The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is one of the most fun accolades to predict before the season begins. The award embodies what basketball is all about.
Last year’s winner, Jimmy Butler, wasn’t a one and done or a former lottery standout—he was a late first-round pick that worked his way off the pine into a defensive stopper and then a bonafide All-Star in four years. It’s that kind of underdog story that make sports awesome.
There’s a catch, though.
Picking the Most Improved winner is like sticking your hand in a hat and pulling out a random name—not only because it’s hard to predict who is going to win but because the award is flawed by nature.
Butler was a deserving winner, but he was almost an exception. Past recipients have been players who simply earned more minutes and kept up the same production, or even worse, improved in their sophomore years, which is something that expected from second-year players.
In this piece, I’ll cover which players are the likeliest to actually improve. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the most probable to win the award. That will depend on how experts and voters deem to define “improved”, a definition which seems to vary each season.
So for what it’s worth here’s players who will improve this season, and maybe it will even earn them an award.
Last season I prematurely called for Drummond’s breakout season that never came.
Under new coach Stan Van Gundy, the former mentor of Dwight Howard, along with Drummond’s stellar play at 20 years old at the time, the sky was the limit for the big man.
Things didn’t turn out that way for what ended up being a tumultuous season for the big man and Detroit as a whole.
He managed to take an even bigger step back at the line, falling from 41.8 percent to 38.9 percent, and put up nearly identical numbers to his sophomore season, while falling from 62.3 percent to 51.4 percent from the field, a career low.
Drummond was an odd fit next to Greg Monroe, who also fed off put backs and inside touches, and his point guard, Brandon Jennings, tore his Achilles halfway through the season.
It’s not like Drummond was chopped liver—he still averaged 13.8 points and 13.5 rebounds per game—and his 21.50 PER, while a career low, was within a point of his PER each of the prior two seasons.
With Monroe replaced by the floor-stretching Ersan Ilyasova and Reggie Jackson back as the starting point guard, it’s safe to say Drummond is the early Most Improved Player frontrunner.
He averaged 16.1 points and 14.7 rebounds shooting 53.6 percent after All-Star break, thriving in the pick-and-roll game with Jackson.
This nifty chart from Steve Hinson of SB Nation illustrates just how effective of a combo the two made:
Per Synergy, Jackson was the top pick and roll shot creator in the NBA last season:
With less of a cluster inside, more perimeter players to space the floor and Jackson’s pick and roll prowess, at 22, it looks like Drummond is finally ready to make his Dwight Howard-esque jump.
Numbers Forecast: 17 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks per game shooting 60 percent from the field. (The only player to average at least 17 and 15 in the last 22 years? Kevin Love in 2010-2011)
I already gushed over the improvements of Gallinari a few months back, but his astonishing development in the second half of last season is worth spending a few more paragraphs on.
Gallo’s injury history is well documented, costing him 73 games over the last three years, with his injury turmoil spilling onto the court and translating into some rough play.
In his first 35 games last season coming off knee surgery, Gallinari averaged 8.2 points and 3.0 rebounds shooting 29.6 percent from three and 34.4 percent from the field.
It was unsettling and depressing for Nuggets and NBA fans alike, but luckily, in the second half of last season, Gallo turned up his Italian magic and that swaggy, slick play he’s capable of when healthy.
You just can’t keep the Rooster down forever. Gallinari averaged 18.6 points and 4.8 boards, shooting 40.4 percent from three and 44.3 percent from the field, post All-Star break. Gallo wasn’t just back—he was playing the best basketball of his career.
He kept his hot hand going this summer playing for the Italian National team as well:
Here's a final look at the offensive efficiency leaders from Eurobasket. Valanciunas and Fournier were late risers. pic.twitter.com/dhcadBy8JJ
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) September 20, 2015
With Gallo’s early season numbers pulling down his numbers as a whole and under a new (and much better) coach Mike Malone this season, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think Gallinari is going to put up the best numbers of his career in a healthy (fingers crossed) season.
Numbers Forecast: 18 points, 6 ebounds, 3 assists, shooting 44 percent from the field and 40 percent from three.
I’ll preface with this: I don’t think Aaron Gordon should win Most Improved Player,regardless of what he does, because he was a rookie last season, and players are expected to make big jumps heading into their second year. With that being said, I think Gordon is about to make huge strides in his second season.
In his rookie season, Gordon was riddled with injuries and limited playing time, averaging 5.2 points and 3.6 rebounds in 47 games for Orlando.
It wasn’t really a topsy-turvy season for Gordon as much as it was just plain bad.
His limited playing time can’t excuse his brutal stretch of eight games as a starter playing 25 minutes a game, averaging just 6.8 points shooting 33.3percent.
I’d like to say his defense made up for his poor offensive play, but that wasn’t the case either. He had a 104.5 Net Rating per NBA.com and isn’t much of a rim protector, picking up 22 blocks for the season.
Pretty much, any way you look at it, Gordon stunk last season, but there’s a reason he’s featured in this piece.
He’s still just 20 years old, and it’s too early to knock the guy. He’s a freak athlete with the speed of a guard in a 6’9” frame, and the work ethic and length that makes him a potential stopper on the defensive end as well.
Gordon finally started to show why he was taken with the No.4 pick in summer league. He did just about everything, averaging 21.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1.3 steals in three summer league games. He even made six three’s shooting 50 percent, which coupled with his surprisingly solid 72.1 free throw percentage during the regular season might showcase his potential as a small forward.
He also had plenty of gazelle-like coast to coast plays with nifty ball-handling skills, continuing to demonstrate his versatility.
After his hot summer league play, Gordon managed to break his jaw “horsing around” with his brother.
He might not be ready for the start of the season for the second straight year, and he’ll compete with Channing Frye and Tobias Harris for minutes, but we’ll finally see his play from Arizona and the summer league make it to an NBA court.
Numbers Forecast: 14 points and 7 rebounds shooting 48 percent from the field and 34 percent from three in 28 minutes per game
Other candidates: C.J. McCollum, Rudy Gobert, and Giannis Antetokounmpo