Every season, there is a player that enhanced his game from the previous year. Last season, New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram won the 2019-2020 Most Improved Player of the Year Award. Ingram beat out some strong competition, which included All-Stars Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic. In 2018-2019, Toronto’s Pascal Siakam ran away with the award.
There are quite a few players that are hopeful to improve their game heading into this season. These 10 players will be strong contenders for the 2020-2021 Most Improved Player of the Year Award.
10. Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
The Detroit Pistons let Wood slip right out of their hands this offseason. The Rockets took advantage by bringing in the 25-year old that averaged 13.1 points, 6.3 rebounds, and shot 38.6% from three-point range last season.
Wood has a chance to have every opportunity to see those numbers increase playing alongside John Wall and James Harden. Both guards rank near the top in the league in assists every year. Wood will have plenty of open shots this season. We may finally see how high the ceiling for Wood is.
9. Derrick White, San Antonio Spurs
After being drafted No. 29 overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, White has taken strides of being a more productive player for the Spurs over the last two seasons. He has played in 67 and 68 games the last two seasons. Last year was the best season of his career. White averaged 11.2 points last season and shot 36.6% from the three-point range in 24.7 minutes per contest.
For now, White is slated to be the team’s starting shooting guard. His minutes are going to increase this season, which means he will have more opportunities. His baseline is the lowest out of any contender. If he cashes in on the opportunities thrown his way, we will see a large statistical increase.
8. Gordon Hayward, Charlotte Hornets
Hayward was paid to play like a superstar. After two seasons of struggling to find his footing in Boston, this could be the season that Hayward plays like his days with the Utah Jazz. In seven seasons with the Jazz, Hayward averaged 15.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists.
Before signing his max contract with the Boston Celtics, he averaged 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists that season. It was his lone appearance in the All-Star game. Heading into this season, we know that Hayward is fully healthy. If he can help the Hornets compete for a playoff spot, then not only will he have lived up to his contract, but he will also win this award.
7. Lonzo Ball, New Orleans Pelicans
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft has been a solid player. He hasn’t been a superstar by any means, but he has carved out a reputation as a productive role player in the league. Last season, Ball played the most games (63) out of all three seasons. In Year 4, the Pelicans need their point guard to produce at a high level to help the Pelicans contend for a playoff spot. While Ball is a great defender, his offensive stats are just okay.
Last year, Ball averaged a career-high 11.8 points per game to go with 6.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists. The biggest jump from 2018 to 2019 was that his three-point shooting percentage jumped from 32.9% to 37.5%. Ball is still just 23 years old, so the ceiling for his play is up in the air. All we know is that if Ball can keep up the same amount of rebounds and assist, but improve his point production, the award could land in New Orleans for a second straight season.
6. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls
When Markkanen first came into the league, he finished the season on the First-Team All-Rookie squad. Then, he had a stellar sophomore season when he averaged 18.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Something happened in Year 3 though. His points per game regressed to 14.7, while his rebounds slipped to 6.3. His three-point shooting percentage also dropped two-percentage points.
Many believed that Jim Boylen was the reason why Markkanen took a step back. The Bulls fired Boylen this offseason and hired former Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan to hopefully give this team a jolt of energy. Donovan has already said that he wants the Bulls forward to be more than a spot-up shooter this season. Let’s see if can fully unlock his potential.
5. Tyler Herro, Miami Heat
Herro made a name for himself last year, especially when the team played in the bubble. His most memorable performance was his 37-point outburst against the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. When Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic battled injuries in the championship, it was Herro stepping up as the second-leading scorer. On the season, Herro shot 38% from the three-point range to go with 13.5 points per game.
If the postseason was any indication of what Herro can do, the Heat might find themselves with a 20-point per night performer. Herro will continue to come off the bench for Duncan Robinson, but Lou Williams has come off the bench for the majority of his career and look at what he has accomplished.
4. Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Since the Suns have not made the playoffs the last two seasons, Ayton has been someone easy to forget about. Ayton has produced at a relatively high level in the last two seasons. His rookie season produced 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Last year, Ayton took a small step forward by averaging 18.3 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. His blocks increased from 0.9 to 1.5 as well.
The addition of Chris Paul is very critical in Ayton’s development because Paul brings the best out of his supporting cast. Ayton has not made an All-Star game yet. This could be his first season only if Ayton can get to the 20-point threshold, while his blocks continue to rise, we could see a career-year from the 2018 No. 1 overall pick.
3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
The team traded away Chris Paul, Steven Adams, and Dennis Schroder, while Danillo Gallinari signed with the Hawks in free agency. That leaves the 22-year old as the last remaining core piece of last year’s playoff team. Last year, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 19.0 points, shot 47% inside the arc, and shot 36% from the three-point range. This has a feel like Gilgeous-Alexander could be the next Devin Booker.
Even on bad Suns teams, Booker has found a way to average over 26 points per game. The Thunder are going to rely on Gilgeous-Alexander to score the majority of their points. The Thunder are going to be the worst team in the Western Conference. If Gilgeous-Alexander is playing at a high level, he could be snubbed from the All-Star team because of the team’s poor record.
2. Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets
After missing all but one game in the entire 2018-2019 season with a back injury, Porter Jr. made his debut last year. In 55 games, Porter Jr. averaged 9.3 points and 4.7 rebounds. However, those numbers grew to 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds in the playoffs. People forget that Porter Jr. was favored to be the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 before he missed all of the season with a back injury at Missouri.
This appears to be the first season in two years that Porter Jr. is starting the season fully healthy. He is expected to start at small forward and play over 30 minutes a night. When Porter Jr. was the Gatorade National Player of the year, he averaged 36.2 points, 13.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 3.2 steals, and 2.7 blocks per game. While we may be a long way away from high school, the jump from his 2019 season to the 2020 year could be astronomical.
1. Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Porter Jr. would run away with this award if he wasn’t going to battle his teammate. When the NBA moved to the bubble, something clicked for Murray. In the first round of the playoffs, Murray scored 50 points twice against and scored 42 points once against the Utah Jazz. In the Western Conference Finals, Murray scored over 20 points in four of the five games.
These were large strides from the regular season, where Murray averaged 18.5 points per game, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists. Murray has never made an All-Star game but played like one in the playoffs. If he can do that consistently over a 72-game regular season, Murray will be the unanimous choice for NBA’s Most Improved Player.