NBA

What are the NBA’s most improved players actually better at?

We’re only a quarter of the way through the NBA season, but already, there are some intriguing races shaping up for some of the end-of-season awards. For perhaps the first time ever, there is even a wildly intriguing race for Most Improved Player, with several candidates who deserve recognition. With apologies to the injured Caris LeVert, right now there are four guys who seem to be ahead of the pack in the race. Let’s examine exactly what has been driving their improvement this season.

Pascal Siakam, Raptors

Likely the front-runner for the award at this moment, Siakam is simply better at everything this year. It might be easier to list the areas where he has not improved. The things driving his improvement, however, are his shooting, playmaking, and defense.

Siakam has knocked down 36.6 percent of his 3s this season, up from 22 percent a year ago. He’s also connected on more than 70 percent of his 2-point shots, which leads the NBA. He’s making 80 percent inside 3 feet, 55 percent from 3-10 feet, and 40 percent from the deep mid-range. All of those numbers are way up from a year ago, As a result, he’s leading the NBA in both true shooting percentage and individual offensive rating.

Oh, and he’s done this while taking on more of an individual shot creation burden, which almost never happens. Siakam was assisted on 69 percent of his 2-point baskets a year ago, but now that number is down to 46 percent, indicating that he is doing more on his own. He’s averaging more than a full additional drive per 36 minutes (6.5 to 5.4), per Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, and finishing better (73 percent to 51 percent) when he drives to the rim as well. He’s already made two more pull-up jumpers than he did all of last season. Oh, and he’s parading himself to the free-throw line at more than twice the rate he did a year ago (0.352 free-throw rate compared to 0.175 last year).

He’s been given more latitude to make plays with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by the fact that his average touch now lasts 2.40 seconds and contains 1.40 dribbles, compared to the 1.73 seconds and 0.84 dribbles per touch that he averaged a year ago. His assist numbers have largely remained steady but his increasing involvement on a play-to-play basis has turned him into a more dangerous playmaker and someone who needs to be guarded in more areas of the floor.

He’s done all this while remaining committed to rebounding and defending at a high level, and he’s an important piece for the Raptors’ top-seven defense, which has been 4.8 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He’s one of the most switchable big men in the league right now, the kind of player capable of guarding a center and/or Kevin Durant on the same possession. Among the 143 players challenging at least 2.5 shots per game at the rim, per Second Spectrum data, Siakam’s field goal percentage allowed on those plays ranks 39th, putting inside the top 30 percent of rim-protectors league-wide.

Domantas Sabonis, Pacers

Sabonis has just been destroying teams off the bench this year, averaging in excess of 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists per game. If he keeps this up all year, he will be the first bench player in NBA history to reach each of those marks over the course of a full season.

While many Most Improved candidates see their statistics shoot up thanks to increased involvement in their team’s plans, that’s not been the case for Sabonis. During his first season in Indiana, Sabonis played 24.5 minutes per game. This year, he’s at 24.8 per game. Last year, he took 8.9 shots per game, and he’s at 8.9 shots per game again this year. His usage rate was 22.1 percent last year and this year it’s 23.1 percent.

He is largely getting the same opportunity he did a year ago. He’s just doing so much more with said opportunity. Sabonis’ shooting has improved from pretty much everywhere, but the two main things driving his massive increase in scoring efficiency (69.8 true shooting percentage compared to 56.7 a year ago) are his interior finishing and his ability to get to the free-throw line.

Sabonis has connected on 83 percent of his shot attempts within three feet of the rim so far this season, per Basketball-Reference, which is completely insane. And he was already a strong finisher a year ago, connecting on 67 percent of similar attempts. Close shots now make up more of his shot profile than they used to, and his average shot now comes 5.9 feet from the rim, down from 7.2 feet a year ago. Increased activity near the basket has also resulted in Sabonis becoming a free-throw machine. He’s taking 4.1 foul shots per game compared to 3.0 last season, and his free-throw rate has jumped from 0.339 to 0.460 — a massive single-season leap.

Sabonis’ threat level as a scorer has afforded him better opportunities to make plays for others, and he has taken advantage. He’s now assisting on 21.1 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor, a rate typically reserved for elite passing big men like the Marc Gasols of the world. Sabonis has also taken more care to clean the defensive glass than he used to, and his 35 percent defensive rebound rate ranks among the best in the NBA this season. Considering he is still largely a sub-average help defender and is not much of a shot-blocking threat, rebounding opponent misses is the best way he can contribute to the Pacers’ defense, and he’s doing a better job of that than ever before.

Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

Unlike Sabonis, Harrell largely is benefitting from simply being on the floor more often.

Last season, Harrell shot 63.5 percent from the field. This year he’s at 64.9 percent. A year ago, Harrell had a 23.8 percent usage rate and a 64.7 true shooting percentage. This year he’s at 22.1 percent and 67.4 percent, respectively.

Last year, Harrell had a 13.0 percent rebound rate, 10.1 percent assist rate, and 9.5 percent turnover rate. Those figures are at 14.7 percent, 9.5 percent, and 10.6 percent this year, respectively.

Last year Harrell’s PER was 24.7 and this year it’s up to 26.9. He’s gone from averaging 23.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.0 steals, and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes to averaging 22.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes.

In other words, Harrell is largely the same player he was a year ago, but he’s getting more opportunities (25.8 minutes per game compared to 17.0 last year) to be awesome and on a better team.

Josh Richardson, Heat

Richardson broke out as a dynamite two-way player last season, a fill-in-the-blanks guy who made the Heat better on both ends of the floor. Toward the end of last season, we wrote that Richardson was the Heat’s most important player.

When you’re a high-level defender, doing a bunch of things pretty well offensively is enough to turn you into a really, really good player. And that’s exactly what Richardson is. On a team that often needs to add up to more than the sum of its parts in order to compete with opponents that feature greater individual talents, it should probably not be a surprise that he is the leader in minutes per game. Considering his two-way reliability and the pliable nature of his play, it only makes sense to have him out there as much as possible.

This year, he has gone from being a guy who was “doing a bunch of things pretty well offensively” to being so much more. Richardson’s usage rate has shot up this season from 18 percent to 24 percent, and rather than seeing a corresponding drop in efficiency, he has actually become a more efficient scorer.

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He’s shown an improved ability to get to the rim and the free-throw line, and it’s largely been driven by better individual shot creation. Richardson was assisted on 40 percent of his 2-point baskets a year ago, but this year that figure is down to 23.5 percent, the kind of rate exhibited by some of the best individual scorers in the game. Richardson’s also creating more of his own 3s off the dribble, as he’s now self-creating 21 percent of his own 3-point baskets, up from only 5 percent a year ago.

He’s done all this while taking and making more 3s, cutting his turnover rate, and maintaining his solid rebounding numbers, and keeping up his defensive effort and production while often handling the most difficult perimeter matchup on a nightly basis. Now a high-level defender who both fills in the blanks for his team and works as a primary shot-creator, Richardson is so much more than merely the Heat’s most important player.

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