You could look to a number of things to prove this. Watch an ad
for an upcoming NBA game that’ll air on ESPN or ABC. They’ve been
repurposing the same song all year, and apparently have assigned
Fat Joe to rhyme the names of the stars from said game.
“Kyrie Irving, James Harden coming through in the clutch.”
“Steph Curry hittin' Klay in the cut.”
The formula is always the same: highlight the stars, not the
teams. Make it “Curry vs. Embiid,” then at the
very end, change it to Warriors vs. 76ers. Or, in this case,
Kyrie vs. Curry, and Harden vs. Klay, before
making it Nets vs. Warriors.
Now, look to the Most Improved Player Award. CJ McCollum is the
only Most Improved Player of the last 10 years to not become an
All-Star, and he probably should’ve been selected at least
Early on, what you’d often see were players winning the MIP
award because of increased counting stats, even when the counting
stats only improved because their minutes did — and the players’
per-36 stats remained eerily similar. Apologies to Don MacLean and
the 24-win Washington Bullets of 1994.
Other times, the award would just go to top draft picks who
developed as many already expected they would, regardless of how
their team performed. Looking at you, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and Pervis
Ellison, respectfully. Though, sometimes, they absolutely nailed
it, like with Dale Ellis in 1987, Tracy McGrady in 2001, Jermaine
O’Neal in 2002 and Hedo Türkoğlu in 2007.
In recent years, the award has become more of a star-crowning
achievement that cements your arrival, no longer potentially
rewarding a 30-year-old journeyman like Darrell Armstrong for
finally putting it all together on one of the league’s best
regular-season teams of 1999. Or an out-of-nowhere revelation
like Isaac Austin, who had left the NBA for Europe before coming
back and winning the award in 1997.
This year, we’re probably going to follow a similar star-making
template. Ja Morant is expected to win the award despite being the
No. 2 overall pick in 2019. Expect to see 2019 No. 5 overall pick
Darius Garland right behind him.
Why is the award going to high draft picks who just develop as
top selections are expected to, like Brandon Ingram two seasons
ago? Players should be considered if they've made huge leaps and
filled important roles on respectable teams. Right now, it feels
like we're only rewarding players who make the jump from
above-average starter to star.
So here, I’ll highlight guys closer to that Austin, Armstrong,
archetype, who really should get Most-Improved-Player
consideration (even though they won't) instead of only the rising
stars who dominate the category. Guys who proved they belong — they
Caleb Martin, Miami
Caleb Martin and his twin Cody had been teammates with the
Charlotte Hornets over the last two seasons, and because they play
the same position, one of them had to go. Out went Caleb.
Apparently, thanks to J. Cole, Caleb got a
shot with the Miami Heat, and if you’re an agent representing a
fringe NBA player, that is where you’d probably want your
client to go.
Caleb’s jumped from 5.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.3 assists and
0.7 steals in 15.4 minutes per game in his last Charlotte season to
9.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.0 steals in 23.1
minutes per game in Miami.
Per-36 minutes, the scoring has improved from 11.6 to 14.9
points. The offensive rating has skyrocketed from 99 to 122. The
defensive rating is down from 112 to 107. The previously
non-existent shooting has gone from 38/25/64 splits to 52/40/76
from the field, three and free-throw line, with a true-shooting
percentage at 61.8, up more than 15 percentage points from last
season. He’s also top-five on the Heat in both win shares (3.9) and
win shares per 48 (.158).
In Miami, he’s guarded some of the opposition’s toughest
assignments — yes, even with multiple Defensive-Player-of-the-Year
candidates on his own team in Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler — and
went from a two-way contract player to a rotation guy who simply
has to get playoff minutes in order for the Eastern
Conference’s No. 1 team to be at their best from 1-through-9 this
spring. He’s had a massive impact, and a largely unforeseen
Do me a favor and watch these late defensive
possessions from Miami
Take a look at one guy shifting the game through defensive
This list was made for someone like Javonte Green.
This dude, at 28, is the only Radford alum to play in the NBA
for more than five career games, and they were the only school to
offer him out of high school. After going undrafted, he played
overseas, including at LEB Plata (Spain’s third division after Liga
ACB and LEB Oro) and Serie A2 Basket (Italy’s second league after
Lega Basket Serie A). After four seasons in Europe, he finally got
to the NBA in 2019, and until this year, he had averaged just over
10 minutes through 89 games with the Boston Celtics and the Bulls,
who acquired him just under a year ago.
