Taking Their Game to Another Level

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The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is a cause of much debate among fans. While many appreciate the merits of giving out an award in recognition of a player who’s taken a major leap forward in his career, what actually constitutes a major improvement is a point of contention.

At times in the past, the award has been given to players whose statistical improvement is an inevitable result of a substantial increase in minutes (Kevin Love)—more minutes equal more shots (or more chances to rebound the basketball), and thus nicer-looking numbers. The award has also been handed out to second-year guys (Monta Ellis) who are having a better year relative to their rookie campaign—not hard to do when you become used to the grind of everyday life in the NBA.

The following five guys—our candidates for Most Improved Player—are a few years into their respective careers (I’ve therefore left out Anthony Davis) and have made a rather unexpected, and pleasantly surprising jump this season. While each player has seen an increase in playing time, their increased statistical output hasn’t come at the expense of their efficiency.

 

Photo: Mark Runyon/Creative Commons


DeMar DeRozan
Prior to December 8, 2013, the Toronto Raptors were going nowhere. They were languishing at 6-12—unlikely to make the playoffs, and just as unlikely to finish near the bottom of a brutal Eastern Conference and snag a high draft pick. The Raptors season turned around, however, with the trade of Rudy Gay. The team began to run actual offensive sets—as opposed to soul-destroying iso-ball—and DeMar DeRozan (along with Kyle Lowry) emerged from Gay’s shadow to become a team leader and NBA All-Star.

DeRozan, up until recently, had long been the proverbial whipping boy for fans in Toronto. This was partly because he was seen as a one-dimensional shooter without great range, and partly because Bryan Colangelo signed him to a big extension. But this season DeRozan has lived up to his early career expectations. He’s averaging career highs in points per game (22.9), free throws attempted (7.1), PER (18.8) and assists per game (3.9). That last stat is particularly laudable because in past seasons, when DeRozan’s jump-shot wasn’t falling, he wasn’t able to contribute much else to the team. This season, as his assist numbers illustrate, his ability as a playmaker—particularly his ability to find shooters when he’s double-teamed—has increased dramatically.
 
 
 
Lance Stephenson

When Lance Stephenson was taken 40th overall in the 2010 draft it was seen as a risky move. Stephenson had a reputation for being a bit of a headcase—someone who was known more for his off-court indiscretions than for his on-court capabilities. During his early years as a Pacer, he did little to dispel that reputation. Two seasons ago Stephenson was known to fans as the guy who made the ill-advised choke sign to LeBron James, and not much else. The turnaround has been dramatic.

Stephenson announced himself to the world last season. With Granger out for the year, he took over the role of shooting-guard in the starting lineup, as Paul George shifted to small forward. But this year Stephenson has taken the leap from starter, to borderline All-Star. Stephenson’s numbers have improved across the board—he’s averaging 14 points, seven rebounds, and six assists per game this year, up from eight, three and two last season. What’s more, despite more field-goal attempts this season, his efficiency is way up—49 per cent from the field. Stephenson also leads the league in triple-doubles with four. He’ll be a key part of the Pacers’ title run this spring.

 

Photo: TNT Sports/YouTube


Taj Gibson
With Derrick Rose done for the season and Luol Deng traded, the Chicago Bulls looked set for a trip to the NBA draft lottery this summer—a least that’s what many in the media thought. Tom Thibodeau’s team had other ideas, however. Since the Deng trade, they’ve gone 19-9 and shot up the Eastern Conference standings. While the MVP-level play of Joakim Noah has been a massive part of the Bulls’ resurgence, the emergence of Taj Gibson as an offensive force has been huge for the team.

Gibson has been a vital part of the Bulls’ rotation for a number of years now, providing stellar post defense and often subbing in for the defensively inept Carlos Boozer late in games. But in the absence of Rose and Deng, Gibson has stepped up offensively as well to pick up some of the slack. This season he’s averaging 13 points per game—up from just eight last season—and he’s getting to the free-throw line more than three times a game, which is a big improvement over last year. Gibson’s always been able to finish in the pick-n-roll, and he’s been known to knock down the mid-range jumper on occasion, but this season his post game really improved. He’s hitting jump hooks and up-and-unders in the lane with surprising frequency.
 
 
Gerald Green
Gerald Green’s emergence as a key cog on the immensely fun—and incredibly surprising—Phoenix Suns is one of the best storylines in the NBA this season. Green, playing on his seventh NBA team, was the quintessential journeyman—always on the verge of being cut from an NBA roster, and known more for his outrageous dunking ability than for playing within a team concept. Green caught a break when he was picked up by the Nets two years ago. He subsequently signed a three-year deal with the Pacers, but then he had a disappointing season and was an overlooked piece in the deal that saw Luis Scola traded to Indiana in the summer.

But Green has been anything but overlooked this year, on a Suns that are in the running to make the post-season. Green—again, on his seventh NBA season—is averaging a career-high 15 points per game, and is shooting a very respectable 38 per cent from downtown. The highlight reel dunks are still there, but Green has finally found a place as a key component on an NBA team that’s going places.

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons
 
Goran Dragic

For most of Goran Dragic’s career the Slovenian point-guard seemed destined to be a backup point guard in the NBA—an extremely competent backup, but a backup nonetheless. Dragic learned from the best, of course, deputizing for Steve Nash during his early years in Phoenix before moving on to the Houston Rockets. The Rockets eventually dealt Dragic to make room for their eventual assault on James Harden, and that’s when Dragic’s career really took off.

Dragic got a chance to be a starting point guard last season with the Suns—and he looked impressive—but this season, when everyone assumed the Suns would be one of the worst teams in the NBA, Dragic has been ridiculously good. Dragic is averaging 20 points per game (up from 14 last season) and is shooting an incredible 50 per cent from the floor overall. He’s 40 per cent from 3-point range, while his true-shooting percentage of 61 per cent puts him among the very best in the NBA. Just as impressive is the fact that Dragic has had to increase his production in the absence of Eric Bledsoe. The backcourt combination of Dragic and Bledsoe was truly exhilarating to watch, but in Bledsoe’s absence Dragic has elevated his game and taken over most of the scoring for the Suns.

The Suns point-guard should’ve made the All-Star Game, especially considering that Tony Parker was injured, but he’ll likely win Most Improved Player this season—and may even be on the shortlist for MVP.

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