My 3 bets to win Most Improved Player of the Year

Marco Benitez on Feb 14, 2017 06:52 PM
My 3 bets to win Most Improved Player of the Year
Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) drives to the basket against Detroit Pistons forward Tobias Harris, right, during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

With almost half the season gone and the postseason picture beginning to take shape, it’s time to make predictions as to who are the candidates to win this year’s NBA individual awards. 

Last season, CJ McCollum of the Blazers bagged the NBA Most Improved Player of the Year Award after a breakout season, establishing himself as the second-best player on the Trail Blazers. This year, there have been many breakout performances, but I’ll try to limit my candidates to three, basing my picks on their statistical improvement, as well as the impact they’ve had on their respective teams.

3. Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks

20.1 points (47.5 percent FG, 34.4 percent 3FG), 5.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists

Finally getting himself out of the shadow of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over in Golden State, Harrison Barnes inked a mega-million deal with the Dallas Mavericks in the offseason, showing Mark Cuban’s intent to make him the future of the franchise post-Dirk Nowitzki. 

Barnes averaged a good, but not great, 11.7 points (47 percent from the field, 38 percent from beyond the arc), 4.9 rebounds, and 1.8 assists last season, while taking just 9.6 shots an outing. Many felt that he had quite some way to go to live up to his potential, but in his expanded role as a Maverick, he’s making the case for himself as one of the league’s elite forwards. 

Despite having to create more of his own shots, his shooting percentage has increased, as has his scoring average. He’s also been able to flash more of the versatility that was on display as the small-ball four in the Warriors’ Lineup of Death. 

Early in the season, the Mavericks were struggling mightily, but they’ve since completed quite the turnaround, and are now three games back of the eighth seed in the West. That only strengthens Barnes’ case for Most Improved. 

2. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

29.8 points (46.8 percent FG, 38.2 percent 3FG), 2.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 0.8 steals

Some might feel that another Eastern Conference point guard, Dennis Schroder of the Hawks, would be more deserving of the MIP Award, given how he’s handled being handed the reins of the offense there. However, there is just no discounting the remarkable improvement in Isaiah Thomas’ game this season. 

Standing just 5’9” and on his third team in seven years in the league, very few believed that IT would be one of the NBA’s elite. Now though, the 60th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft is slated to make his second All-Star appearance. 

Thomas has found a home in Boston. Not only is he giving them starter's minutes and production, he is their designated closer and Mr. 4th Quarter, leading the NBA in points scored in the final quarter. Thomas' shot-making ability, at his height and frame, is almost mind-boggling. To put it simply, he's been larger than life this season. Perhaps most importantly, his on-court swag and leadership have given the Celtics (currently 2nd in the conference) that much-needed edge to threaten the Cavs' stranglehold atop the East.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

23.2 points (52.4 percent FG, 27.7 percent 3FG), 8.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 2.0 blocks

I've written about The Greek Freak in past blogs and how he has elevated his game from starter to superstar status, embracing the point-forward and playmaker role for the postseason-seeking Milwaukee Bucks. Giannis is leading his team in virtually every major stat category in just his fourth year, a feat almost unheard of from the other superstars, much less a 22-year-old. 

Standing 6'11" with a 7'3" wingspan, but with the athleticism and ball-handling skills of a guard, he has an advantage over almost every matchup defenses try to throw at him. 

With his first All-Star starting job in the bag, and Jabari Parker out for the rest of the season due to an ACL tear, Giannis will all the more have to do it all for his team. A serious Playoffs push after the All-Star break in spite of Parker’s absence, will make the face of the Bucks franchise a lock to win Most Improved Player of the Year honors.

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