In 2019, NBA fans have been spoilt for choice when it comes to breakout players with career highs. Third year, fourth year, and even veteran players have been making big jumps in the first 60 games. Fan bases and management alike have had their faith re-paid in high draft picks or players acquired in trades.
Here is a look at some candidates to be weary of for the NBA’s Most Improved Player:
4. Montrezl Harrell
Last season – 17 MPG 11 PPG 4 RPG 0.7 BPG
This season – 26 MPG 16 PPG 6.7 RPG 1.4 BPG
#GLeagueAlum Montrezl Harrell (@MONSTATREZZ) DROPS THE HAMMER for the @LAClippers 🔨😤— NBA G League (@nbagleague) February 24, 2019
Harrell played 12 games with the @RGVVipers during the 2015-16 #NBAGLeague season, averaging 24.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 3.3 APG & 2.4 BPG!@LouisvilleMBB ↗️ @RGVVipers ➡️ @LAClippers pic.twitter.com/AlWYpzQgyX
This year the LA Clippers weren’t expected to be in the playoff race. After trading away some of their best pieces at the deadline, they weren’t expected to continue winning games either.
Fourth year center Harrell has been at the forefront of the Clippers surprising run.
At only 6’8, Harrell isn’t your typical big, but what he lacks in height he makes up for in hustle and all-round smarts. Weak-side blocks, dunks, and catching lobs are all part of his game.
Harrell’s finishing around the rim is what separates him from a lot of other bigs in the NBA. As almost 25% of his shot attempts are dunks, he finishes at the rim at almost 72%. He knows who he is in this league and doesn’t attempt jumpers outside of 10 feet.
Harrell has always been efficient on offense but this year his increased minutes has meant he has been able to show the league what he is capable of.
The big difference in his play from last year to this year has been defense. Of players who had played 40 games for the Clips, only Harrell has a defensive rating of under 110. ‘Trez’ is also in the top 10 for charges drawn per game and for contested shots.
The Clips have a true foundation piece for the future in Harrell.
3. Nikola Vucevic
Last Season – 29.5 MPG 16.5 PPG 9.2 RPG AST 3.4
This Season – 31.1 MPG 20.5 PPG 12.1 RPG AST 3.8
Vuc is having a career year in his eighth season. He has provided the boost to put the Magic on the edge of their first playoff appearance in years. He has added a reliable three-point shot, which he is hitting at a rate of 38%.
Not to mention, the former Trojan can now hit floaters that has him shooting 55% on the year.
Only ever an average defender, Vucevic’s excellent offensive season has led to better defense this season. Better defensive reads have led to contesting more shots and career highs in multiple defensive metrics.
He is in the top 12 in the league in defensive ratings, such as in win shares and box plus-minus. Averaging a career high in rebounds has meant he is now in the top tier of centers in the East. A well earned first All-Star spot was the reward for a remarkable year.
2. D’Angelo Russell
Last season MPG 25 PPG 15.5 RPG 3.9 APG 5.2
This season MPG 30 PPG 20.3 RPG 3.8 APG 6.6
The second overall pick in the 2015 draft has taken a massive step forward for the Brooklyn Nets. Russell has always been regarded as a massive talent but injuries and a trade from the Lakers have hindered his development.
This year he has shown he can be a legitimate star in the NBA. In earning his first All-Star appearance Russell has shown his play-making ability with a career-high 6.6 assists per game. A career-high 20 points per game has been boosted by a reliable three-point shot. His game never lent itself well to analytics before, but this year Russell has been a net positive on the court for the first time.
DLo’s midrange shot has probably been the most impressive improvement this year. Previously on average a 40% mid-range shooter, he is now hitting on 54% of his shots between 10 and 16 feet. He has also surprisingly led the Brooklyn Nets to the 6th seed in the playoffs. As the season has gone on, he has continued to improve and a first playoff appearance isn’t far
1. Pascal Siakam
Last season MPG 20.7 PPG 7.3 RPG 4.5 AST 2.0
This season MPG 31.5 PPG 16.1 RPG 7.0 AST 2.8
Siakam sits atop the Most Improved Player tree with a breakout season that has taken the NBA by storm. With the offseason trade for Kawhi Leonard, the Raptors have emphasized space and pace and opened the floor up for players like Siakam to run.
A super-efficient shot chart will show you Siakam takes most of his shots from inside 10 feet or at the 3-point line. He has perfected an effective spin move and moves up and down the floor very quickly for a guy at 6 foot 10. A possible selection for All-Defensive teams this year Pascal leads the league in three-pointers contested. Not many near 7-foot players defend the 3-point line this well.
Siakam also leads the league in loose balls recovered by a front court player. His passing is better as well, though it only shows 2.8 assists a game. He can run some plays and take players off the dribble with that handle.
With the season winding down, Siakam is only going to get more opportunities to prove his MIP case. He also has the chance to get a rookie extension this season, Toronto will want to lock him in before other teams get the chance to make an offer.