NBA: 5 Early Candidates For Most Improved Player

It’s far too early to definitively call who could win the NBA’s Most Improved Player, but these five players have built strong cases early.

Nov 23, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz guard George Hill (3) warms up prior to their game against the Denver Nuggets at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Most Improved Player might be one of the weirdest awards the NBA gives out every year. It’s sort of an implied backhanded compliment–a player needs to have a bad year, or at least a quiet one, to be eligible to win MIP the next season.

It’s still a nice award though, especially for those players who have flown under the radar earlier in their careers. It’s also somewhat indicative of talent in a player–recent award winners include C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler and Paul George, among others.

So far in 2016-17, there are a lot of players who seem deserving of some recognition after improving their games over the course of the offseason. The hardware often goes to younger players, although typically voters avoid giving it to NBA sophomores.

That historical trend is taken into account here, as the idea for this piece is to document the players that look to have the best chance to win the award, not to decide who necessarily deserves it.

The following five players look to have a legitimate shot at becoming the NBA’s newest Most Improved Player. Whether they win or not is a different story, but early on these five are looking much better than they did last season.

Oct 16, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler (21) dribbles past Portland Trail Blazers forward Maurice Harkless (4) during the first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Wilson Chandler

This is a tricky one. Wilson Chandler has absolutely been one of the most improved players in the NBA this year, but he didn’t play a single minute last season. That will likely work against him–it’s obviously easy to improve on literally nothing.

Chandler is having a career year, and he would be up for the award if he had never missed a season. His numbers are far and away better this season than in 2014-15, when Chandler last played.

Per 36 Minutes Table
2014-15 78 2471 14.2 .429 5.9 .342 2.1 .775 6.9 2.0 0.8 0.4 1.6 3.4 15.8
2016-17 12 361 17.4 .466 4.5 .311 3.9 .718 8.8 2.0 0.7 0.3 1.9 2.6 20.3
Career 457 14194 14.0 .443 4.4 .339 2.7 .774 6.2 2.0 0.9 0.8 1.7 3.3 16.0
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/23/2016.

Although his three-point percentage is lacking slightly, Chandler is doing better than both his last season and his career average in field goal shooting, points per 36 minutes and free throws attempted per 36 minutes.

Chandler has become more efficient, even though his three-pointers aren’t falling at the moment. He plays on a team not many general NBA fans care about and he’s not the flashiest pick for the award, but Wilson Chandler is looking like a whole new player on the Denver Nuggets this year.

Nov 17, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins (22) against the Philadelphia 76ers at Target Center. The Timberwolves defeated the 76ers 110-86. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Andrew Wiggins

The biggest thing holding back Andrew Wiggins from winning this award might be his draft standing. Wiggins went first overall back in the 2014 NBA Draft and generally first overall picks aren’t ever bad enough to win MIP.

Wiggins’ growth as a scorer has been truly fantastic. His per game scoring went up notably but modestly, from 20.7 points to 24.8 points per game, but the bulk numbers aren’t why Wiggins might be up for the Most Improved Player award.

The uptick in efficiency is what makes Wiggins stand out. His three-point percentage has shot up in the early going, from 30.0 percent on 2.3 attempts per game last season to 44.2 percent on 4.0 threes shot per game this time around.

That’s a huge jump, and one that speaks to all the work Wiggins put in this summer on fixing his shot form. He was a good player last year, but the addition of a real jump shot has completely changed his game and that of the entire Minnesota Timberwolves.

Spacing makes everything easier, and if Wiggins is going to be a shooter the Wolves have a very dangerous trio with him, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine. Minnesota will be able to play Ricky Rubio easier if Wiggins can really shoot, which is huge for that team.

He was never awful, but the leap Andrew Wiggins took this year should at least put him in the Most Improved Player conversation.

Nov 6, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker (12) reacts after scoring during the first quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Jabari Parker

Jabari Parker’s chances at winning Most Improved Player might hinge on how much stock voters put into his rookie season. Parker played just 25 games that year, which certainly counts as a played season.

However, if voters look at that year as barely mattering, then it’s almost like Parker is in his second season, not his third one. And as mentioned earlier, sophomores hardly ever win Most Improved Player–it’s simply expected for players to make a leap from their first year.

Parker has made a massive leap in all parts of his game from his last season. He went from averaging 14.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.7 assists to averaging 19.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists in just under two more minutes per game.

Three-point shooting has become a tool in Parker’s utility belt, as the young cornerstone of the Milwaukee Bucks is drilling 38.5 percent of the 3.0 threes he’s taking per game this year.

The season is still young, and Parker has already made more threes this year than he did in his first two combined!

The sky really looks like the limit for Jabari Parker, but he might end up battling a teammate for this award this season.

Nov 21, 2016; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) makes a steal against Orlando Magic guard D.J. Augustin (14) and forward Jeff Green (34) in the fourth quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo, also known as the Greek Freak, is showing the entire NBA why he’s such a freakish talent this season. Antetokounmpo had a good year last season, but he’s taking his entire game to a new level.

Per Game Table
2015-16 80 35.3 12.7 .506 1.4 .257 5.1 .724 7.7 4.3 1.2 1.4 2.6 3.2 16.9
2016-17 13 35.1 16.5 .493 2.3 .167 6.5 .786 8.5 5.8 2.0 2.2 3.3 3.7 21.8
Career 251 30.7 9.7 .484 1.2 .269 4.2 .726 6.4 3.1 1.0 1.1 2.2 2.9 12.7
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/24/2016.

Antetokounmpo still hasn’t found his stroke from deep, but he hasn’t had any trouble scoring without the three-pointer in his arsenal. All of his per game statistics have risen from the previous year.

Per game averages of 21.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.2 blocks are completely ridiculous. If Antetokounmpo holds up those averages all season, he’ll be the first player in NBA history to manage them for a season.

That’s not just an improvement on his last season, it’s an improvement over anything that’s been done in the NBA to this point! The Greek Freak definitely deserves consideration for MIP based on the crazy jumps he’s making in literally every facet of his game, aside from shooting.

Oct 25, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Utah Jazz guard George Hill (3) dribbles the ball around the key against the Portland Trail Blazers in the first half at Moda Center at the Rose Quarter. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

George Hill

George Hill had spent his first eight seasons with either the San Antonio Spurs or Indiana Pacers, until he got traded to the Utah Jazz this past summer. Hill is probably not too torn up about being dealt, based on the fantastic season he’s having as a Jazzman.

Hill is scoring 20.6 points per game, which signifies the first time in his career he’s averaged more than 20 points. He’s also more efficient than ever before–his field goal percentage of 55.0 and three-point percentage of 44.2 are both career highs.

The biggest concern here might be health. Hill has missed a full half of the Jazz’ first 16 games, and he’ll need to be very healthy over the rest of the season to have a chance to win any awards.

Still, his jumps in scoring and efficiency early on make Hill’s case strong.

Voters for these awards tend to look at scoring first and everything else second, and the eight point jump Hill’s made in per game scoring speaks volumes to how much better he is this season.

Most Improved Player may be a slightly weird award, but hardware is hardware. All five of these players, and plenty of others around the NBA, would be glad to be recognized for making a jump in play this season.

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