What might end up being my favorite race to follow this season, which will be highly contentious from start to finish, is that for the Most Improved Award.

Broken into two different categories, here are my five most intriguing prospects for Most Improved this season.

Former bench players thrusted into starting positions

This transition typically leads to an uptick in minutes as well as production, aligning players more for this award

Coby White

2019-2020 stat line: 13.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.7 apg though 65 games with a 39.4/35.4/79.1 shooting slash. 47.8 eFG%.

White is capable of scoring outbursts for stretches that are pyrotechnic-like. Some guys have hot streaks that last for possessions, his last for quarters.

He is the “fun factor” personified. His high energy and heart charging style of play is of the most entertaining variety, as evident below.

He had a handful of stretches where he was Jamal Crawford or JR Smith-esque in heating up. These instances often led a Bulls comeback or created scoreboard separation.

Even more, over his final nine games of the 2019-2020 season, he averaged 26.1 ppg with a shooting slash of 48.0/43.2/90.3 including 3.9 made threes on 9.0 attempts. It wasn’t solely scoring for him though, as he averaged 4.4 apg along with 4.2 rpg in that stretch. Though small in sample size, that is all star calibur production on all-time elite efficiency. If he can replicate this production consistently while learning to play lead guard, this award is his to lose.

Michael Porter Jr.

2019-2020 stat line: 9.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 0.8 apg through 55 games with a 50.9/42.2/83.3 shooting slash. 59.0 eFG%.

The Denver Nuggets did some house cleaning over the off-season. Really even before then, as they traded Malik Beasley to Minnesota which freed up some minutes before the deadline last season. Then, in free agency, they transitioned from the likes of Jerami Grant (reluctantly), and never truly entertained bringing back Torrey Craig. This opens up for their 2018 1st round pick to ingratiate himself to consistent minutes. 

Though more skilled than the aforementioned Grant and Craig, MPJ struggled to find consistent minutes early in the season due to injury and inconsistency from a healthy standpoint, but also because of his deemed “lack of effort” as said by coach Mike Malone. Malone challenged MPJ to find ways to impact the game past scoring, and he got the response he was looking for. Porter Jr, though extremely raw in development, became more viable in his rotations defensively in help, and chipped in on the glass which appeased his coach most. 

His ceiling is extremely high offensively, and after getting his feet wet last season while enjoying a sustained stretch of good health, he can now begin to lay the foundation for his career trajectory. I’m expecting for him to see an almost double-digit jump in points per game and quite frankly, with this rendition of the Nuggets, his scoring punch is now a needed dynamic for them.

The Nuggets are a high scoring bunch, and Porter Jr’s ability to shoot from three will warrant attention for him regarding Most Improver when it’s all said and done.

Donte DiVincenzo

2019-2020 stat line: 9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.3 apg through 66 games with a 45.5/33.6/73.3 shooting slash. 53.6 eFG%.

Spending last season as a change of pace guard spelling Eric Bledsoe and Wes Matthews, the Villanova product had a profound impact on the team when on the floor.

The 6’4 combo guard hangs his hat on the defensive end, where he registered a +2.4 in plus or minus last season.

One of the best marks of a great defender is looking at their effectiveness, as well as how many fouls they register nightly. DiVincenzo is of the ilk that can keep this balanced, making him that much more playable.

To keep it simple, he’s just solid. Everything he does is conducive to a winning environment, which can be largely attributed to the program Jay Wright has established at Villanova. He produces NBA ready guards consistently, and DiVincenzo is a direct byproduct. 

His IQ, discipline, and instincts defensively are invaluable both on and off the ball. Any stats related to effort, he is more than viable with. His efforts coupled by Jrue Holidays will make for a menacing defensive duo in the back court. 

Offense is where his growth will be measured, however. He saw an uptick in minutes last season and his scoring numbers doubled from his rookie season. His shooting from deep though, is his most glaring weakness. Last season he shot 33.6% on four attempts from deep, though that was up from his rookie season clip of 26.5% on 1 attempt a night.

His strengths come with what made him so great on the college level, being his strong and athletic frame which allows for him to finish consistently.

Last season, he enjoyed a 65.5% rate of success at or near the cup.

For reference, Kyrie Irving is the deemed “lay up king” as the great Doris Burke dubbed him. Last season, though of course at a greater frequency of attempts than DiVincenzo, Kyrie was at 67.1% at the basket.

The creativity and dexterity are all there with DiVincenzo. Now thrusted into the starting line up with a group of experienced vets, he’ll be able to expand his game as his impact grows more profound.

He’s now in the perfect role with the Bucks and will surely have some say-so in who this award goes to this season.

A couple third year guys expected to make a leap

Mitchell Robinson

2019-2020 stat line: 9.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 0.6 apg through 61 games shooting with a FG and eFG% of 74.2%.

Though one positive was that he enjoyed the highest field goal percentage in the league, the 3rd year center endured a forgettable sophomore campaign. Last season left a lot to be desired. This very well could have been a “product of the environment” type of experience as, comparing his stats to his potential, was not good.

Defensively, he has all the tools to be an elite rim protector and defensive anchor. He has the foot speed and lateral mobility to stifle fleet-footed wings and guards, the stature to go body to body with frontcourt players, and the reach to deter shots without trying. Couple those abilities with his jumping ability, and you’re looking at a potential defensive player of the year type center.

Where his growth will be measured will be with the strides he takes on the offensive end. Finishing around the rim via alley oops and offensive rebounds/putbacks comes easy for him, can he develop a post game and produce more points?

Under a new coach, he should flourish and see a statistical jump to relevance. He will be a double double guy and should sustain this level of success early in the season. Depending on how much of a spike he sees in his scoring numbers, he could garner attention here.

Deandre Ayton

2019-2020 stat line: 18.2 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 1.9 apg through 38 games shooting 54.6% from the field and eFG% of 54.8%.

You may be saying to yourself “how much better can he get statistically,” and that’s a great question.

The proverbial “Chris Paul bump” statistically for big men paired with the Point God lands the Arizona product right in its sights.

Ayton enjoyed the services of Ricky Rubio as his primary set up man last season, which proved to help his statistical production grow.

There aren’t many avenues in upgrading true point guard play from Rubio, but one of few ways you can is with CP3. The dynamic of Paul’s threat to score from the mid-range as well as his creativity as a wizard with the ball will pay great dividends for the Suns as a whole, with DeAndre Ayton as the most direct recipient.

As Aytons game grows this season (which that process has already started as the foundation of his relationship with CP3 is being established through diligence in the fundamentals) you better believe his name will be firmly planted in this race.

What would allow him to garner attention for this award will be the profound effectiveness of his statistical output though. He should be at or above 20 ppg and 12 rpg comfortably, while asserting himself more on the defensive end now that he’s being held accountable and also in a win now environment.

Honorable Mentions

TalenHorton-Tucker (whose stock is rising & quick though his role in the Lakers true rotation remains to be seen)

Derrick White

Gary Trent Jr

Zion Williamson (which off of brand alone would trump all aforementioned names)

My pick for MIP

After some back and forth, I settled on Coby White as my pick for 2020-2021 Most Improved Player of the year. His situation, plus the amount of touches that will come with it now as the lead guard, will lead to him having a spike in production resounding enough to garner the appropriate attention this award typically catches.

It will be fun to watch this race develop and see what other potential newcomers may state their claim in the race for Most Improved this season 🏆

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