Taking the next step from scrub to bench player, bench player to starter, starter to above-average contributor, or above-average contributor to superstar isn’t an immediate process. Development can wane and be inconsistent as some players take longer to develop than others, showing their true talents deep in their career. Others may make sudden contributions or even an impact out of nowhere.
Regardless of the path to improvement, multiple NBA players have seen significant jumps in their respective games during the 2016-17 season. Here are seven players who have emerged as the leading candicates for the league’s Most Improved Player Award.
Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets
Nikola Jokic has gone from intriguing big man to superstar in two full seasons with the Nuggets.
Jokic is a gifted scorer with range, a good rebounder, and an incredible passer. In his second season in Denver, Jokic is averaging 16.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, while shooting 58 percent from the floor and 36 percent from deep. He’s averaged those numbers in just 26.9 minutes. Jokic’s numbers are up across the board, after averaging 10.0-7.0-2.4 as a rookie.
Still only 21 years old, Jokic is already the league’s most versatile big man. His ability to hook up cutting teammates with high degree of difficulty passes is unparalleled at his position. Jokic’s basketball IQ is through the roof.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone entrusted the near seven-footer with more minutes in 2017, and Jokic responded with back-to-back months of 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 5+ assists. Jokic is a triple-double threat, somewhat absurd given his position. Denver sits in the eighth spot in the West, largely due to his improvement.
At such a young age, Jokic is still only going to get better. He’s put the league on notice.
Harrison Barnes – Dallas Mavericks
After toiling through the depth charts in Golden State, Barnes has finally emerged as the star many expected him to be after his dominating college play at North Carolina. When Barnes signed a massive max deal in Dallas, there was little doubt the former Warriors starter would see a spike in production. However, the size of the spike is surprising, as Barnes has become the alpha dog scorer for the Mavericks.
The 24-year-old has nearly doubled his career-best 11.7 points per game, averaging 20.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 56 games with Dallas. While his three-point percentage has dipped from 38 to 33 percent, Barnes has found new life in his mid-range game. Once frustratingly inconsistent, Barnes has advanced his game.
The Mavericks looked somewhat foolish after giving Barnes such a generous contract. But he has proven them right and provided a long-term piece to count on as Dirk Nowitzki nears retirement.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Raise your hands if you thought when the Milwaukee Bucks drafted the extremely raw Grecian that he’d be an All-Star by his fourth season, putting up absurd numbers. Anybody?
The Greek Freak’s improvement from season-to-season has been a lot of fun to watch. His scoring numbers have steadily increased from 6.8, to 12.7, and 16.9 before jumping to 23.4 points per game in 2016-17. Antetokounmpo still can’t shoot the three-pointer (27 percent) but armed with ridiculous length, he consistently makes the impossible look possible on the court. He’s both an offensive and defensive weapon, whose physical attributes are, frankly, unfair. Antetokounmpo is a creative passer and above-average rebounder and defender — and he’s still improving.
On the fast break, give the ball to Giannis and be amazed. It takes him a single dribble to get from half court to the rim. Antetokounmpo can be used at virtually any position — which makes him a tough player to guard.
Antetokounmpo is a superstar. At 22 years old, it’s doubtful we’ve seen the best from him. His potential is unmeasurable.
Otto Porter – Washington Wizards
The Washington Wizards’ ascension to an Eastern Conference threat might be spearheaded by John Wall and Bradley Beal, but Porter’s improvement in 2016-17 has helped solidify an incredible starting lineup.
Under Scott Brooks, who’s unleashed the fourth-year forward, Porter has increased his scoring average from 11.6 to 14.6 points per game, despite taking roughly one more shot per game. What’s changed? Porter has become a league-best three-point shooter, with a blistering 46.5 percent make rate from deep. His previous career-high was just 36 percent.
Standing in the corner when John Wall draws attention going to the rim, Porter is shooting with no hesitation. It’s led to a lot of open shots.
With the improvement, Porter will get a lot of money on the open market when he hits restricted free agency by season’s end.
Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics
Thomas has gone from really good point guard to MVP candidate in 2016-17.
The 28-year-old is shooting the ball more than ever while maintaining career-best percentages across the board. It’s tough to stop a three-point shooter averaging nearly 40 percent on eight and a half attempts. Thomas does that while being efficient at the rim, despite his 5-foot-8 size.
The Celtics have thrived with Thomas running the point, especially in the fourth quarter where he has been unstoppable. Averaging nearly 30 points per game, there’s little doubt Thomas has established himself in the same class as the NBA elites. He’d be much higher on this list if he wasn’t already an established scoring threat. But I couldn’t keep him off the list because his rise has been so damn fun.
James Johnson – Miami Heat
It took Johnson five teams to find the right fit, but the 29-year-old has finally made himself a NBA home, putting his game together in his first season in Miami.
A Sixth Man of the Year candidate, Johnson has been a Swiss army knife for the Heat. He’s a tough defender, a good passer, and a solid scorer. Johnson’s averaged 12.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 26.6 minutes, all off the bench. He’s become an efficient three-point shooter (35 percent) while becoming a floor general for a weirdly assembled Miami bench. Now that’s he extended his range, Johnson’s post-game has further opened up.
Johnson’s versatility has been extremely valuable to Miami. He’s a tough mofo. He’s a perfect example of a better-late-than-never bloomer. There’s no doubt he’s got a future in the NBA now.
Tim Hardaway Jr. – Atlanta Hawks
Many pundits, myself included, despised the deal the Hawks made to acquire Hardaway from the New York Knicks during the 2015 draft. Giving up a first-round pick for a bonafide chucker, coming off a forgettable season was a head-scratcher. The doubts were proven correct initially when Hardaway Jr. averaged just 6.4 points — a career low — during his first season with Atlanta.
What a difference a season makes. The Hawks have entrusted the 24-year-old with key minutes and Hardaway Jr. has delivered. Averaging a career-high 13.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists, Hardaway has gone from afterthought to serious contributor. Atlanta thought so much of his performance that they dealt longtime guard Kyle Korver to the Cavaliers to open up more minutes.
Hardaway has revitalized his once-promising career with the Hawks. Is he a star? No. But he’s no scrub.