The NBA’s Most Improved Player race is typically one of the most difficult to predict.
While the usual suspects will be in the running for MVP (i.e. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, James Harden and LeBron James), Defensive Player of the Year (Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Joel Embiid) and Sixth Man of the Year (Lou Williams, Lou Williams and Lou Williams), MIP often goes to a player who takes an out-of-nowhere leap.
Take last year’s winner, Pascal Siakam. He went from averaging 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 2017-18 to emerging as an every-night starter and the second-best player on a championship team.
Who might follow in his footsteps this season? Although oddsmakers project a wide-open race—Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum leads the way at +1000, per Bovada—a few other players also stand out as strong MIP candidates.
Terry Rozier, PG, Charlotte Hornets (+1100)
If MIP voters take team record into account, Terry Rozier will have no chance of winning this award. The Hornets figure to have one of the league’s worst records after losing their two best players in free agency—Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb—which will work against his candidacy.
However, the Louisville product is going from a four-year backup role with the Celtics to perhaps becoming the Hornets’ No. 1 scorer this season. For voters who use points per game as their primary data point in the MIP race, Rozier is likely to double his 9.3 PPG average from last season.
Rozier never played more than 25.7 minutes per night in a season with the Celtics, but he figures to average somewhere around 35 in Charlotte after the Hornets gave him a three-year, $57 million contract this summer. That should lead to a significant uptick in his per-game averages across the board, which will curry favor with MIP voters.
The real question is whether Rozier will shoot above 40 percent from the floor for the first time in his five-year career. If he improves upon his middling efficiency while bolstering his across-the-board production, the Hornets’ dismal record may not thwart him from factoring into the MIP race.
In fact, voters may then see him carrying an outsized portion of Charlotte’s scoring responsibility while (relatively) thriving.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Oklahoma City Thunder (+1400)
It’s rare for someone in their second NBA season to win the Most Improved Player award. Former Golden State Warriors guard Monta Ellis was the last player to do so in 2006-07, and fellow Warriors guard Gilbert Arenas (in 2002-03) was the only other sophomore to win MIP during the past 20 years.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander could prove to be the next exception.
As a rookie with the Los Angeles Clippers, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 10.8 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 3.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds in 26.5 minutes per game. The Clippers begrudgingly included him as the centerpiece of their trade package for All-Star forward Paul George, which inspired the Oklahoma City Thunder to trade former MVP Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul one week later.
The Thunder have yet to find a taker for Paul, which may keep Gilgeous-Alexander’s production in check at the beginning of the season. But if the Thunder do move Paul and/or Danilo Gallinari ahead of February’s trade deadline, SGA could be cleared for takeoff as OKC begins to rebuild around him.
If Gilgeous-Alexander ends up averaging somewhere around 16-18 points, 5-6 assists and 4-5 rebounds per game, he’ll vault himself into the MIP conversation before season’s end. His athletic frame and skills alone will make plenty of highlight reels and keep him top-of-mind with voters regardless of whether the Thunder fall out of the Western Conference playoff race too early.
Jonathan Isaac, F, Orlando Magic (+1400)
While it’s rare for someone in their second year to win Most Improved Player, the third-year MIP jump is becoming increasingly common. Not only did Siakam pull off that feat last year, but CJ McCollum (2015-16), Paul George (2012-13) and Kevin Love (2010-11) all did so in the past decade as well.
Jonathan Isaac could fit that mold this season.
He averaged only 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in 26.6 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this past season, so he has clear room for statistical improvement if he gets enough playing time. Isaac churned out a well-rounded 9.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.5 blocks in only 24.2 minutes across six preseason games, which seems to suggest he’s primed to take a third-year leap.
However, the Magic’s crowded frontcourt could prove to be an obstacle in his MIP quest. Not only will he have to contend for minutes with Aaron Gordon and Al-Farouq Aminu at the forward spots, but Nikola Vucevic, Mo Bamba and Khem Birch will all but block his ability to play sizable minutes at the 5.
If the Magic pull off a consolidation trade and break up their frontcourt—sending Gordon to Denver could make a ton of sense for both sides—Isaac should have the green light to begin a two-way tour de force. Otherwise, he may not receive enough playing time to force his way into the conversation this year.
Bam Adebayo, C, Miami Heat (+2000)
With Hassan Whiteside now in Portland, Bam Adebayo figures to open the season as the Miami Heat’s starting center.
If last year is any indication, he’s going to thrive in that role.
During a 22-game stint as the starter after the All-Star break, Adebayo churned out 11.6 points on 59.8 percent shooting, 9.2 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks in 27.5 minutes per game. This preseason, he put up 11.2 points on 51.3 percent shooting, 9.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 blocks in only 23.5 minutes across five games.
With Meyers Leonard and Kelly Olynyk lurking as his only real competition at the 5, Adebayo could flirt with upward of 30 minutes per game this season. Having pick-and-roll partners like Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow should allow him to feast on easy opportunities close to the basket on offense, and his defensive versatility could help him rack up steals and blocks in droves.
Those are things Leonard and Olynyk just don’t offer, even if they’re stretchy options that bring a different look to the table.
Adebayo’s per-game averages from last season of 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds leave plenty of room for improvement. An uptick in playing time this season should allow him to post the type of production he’ll need to vault his way into the MIP conversation, particularly if he contributes to a Heat team that contends for a top-four seed in the East.
Jaylen Brown, G/F, Boston Celtics (+2200)
Fresh off signing a four-year extension worth up to $115 million, the pressure is on Jaylen Brown to reward the Boston Celtics’ faith in him.
With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward sidelined, Brown broke out during the 2018 playoffs to the tune of 18.0 points on 46.6 percent shooting and 4.8 rebounds in 32.4 minutes per game. But with both back in the fold this past season, Brown slid back to the bench for all but 25 games and averaged an underwhelming 13.0 points on 46.5 percent shooting in only 25.9 minutes per game.
Brown should slide back into the starting lineup this season, and the Celtics made a $100-plus million bet that he has untapped star potential. The soon-to-be 23-year-old does tout the type of two-way upside that could make him a franchise cornerstone alongside Jayson Tatum, although it may be difficult for him to drastically increase his per-game output while competing for touches with Tatum, Hayward and Kemba Walker.
Unlike Isaac and Adebayo, Brown’s previous career production could hamper his MIP candidacy. He’d likely have to average upward of 20 points per game this season to garner legitimate consideration for the award, which could be difficult if the rest of the Celtics’ weapons stay healthy.
But with the pressure of a contract year now off his shoulders, perhaps Brown should return to the trajectory that once had him looking like a future All-Star. That’s what the Celtics are praying, anyway.
Miles Bridges, F, Charlotte Hornets (+3000) – Someone other than Rozier has to fill gaps on a roster that will need help in every category.
OG Anunoby, SF, Toronto Raptors (+4000) – Kawhi Leonard’s “replacement” will have every opportunity to regain his starting role as a key cog.
Zach Collins, PF, Portland Trail Blazers (+4500) – He’s shown flashes for a couple years and now lands a starter’s gig after Mo Harkless and Al-Farouq Aminu departed.
Mitchell Robinson, C, New York Knicks (+6000) – Being one of the lone true talents on a big-market team that badly needs his high-energy defense and rebounding can’t hurt, right?