The NBA’s Most Improved Player race is as tight as ever this year. Last year’s race was an incredibly close one as well, with Brandon Ingram, Luka Doncic, Bam Adebayo, and Devontae Graham all being deserving candidates. This year is very similar, with a solid top five who all have legitimate arguments to be the winner of this award.
The Most Improved Player Award is one that is always hard to nail down because improvement is not linear. Some look at the award as pure statistical improvement in some aspects. That line of thinking is what led to Brandon Ingram winning the award last year over Bam Adebayo. Ingram had one of the greatest single-season shooting improvements in NBA history. Some view the award as the most meaningful improvement that launches a player into the superstar stratosphere. No matter how someone views it though, this year has some very interesting candidates.
Candidate 5: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has made tremendous leaps each of his seasons in the NBA to this point. He has become an amazing pick-and-roll operator, a smooth scorer, and he has improved a lot as a facilitator. He has improved his assists average by about 2.6 per game. He has also drastically improved both his efficiency, 56.8% true shooting to 62.3% this year, and his usage rate, 23.7% last year to 28.6% this year. That is a rare combination of improvements because usually, a higher usage meant more difficult shots and worse efficiency.
Gilgeous-Alexander would have been higher on this list, but he’s going to miss significant time with plantar fasciitis. The Oklahoma City Thunder are unlikely to rush him back because the team is not in contention for a playoff spot this season. Gilgeous-Alexander still deserves to be mentioned in this conversation because his improvements have been so significant and impressive.
Candidate 4: Christian Wood
Christian Wood was a legitimate candidate for this award last year and he should be again this season. He has bumped his scoring average to 21.5 points per game and his efficiency is still well above average. He is one of the better shooting and scoring centers in the league and that’s a major bump from his mere 13.2 points per game last year.
The main thing holding Wood back from the Most Improved Player Award is the horrid play of the Houston Rockets. The Rockets are 13-32 and are only getting worse. However, it is important to note that Wood still has a positive net rating and has done everything in his power to make the Rockets competitive this season.
Candidate 3: Jerami Grant
Jerami Grant had never averaged over 15 points per game prior to this year. This season, he is averaging a very impressive 23 points per game on about league average true shooting, 56%. Grant has become a very solid isolation and pick-and-roll player virtually out of nowhere. He is still a very good defender and athlete, so perhaps his biggest improvement is how versatile he has become.
Grant is also hurt by a struggling team. The Detroit Pistons are 12-33, but their net rating is only negative four. The Pistons are far from the worst team in the league in those terms and Grant is a major part of that. Despite the gripes, his scoring improvement is one of the most memorable and unexpected in recent memory and that has earned him a solid spot on this list.
Most Improved Player of the Year No. 2: Julius Randle
Julius Randle was on the outs with the New York Knicks and their fanbase before the season, but he’s worked himself back into favor in the Big Apple. Randle’s improvements are not purely reflected by the box scores. It has also a lot to do with how he has started helping New York win. Randle is averaging about 3.5 more points per game than last year on a much better true shooting percentage. He has also improved defensively under coach Tom Thibodeau.
Randle has made his first All-Star team this season and it was well deserved. He has been the best player on a Knicks team that is fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 24-22 record. He has improved a lot as a shooter and playmaker. He has earned his spot among these names for Most Improved Player.
Most Improved Player of the Year Candidate No 1: Jaylen Brown
Jaylen Brown has improved in every imaginable way as a player. He has jumped from 20 points per game to 24 points per game on the same level of true shooting and a 6% higher usage rate. His scoring ability from three and in the mid-range has been a big plus for him.
Jaylen Brown’s statistical improvements are notable but his rise from a budding star to a legitimate All-Star could be the difference that wins him the Most Improved Player of the Year award. Brown has proven that he belongs next to Jayson Tatum in the conversation as a future pillar for the Celtics and the NBA in general.