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Your top three candidates for Kia Most Improved Player?
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David Aldridge: 1. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers. Across the board career-highs — points (23.6), rebounds (5.3), assists (4.3), steals (a league-leading 2.2), field goal percentage (.472), 3-point percentage (.369) — and, he’s shooting 80.4 percent from the line. Per NBA.com/Stats, among all regular guard starters this season (60 or more games), Oladipo is second in the league in Defensive Rating (101.7, behind only Boston’s Jaylen Brown). He looked like a high-volume, low production player his first four seasons in the league. He’s changed that narrative with one outstanding season, and looks for all the world like a building block for Indy with Myles Turner going forward.
2. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets. He’s embraced being the every day point guard for the Nuggets, seemingly with very little adjustments or problems, while raising his averages (16.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game) and shooting the ball much better this season on twos and 3-pointers.
3. E’Twaun Moore, New Orleans Pelicans. It’s hard to judge with certainty whether he’s just benefiting playing off of Anthony Davis (and, for half the season, DeMarcus Cousins), but Moore has been terrific in his first season as a full-time starter at the two, solidifying New Orleans’ lineup. He’s been outstanding behind the arc (41.6 percent on 3-pointers) and pretty efficient shooting overall, while guarding his position — he’s seventh among starting two guards this year in Defensive Rating.
Honorable Mention: I didn’t think you could give MIP to a guy with eight years in the league coming into the season, but Jrue Holiday has also been really, really good in New Orleans this season.
Steve Aschburner: Victor Oladipo is going to win this award and it won’t even be close. Oladipo turned whatever pressure he felt from being traded by OKC and stepping into Paul George’s sneakers in Indiana into extreme motivation and a laser focus on this season. The results have been astounding, with Oladipo playing his way to an All-Star selection while leading the Pacers to a 40-28 record that a lot of us figured would be more like 28-40 by now. For my second and third slots, I like a couple of big men: Houston’s Clint Capela, who is the indispensable third side of that Rockets triangle (they’re 35-2 when Chris Paul, James Harden and Capela play together). And the Lakers’ Julius Randle, who since Jan. 1 is averaging 18.3 points on 57.4 percent shooting with 9.1 rebounds, compared to last season’s 13.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg and 48.8 percent.
Shaun Powell: First: Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers. He went from riding shotgun in OKC to being the top gun in Indiana and made himself into a steady and reliable first option. Second: Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets. The Pistons gave up on him once. The Bulls gave upon him twice. He began the season coming off the bench in Brooklyn. Then, everything changed once he was elevated to starter, averaging 13 points and 6.9 assists per game. Third: Clint Capela, Houston Rockets. His development from a raw and gangly center to a more polished finisher and rebounder has given the Rockets a much-needed inside guy on a team of shooters.
John Schuhmann: 1. Victor Oladipo, who has been better (more efficient) in a much bigger role than he had with the Thunder. He has seen the league’s second biggest increase in usage rate (among players that have played at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons), has increased his scoring efficiency (true shooting percentage), and has seen just a minimal drop in assist-turnover ratio. In short, he’s gone from sitting in the back seat for the Russell Westbrook Show to being the leading man for a team that has been just as good as his old one. 2. Domantas Sabonis. I prefer not to look at second-year players for this award, but Sabonis makes too compelling of a case. He’s seen the league’s eighth biggest increase in usage rate, the league’s biggest increase in rebounding percentage, and the league’s third biggest increase in true shooting percentage (among players who have taken at least 300 shots each of the last two seasons). He went from being an afterthought in the OKC offense to being a fulcrum on a team that’s been better offensively than his old one. 3. Spencer Dinwiddie’s poor shooting of late (he has the league’s worst effective field goal percentage over the last five weeks) has this spot on my ballot up for grabs. Other candidates include Ed Davis, Tyreke Evans, Brandon Ingram, Trey Lyles and Tomas Satoransky.
Sekou Smith: Clint Capela is the first name I’m putting on my list, which values organic improvement as opposed to say, a change in scenery that produces better results. The Rockets, as devastating as they’ve been this season with Chris Paul in the fold, have gotten a huge lift from Capela’s breakout season. There’s a reason the Rockets got out of the Dwight Howard business a couple years ago. They clearly saw something in Capela and it’s paying huge dividends this season. I know some people have probably forgotten about it already, but before he went down for the season with that torn ACL, Kristaps Porzingis was showing signs of being a potential two-way superstar. Who knows how he bounces back after a 10-month, or more, recovery? But he’s second on my list. And finally, while he doesn’t have the raw numbers on his side, it’s hard to ignore the boost the Boston Celtics get when Terry Rozier is in the mix. The player-development component in Boston is sound and Rozier, who is third on my Most Improved list, is proof.