Hype for the new season is growing by the day. Everyone is making their predictions for the season, wondering how teams and players will fare during the 2018-2019 campaign. One of the most intriguing parts of each fresh season is wondering which youngsters can take a leap forward in their quest for stardom.
This year, the Most Improved Player Award will be a tight race from start to finish. Some players already have a spotlight on their names. I will break down some dark horse candidates for this award. I won’t go over the big names brought up during this debate. Everyone knows Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon, Josh Richardson, and others have a leg up in this race. The dark horse candidates are much more obscure but could have just as strong of a case for the award.
Caris LeVert is one of my personal favorites. LeVert has been on the Brooklyn Nets for three seasons, mainly in a bench role. He is an athletic wing with really high playmaking and defensive upside. Last season, LeVert took major steps forward as a ball handler and scorer. In a limited role in a Brooklyn system heavily based on sharing minutes evenly (no one on the Nets averaged over 30 minutes in 2017-2018), LeVert showed flashes of playmaking upside, but couldn’t cement himself as a go-to star.
Playing behind D’Angelo Russell certainly didn’t help, as Brooklyn had high hopes for Russell to break out after trading for him in 2017. This preseason, however, LeVert was looking improved in nearly all facets of basketball. He was super quick, breaking down defenses with ease, opening up driving lanes that LeVert thrives in. He excels at dumping the ball off to the big man under the basket, and has supreme vision when attacking the basket.
Caris should see a minutes increase, along with showing to the basketball world he is the best Net on the team by the end of the season. His efficiency should improve, along with his scoring numbers and assist numbers. If the Nets can make the jump to 35-38 wins, then the case could be made for Caris LeVert as an under-the-radar candidate for the Most Improved Player award.
Buddy Hield is best known as the player traded for DeMarcus Cousins when Hield was a rookie on the New Orleans Pelicans. He is also known as the player Sacramento Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive claimed had the potential of Stephen Curry.
Surprisingly, this comparison doesn’t look totally ridiculous after the closing of the 2017-2018 season, but… it’s still pretty ridiculous. Hield finished off his second season with modest averages of 13.5 ppg and 1.9 apg in about 24 minutes per game. Impressively, Hield shot 43.1% from three point range on a team with minimal spacing, making him one of the league’s most accurate shooters.
Per 36 minutes, admittedly not the most reliable statistic, Hield would be a 19 point and 3 assist shooting guard on very respectable efficiency. On a Kings team that is aiming to encourage the growth of young players, Hield is a perfect compliment for the playmaking abilities of teammates De'Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
If Hield can get a healthier dose of the minutes he deserves, it wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him improve enough and get the minutes and production needed for a Most Improved Player designation. However, he does play for the Kings, so all bets are off…
Justise Winslow has had an underwhelming start to his career. He is now about to start his fourth season as a Miami Heat. Winslow has not held up to the original expectations put upon him. After losing most of his second season to injury, Justise followed up with a promising third year. He is one of the most exceptional defenders in the NBA, with the strength and agility to defend all five positions on the court.
On the other side of the ball, he still has a lot of work to do. He has yet to average double digit points for a full season. He did average 10.9 ppg during his sophomore season, but this came in only 18 games. He also averaged almost ten more minutes per game that season as compared to 2017-2018.
He is horribly inefficient. His eFG% for his career is 44.8%, a very low mark. He also does not get to the free throw line much. When he does, he only shoots 65% from the stripe. However, there are bright spots to be had. He is an underrated playmaker. He can play a pseudo-point-forward role, as he has good handles and good vision.
As a wing, his assist percentage of 13.2% from the 2017-2018 season is in the top fifth percentile according to cleaningtheglass.com. He also improved as a shooter. Last year, Winslow shot 39% from deep, although it was only on 1.9 attempts per game. If things go right for Justise, he should have a strong season. He is only going to be 22 during the 2018-2019 campaign, and his defense is among the most smothering in the NBA. If the playmaking improves, he earns more minutes, and the three point shooting stays at last year’s level, Winslow can turn in a great season, and possibly prove his worth through a Most Improved Player recognition.
Thon Maker is physically one of the strangest players in the modern NBA. The 7’1” big only weighs 215 pounds. For comparison, Rudy Gobert, another 7’1” giant weighs 245 pounds, and even he can look thin at times. The player Thon Maker was drafted to hypothetically be is a Modern marvel. He has shown the flashes of a big that can block shots, switch to the perimeter, and nail threes.
However, this combination of skills has rarely come together for him. During the regular season for both of his two years in the NBA, he has been somewhat uninterested in playing to his full extent on both sides of the ball. His shooting would underperform and his defense was hit or miss. Then, during the playoffs of both 2016-17 and 2017-18, he showed much promise. He can tally up blocks against good teams and add a perimeter scoring threat for Giannis Antetokounmpo on offense.
This year, under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, Maker should get a fresh start. In an ideal world, Budenholzer will place Maker in the corners to open up the floor for Giannis and Khris Middleton. He can also be the big man in an all-switching scheme that the Bucks are capable of throwing out on the court. If Thon puts it all together, he can be good on both sides of the ball after a rough start to his career, making him a possible MIP threat.
Pascal Siakam really came into his own near the end of last season. Unfortunately, our final glimpse of him was at the hand of the ruthless LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. This should not be a demerit on the part of Siakam. He is a high-quality switchy defender with versatility to switch 1-4 on the defensive end. He has a modern frame, a modern play style, and great playmaking instincts.
The Toronto Raptors project to be at least a top 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, and if they make it to around 60 wins, Siakam should get the recognition he deserves in the national spotlight. He is a third year player who made great strides forward in his sophomore effort. His playmaking ability is surprisingly good, as he saw his assist numbers hit 2 per game last year. However, this season, he should see a minutes uptick, and a reasonably larger load to carry on offense.
Siakam is not much of a scorer, but with such a loaded roster, he should be able to see his points increase along with his efficiency. He has also been working on his shooting. If he is able to shoot a more respectable percentage from deep, he should be able to reach double digits in the points column easily.
Another way he can cement a Most Improved Player award is by continuing to share a bigger playmaking load and get his assists to 3 or 4 per game. He has good vision for a wing, and should be more aggressive when he finds himself with the ball.
Lastly, on the defensive end, Siakam has incredible upside. The Raptors could very well finish with a top 2 defense with the unbelievably versatile roster they have. If Siakam can be a main cog in that system, he should be well-rounded and improved enough to see a chance at the Most Improved Player award.