When the Brooklyn Nets hosted the Toronto Raptors on Thursday, two of the league's brightest young stars in D'Angelo Russell and Pascal Siakam took centre stage. The two are similar in that they both have exceeded expectations in making huge strides in their games from the last season.
As the season winds down, both Russell and Siakam have been mentioned as two likely candidates to take home the hardware for Most Improved Player in the 2018-19 season, but there are a few other worthy candidates as well.
Who should win Most Improved Player? Our staff makes the case for a few players…
Pascal Siakam, F, Toronto Raptors
This seems like a no-brainer to me: Pascal Siakam has been this season's Most Improved Player.
He went from being a role player a season ago to a fringe All-Star this year. You could even argue that he's been the most consistent player on a team that has had one of the best records in the league all season long.
Through Kyle Lowry's injuries and the management of Kawhi Leonard's playing time, Siakam has stepped up over and over again for the Raptors. He's played in all but two of Toronto's contests and he's posting career-highs in every single major statistical category.
He's averaging nearly 10.0 points more than he was last year and as opposed to doing all of his scoring at the rim, he's become a consistent perimeter shooter, converting 3-pointers at a 35.5 percent clip (compared to 22.0 percent last season).
It's more than his stats, too - the Raptors have increased Siakam's role as a ball handler and playmaker, especially in transition. And they've given him more responsibility on the defensive end, often trying to disrupt the rhythm of the opposing team's No. 2 scoring option.
He's been the X-factor for Toronto all season and he's succeeded in any role that head coach Nick Nurse gives him.
This is a person who has been playing basketball for less than 10 years. His improvement from Year 2 to Year 3 has been surely been enough to earn him the MIP award, but in general, every time the 25-year-old forward steps on the floor he looks more and more like one of the most promising young stars in the entire NBA.
I think D'Angelo Russell has a case, going from a player with a lot of potential to an All-Star unexpectedly leading his team to the playoffs, but I still believe Siakam has shown more overall improvement as a player in terms of his role, his skill set and what he's being asked to do on a nightly basis.
- Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_)
D'Angelo Russell, G, Brooklyn Nets
A former No. 2 pick gets traded by the team that selected him after just two seasons for failing to meet lofty expectations. His first season with his new team is marred by injury, and he becomes written off by many more people.
Ahead of Year 4? The pressure is even higher, as any chance this team has to be successful hinges on his play, or else the "bust" label becomes official.
There's no way those expectations get met, right?
Somehow, D'Angelo Russell has managed to exceed the expectations placed upon him, doing away with any "bust" conversations that might have loomed prior to this season.
With averages of 21.0 points and 7.0 assists per game (up from 14.6 points and 4.3 assists through his first three seasons), the 23-year-old became the franchise's first All-Star since Joe Johnson in 2014, leading a Nets team that was largely considered to be lottery-bound with a preseason projection of 32.5 wins to playoff contention - it would be the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2015 should they make it.
With Russell, it's more than just the numbers.
He's done away with the narrative that he was incapable of meeting expectations, playing with newfound confidence and swagger that was evidenced in the Nets' record-breaking comeback win over the Kings in late March - one of three (!) 40-point performances he's put forth this season.
If that's not a worthy case to win Most Improved Player, I don't know what is.
- Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21)
Domantas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Three players on the Pacers have a strong case to be in consideration for this award this season.
For Domantas Sabonis, he's made big improvements to his game for the second consecutive season. It's crazy to think that he was primarily a stretch four as a rookie on the Thunder because he's now taking a career-low 0.2 3-pointers per game. He's instead feasting in the restricted area, where he's made over 70.0 percent of his shot attempts this season, a similar rate as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Anthony Davis to name a few.
Playing to his strengths has boosted his points per game from 11.6 to 14.1 and his field goal percentage from 51.4 percent to 58.9 percent. He's also rebounding and passing at a higher rate, all of which has helped make the Pacers one of the most productive second units in the league.
For Bojan Bogdanovic, he's averaging a career-best 18.2 points per game this season on 50.0 percent shooting from the field and 43.1 percent from 3-point range, both career-highs. He's taken his game to another level since Victor Oladipo - the team's leading scorer and lone All-Star - went down with a season-ending injury to the tune of 21.6 points per game on equal levels of efficiency.
Without his scoring, the Pacers wouldn't likely still be in position to secure homecourt advantage in the opening round of the playoffs.
And last but not least is Myles Turner, whose biggest improvements have come on defence. Turner has developed into a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate, leading the league in both blocks per game and total blocks. His prowess on that end of the floor is a big reason why the Pacers have the third best defensive in the NBA heading into the final week of the regular season.
Turner deserves some love for some of the improvements he's made offensively as well, the most notable being that he's setting career-highs in makes and attempts from the 3-point line while shooting a career-best 37.9 percent.
Unfortunately for the three of them, there's a possibility none of them end up being a finalist for this award because they'll likely steals votes from each other, but they still each deserve recognition.
- Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles)
De'Aaron Fox, G, Sacramento Kings
Full disclosure here, I think that Pascal Siakam is the runaway winner for Most Improved Player of the Year. But De'Aaron Fox deserves some love for what he's done this season.
Fox was given the key to the Sacramento Kings offence in only his second year in the league. As a point guard that's tough - the burden of the responsibility to help your team get the best shots possible and also having to guard the most dynamic players in the league on a nightly basis.
Fox handled it with the maturity he's had since his college days at Kentucky.
Last season, the Kings finished the league dead last in scoring at 98.8 points per game. They were one of the only two teams in the league who didn't crack a 100 points per game in an era where scoring almost seems like a given. This year, the Kings are in the top 10 in scoring, averaging 113.9 points per game.
Pace is a large part of that, as Sacramento went from the slowest pace in the league last season (95.59) to the third fastest in the league (103.97). That's the Fox effect.
And while possessions and pace went up, Fox became even more efficient. Fox finished his rookie season with a player efficiency rating of 11.2. This season he's at 17.8. His assist to turnover ratio went from 11.0 to 12.6.
Playmaking is what most expected Fox to excel at in the league, but his jump shot was always questioned. What a difference a year makes. Fox's shooting percentage has gone from 41.2 percent to 45.4 percent this year. 3-point shooting is up to 36.9 percent and his effective field goal percentage is at 49.3 percent.
His points per game, assists per game and offensive rating are all up from his rookie season. Defensively, he's been holding his own too, seeing a slight improvement in his defensive rating from a year ago.
He's passed that test with flying colours, and while the Kings didn't reach their ultimate goals of making the playoffs, the foundation is there for it to not be too far off in the near future.
- Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay)
Paul George, F, Oklahoma City Thunder
Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks
Zach LaVine, G, Chicago Bulls
Justise Winslow, G, Miami Heat
John Collins, F/C, Atlanta Hawks
Nikola Vucevic, C, Orlando Magic
Buddy Hield, G, Sacramento Kings
Montrezl Harrell, F/C, LA Clippers
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