Written by: Jordan Vitkauskas
We’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. Teams have started to separate themselves in the standings and a rough sketch of a playoff picture is starting to form. Additionally, many of the award races are starting to gain traction, from Most Valuable Player to Defensive Player of the Year. One award race that is extremely interesting and loaded with great choices is the battle for the Most Improved Player. With certain roster moves made in the offseason by teams, the players below have taken advantage of extra minutes, touches and overall freedom have breakout years and help make a name for themselves. Let’s take a look at some of the NBA’s top candidates for the award through the first quarter…
Honorable mentions: Buddy Hield, Jaylen Brown, Luke Kennard
Fred VanVleet, Raptors
VanVleet had his official coming out party last June in the Finals against the Warriors, where he averaged 14 points and shot 40% from three-point range during the Raptors six-game series win.
This year VanVleet has continued that strong play, averaging career-highs in points (18.0), assists (7.0), rebounds (3.8), three-point percentage (39.5%) and free-throw mark (87.6%) for the 16-8 Raptors squad. He’s doing so while playing 36.6 minutes per game, good for sixth-highest in the league. VanVleet is one of the biggest reasons that Toronto’s title defense is off to a good start, as his improved playmaking, and outside shooting have helped the Raptors rank in the top five as a team in three-point shooting and high up in other offensive categories. VanVleet set the tone on the first night of the season, posting a career-high 34 points in an overtime win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
When Toronto’s beloved Kyle Lowry went down for 11 games with a thumb injury early in November, it was VanVleet taking on even more responsibility, as he upped his scoring to 21.2 points per game on 44/40/84* shooting lines in that time frame. Not so coincidentally, the Raptors went 9-2 in that span, with wins over the Lakers, Blazers, Sixers, and Jazz. The 25-year-old graduate from Wichita State has proven he can sustain his strong play and is one of many reasons the Raptors will not be an easy out come playoff time.
Devonte’ Graham, Hornets
Graham comes in as the complete surprise of this group. The second-year pro from Kansas is averaging 20.0 points, 7.6 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game this season, up from his 4.7/2.6/1.4 line as a rookie. Graham is shooting 42.9% from three (18th in the NBA) and has helped the Hornets to an 11-16 start, which has them almost halfway to their projected win total of 23.5 after just two months of games.
Graham combines a nice balance of speed and control, and is a threat to launch from deep coming off of any pick and roll. He had his official statement game just two nights ago when he dropped a career-high 40 points (12-21 FG, 7-12 3PT) in a road win against the Brooklyn Nets. Graham showcased his entire arsenal in that comeback victory, taking bigger defenders off the dribble, using an array of floaters and twisting layups in the paint and of course, nailing big three-pointers to seal it late.
Terry Rozier was supposed to be the top scoring option on a team lacking in scoring, and even Dwayne Bacon was starting at the other guard spot to being the year. That didn’t stop Graham, who scored 47 combined points in the first two games and eventually played his way into the starting lineup for good on Nov. 13 against Memphis. He’s averaged over 20 points since becoming a starter and looks to be firmly in the race for Most Improved Player.
Bam Adebayo, Heat
I’ll admit I hadn’t thought about Adebayo much during the first few weeks of the season. I knew he was a high-energy rebounder who could finish easy shots around the rim, but with Jimmy Butler. Tyler Herro and the undrafted Kendrick Nunn, the Heat had plenty of fun stories to begin the season. However, Adebayo has played his way into the Most Improved conversation, and as one of the Heat’s three-best players in recent weeks. His best game came just the other night in an overtime win against the Hawks, where he recorded his first career triple-double of 30 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists on 13-18 shooting from the field.
Abedayo is one of three players averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and a steal per game, along with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns. That’s not a bad crowd to be in. He’s tied for fourth in Defensive Win Shares (1.6), sixth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (4.6), and 10th in total Win Shares (3.3). Pat Riley and the Heat felt Adebayo was ready for increased minutes, so they dealt Hassan Whiteside to Portland this past offseason. The move paid off, as Miami now sits at 18-6 on the season, including a stellar 11-0 at home, and looks like an actual contender.
Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
The Lakers had seen flashes of great potential from Ingram during his first three seasons in the NBA. The lanky forward from Duke showcased an ability to handle the ball and run an offense in spurts, and his defense and shooting were slowly coming along. All of that has been on display and then some since being acquired by New Orleans in the megadeal that sent Anthony Davis to the Lakers to play with LeBron James.
Ingram has upped his averages to nearly 25 points, seven rebounds, and four assists a game this year, with the biggest factor being his improved shooting. From the three-point line, he’s jumped from 0.6 makes on 1.8 attempts (33%) a game last year, to 2.3 makes on 5.7 attempts (40.8%) this season.
Ingram is adding almost six more points a game from beyond the arc and is doing so at a rate that puts him in the top 30 of all qualified players his year. That’s the type of development the Lakers were looking for when they took him with the second overall pick on the 2016 draft. Additionally, he’s getting to the line about the same amount as last season (5.6 attempts last season to 5.5 attempts this year) but has vastly improved to a mark of 84.5%, up from 67.5% a year ago. The Pelicans haven’t gotten off to the best start, currently tied for the third-worst record at 6-19, but Ingram has been one of the few bright spots and continues to expand his game even more as the season progresses.
*Feature image courtesy of The Score.
*All stats are from Basketball-Reference, ESPN.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
*All statistics are updated as of 12/12/2019
*All video highlights are courtesy of YouTube.
*Shooting splits (i.e. 44/40/37) are in order of FG%/3PT%/FT%.