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Golden State of Awards: Most Improved

So many good candidates, but there can only be one winner.

Dallas Mavericks Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

At this point it’s becoming clear that there will be one of two outcomes in the NBA this season, as a result of the coronavirus outbreak: Either the current season will be drastically truncated, or it will be cancelled entirely.

Either way, we’ve seen all or almost all of the regular season games, which means we can start crowning the individual award winners. So I’m handing out my awards this week. On Monday, I chose my MVP, on Tuesday the Defensive Player of the Year, on Wednesday the Coach of the Year, and yesterday, Rookie of the Year. We wrap things up today with Most Improved Player.

Spoiler: Not a lot of Golden State Warriors will be making appearances.

Now let’s get into it.

Let’s get something set, right off the bat: The Warriors do not have any candidates for Most Improved Player. The Warriors team was mostly full of rookies, and a few veterans who either performed exactly as you would have expected, or fell well short of expectations.

I think it’s safe to say that only two Warriors this year even classified for earning the “improved” label: Damion Lee, and Marquese Chriss.

If the latter had gotten starter’s minutes from the start of the season, maybe he would have worked his way into this conversation, especially if Steph Curry were healthy and the Warriors were winning games.

As it is, here’s another list without any Warriors on it:

1. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks

33.3 minutes, 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.2 blocks per game

57.4% 2FG, 31.8% 3FG, 75.2% FT, 58.4% true-shooting

Dončić doesn’t feel like a traditional Most Improved Player. So much, in fact, that I had already gotten about halfway through this article when I remembered that he should be included.

Most Improved is occasionally a narrative award, given out to players who took an unexpected leap. Dončić really didn’t do that. Anyone who watched his electrifying 2018-19 rookie campaign knew that he was headed for greatness. It was obvious that he would play in most of the All-Star Games for the next decade, and probably pick up an MVP trophy somewhere along the line.

He’s reached the elite of the NBA - he is without question one of the league’s ten best players - faster than we all expected . . . but it was still something we all expected. His ascent isn’t that surprising, but this isn’t the Most Surprisingly Improved Player award. And so Dončić’s leap - from “really good for a rookie” to “one of the best players in the world” - needs to be recognized, and awarded.

I mentioned in Monday’s MVP column - in which Dončić finished fourth - that a player had only averaged 28 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists on six different occasions in NBA history. Four times were Oscar Robertson; once was Russell Westbrook; once was Doncic.

Surprising or not, Dončić took the largest leap in the league this year.

2. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

34.3 minutes, 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.0 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game

50.9% 2FG, 38.7% 3FG, 85.8% FT, 59.0% true-shooting

Everything came together perfectly for Ingram during the 2019-20 season. The Los Angeles Lakers, who drafted the Duke product with the second pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, finally traded him, ending a long and uncomfortable period of Ingram being under bright lights, heavy expectations, a team that wanted him to be something he wasn’t, and a perpetually-present trading block.

In a more reserved, healthier situation in New Orleans, Ingram was able to simply play his game, and learn from veterans like Jrue Holiday, JJ Redick, and Derrick Favors. With number one overall pick Zion Williamson sidelined for the bulk of the season, Ingram was given the keys to the Pelicans machine, and the pieces necessary to drive it well.

He thrived. Ingram added new moves to his offensive arsenal, but more importantly, deployed the moves he already had in a much better way. He was quicker with his actions and decision making, more precise with his spots, and smarter with his priorities.

Had the season continued to 82 games, Ingram would have attempted more three-pointers than in his first three seasons combined, while making them at a very nice rate. In going from a slightly uninspiring prospect to an All-Star and core building block, Ingram reminded us that we often judge young players far too soon.

3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

34.4 minutes, 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game

57.6% 2FG, 69.0% FT, 60.6% true-shooting

Just like Doncic and Ingram, Adebayo was a first-time All-Star this year. And he did it by turning himself into one of the most well-rounded players in the game.

Look at his stat line again. 5.1 assists per game. 5.1 assists per game!

Adebayo is a third-year center who is 34th in the league in assists, averaging more per game than Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, or Jamal Murray. Yet he still does the things centers were born to do: Score from the block, inhale rebounds, and block shots.

He doesn’t yet have a three-pointer in his arsenal, but honestly, that’s the only thing missing from his game.

And if you haven’t watched many Heat games this year, take it from me: Adebayo is as fun to watch as the numbers suggest.

Honorable Mention

Jayson Tatum: Another first-year All-Star who easily could have been at any of the above spots.

Pascal Siakam: The reigning Most Improved Player made a serious run at a repeat award, but much of his elevated stats are due to simply having a bigger role this year. Another first-year All-Star.

Domantas Sabonis: A first-year All-Star (sensing a trend?), but not quite at the same level of improvement as the above names.

Trae Young: Forever tied to Dončić, Young also made a huge leap this year. Also, in shocking news: A first-time All-Star.

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