Easily the most interesting award come the end of the season, the NBA’s most improved player can go a number of ways. It can go to a superstar returning from a dreadful injury, a veteran rediscovering his powers, a youngster making the leap or even an unknown entity suddenly sprining into life. Here’s a look at the three best contenders so far this season:
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The Greek Freak is really a sight to behold. Standing in at 6’11” and a 7’3” wingspan, a physical specimen that has been spliced with great ball-handling skills that almost makes it seem like he was created in a laboratory.
The small forward always looked like he was destined for greatness in the NBA and it looks like this season will be the one where he breaks out into an All-Star level. Antetokounmpo is the only player in the league to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, showcasing just how big of a factor he is for the Milwaukee Bucks.
That was on full display in the victory against the Chicago Bulls last week, where he notched up 35 points off 13/19 shooting, nine rebounds, seven assists, seven block and two steals. It was a monstrous performance from a man that almost could have made that Monstars team back in the Space Jam days.
In fact, so far this season, almost all of his totals have gone up. His field goal percentage has risen from .506 to .536, he’s up to .295 from .257 from three whilst taking another attempt per game, he’s better from the line, he’s better at rebounding, he’s having more assists and steals while also posting almost seven more points per night.
Those numbers are outstanding.
He’s now become more of a guard too, taking more of a command of Jason Kidd’s offence and it’s paying dividends. The fact that Giannis can also cover any player in the NBA with his combination of size and surprising speed and athleticism, it’s a scary thought that it still looks like he’s not hit his peak.
At 22, the sky is the limit for this kid. With a real leap this season and a team slowly growing around him, there’s no doubt that the 22-year-old is so far the front-runner for this award come the end of the season.
Zach LaVine – Minnesota Timberwolves
The two-time and reigning dunk contest champion has gone from sideshow act in Minnesota to legitimate claim of the young Wolves having their very own big three. LaVine’s athleticism has never been in question, it was more to see whether his basketball skills could reach the same kind of level.
The 21-year-old has started every game for the first time in his NBA career but it’s the new rotation under Tom Thibodeau that has seemingly benefitted him the most. LaVine tends to play the traditional start of the first quarter then rests towards the end of the first period but he does start with the second unit at the start of the second quarter.
That has allowed him to get in a much better rhythm, emphasised by his big jump from 14 points per game last season to 21.1 this campaign. Not only that, he’s taking almost double the amount of three-point shots and is making more of them, from .389 percent beyond the arc to .417.
When he’s part of that starting unit, he can be another offensive weapon for Ricky Rubio to supply with the ball. When with the second unit, he can dictate things as the primary scorer and has helped the teams make runs that have kept them in games.
That is not to say he’s perfect just yet, he can sometimes be too easily outmuscled defensively and needs to work harder on that end of the floor. His offensive production is masking it a little, especially when he got bowled past by Joel Embiid a few nights ago but Thibodeau will make him better.
He also needs to be a little better with the basketball, as he’s averaging three assists to two turnovers. It’s not abysmal numbers but the fact that he’s second on his team behind Rubio shows that he needs to facilitate for others a little more to get this team moving in the right direction.
However, there is no doubt that LaVine has turned himself into a real player in this league. Not just a walking highlight reel, the former UCLA man is proving he can be so much more.
Myles Turner – Indiana Pacers
Roy Hibbert looked like the future for the Indiana Pacers as he became a wall at the centre of their team for precisely about a year. With his fade into obscurity, there were real worries about where this franchise would be heading as they looked to maximise Paul George’s championship window.
Insert Myles Turner, who was good in his rookie season but is turning into a fantastic player in his sophomore campaign. He exploded out of the box with a sensational performance against the Dallas Mavericks, posting a career-high 30 points alongside 16 rebounds and four blocks.
It’s only got better for him from there. A regular starter averaging almost 30 minutes per game, the 20-year-old is averaging over five more points per game, almost two more rebounds and just above a bloke more a game than his rookie season totals.
Not only that, his field goal percentage is up from .498 to .538 but even more impressively is the addition of a three-point game to his arsenal. He takes 1.6 attempts per game but with a .429 percentage, which shows that he’s keeping defences on their toes in the fact they may soon have to close him down and leave where he operates best free.
There is still a little more you’d like to see in his game in terms of consistency. Turner recorded 15 rebounds the other night against the Brooklyn Nets and 12 two games prior against the Orland Magic but failed to hit double digits in the entirety of December, including notching just three against weak rebounding teams like the Chicago Bulls and the LA Clippers.
Regardless, Larry Bird and his team will be delighted on how this young man is progressing. A real part of the reinvigoration of the centre position, he could be a key part for the Pacers for many years to come.