NBA’s Most Improved Player: Starting Five

With the 2020-2021 regular season campaign coming to an end, the NBA’s awards race buzz is heating up. The MVP race is Denver’s franchise C Nikola Jokic’s award to lose at this point. Ben Simmons has made it clear that he believes the DPOY race is all but locked up. The COTY race is coming down to Quinn Snyder and Monty Williams, while Anthony Edwards has run away with ROTY odds, post-Lamelo Ball injury.

But today, I will be drafting this year’s Most Improved Player Starting Five:

Cleveland Cavalier PG, Darius Garland

Darius Garland has made tremendous improvement in just his sophomore season in the NBA. He and Collin Sexton lead a promising young backcourt for my hometown team, the post-LeBron-era rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers. This rebuild stage without LeBron seems different this time around. With a promising future ahead for Garland and the borderline All-Star level play from Sexton already the Cavs are just a couple of pieces away from being playoff contenders again.

Time will also only help the growth of this young Cavs core. Garland (21), Sexton (22), and newly acquired C Jarrett Allen (23) will shoulder much of the weight for the Cavs franchise moving forward.

From NBA’s “worst” to top Sophomore of his draft class

Garland has shown the ability to shoulder his fair share of weight in just his second season after a very rocky and lackluster rookie campaign. The Vanderbilt product endured his fair share of scrutiny just a year ago after the Cavs drafted him 5th overall in the 2019 Draft. Some fans went far enough to call him “one of the league’s worst players.”

Playing in 59 games and averaging 30.9 MPG, Garland posted 12.3 PPG and 3.9 APG on 40% from the field and 35.5% from deep a year ago. He truly struggled to ever find his rhythm offensively, something many young players struggle with transitioning to the NBA level.

This season, however, Garland has shined offensively. His PPG total has jumped to 17.8 while his APG is also up to 6.2. Despite shouldering a heavier offensive load this season Garland has also been much more efficient. He is shooting 45.2% from the field on 15.2 FGA and 40% from three on 5.0 3PA. His shooting is not the only promising improvement Garland has made from year one to year two.

His playmaking and decision-making have shown major maturity. He leads the Cavs in APG and sits at 17th in the NBA at that mark. He has proven to not only be a scoring threat, but also an effective playmaker for his teammates.

Charlotte Hornets SG, Terry Rozier

Zach Lavine was hard not to say, but Rozier (Scary Terry) gets the nod from me. Rozier in his sixth NBA season and second with the Hornets have kept Charlotte in contention to make their first playoff appearance since 2015-16. The injury news of emerging rookie star Lamelo Ball initially seemed to deflate, but Rozier and company have remained competitive. Scary Terry has playoff experience from his days in Boston, and his play proves he is eager to return.

Rozier enjoyed a successful first season in Charlotte as well. Last season in 63 games, Rozier averaged 18 PPG and 4.1 APG on 42.3/40.7/87.4 splits. Fast forward to this season, Rozier is averaging a career-high 20.3 PPG and 4.1 APG which ties his career-high set last season. Overall, the 27-year-old SG has improved from the field even while taking more shots. What is really impressive is Rozier’s offensive composure and efficiency in the clutch.

Rozier has pinned himself Charlotte’s closer, and the numbers don’t lie. Between the improved statistics and leading the playoff charge, Rozier is the starting SG for my MIP lineup.

Boston Celtics SG/SF, Jaylen Brown

The 24-year-old from Cal University is checking in at SF. But what about Jerami Grant? Grant definitely has a case, as did Lavine, but Brown has been very impressive in just his fourth NBA season, and he’s my pick. Overall, the Celtics as a team have been very disappointing this season. Currently sitting barely above .500 at 33-30, they hold the #6 seed in the Eastern Conference. Brown is not the one to blame for these struggles as the young forward continues to improve year in and year out.

Brown this season is averaging a career-high in PPG (24.9), APG (3.4), SPG (1.3), BPG (0.5), FG% (49.5), 3P% (40.5), and FT% (76.8). Practically, the 4th year pro is averaging career-highs across the board. Is that not the definition of Most Improved Player? Brown also made his first All-Star game appearance this season.

He enjoyed this honor with his running mate and another emerging star Jayson Tatum. If history repeats itself, Brown will continue to improve next season meaning his full potential has yet to be fully tapped. I believe this to be true and expect Brown to become a perennial All-Star moving forward.

New York Knicks PF, Julius Randle

The first no-doubter of this starting five. It is hard to imagine Julius Randle not being named this season’s unanimous Most Improved Player. Randle started the season amongst the long list of players competing for the award. However, entering the season with 12/1 odds Randle was not the odds on favorite to win. Now with only nine regular-season games remaining, Randle is the odds-on favorite.

Statistically, Randle has set career highs across the board in just his second season in New York. Most impressive being the PPG (24.1), APG (5.9), and 3P% (42.1) on 5.3 attempts per game. With his improved three-level scoring, Randle can stretch the defense at his position and always keep them guessing. Randle is relishing in the bright lights of the NBA’s mecca, Madison Square Garden. His improved play has had its direct impact felt in a pleasantly surprising manner.

Randle has the New York Knicks sitting at the #4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Yes, you read that right. Julius Randle has to lead the New York Knicks to a 35-28 record and the #4 seed with only nine games remaining. This will be the Knicks’ first playoff appearance since the 2012-13 season when Carmelo Anthony led the charge.

No one around the league was expecting this from Randle and the Knicks. Randle has been so impressive he has even been mentioned in the NBA’s MVP race.

New York loves him and it seems Randle loves New York just as much. The New York Knicks are BACK!

Houston Rockets PF/C Christian Wood

The Houston Rockets have given Christian Wood for the first time in his NBA career a consistent platform to shine. Before his time in Houston, opportunities were few and far between for the emerging big. In a sign-and-trade deal, Wood found his new home just this offseason. The Houston Rockets saw Wood’s potential and had high expectations from the beginning. Luckily for Houston Wood has exceeded those expectations and some.

In the 39 games, Wood has played this season he has averaged 21.3 PPG and 9.7 RPG while shooting 52.2% from the field and 38.9% from deep. The Rockets have introduced a big back into their lineup, but Wood also does a good job stretching the floor with his ability to score from long-range. Yes, injuries have hobbled the emerging star this season, but do not let that take away from his improved play when he has been good to go.

Wood’s presence on the court compared to off has been astounding. Wood has missed a total of 24 games this season, and the Rockets are 4-20 in those games. Even worse, Wood missed 17 games consecutively at one point, and the Rockets went 0-17 in those games; 0-17!

It is impossible to do any worse, and the Rockets hope moving forward Wood can stay on the court. I am not too worried moving forward and believe Wood will continue to impress, making his first All-Star appearance next season.