Only one player each season is ultimately recognized for taking his game to new levels, but of course in reality the NBA’s Most Improved Player award is but the tip of the iceberg. As we saw last year, Golden State’s Monta Ellis (an ETB favorite) deserved the honor, but so did Sactown’s Kevin Martin.
Just like the annual MVP and ROY races, there’s usually multiple candidates one could make a legitimate case for as being most deserving of the MIP award. But though we’ve recently talked up Kobe vs. LeBron and Durant vs. Horford, for this piece we’re not as much interested in picking the most improved player, but simply listing seven guys who’ve made significant strides compared to previous campaigns.
Players are listed in no particular order, and as always we invite you to weigh in on our picks or add your own in the comments.
Rajon Rondo, PG, Boston Celtics
There’s perhaps been no other player under the gun this season as much as Rajon Rondo. He’s experienced a massive change of scenery without even switching teams: in the span of two short months, his Celtics transformed from one of the youngest, worst teams in the NBA to a veteran squad with one and only one goal in mind: to win a championship now. Heading into just his second professional season and still only 21-years-old, Rondo suddenly had the weight of expectation on his shoulders and the pressure of not holding back, or at least slowing down, his star-crossed trio of All-Star teammates. He hasn’t disappointed.
Rajon Rondo Photo Credit: Icon SMI
The I-Just-Drank-a-Two-Liter-of-Jolt-fast Rondo has upped his production in every major statistical category except free-throwing shooting, which isn’t much of a detriment to his game anyway since he’s attempting less than 3/per. He’s had solid games and he’s had big games, but his ballsy performance on March 5 against renewed-rival Detroit Pistons is the one that likely stands out amongst the Celtics faithful. He nagged and refused to back down from the bigger, stronger Chauncey Billups, hit some big shots, and brought the house down on a thunderous, where’d-that-come-from dunk that saw him blow by a lead-footed Rip Hamilton and throw it down with authority over Jason Maxiell, who’s usually the giver, not the receiver, of posterizations. You get the feeling that this kid hasn’t even come close to reaching his full potential.
Hedo Turkoglu, F, Orlando Magic
The Magic expected their frontcourt to significantly improve this season following the big free-agent signing of Rashard Lewis, but while he’s given this team a much-needed perimeter threat who can flat out score, the rise of Turkoglu could be considered even more important. Now in his eighth NBA season, the 6-10 Turk has become the Magic’s crunchtime assassin, its go-to guy when they need a big bucket, and without his consistent production this team might not be ready to clinch the Southeast Division as early as they are.
Turkoglu has averaged double-digits in scoring over every season of his four-year Magic career, but the 19.6/per he’s putting up this year is a full five-point jump over his previous high in 2005/06. This is first time he’s ever averaged 2 three-pointers and 6+ boards, and his 4.9 assists actually leads his team; I’m not sure that’s a testament to his versatility or an indictment of the Jameer Nelson/Carlos Arroyo trainwreck-combo at PG (probably a little of both). Given the Magic’s overall team improvement and the bigtime games Turkoglu has routinely turned in—his 24 points, 15 boards, 6 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block game on November 7 at Toronto stands out—Turkoglu will likely garner serious consideration for the NBA’s 2008 Most Improved Player Award.
Five more of the NBA’s most improved players after the jump…
Anthony Carter, PG, Denver Nuggets
It’s unlikely this 32-year-old basketball vagabond was George Karl’s preferred choice as his starting point guard, but after being out of the league for a year Carter has been solid and is by all accounts having the best season of his nine-year career. After Denver cut him last season, Carter packed his bags and played in Italy for Legea Scafati Basket before rejoining and ultimately making the Nuggs’ roster this year. With presumed starter Chucky Atkins sidelined and Karl loathe to move Allen Iverson over to the point, Carter was given a trial run as the starter in late November and has stuck.
Carmelo Anthony and A.I. handle the bulk of the scoring responsibilities; Carter is asked to simply get the ball rolling/moving, limit his turnovers, and keep his defender honest by knocking down open shots. The results thus far have been a minor revelation: career highs in per-game averages for field-goal shooting (45%), points (8), assists (6), steals (1.5), and rebounds (3.1). Other players may be putting up more gaudy stats, but Carter’s improvement and steadying presense has been crucial to Denver’s playoff chances.
Dwight Howard, C, Orlando Magic
Man Child is the second member of a resurgent Orlando Magic squad to make this list, and it’s not a coincidence. Dwight has developed into the most dominant pure center in the NBA this season, which has freed up Orlando’s outside shooters and allowed them to have some of the finest seasons of their careers (except for JJ Reddick, of course). And with Turkoglu and Lewis playing so well outside, when teams have to chase them down Dwight eats his puny man coverage alive.
Most people are loathe to include a player of Howard’s caliber in any “Most Improved” discussions, but Superman has improved on last year’s solid performance by leaps and bounds. The statistics that follow tell the story of a dominant big man who has come into his own, and after watching a few Orlando games the visual evidence confirms the vast improvement. His defensive timing and footwork are vastly improved, his low-post moves more polished and his increased consistency and flow within the offense has been impressive.
