The next award to break down is the Most Improved Player award.
The candidates listed below are the NBA players who enhanced their games the most this season, and they’re all in position to win the league’s Most Improved Player award.
5. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Oklahoma City Thunder
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander performed well in a limited role during his rookie season with the Los Angeles Clippers. During the off-season, he was included in a trade that also sent Danilo Gallinari and several first-round draft picks to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for Paul George. This trade allowed Gilgeous-Alexander to play more minutes and expand his role within a new team’s offense.
Today, Gilgeous-Alexander leads the Thunder in minutes played with 35.1 and points per game with 19.3. Since last season, he’s increased his scoring by 8.5 points per game. In addition, he’s averaging 3.3 more rebounds per game.
Many expected Gilgeous-Alexander to average more assists in his second season. However, he’s stayed put at 3.3 assists per game while sharing the court with All-Star point guard Chris Paul. Fortunately for the Thunder, Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul have fit seamlessly together, earning them the fifth-best record in the Western Conference.
4. Brandon Ingram – New Orleans Pelicans
Like Gilgeous-Alexander, Brandon Ingram’s stats improved after the Lakers traded him in the off-season. Ingram, alongside Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and multiple first-round draft picks, was shipped to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Anthony Davis.
While Ingram’s minutes have remained the same, he became the Pelicans’ first scoring option throughout this season. In that role, he increased his numbers to 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Though his field goal percentage dropped to 46.6 percent, Ingram was able to raise his three-point percentage to 38.7 percent and his free-throw percentage to 85.8 percent.
Ingram’s development was evident to the basketball world, earning him his first trip to the All-Star Game. If he continues to develop his game and sustain this production, he’ll have more All-Star appearances in the future.
3. Devonte’ Graham – Charlotte Hornets
When Kemba Walker left the Charlotte Hornets to join the Boston Celtics in 2019, the Hornets needed players to fill his minutes. Point guard Terry Rozier received a lot of playing time after signing a three-year deal with Charlotte last summer, but it was backup Devonte’ Graham who was finally given a real opportunity to play in his second season.
After only scoring 4.7 points in 14.7 minutes per game in his rookie season, Graham scored 18.2 points in 35.1 minutes per game in his sophomore year. This marked a huge jump in production for Graham and made him this season’s front runner for Most Improved Player. On top of his scoring, Graham was also able to get his teammates involved by averaging 7.5 assists per game. Not only did he crack the league’s top 10 in assists per game this season, but Graham showed off his shooting range by making 37.3 percent of his threes.
Graham was a bright spot for the Hornets, and he helped keep them competitive throughout the season. Still, he missed out on being a top-two candidate for this award largely due to his poor shooting from the field. Though his mark of 38.2 percent was a 3.9 percent uptick from last season, it wasn’t enough to top the following two candidates.
2. Bam Adebayo – Miami Heat
When Jimmy Butler signed with the Miami Heat, he put pressure on some of the Heat’s young players to help lead the team back to the playoffs. While players such as Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson found their roles, Bam Adebayo established himself as the team’s second option behind Butler.
Adebayo took advantage of becoming a full-time starter this season, earning his first All-Star nod and displaying his talent and versatility. He nearly doubled his scoring, bringing his average up to 16.2 points per game. Adebayo also grabbed more rebounds with 10.5 per game and dished out more assists with 5.1 per game. Not only that, but he made his presence known on the defensive end by averaging more than one steal and one block per game.
Adebayo’s game has few weaknesses, though he could expand his shooting range and improve his free-throw shooting. In the end, he could end up winning this award.
1. Luka Doncic – Dallas Mavericks
Speaking of special performances, enter Luka Doncic. After winning Rookie of the Year last season, it seemed as though Doncic set the bar too high to contend for this award. But even after averaging 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and six assists last season, Doncic averaged 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists this year. Not only that, but he boosted his efficiency by shooting 46.1 percent from the field.
Beyond his individual success, Doncic helped the Dallas Mavericks improve as well. The team has effectively secured a playoff spot heading into the final eight games of the season, which would mark their first postseason appearance since 2016. The Mavericks are currently slated as the seventh seed in the West, but they could move up in the standings with a strong performance in August.
Like some of the other candidates on this list, Doncic was voted into his first All-Star Game this season. However, unlike the other candidates, Doncic was named an All-Star starter. Furthermore, he’s in line for a top-five finish in the league’s MVP voting. Doncic took a giant leap forward this season, catapulting himself into discussions about the league’s top players. He deserves to be the favorite to take home the Most Improved Player Award.