This season, Green’s up to 24.5 minutes per contest, with 36
starts in 48 games for the playoff-bound Bulls who currently sit at
No. 4 in the Eastern Conference. His averages are up from 3.6
points and 1.7 rebounds to 7.6 points and 4.3 rebounds per game,
with about a steal and half a block too. His shooting’s up from
52/33/75 to 54/35/83, and although his per-36 stats are roughly the
same, his offensive rating is way up from 118 to 131 (team-high),
and his True Shooting percentage is a career-high .637. His .139
win shares per 48 minutes are second to only DeMar DeRozan in
“I know what I’m on the team for and what I bring to the team,"
Green said. "I’m going to continue to do that whether that’s coming
off the bench or starting. I’m just here to do my job, be here for
my teammates. Whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do it
regardless if I’m starting or coming off the bench. It’s not like
I’m mad about it or anything.”
Green’s the kind of guy that goes on your squad and instantly
becomes a fan favorite, unless you only care about
Gary Payton II, Golden
Gary Payton II’s been in the league in some capacity since 2016,
but has typically been a fringe, perimeter defensive specialist who
didn’t catch on anywhere aside from the Washington Wizards of
2019-20, with whom he started 17 of his 29 appearances. He was with
Golden State last year, but only for 10 games; most of his season
was spent in the G League, where he won Defensive Player of the
His averages in those 10 Warrior games last season? 4.0 minutes,
2.5 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.6 steals. This year? 17.1 minutes,
7.1 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals. He’s also shooting 61%
from the field and 36% from three on nearly two attempts per game —
his jumper’s been a factor on him spinning his wheels prior to
He’s one of the best defenders on the planet, which is something
we got a whiff of in Washington, but it’s really amplified thanks
to his increased role in Golden State. A 102 defensive rating, for
a guard in this era, is a rarity — it’s first in the NBA among
qualified backcourt players by three points.
On the ball, he’s one of the absolute best in the league to
watch defensively, and should get All-Defensive consideration even
in his limited role. Word to Triple H. He’s. That. Damn.
The only one of these guys to have actually been drafted, Jarred
Vanderbilt is the rare developmental success story out of
Minnesota. Selected No. 41 overall in 2018, Vanderbilt was
originally in the Denver Nuggets’ system before he was included in
a four-team deal two February’s ago, landing him here.
From 2018 through 2020, Vanderbilt logged 4.1 minutes per game
in just 28 NBA appearances. Last season, he became a rotation
piece, though it was still on a typical Timberwolve team — one that
finished 23-49 and 13th in the Western Conference.
He averaged 5.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 0.7 blocks
on 17.8 minutes per contest on 61% shooting. This season, he’s up
to 7.0 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 0.7 blocks in 25.9 minutes
per game on 59% shooting. His win shares are up from 3.1 to 5.4,
and has been second on the T-Wolves (after Karl-Anthony Towns) for
each of the last two seasons in win shares per 48 among players
who’ve logged 300 or more total minutes, improving to .164 from
.132. This year, he has a 106 defensive rating too. Like GPII, that
is primarily why he’s here.
Jarred Vanderbilt singlehandedly
outrebounded the Lakers entire big man rotation, while teaming with
KAT and Jaden to turn LeBron and Melo into potatoes
The Wolves got up 20 (TWENTY) more shot attempts than LA while
holding them to 38% shooting
He’s clearly been a large part of why the Timberwolves have
played respectable defense, even as their top-three guys have been
largely known for… well, not that. Patrick Beverley has
come in to help, as well, and the
T-Wolves are 37-29 and seventh out West.
Vanderbilt might flirt with an All-Defensive Team selection this
season, which wasn’t something you could say last year.
Amir Coffey, Los Angeles Clippers
Grant Williams, Boston Celtics
Gabe Vincent, Miami Heat
Looking to go to the hottest
concerts, sports, theater & family shows near you? Get 100%
guaranteed tickets to more than 125,000 live events from
TicketSmarter, the official ticket marketplace of
BasketballNews.com. Order online