We’re about three weeks out from All-Star Weekend in the NBA, so it’s time to check the temperature on end-of-season awards. Obviously, Most Valuable Player typically garners the most conversation so I thought I’d write about my favorite award, Most Improved Player. One thing that always annoys me as a reader is when a journalist fails to list their specific criteria for each award. Personally, I think the Most Improved Player must: lead their team in at least one major category (points, assists, rebounding, defensive impact, etc.), have drastically improved one weakness of their game from the past, and have helped their team exceed expectations in terms of wins/losses. I know it’s not perfect, but it’s better than blind reasoning. Now let’s get into it. Imagine a guard ranked 5th in the league in scoring, with an average of 30.7 points a game, that shoots less than three 3-pointers per game*. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander blends an “old school” scoring mentality with impeccable footwork, pace, and patience. Not to say that he wasn’t effective the past few years for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but SGA has transcended into superstardom this season. Shai ranks fifth overall in usage among guards (stats per Cleaning the Glass) and is a big reason the Thunder rank 8th in the league in points per game with 116.6*. SGA really thrives when he can get downhill in transition or in the pick & roll. Shai’s ability to finish with either hand is part of what makes him so difficult to guard. He also uses angles and pace to throw off the timing and shot-blocking ability of defenders inside. In this case, SGA is leading his team in points, steals, and free throw percentage. Now, I would say that his “weakness” is his lack of outside shooting ability, but considering he’s shooting a league average of 35.5% from 3 compared to a measly 30.0% in 2021*, he gets a pass. Lastly, I think Shai really has helped Oklahoma City exceed expectations. The Thunder are currently 23-24 and just 2 wins away from being tied for the 6th seed in the jam-packed West.
Moving on to a player who benefited tremendously from a change of scenery is Utah’s Lauri Markkanen. The former 7th overall selection in the 2017 NBA Draft certainly hasn’t struggled during his career, but I don’t really think anybody expected him to play this well for the Jazz. I mean, he’s averaging 24.8 points per game while shooting 52.1% from the field and 43% from 3*. Markkanen is currently 7th in the league in percentage from behind the line but is tied for most attempts by anybody within the top 15 of the category. Just looking at the stats from Lauri’s season last year with Cleveland compared to this season, his scoring is up by a full 10 points a game, and his rebounding numbers have also increased by a full 3 per night. Markkanen currently leads Utah in scoring, rebounding, 3-point percentage, and free throw percentage. Check. It’s hard to pick one thing he has truly improved. Lauri wasn’t a bad shooter by any means prior to this year. In fact, he actually shot 40% from 3 in 2020. It just seems that Utah is a great fit for the 25-year-old. His confidence is noticeably growing and he’s certainly playing like he’s “the guy”. Nonetheless, I’m picking his scoring ability as the aspect of his game that’s mostly improved. Heading into this season, the Jazz were picked by many to finish close to dead last in not only the Western Conference but the entirety of the NBA. As of right now, Utah is right in the mix for a playoff spot.
The last player who I believe is worthy of most improved is Nic Claxton. Not only is Claxton in consideration for most improved, but he could also win defensive player of the year. Last season, Brooklyn’s defense was…bad. They were the second-worst defensive team in the league last year during the playoffs, with a defensive rating of 121.1. Claxton has been phenomenal on the defensive side of the ball and is currently leading the NBA in blocks per game with 2.7. He’s been a major reason that Brooklyn currently ranks 9th overall in defensive rating. Nets star Kevin Durant recently said “He understands what he has to do to become an impact player every night,” via Erik Slater of ClutchPoints. “Once you figure out your role, the NBA is pretty simple if you put in that work every day. And that’s what he does”. It hasn’t just been defensively for the former 31st pick from Georgia. Claxton is averaging 13.2 points and 8.8 rebounds per game on a league-leading 74.4 FG%(!!!!!!). He’s leading the Nets in multiple categories (rebounding, FG%, blocks), and has helped catapult them into the top 1/3 of the league defensively.
Whether it’s SGA, Lauri Markkanen, Nic Claxton, or somebody else who takes home the award for most improved, it’s always nice to give some credit to players taking the next step in terms of their personal and team success. Unfortunately, I couldn’t include everybody who’s shown tremendous strides this year (Desmond Bane, Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Brunson). As always, thank you for reading, and enjoy the second half of what’s been a wild year of hoops so far.