Dwight is grabbing an NBA-best 14.5 rebounds per game, up from 12.3 rebounds last season. His scoring has gone from 17.6 points to 21.8 on less than two more field-goal attempts a night. On defense he’s committing fewer fouls while grabbing more steals and blocking 2.4 shots per game (up from 1.9 blocks a year ago). Despite the increased workload on offense, defense and the glass, Howard’s FG% has remained astronomically high (60.4% this season after 60.3% last year). Dwight now leads the NBA in double-doubles by a wide margin with 57 already (Minnesota’s Al Jefferson is second with 46); he had just 60 total last season.
Dwight’s improved play, along with the arrival of Rashard Lewis, has led to considerable team success as well. Orlando currently holds a .636 winning percentage on the season, up from .488 last season, and have the third-best record in the East behind only conference powerhouses Detroit and Boston.
Dwight Howard Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Andrew Bynum, C, Los Angeles Lakers
Simply based on the play we’ve seen this season, Andrew Bynum and the aforementioned Dwight Howard could end up being the two best centers in the NBA over the next 7 or 8 years. We shouldn’t let the unfortunate knee injury obscure the extraordinary improvement we’ve seen out of young Bynum this season. Just this summer he was considered a long-term project, one so unlikely to help the present-day Lakers that Kobe Bryant publicly bemoaned Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak’s refusal to include him in a deal for rapidly aging PG Jason Kidd. Kudos to Kupchack for recognizing the potential in a kid who was just 20-years-old at the time.
The most startling thing about Bynum’s game this year has been the efficiency and the ability to produce with and without the ball in his hands—critical skills for any teammate of Kobe Bryant. Though technically no longer eligible for the FG% crown, Bynum had led the league at 63.6%, up from 55.8% in 2006-07. His playing time increased this season to 29 minutes a contest, and yet his turnovers only went from 1.4/per to a still-nominal 1.5 per game. Meanwhile, his scoring, rebounding and shot-blocking has nearly doubled this year, going from 7.8 points, 5.9 boards and 1.6 swats last year to 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per this year.
Even more impressive, in 25 games as a starter Bynum put up an All-Star caliber line of 14.6 points, 10.7 boards, 2.3 blocks and just 1.7 TOs on 65.6% FGs. And aside from the raw stats, he’s been visibly more confident and smooth on the offensive end in being fully capable of keeping the ball swinging in the triangle, while also playing solid defense on the other end.
Beno Udrih, PG, Sacramento Kings
Udrih has been a point of contention for your dear friends here at ETB all season long—not because of anything he has or hasn’t done, but because of the boneheaded move Minnesota T’Wolves GM and Overall Doofus Kevin McHale made involving him. As Andrew and I have become fond of saying during various “NBA Nights” in Brooklyn or during the day over IM, Udrih just wasn’t good enough for Minnesota and thank God they opted for Sebastian Telfair instead (to be fair, Bassy has been better than expected, but we’d take Udrih over him 10 times out of 10). As you may or may not know, San Antonio traded Udrih over the summer to Minnesota for a second-round pick, after which he was promptly waived. All he’s done since then is practically step right into Sacramento’s starting lineup and performed so well that Mike Bibby became more expendable than he already was.
Having never averaged more than 14 minutes a night over the course of an entire season, the 6-3 Udrih has exceeded any modest expectations Sacto coach Reggie Theus could have had once Udrih joined debuted on November 10 (ironically enough, against Minnesota). He’s putting up career highs in well, everything, and has been on quite a tear over his past seven games… right after I traded him in the ETB Fantasy Hoops league, of course. Since February 27, the Spurs’ 2004 first-round pick has averaged a massive 21.5 points, 6.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and nearly 57% FG. Again, there’s no room for that kind of production in Minnesota… right, McHale?
Jose Manuel Calderon, PG, Toronto Raptors
He’s fallen off some lately, but just as Calderon benefitted from T.J. Ford’s extended absence earlier in the season, he’s being negatively impacted by Ford’s return. Still, you could make a solid case for the 26-year-old Spainard as the Toronto Raptors’ team MVP this season. Without him, they might be in the middle of the East’s Sub-Mediocre Pack (Chicago, New Jersey, Atlanta, etc) and fighting for a playoff berth instead of just trying to hold onto the 6th seed.
As the NBA’s league leader in assist-to-turnover ratio at 4.94, Calderon has been a model of efficiency especially if you combine that lofty number with his high field-goal (53.2%) and free-throw (92.2%) percentages. He’s also registered an impressive 22 double-doubles; coming into 2007, he’d had only 9 total over his first two seasons. You can bet Calderon is going to fetch a nice chunk of change this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
– Josh Boone, F/C, New Jersey Nets
– Travis Outlaw, F, Portland Trail Blazers
– Jordan Farmar, G, Los Angeles Lakers
– Samuel Dalembert, C, Philadelphia 76ers
– Mike Dunleavy, Jr., F, Indiana Pacers
– John Salmons, G/F, Sacramento Kings
– Sebastian Telfair, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves
– Jason Maxiell, F, Detroit Pistons
– Ronnie Brewer, G, Utah Jazz (Seconded by Brian and Andrew – our bad)
– Chris Paul, PG, New Orleans
– Rudy Gay, F, Memphis Grizzlies
– Chris Kaman, C, Los Angeles Clippers
– Danny Granger, F, Indiana Pacers
– Lamar Odom, F, Los Angeles Lakers
– Monta Ellis, G, Golden State Warriors (Again)