After an eventful holiday season, the NBA now enters its middle third. With Christmas in the rearview, teams and players will push forward to the All-Star break over the next month-and-a-half.
Over the last two weeks, many of the candidates for the year’s awards turned in performances that could help or hurt their positioning. Joel Embiid turned in his best defensive performance of the season on Christmas, holding current MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo to his least efficient game of the year.
There were also a few Most Improved candidates in action that helped or hurt their case.
The last two check-ins for this award have featured the same five players. That changes here, as a certain Boston Celtic has plowed into the competition after a string of impressive contests. This player will replace Pascal Siakam on this list, as the Raptor will be missing time with an injury and will now likely fall short of his quest for back-to-back Most Improved awards.
Here is the list as it stands in the first week of the new decade.
5. Jaylen Brown
The aforementioned Boston Celtic is none other than Jaylen Brown, who has been coming into his own in his fourth NBA season. The swingman is now up to 20 points per game on the best efficiency of his career. He has been a key cog in the Celtics strong first third of the season.
Brown’s most noticeable improvement has come around the rim. He is finishing 68 percent of his attempts at the rim and converting on 51 percent of his attempts that are classified as short mid-range shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Those numbers are up from 63 percent and 41 percent last season, respectively.
His three-point shooting has also returned to the 40 percent mark after last year’s down season. In other words, he has been a scoring threat from all over the court.
Brown’s passing is still a weak part of his game, but his assist percentage has risen to 11 percent after hovering in the 7-8 percent range the three previous seasons.
His defense has not fallen off despite the increased workload. He is pesky and strong on the perimeter and can bother wings that can’t beat him with their quickness. Brown’s two-way efforts will garner him deserved all-star consideration. If they continue all season, he will be a major factor for this award as well.
4. Brandon Ingram
Brown’s fellow 2016 draftee Brandon Ingram has also been on a hot streak as of late and continues to be one of the major players for this honor. The Pelicans as a team are in the midst of a four-game winning streak that has featured wins over the Nuggets, Pacers and Rockets.
Ingram has been stellar over the last two weeks, continuing his run of efficient scoring that he hasn’t been able to achieve until this point in his career.
Here is an extremely cherry-picked stat just for fun — Ingram’s current averages of 25.3 points, 7 rebounds and 3.9 assists on 55 percent effective field goal percentage have only been achieved by the following players for a full season: Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl Anthony-Towns.
Regardless of how meaningless that stat actually is, Ingram is having a fantastic season and should merit serious consideration for Most Improved.
3. Luka Doncic
The Slovenian wunderkind is still doing his thing in Dallas even after missing a few games with an ankle sprain.
Last game in a loss vs. the Charlotte Hornets, Doncic recorded a 39-point, 12-rebound, 10-assist triple-double. In a recent win against the Brooklyn Nets, Doncic put up the line of 31 points, 13 rebounds and 7 assists to carry the Mavericks over the Nets while Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. missed the game due to injury.
His passing genius and scoring improvements have been talked about ad nauseam in this space, so we’ll spare you the gushing. Also mentioned before is the fact that Doncic’s MVP candidacy could overshadow his push for Most Improved, so this could be all for naught.
Whether he gets respect for his herculean leap from voters remains to be seen, but it’s looking very likely that he will be a fixture on this list all season.
2. Bam Adebayo
Coming in at number two is the center who has emerged as a driving force behind a defensive powerhouse in South Beach.
Adebayo has not only anchored one of the league’s best defensive outfits but has also excelled as a lob threat and developed a solid face-up game on the offensive end.
It’s been mentioned before, but Adebayo is stunningly quick for a player with his build. He has mastered the art of the jab step and has left good defensive centers feeling foolish as he dashes around them for a layup.
The Miami HEAT are five points better per 100 possessions defensively with Adebayo on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. This is thanks to his ability to dissuade opponents from going to the rim. Opponents attempt only 31 percent of their shots at the basket with Adebayo on the court compared to 38 percent when he rests.
His ability to wall off the paint has been invaluable to Miami’s defensive strategy this season.
A large part of Adebayo’s improvement has come in the little things, like his defensive awareness and rolling off of screens. Due to his lack of eye-catching numbers, he might not receive the same consideration as some of the others on this list.
If the HEAT keep winning and Adebayo continues performing at this level, there could be some more voters looking his way.
1. Devonte’ Graham
Who else? Graham has not slowed down at all this season after bursting onto the scene in mid-October. He has been the driving force behind Charlotte staying somewhat competitive and has even shown a clutch gene to boot.
Graham’s impressive leap has not only been in pure basketball ability, but in his mentality on the court as well. Graham plays with a chip on his shoulder fit only for a player who was passed on by 30 NBA teams before being drafted in the second round.
His passing has also been a weapon for the Hornets as Graham has had double-digit assists in five of his last six games. His offensive play has even prompted some All-Star buzz.
It is unlikely that he will make the team given the number of high-quality guards in the Eastern Conference, but that fact that he could even receive a vote is impressive considering where he was last season.
There is not much more to say for Graham that hasn’t been said, so enjoy the video of his dagger against Cleveland from just the other night.
That is an audacious shot to take, but Graham took it and Graham made it. There will probably be many more to come.
That wraps up this look at the Most Improved players in the league. Check back at Basketball Insiders for updates on the race for every award this season.
In the Hunt: Pascal Siakam (get well soon), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, Malcolm Brogdon, Jonathan Isaac (get well soon), Aron Baynes, Devin Booker, Domantas Sabonis, Davis Bertans, Richaun Holmes