Early Season Candidates for Most Improved Player of the Year
Writer: Noah Magaro-George
The obstacles of a rookie season in the NBA are enough to give even the most talented newcomers a massive headache. As if adjusting to the pace and depth of the league wasn't challenging enough on its own, blossoming standouts must carry the burdens of newfound fame, endless travel, and unfair expectations from desperate fanbases ready to lash out at the first signs of weakness.
Adjustment periods can string out over years and many players never hit their stride. We're just two weeks into the grind of an 82-game campaign, and it's much too early to predict who might take home the honor, but let's go ahead and do this thing anyway.
Usually, there are only a handful of legitimate candidates for Most Improved Player of the Year. However, this season has been a bit of an anomaly. Countless promising starlets have separated themselves from the pack, and each is hungry to plant their flag in the NBA landscape.
Victor Oladipo ran away with the award last season. Which players are ready to take the biggest leaps in 2018-2019? Let’s find out.
8. Derrick White PG San Antonio Spurs
Bear with me on this one. I know Derrick White is nursing a serious heel injury and hasn't played a single minute in the NBA in 2018-2019. Still, I can't help but put my trust in the smooth-scoring combo guard out of Colorado.
White was quietly a force to be reckoned with in the preseason and absolutely picked apart his Summer League competition. The second-year stud stuffed the stat sheet with averages of 14-4-4-1-1 over nine contests. All that while seeing just 23 minutes of action each night.
It was assumed White would fill in for defensive stalwart Dejounte Murray in the starting five once the latter tore his ACL, but the injury bug bit once more and forced a change of plans in San Antonio. While third-stringer Bryn Forbes has performed quite nicely as a replacement, there's no question who should man the point guard position once Derrick returns.
He suited up for only 17 games last season and he'll probably be on a minutes restriction for his first few outings. Once he gets his legs beneath him, he'll have a chance to show off the fruits of his labor. Though White's playmaking ability is miles ahead of his incumbent, his underrated defense is what the Spurs will need most to stay afloat in the Western Conference.
7. Jarrett Allen C Brooklyn Nets
Jarrett Allen might be the one reason to get excited if you're a Brooklyn Nets fan. He isn't old enough to drink and his game is incredibly raw, but the gifted big man has shown flashes of his huge potential on a nightly basis.
The lanky center added muscle to his 6-foot-11 frame and extended his range in the offseason, and it's already paying off. On top of taking and making more three-pointers, Allen is swatting an impressive 2.3 shots per game this season. His numbers may not reflect his progress, but the tale of the tape will show you the truth.
Despite playing in a major market, Allen has flown under the radar on a miserable Nets squad. Don't expect that to last too much longer. He has all the tools to transform into a two-way star, and the strides he's made are becoming more and more apparent each and every day.
6. Brandon Ingram SF Los Angeles Lakers
Brandon Ingram made a solid case for the honor last year, and he was my favorite to win the award heading into this season. One four-game suspension combined with a disappointing stat-line and suddenly there's cause for pause on my initial prediction.
Los Angeles doesn't appear to be a title contender thus far. Lucky for them, there's plenty of time to right the ship. 75 games remain on the Lakers schedule and I have faith they'll make a breakthrough. However, I'm not quite sold on the idea that BI is ready to take the next step.
The third-year forward continues to look like a player searching for an identity. Is he a scorer, a playmaker, a defender, all of the above? I don't know and I'm not sure he does either. It'd be nice to see him assert himself on offense a bit more, but I can understand how playing alongside LeBron might intimidate a 21-year-old.
One area I've been very impressed with is his development as a stopper. After failing to average a steal or block in his first two seasons, Ingram has burst onto the defensive scene with averages of 1.3 steals and nearly two blocks. What's more impressive is the fact his output has come in the fewest minutes per game in his short career.
My expectations were high and three games are an awfully small sample size. With that said, I've seen enough of the Lakers to know this roster is too crowded to offer him the statistical growth the award voters will inevitably be looking for.
5. Taurean Prince SF Atlanta Hawks
The Atlanta Hawks have cleared house in the past few seasons and former first-rounder Taurean Prince has emerged as a building block for the future of the franchise. Unfortunately for the skilled forward, he's off to a slow start.
Foul trouble, turnovers and poor shooting have marred what was supposed to be a breakout season for Prince. His high usage has boosted his per game numbers, but the truth is he hasn't been all that good. Although I expect his shooting percentages to rise towards the mean as the year carries on, I can't make any promises.
