There is an old adage in the NBA that suggests the higher one climbs in the player rankings, the harder it is to reach the next stratosphere, and the level-up from star-level performer to superstardom is hardest of all.
That was the logic that earned Ja Morant the NBA's Most Improved Player award last season, when he made the leap from All-Star snub to All-NBA lock. Honoring a recent No. 2 overall draft selection who was clearly on a path to greatness was a contrast to years past, when the award went to a middling player who made a star turn or a later draft pick who unexpectedly emerged as a foundational piece to his franchise.
Here, we tried to account for every rationale behind a Most Improved Player. We sorted players into a handful of categories — from the superstar leap to previously unconsidered All-Stars, second-year players maximizing their progression and dudes just earning their spots in a rotation (plus a trio of surprising San Antonio Spurs) — and power ranked their improvement a month into the league's 2022-23 campaign.
3. Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
2021-22: 22.8 PPG (56.5 TS%), 8.5 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1.3 SPG, 20.3 PER
2022-23: 24.8 PPG (56.5 TS%), 9.3 RPG, 7.7 APG, 0.9 SPG, 24.2 PER
Siakam's career has been a roller coaster since the Raptors lost Kawhi Leonard to free agency in 2019. He made the All-NBA second team in 2020 for a team that was every bit as good during the regular season as the group that won the title a year earlier, but the Celtics exposed his weaknesses as a scorer in the second round of the playoffs. The 2020-21 campaign in Tampa was a lost cause out of market, and Siakam's role in the organization going forward appeared fraught, given his multiple clashes with head coach Nick Nurse.
Then, Siakam reclaimed his spot on the All-NBA roster last season as the best player on a 48-win playoff team. He returned an even better playmaker this season, averaging more assists per game than LeBron James from the forward position. Only Nikola Jokic has more assists among non-guards than Siakam, whose passing has unlocked more scoring chances in space than when he had blinders on two years ago.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22: 25.9 PPG (57.2 TS%), 5.3 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 21.6 PER
2022-23: 31.6 PPG (64.9 TS%), 6.1 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 25.7 PER
Mitchell is clearly more engaged since the Cavaliers went all in to acquire him from the Utah Jazz. He is openly conceding to his reengagement on defense, where his effort contributed to a first-round playoff exit in April. His work on that end this season has helped Cleveland establish the league's fourth-ranked outfit.
Offensively, Mitchell is the hub of a third-ranked unit. He is a pick-and-roll maestro, generating 1.4 points per possession as the ball-handler in those situations, better than anyone but Stephen Curry among those who run more than seven per game. His 3-point percentage (43.4%) in the early going also matches Curry, and there is room for Mitchell to improve on an assist rate that already ranks as the highest of his career.
1. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
2021-22: 24.5 PPG (55.7 TS%), 5.9 APG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 20.9 PER
2022-23: 31.1 PPG (63.4 TS%), 5.7 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 28.8 PER
If the Thunder are going to tank for another high lottery pick, Gilgeous-Alexander isn't going to make it easy on them, at least not the way he's playing in the first month of the season. Not only is he intent on making his first All-Star appearance, Gilgeous-Alexander could threaten to take one of the six guard spots from an All-NBA mainstay. His averages rank top five in steals, top 10 in scoring and top 15 in blocks, and he may have cracked the top 20 in assists if his teammates knocked down more of his 12 setup chances a night.
Gilgeous-Alexander has been as efficient an isolation scorer as Luka Doncic. He is a driving machine, somehow scoring his 31 points per game while shooting the fewest nightly 3-point attempts (2.8) since his rookie season. Whispers are no longer circulating about whether Oklahoma City would shop him and focus on building around even younger lottery picks. Gilgeous-Alexander, at the age of 24, is their foundation.
6. Jock Landale, Phoenix Suns
2021-22: 4.9 PPG (59.7 TS%), 2.6 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.3 BPG, 16.0 PER
2022-23: 7.8 PPG (56.9 TS%), 4.5 RPG, 0.9 APG, 0.8 BPG, 18.1 PER
If you ever wondered how a decent center from the 1980s might fare in the modern NBA, watch Landale, and you will realize that a Kurt Rambis type can find his niche in any era. Landale is all elbows and effort, and he is admirably filling the backup big role that Phoenix has been cycling through for several years.
5. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
2021-22: 9.6 PPG (55.2 TS%), 5.5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 0.9 BPG, 16.0 PER
2022-23: 16.1 PPG (64.8 TS%), 9.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 BPG, 24.4 PER
Şengün is just straight skilled, and it would be fascinating to see him in a winning atmosphere. The ball doesn't find his good habits enough on a Rockets team full of prospects trying to establish themselves.
4. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
2021-22: 17.4 PPG (50.4 TS%), 5.5 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 13.1 PER
2022-23: 19.9 PPG (49.2 TS%), 6.2 RPG, 6.0 APG, 0.8 SPG, 15.0 PER
The flashes of greatness — like Cunningham's near triple-double in a convincing win against the reigning champion Golden State Warriors — were becoming more frequent before a left shin injury ended an already abysmal night last week. The shooting needs to (and should) improve, but the rest of the tools necessary for stardom are apparent. Cunningham will be an All-Star in short order with a modicum of consistency.
3. Santi Aldama, Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22: 4.1 PPG (45.2 TS%), 2.7 RPG, 0.7 APG, 0.3 BPG, 10.2 PER
2022-23: 9.8 PPG (55.4 TS%), 6.2 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.2 BPG, 13.7 PER
Is the Grizzlies front office this good at drafting, or are their coaches this good at developing players? Either way, Aldama is the latest player in Memphis to emerge as a bona fide contributor on both ends of the floor. His emergence has helped them navigate their first month without Jaren Jackson Jr. easier than expected.
2. Trey Murphy III, New Orleans Pelicans
2021-22: 5.4 PPG (55.8 TS%), 2.4 RPG, 0.6 APG, 0.4 SPG, 12.5 PER
2022-23: 11.5 PPG (63.8 TS%), 4.5 RPG, 1.4 APG, 0.9 SPG, 16.8 PER
There was no way Murphy could continue the 70% true shooting clip he logged to begin the season, but this rate — just shy of 50-40-90 splits — feels sustainable. Snagging Murphy and Herbert Jones with the Nos. 17 and 35 picks in the 2021 draft, respectively, was a coup for Pelicans vice president David Griffin.
1. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
2021-22: 15.3 PPG (59.5 TS%), 8.2 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 18.2 PER
2022-23: 20.5 PPG (62.0 TS%), 10.3 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 23.3 PER
Tell me again why teams were not lining up with exorbitant offers to pry Haliburton from the Sacramento Kings last season, since he was somehow available. The Pacers needed a star-level creator, and they got one in Haliburton, who will be the NBA's best game manager whenever Chris Paul puts down a basketball.
4. Kevin Huerter, Sacramento Kings
2021-22: 12.1 PPG (57.0 TS%), 3.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 0.7 SPG, 11.9 PER
2022-23: 16.6 PPG (67.9 TS%), 2.9 RPG, 3.2 APG, 0.9 SPG, 16.4 PER
The Atlanta Hawks didn't want to pay everyone once they acquired Dejounte Murray, so they are now watching their best shooter convert 51.1% of his 7.3 attempts per game from 3-point range in Sacramento. In the absence of Trae Young dominating the ball, Huerter has also revealed his ability to create for others. Huerter has made the most of every added responsibility in his five seasons, and he can handle even more.
3. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
2021-22: 17.5 PPG (59.4 TS%), 4.3 APG, 3.2 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 16.2 PER
2022-23: 22.8 PPG (63.1 TS%), 4.4 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 16.2 PER
The Sixers needed to find out if their offense is better in Maxey's hands, and the early results during James Harden's monthlong absence are not quite as encouraging as they were when the third-year guard was one of the game's best second-side playmakers. Without Harden manufacturing space for him to knife through defenses, Maxey's efficiency has plummeted over the past five games. Isolation scoring is his next leap.
None of this is meant to denigrate the steps Maxey has already taken this season. When he and Harden have been on the court together, Philadelphia has operated like the NBA's second-best unit behind the Boston Celtics, largely because of Maxey's ability to make devastating split-second decisions off the catch.
2. Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies
2021-22: 18.2 PPG (59.2 TS%), 4.4 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 17.6 PER
2022-23: 24.7 PPG (62.2 TS%), 4.9 RPG, 4.8 APG, 0.6 SPG, 21.8 PER
Bane probably deserved the Most Improved Player award last season, when Ja Morant accepted it and gifted the trophy to his Grizzlies teammate. And Bane has managed to take another leap this season. He is not just Morant's uber-efficient scoring sidekick but a playmaker now capable of steering a high-powered offense when their MVP candidate is not on the floor. He runs a handful of pick-and-roll possessions per game, and if he continues to yield 1.1 points per possession on them, he will see even more opportunities.
1. Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz
2021-22: 14.8 PPG (58.2 TS%), 5.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 0.5 BPG, 14.7 PER
2022-23: 21.8 PPG (62.2 TS%), 8.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.9 BPG, 21.8 PER
Raise your hand if you figured Markkanen for the leading scorer on a team that has won two-thirds of its games four weeks into the season. Once considered a throw-in to the Mitchell deal, Markkanen is now the best asset the Jazz received in return. He has broken through his ceiling as a reliable stretch forward to find more room for growth as a scorer from every level, making the most of his isolation and post-up chances.
Markkanen's performance at EuroBasket, where he led Finland to the quarterfinals this past summer, was no fluke. He can be the primary option for a high-level offense, and nobody saw that coming a year ago, except for maybe first-year head coach Will Hardy, who has granted Markkanen the freedom to excel. The only question left for the Jazz is whether they want him to, because his success is translating to victories.
3. Tre Jones, San Antonio Spurs
2021-22: 6.0 PPG (54.5 TS%), 3.4 APG, 2.2 RPG, 0.6 SPG, 15.0 PER
2022-23: 12.3 PPG (52.0 TS%), 6.6 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 14.2 PER
2. Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs
2021-22: 12.3 PPG (54.0 TS%), 4.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.1 SPG, 13.3 PER
2022-23: 21.0 PPG (59.1 TS%), 4.1 RPG, 3.8 APG, 0.9 SPG, 18.7 PER
1. Keldon Johnson, San Antonio Spurs
2021-22: 17.0 PPG (57.4 TS%), 6.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 0.8 SPG, 15.2 PER
2022-23: 23.6 PPG (60.4 TS%), 5.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 17.5 PER
It turns out Gregg Popovich is a pretty good coach. Someone had to put up numbers in San Antonio, where the Spurs were written off as a frontrunner in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes, but Jones, Vassell and Johnson are compiling statistics in a way that has made their offense the most unselfish in the league. The development across the roster, including among veterans, is a helpful reminder that Popovich is great at both crafting schemes and molding players to execute them at a high level, even if the talent is not elite
4. Dean Wade, Cleveland Cavaliers
2021-22: 5.3 PPG (58.4 TS%), 2.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.6 SPG, 10.1 PER
2022-23: 7.3 PPG (71.6 TS%), 3.3 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 12.2 PER
Never hurts to find a wing who can produce 1.71 points per possession on spot-up opportunities.
3. Nick Richards, Charlotte Hornets
2021-22: 3.0 PPG (68.9 TS%), 1.7 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.4 BPG, 15.9 PER
2022-23: 10.1 PPG (67.7 TS%), 6.1 RPG, 0.8 APG, 0.7 BPG, 21.7 PER
It seems like a team that ranks 18th in defensive rating should lean into Richards, who is wreaking havoc at the rim, where opponents are shooting 15% worse than their season averages when he is defending them.
2. Dennis Smith Jr., Charlotte Hornets
2021-22: 5.6 PPG (47.4 TS%), 2.4 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.2 SPG, 13.2 PER
2022-23: 10.2 PPG (50.8 TS%), 3.6 RPG, 6.2 APG, 1.9 SPG, 14.8 PER
Smith was out of the league in February, when the Portland Trail Blazers released the six-year veteran and former No. 9 overall pick. He still couldn't shoot or defend, and he wasn't creating enough opportunities for his teammates to justify those weaknesses. A month into this season, he has mostly eliminated the mid-range from his shooting diet, instead attacking the rim and now shooting league average from distance, and he has doubled his assist output while maintaining an assist-to-turnover ratio that borders on great.
1. Bol Bol, Orlando Magic
2021-22: 2.4 PPG (56.5 TS%), 1.4 RPG, 0.4 APG, 0.1 BPG, 13.5 PER
2022-23: 11.5 PPG (75.3 TS%), 7.5 RPG, 0.5 APG, 1.9 BPG, 20.3 PER
Watching the slender 7-foot-2 Bol dribble drive through the lane and convert floaters is a revelation. He was nothing more than a throw-in to multiple salary-dumping trades 10 months ago, and now he is everything the Magic thought they were getting when they drafted Mo Bamba with the sixth overall pick in 2018.
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