Who’s the League’s Most Improved?
One writer leaves considers three candidates.
by Quinn Peterson / @QwinFNP
Typically, the Most Improved Player award goes to guys who are going from average to above-average. Good to very good. There are certainly players who fit this criteria this season.
I mean, why not, right?
Westbrook’s progression was clear and apparent playing with Team USA in the 2010 FIBA World Championship. His athleticism was never doubted, but his ability to play the point was. More importantly, his viability to be an adequate Robin to Kevin Durant’s Batman remained to be seen.
Most, if not all, of those question marks have been answered. While he’s still far from being the consummate point guard and his turnovers (a league-leading 214) and decision-making are still works in progress (3.8 TOs/game; 2.24 AST/TO ratio — 43rd in the League), that doesn’t negate the positives. Most notable is his new and improved jumper, his former Achilles’ heel.
His shooting percentages (FG, 3PT and FT) are all the best of his carer. Watching him play, one can easily see the growing confidence he has in shooting the J, off the dribble and pulling up, mostly. (He’s only been assisted on roughly 17 percent of his field goals.) He hasn’t gotten soft, though, as he still attacks the basket as fearlessly as ever, connecting on 58 percent of those at-rim opportunities.
As a result, he’s been able to sufficiently fill the role of sidekick, take games over at times (leading OKC past Boston, going for 38 in a triple-OT win against Jersey — both games without Durant), and flat-out fill up the stat sheet. His 27 double-doubles is already three more than his season total last year, while his three triple doubles are a league best (along with LeBron James and Rajon Rondo.)
Grabbing 5 boards to go along with 22 points and 8.4 assists, he’s steadily emerged as one of the most complete players in the L.
In ’10-11, Westbrook has started to polish, gotten elected to his first All-Star Game, averaged career-high numbers and helped further legitimize the Thunder as contenders. In a phrase: much improved.
Dwight entered the ‘10-11 season as a four-time All-Star and reigning back-to-back Defensive POY. On the surface, it’s hard to see how one might be able to improve on that.
But despite his dominance, the major knock against him — and rightfully so — has been that he never had any real moves, simply getting by on sheer athleticism. For the most part, this was true.
Already a dominant force, seeing Howard’s strides can be tough to notice upon first glance. He’s averaging a career-high 23.2 points, five more than last year. He’s shooting 59 percent from the field (and the foul line. Yikes), second best in the League. (Last year, he shot a career-high and league-leading 61 percent.)
A closer look at the numbers is what truly tells it all, however, his first 10 games in particular serving as a great harbinger.
Through 10 games last season, Howard had 22 dunks, 14 hook shots and 0 face-up jumpers of at least 10 feet.
Contrast that with his first 10 games of this season: 12 dunks, 29 hook shots and 6 face-up jumpers of at least 10 feet. (This graphic gives a nice illustration.)
Working out with Hakeem Olajuwon over the summer, Howard has added an arsenal of post-moves that include hook shots with each hand, fadeaways, and up face-up moves. And he can use the glass on everything! Above all, though, is his sharpened footwork.
Still honing the skills he learned from The Master, they’re already starting to pay heavy dividends. Attaching an element of finesse to his physical gifts, Dwight Howard is scary. Easily the most dominate player in the game. No one in the League is as big, as strong, as athletic. Far and away the most consistent player on a 39-22 Orlando Magic team, if anyone has the physique to shoulder the load, it’s him, and his new additions to his game have him even more well-equipped.
As deserving as Westbrook and Howard could be, one man’s heroics trump them the both: That’d be Mr. Derrick Rose. We expected him to be good, but no one — other than himself, of course — thought he would be this good. Not this fast.
It has to be arguably the greatest improvement from one season to the next by a professional ballplayer.
From All-Star reserve to starting All-Star and league MVP? That’s a pretty big friggin’ leap. Add Most Improved to that list, as well.
In his first two seasons combined, Rose tallied eight 30+-point games and 12 games with 10+ assists. This year, with plenty of games yet to be played, he’s already racked up 14 30+ point outings and 16 games with 10+ assists.
Like the aforementioned candidates, he’s averaging career-high numbers in just about every category; the only player in the League putting up 24 and 8+ a night.
Like Westbrook (ironically the two have the same trainer), it’s his jumper that has sparked the most excitement. We knew that Fast Don’t Lie, but now the jumper don’t either and son is more dangerous than Mystikal or Michael Jackson.
His confidence in his jumper has soared and the mechanics give valid reason. He gathers himself, gets his legs under him and goes straight up and down. Every time.
Rose has stroked the J under every circumstance this year: pulling up off the dribble, coming off the screen, spotting up for three and in late-game, clutch situations.
While his overall shooting percentage is slightly down from his first two seasons (taking more jumpers, being asked to shoot more in general), his three-point percentage jumped nearly 10 percentage points, up to 34 percent. Oh, and he’s still as lethal as every taking the ball to the rack and making SportCenter‘s Top 10. Ask Stacey King.
Combine Rose’s intrepid play with a wounded, otherwise very limited Bulls team, and you get … a 41-17 Bulls team, one game out of first pace in the East. Funny how that works.
MVP is his, no question, but MIP is, too.