While Prince has mostly relied on his size and athleticism to find his way to the basket in the NBA, he's a sound spot-up shooter with a few tricky moves in his bag. His court vision isn't on par with his decision making at the moment, but he has a knack for finding the open man when he penetrates the lane.
Atlanta isn't close to contending for a title this year, but they'll need Prince to be assertive if they want to stay competitive. Sheer necessity will gift Prince a pass to fire away. Now whether or not he can knock down his shots successfully is another question altogether.
Prince needs to show us some more consistency if he hopes to put his name in the award conversation. More minutes and more shots alone won't win any competitions. The opportunity is there for the taking, now it's his turn to follow through.
4. Josh Richardson SG Miami Heat
Head coach Erik Spoelstra loves this guy and it's pretty easy to see why. From fringe second-rounder to go to scorer, Josh Richardson is everything you hope for in a player.
A dependable shooter from beyond the arc and a premier on-ball defender, Richardson is quickly climbing into the ranks of the best two-way players in the league. He's no Paul George, but as far as 40th overall picks go, it doesn't get much better than this.
The days of the Heat being one of the better run franchises in the NBA are long gone. Though Miami may be a potential playoff team thanks to the advantage of playing in the lackluster Eastern Conference, don't let that fool you into believing they're special.
It's a circus down in South Beach, but Richardson is one of their few bright spots. In spite of the fact his efficiency has been hot and cold, don't blame J-Rich. It's not his fault the Heat need him to jack up 17 shots a game.
On a more positive note, Richardson's added 7 more points to his per game averages from a year ago and I wouldn't be surprised if that number continued to rise. Miami's roster is full of role players and devoid of true stars, so it should come as no surprise if he ends up leading the Heat in scoring.
3. Nikola Mirotic PF New Orleans Pelicans
Nikola Mirotic is one of the more surprising names on this list. Unlike the rest of the candidates, Mirotic is nearing his 30th birthday with several solid seasons under his belt.
Like I mentioned earlier, everyone finds their path to success on their own unique timeline. As for Mirotic, it just so happens to be in his fifth season on his second team.
The sharpshooting power forward was sent the Pelicans before the trade deadline last season to make up for the loss of All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins. He was supposed to complement Anthony Davis by spacing the floor but never found a consistent rhythm from downtown.
With former Laker Julius Randle joining the frontcourt mix in free agency, few people predicted Mirotic would see the ball as much as he did last year. Well, surprise! He's not only averaging a career-high 22.7 points per game through two weeks, but he's also playing a career-high 30.0 minutes per game too.
In an award field typically dominated by the youngest players the association has to offer, the Montenegrin stretch-four isn't your traditional contestant. Although he's definitely an outlier, don't count him out.
2. De’Aaron Fox PG Sacramento Kings
There's not a whole lot to say here. De'Aaron Fox is a considerably better player than a year ago. He still struggles to shoot the long-ball, but additional muscle and patience have allowed the athletic guard to finish at the rim and make the right passes.
The second-year speedster's per game stats are up across the board and his Sacramento Kings are above .500 with a 5-3 record. I doubt they can maintain their team success, but Fox should continue to thrive as long as the rock remains in his hands.
Fox is finally beginning to look like the player the Kings thought they were drafting in 2017. There's a genuine possibility Sacramento's floor general can add his first NBA hardware to his trophy case by year's end. Even if he doesn't, I have a sneaking suspicion an All-Star appearance is in his future.
1. Zach LaVine SG Chicago Bulls
If there were any concerns about the health of Zach LaVine heading into the season, those worries can be thrown out the window. The high-flying shooting guard is back to printing posters and draining threes, but this time he's doing it with stunning efficiency.
Thanks to a scorching start, LaVine has a shooting split of 52-39-82 through seven games. If you thought that was unbelievable, take into consideration he's accomplishing this while averaging 28.1 points per night on just 18.4 shots.
It'd be unrealistic for him to sustain such ridiculous percentages for 82 games. However, hanging around the vicinity of those numbers isn't impossible. Though the instinctual scorer has never been the best at passing up a contested jumper, he's picking and choosing his shots wisely this season.
The Bulls put a leash on him last year, but they've clearly set him free. He has the green light to shoot and Chicago doesn't have a better option to score the ball. They'd be wise to keep him in the gameplan even when talented sophomore Lauri Markkanen returns from injury.
I would have laughed if you told me Zach LaVine had a chance to win the scoring title before the season started. Now, I'm not so sure it's that farfetched.
He isn't just a threat to steal the scoring crown, he's the outright favorite to win Most Improved Player of the Year and it really isn't close. It's his award to lose, but I doubt he will.