least, was why Oden said he chose Miami, despite convincing overtures from Dallas, San Antonio, and New Orleans among others.
“Obviously the chance to play with the best player in the world and compete for a championship was a big selling point,” Oden told Mark Titus of Grantland. “But more than that, what I really liked was how they thought I could really add something to their team. They’ve won back-to-back championships without me, so for them to pursue me as hard as they did meant a lot, especially given all that I’ve gone through.”
There’s no questioning the fact that Oden has gone through a lot over the course of the past half a decade. He played the first quarter of the 2009-10 NBA season, and played well, but according to Titus, Oden’s time away from the game of basketball has been “a psychological and emotional struggle.” For someone that was once considered the game’s next great big man, Oden sure has fallen short of expectations, but he’s doing everything he can to put that part of his life behind him.
“The past six years have been tough for me,” Oden said, “But there’s nothing I can do about it now. The past is the past. All I’m focused on is right now. And right now I feel great and I’m looking forward to playing again.”
It would be hard not to look forward to spending a couple of seasons for the world champions alongside the league’s best player in a beautiful city like Miami, located in a water-surrounded state with no state income taxes. Put like that, it’s hard to believe it took him as long as it did to make a decision.
“There’s a lot to be excited about in joining the NBA champions, getting to play with some great players, and living in Miami,” Oden said. “But honestly, the thing I’m most excited about is just being able to play basketball again. It’s been a long and challenging road back, so just having the chance to play the game I love again has me more excited than anything else.”
Oden is a great guy who just couldn’t catch a break (or rather, caught too many of them) his first go-round in the league. All eyes will be on how his second opportunity in the league pans out, whether it’s a slow news week or not.