Every year many NBA players will take that next step in their athletic careers. Sometimes this step is the development from a bench warmer to a rotational player, or a rotational player to a starter, but the Most Improved Player award winners are almost always players who become stars. Last year’s winner, C.J. McCollum was not even a starter for the 2015 Trailblazers, but that didn’t stop him from averaging over 20 points per game for the Blazers in 2016. Here are some candidates for the award this season.
8) Justise Winslow
Justise Winslow is going to have to improve a lot from last season to this one to be in contention, but if his offense took the massive strides they needed to make his youth, physical attributes, and new role on the Het allow for Winslow to be the Most Improved. Winslow got 2.7 defensive win shares last season, but they were offset by his -0.2 offensive ones. Winslow, however, got better offensively when the playoffs started, and he played good in the Heat offense and defense – getting offensive and defensive ratings of 104 and 102, and he nearly doubled his win share rate from the regular season to the playoffs as well (.054 to .101 per 48 minutes.) Winslow has great size (6’7″ and 225 pounds,) talent (13th best high school recruit in 2014, 10th overall in 2015,) and guidance (Pat Riley’s Heat organization.) All of these things will be what makes Justise Winslow the team’s new Dwyane Wade. If not just Wade, Winslow has to replace the perimeter scoring provided by Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, and possibly Chris Bosh. It’s a lot to ask of someone who only verged 6.4 points in 28.6 minutes per game last year, but Winslow has the potential.
7) Dante Exum
Dante Exum missed all of last season due to an unfortunate injury in 2015, but Exum is back this season. Exum didn’t show too much his rookie season, as he only averaged 4.8 points and 2.4 assists per game in his rookie season. Exum, however, was just 19 years old, and without nearly the quality of weapons he now has to work with. Exum is now the playmaker for a vast array of highly talented players like George Hill, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors, Trey Lyles, Boris Diaw, and Rudy Gobert. He has great length at 6’6″ for a point guard, and he still has that 5th overall pick potential from when he was drafted in 2014. If Exum used his time away from in-game action to improve his shot and get better, then he is a very legitimate candidate for Most Improved.
6) T.J. Warren
T.J. Warren is on the path to becoming a high level scoring wing. Last season he nearly doubled his scoring from his rookie season from 6.1 to 11.0. He showed that with good minutes, he was a high level scorer. Warren shot 50.1% from the field and 40.0% from three, so the efficiency is there as well. In four games as a starter, Warren averaged 15.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in 30.7 minutes per game on 50.0% shooting. In the six games Warren got 30-39 minutes, he averaged 18.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals in 34.8 minutes per game on 53.8% shooting and 44.4% from three. With Jared Dudley aging, P.J. Tucker declining, and Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender needing serious development to be NBA ready, at least one of the starting forward spots belongs to Warren, especially if the Suns elect to play Devin Booker at guard. It all depends on whether or not Warren falls in favor with head coach Earl Watson.
5) Myles Turner
Myles Turner is a risky pick for most improved player, but the talent is definitely there. Turner averaged 10.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game as just a teenager (19 years old) last season. Looking at some of these huge efforts from Turner, it is hard not to be excited for his future:
Turner showed big game potential so many times at such a young age. With the head coach who developed LaMarcus Aldridge into a star in Portland now as his own head coach, the hype is real for Turner, who is the type of player from the same college program as well in University of Texas. The only challenge Turner might face in the pursuit of the MIP award is playing enough minutes for Indiana with Thaddeus Young, Lavoy Allen, Al Jefferson, Jeremy Evans, and Paul George set to have a legitimate role on Indiana.
4) Clint Capela
Clint Capela is a very good choice for Most Improved Player. He is only 22 years old and he already is playing at a high level off the bench. Capela’s win share rate (.144 per 48 minutes,) offensive and defensive ratings (114 and 104,) and PER (18.3) show incredible efficiency. With Dwight Howard gone, and Capela now the clear-cut best center on the team, we can expect big things from the featured big man on the fastest team in the NBA.
3) Nikola Mirotic
There’s no denying that Nikola Mirotic took a step back last season. He showed so much as a rookie, and his improvement was marginal if existant at all. Mirotic has been a streaky shooter the past two seasons, but his 39.0% from behind the arc last season is critical for his role this season. The Bulls made major roster changes in the offseason, and while Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, and Robin Lopez were all great acquisitions, they cannot shoot the three ball. Mirotic’s presence in the starting line-up is imperative for sufficient floor spacing – he will play big minutes. Well, when Mirotic got 30-39 minutes in a game last season, which happened 13 times, he averaged 22.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.0 blocks in 35.3 minutes per game on 48.7% shooting and 46.5% from three. Those numbers are incredible, and Mirotic is enterring a traditionally successful third season, where he now has a year of experience under coach Hoiberg. Mirotic is also playing with a league leader in assists in Rajon Rondo, and most of Mirotic’s three pointers will come off the assist. Expect big things from Mirotic this season, especially now that Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol are gone.
2) Dennis Schroeder
Dennis Schroeder has to be a candidate for the Most Improved Player simply because of all the additional minutes he is set to receive this season with the trade of starting point guard Jeff Teague. Schroeder, however, has been very good in his own right. The 22 year old averaged 19.5 points, 7.8 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes last season. In the playoffs, it was 22.1 points, 6.8 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per 36 minutes on 45.2% shooting. While Schroeder is considered to be a ball-dominant player, the Hawks played better as a team with him on the court; they outscored their opponents by 6.9 points per 100 possessions with Schroeder on the court – 5.5 points better than the mark without Schroeder. In the three games Schroeder played 30-39 minutes last season, he averaged 15.7 points, 5.7 assists, 4.3 rebounds, and only 1.0 turnovers in 33.0 minutes per game on 44% shooting. The sample size is small, but the production within it is there.
1) Enes Kanter
Enes Kanter is probably the front runner for the award at this point based on history. Kanter was unbelievable off the bench last season; His averages of 12.7 points per game and 8.1 rebounds would already be decent for a starter, but he averaged those in just 21.0 minutes per game off the bench! Kanter also shot 57.6% from the field, 47.6% from three, had a PER of 24.0, and he had an offensive rating of 123. His 8.1 win shares were 5th among centers in the NBA behind DeAndre Jordan (11.5,) Hassan Whiteside (10.3,) Al Horford (9.4,) and Karl Towns (8.3.) Now Serge Ibaka is gone, as is Kevin Durant, and Kanter figures to be the starting power forward and the 2nd offensive option to Russell Westbrook. The Thunder were in this situation when Durant was injured in 2014-2015. The result? Kanter averaging 18.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game on 56.6% shooting. Kanter is also two seasons more developed and matured since then, so watch out for the Turkish big man this season.