Most Improved Player Award: Who deserves it in 2019-20?

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Most Improved player candidates: Bam Adebayo, Brandon Ingram, and Luka Doncic
Most Improved player candidates: Bam Adebayo, Brandon Ingram, and Luka Doncic

Every Sunday from here on out, collaboration articles will be posted with answers from some or all of The 450 Times writers. This week will focus on the NBA’s most improved player and it’s a straightforward question, who should win the award for the 2019-20 season?

Question: At this current point, who is the 2019-20 Most Improved Player?

Jesse Cinquini: Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram’s expeditious ascension into stardom this season did not exactly come as a surprise to those in NBA circles. After all, he tallied 23.3 points per game over a three-week span during his last hoorah with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018-19 before his year was cut tragically short due to a shoulder impingement.

This glimpse of excellence from the slender forward proved to be a harbinger of ensuing success. Now debatably the primary scoring option on the New Orleans Pelicans, Ingram has thrived as the head of the snake in Coach Alvin Gentry’s offense. The 22-year-old is averaging career-highs in points (24.3), rebounds (6.3), assists (4.3), and steals (1.0), all while maintaining exceptional efficiency as both a facilitator and scorer. According to Cleaning the Glass, Ingram ranks in the 84th percentile in points per shot attempt among forwards and 71st in assist to usage ratio. He is shooting 46.6 percent from the field and has knocked down 38.7 percent of his treys. Also, Ingram has exhibited a remarkable level of improvement from the charity stripe. After mustering a free-throw percentage of no better than 68.1 over his first three seasons in the pros, he is up to 85.8 percent on a career-best 5.9 attempts.

A root cause behind the four-year pro’s significant uptick in points correlates to the high volume of three-pointers he is taking and making. Just one year prior, Ingram only let it fly from distance 1.8 times per contest. He has more than tripled that mark this year, as he is attempting 6.3 treys on a nightly basis and burying 2.4 of them. Ingram’s higher output from deep has, in turn, has opened up his driving game. Opponents have to close out harder on Ingram now, and when they do so, he has the option of attacking and maneuvering his way to the rim, where he is shooting 66.9 percent this season.

Despite the number of worthy candidates for the Most Improved Player Award (Jaylen Brown, Bam Adebayo, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander), Ingram is most deserving of the hardware. He is poles apart from the player he was just one year ago. Ingram has served as a reliable go-to scorer all season long, which separates him from the majority of the other candidates.

Brenden Nunes: Luka Doncic

Most Improved is an award that has varying definitions from person to person. I look for what player changed their career projection most significantly compared to where it was heading into the season.

Luka Doncic wins this in a landslide for me. We all knew that Doncic was a force to be reckoned with after he claimed Rookie of the Year over Trae Young. Still, I didn’t any see any predictions near having an MVP candidacy in his second season while quarterbacking a historic level of offense.

Heading into the season, I expected Doncic to be a player that could lead his team. Now, I wholeheartedly believe Luka Doncic can be the best player on a championship team and would bet he reigns atop individually for some time as well.

His Dallas Mavericks are sporting a league-leading 115.8 offensive rating, per NBA.com, while Doncic himself leads all players of meaningful minutes in offensive rating. He has seen increases in counting stats all across the board as well headlined by boosting his scoring total by 7.5 points to sit 6th in the league with 28.7 points per game.

Luka Doncic assist percentage last season was 31.7 percent, outside of the top 20. Only LeBron James leads Doncic’s 44.8 assist percentage. His impact was evident in the third-highest usage rate this season after ranking 14th in usage last season.

Additionally, Doncic increased his rebounding by 1.5 per matchup, assists by 2.7, free throw attempts by 2.4, free throw percentage by 3.9%, field goal percentage at the rim by 11%, and shot 4.1 more total attempts on 3.4 greater effective field goal percentage.

Luka Doncic took the jump from being another star in this league that could carry a team to an eight seed to a likely hall of fame career. Reaching those heights this early on is the more impact than players like Brandon Ingram or Bam Adebayo, who went from rotation players to all-stars. It takes something special on another level to be in contention for the best player in the league, and Doncic has convinced me he will be in those talks sooner rather than later.

Adam Taylor: Jayson Tatum

It’s not every day you see a player begin an actual ascension towards superstardom; sure, players become All-Stars, but not like this, not in such an emphatic manner. Tatum started the season on shaky ground; he was attempting to add new facets to his game, which lead to some poor possessions and unlucky rolls at the rim.

As the season progressed, so did Tatum, Cleaning The Glass has Tatum averaging 59 percent at the rim, 39 percent in the short mid-rand, and 35 percent from the extended mid-range. These statistics show that Tatum was driving more regularly than in previous seasons, using his size and athletic ability to become a force in the lanes, which in turn open up better looks from deep.

Tatum’s newfound willingness to drive the lane and operate as the ball-handler out of the pick-and-roll has elevated him to new heights, forcing defenses into making the hard decisions, which in turn, has resulted in an uptick of double-teams for the newly crowned All-Star.

Synergy has Tatum ranked in the 91st percentile for pick-and-roll ball-handlers, where he ranks fifth in the league for players with 300+ possessions in this play type. Tatum’s statistical production has also increased this year, with him posting career bests in points (23.6 per game), rebounds (7.1 per game) and assists (2.9 per game) according to basketball-reference. Tatum’s ascension has also resulted in him becoming the de facto closer for the Celtics, taking the mantle away from four times All-Star guard Kemba Walker – Boston is Tatum’s team now.

While multiple players around the league have an argument for winning the most improved award, none of them have been so conducive to winning on a deep contending team as Tatum. The growth in Tatum’s game on both ends of the floor has led to him getting touted as a potential superstar of the future, but for right now, he should be the unanimous victor of the most improved player award.

Matt Esposito: Bam Adebayo

Did anyone expect Bam Adebayo to turn into the Eastern Conference version of Nikola Jokic? In his third year for the Heat, Adebayo has turned into an elite playmaker (along with being a defensive anchor) who can create for others from any area of the court. A glimpse of the numbers only strengthens his case for the award.

Last season, Adebayo notched 2.2 assists per game and that number more than doubled to 5.1. During his first two years in the league, Bam tallied just four games with 6 or more assists. He has 26 of those games this year alone. To boot, he ranks in the 98th percentile for assist to usage ratio, according to Cleaning the Glass. These dimes aren’t just meaningless, empty stats, however.

Adebayo’s improvement is extraordinary because he has made others around him better as well. Consider teammate Duncan Robinson, a sniper who has emerged as one of the premier perimeter threats in the NBA. Bam’s ability to perfectly time dribble handoffs with Robinson is a primary reason why the latter is hitting 44.8 percent of his triples this season. The 6–foot-9 center routinely handles the ball in the backcourt and hits teammates on cuts, short rolls, or kick-outs. If you’re wondering why the Heat rank 6th in offensive rating, look no further than Adebayo’s passing revelation.

For context, I plugged a couple of Bam’s numbers into basketball-reference.com’s player season finder tool, intending to find out how many players have averaged at least 57 percent on 2-pointers while dishing at five or more assists. A feat accomplished only 35 times in NBA history. Some names on the list: LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Adebayo is the second youngest to do it at age 22. His combination of efficiency and playmaking is rare and deserves recognition with a Most Improved Player award.

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