NBA’s Most Improved Player Race Is Off To A Hot Start

Updated: November 24, 2019
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One of the NBA’s most arbitrary awards is the Most Improved Player. The criteria for the honor lacks a clear definition and the top candidates are often decided roughly two months into the season by virtue of popular opinion. Players X, Y and Z show about two months of sustained growth (usually in scoring) and their candidacy becomes NBA law.

Deeper dives into the association reveal that many players improve from one year to the next. This season multiple players are making an early case to see this conversation expand for the duration of the season. While scoring is up for most listed here, it’s not the only criteria taken into consideration.

Devonte’ Graham: The Charlotte Hornets were expected to be a floundering team anchored to the East basement with ping-pong balls as the highlight of their future. Graham had other ideas and in the early part of the season has been Charlotte’s best and most important player. At 18.2 points per, 6.9 assists and a robust 41% from three the Hornets have become Graham’s team in the early going. This increase in production is nearly unprecedented, especially considering his meager 4.7 points per game in his rookie season.

Perhaps an early injury to Nicolas Batum has aided his ascension but there isn’t another player on the roster threatening Graham’s minutes as he’s now been moved into the starting lineup. Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges slotted as the building blocks of the roster, but Graham’s development already has some calling for the high-priced and inefficient Rozier to be traded. While rumors of Rozier’s demise might be greatly exaggerated, the tales of Graham’s growth are extremely under-told.

Graham probably would have a shot at both Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved if the Hornets move him back to a bench role. But he’s just been too good and, in some ways, heroic. According to, Graham is tied for 11th in traditional clutch stats and has a game-winner to his credit already this season.

James Harden: The beard has no chance of being considered for Most Improved, but to not mention his success in the early going seems egregious. While his style lacks aesthetic appeal to a large contingent of the NBA public, his historical results seem to spite the negative narrative doused upon him by traditionalist or haters depending on the vantage point.

At age of 30, the former MVP is accumulating point totals that Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain would drop eye emojis at. With his 38.4 points per game many are wondering if Harden could be the game’s first 40 point per game scorer since Chamberlain in 1962-63. What makes Harden’s tear more impressive is that he’s doing it with another MVP on his team in Russell Westbrook. The smart money coming into the season was that Westbrook would have to acquiesce to Harden’s will, but The Beard would still naturally decrease his workload.

Harden is not one for conventional wisdom and his usage rate is at a career-high 40.6% highlighted by a 59-point outburst that garnered very little attention. His efficiency is down to the start the season, but he’s seemed to find a groove in recent weeks that will have him back at career percentages sooner than later.

Luka Doncic: The sheer absurdity of Doncic’s number has him firmly in the breath of Most Improved conversations and in deeper circles—MVP. Second-year players are “supposed” to improve but not by this measure at just 20-years-old. Doncic is staring down averages that many thought a young LeBron James would reach and he’s already established as a nightly triple-double threat. Torching the league to the tune of 29.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 9.4 assists is no small feat for someone not old enough to consume alcohol.

The former Euro League MVP has an assist percentage of 47.3% while elevating his offensive rating from 107 last year to 119 this season. He lost a few pounds over the summer to be more mobile defensively and is improved on that end of the floor as well with a 107 defensive rating compared to 109 last year. It’s all coming together for Doncic and it is only year two.

Bam Adebayo: The former Kentucky Wildcat is dubbed as the foremost Miami Heat player that embodies everything the organization’s culture represents. His desire to play defense, make the extra pass and seemingly pick only the best spots to look for his offense has been a dream scenario for coach Erik Spolestra. He entered the season as one of the leading candidates for most improved and his across the board production has allowed the Heat to exceed early expectations in the Eastern Conference.

He’s averaging a double-double with 13.8 points and 10.2 rebounds, but the 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.4 blocks keeps his value high in all Miami does. A deeper look finds Adebayo at 3.9 screen assists per game good for 14th in the league and at 2.9 deflections per game (10th). His tweener size fits in today’s game allowing him to switch on defense with good lateral movement and active hands.

Typically, most improved candidates are just better scorers from the previous year and while that is the case for Adebayo, he’s contributing to winning with counting stats and intangibles.

Brandon Ingram: The New Orleans Pelicans haven’t had the start to the season that they would have liked but Ingram isn’t to blame. Coming off a very serious blood clot condition forced Ingram into the shadows of a team fraught with optimism. David Griffin preached all summer how the Pels were Jrue Holiday’s team to take the pressure of Zion Williamson—not Ingram. Then in the preseason, Williamson proved himself to be a man child (before injury) and Ingram, while solid, seemed destined to play a secondary role. Add to all that the fact that Ingram is in a contract year and didn’t receive an extension by the deadline.

From the first game of the season, Ingram has been on a “bet on himself” vibe that is sure to show him the money come season end. The best thing about Ingram’s 25.4 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4 assists per game is that it’s coming in 1.5 minutes less than he averaged last season on the L.A. Lakers. Ingram has become super-efficient with a modest usage rate of 29.5% compared to other plus scorers. Throw in almost one steal and one block per game and his 44% from three and you have the makings of a max player and potentially a most improved one too. It remains to be seen how Williamson’s play will impact Ingram, but it would appear concerns about his ability to lead an offense can be laid to rest.

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