It’s now over a month into the NBA’s 72 game season and the league is as active and exciting as usual. The Brooklyn Nets have gone all-in by adding James Harden. Covid-19 contact tracing precautions have shaken the standings. One thing that never changes is the emergence of certain players taking their games to the next level and helping their team win. The players who are on this list aren’t established stars and may or may not even be All-Stars this year, but they’ve shown significant improvement. It could be that their efficiency has taken a step forward, or that they’re showing more defensive effort. Either way, the guys that have worked exceptionally hard on improving their craft deserve some praise and recognition.
Honorable Mentions: Tobias Harris, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine. Note: some of these players in the honorable mentions category are better than some players on the list. The list is based on the improvement displayed by a player, not their overall quality.
1. Jaylen Brown (Shooting Guard, Boston Celtics)
Brown’s transformation from a raw top pick into a surefire All-Star has been one of the more underrated stories in recent memory. Yes, he was a top-three pick in 2016, but he’s turned his biggest weakness into a strength. The big knock on Brown’s game coming out was that he didn’t have a quality jump shot. Since his rookie season, his three-point percentage has risen 10% up to 44% on 6 attempts a game. In fact, nearly everything about his game has improved every season of his career. In Tatum’s short absence, Brown took on the role of a primary shot creator for his team and absolutely thrived. Brown has harnessed his ability to score efficiently at every level and control the pace of their offense. 27 points per game on 50/40 splits is great offensive production in addition to his always stellar on-ball defense.
2. Collin Sexton (Point Guard, Cleveland Cavaliers)
We all saw what Sexton did to the Nets big 3 in their debut. He had a career night and outshined three offensive juggernauts on the opposing team. It was impressive to say the least, but that’s not the main reason he’s on the list. Sexton has improved across the board and has had a greater impact on his team. A 3.8 rise in scoring to 24.6 with steady 60% true shooting proves his scoring repertoire is getting better. Even his playmaking has improved, with over 4 assists per game, and, just as importantly, only a very minor uptick in turnovers in contrast. To put this all into one statistic, Sexton’s BPM (box plus-minus) went from -1.8 to 2.2 from 2020 to 2021. His improvement is getting his team wins as well. The Cavaliers now have a record around .500 and have surpassed expectations by climbing to the 7 seed.
3. Malcolm Brogdon (Point Guard, Indiana Pacers)
Brogdon should absolutely be in the All-Star conversation as the picks are being considered. Back when he was a Buck, Brogdon’s efficiency as a scoring threat was what was most impressive. He finished a season at the 50%/40%/90% (FG/3P,FT) mark which isn’t an easy feat in the NBA. When he did a sign-and-trade deal with the Pacers, his role instantly changed. He got more minutes, shots and naturally we saw his game expand. His playmaking spiked but his scoring efficiency dropped with more volume. However, this season he’s put everything together and ascended into All-Star territory. He has produced a higher scoring output of 22.7 PPG, a higher true shooting rate of 57%, while still creating offense for his teammates by being top 25 in assist to turnover ratio. In short, Brogdon went from a role player to the main offensive threat on a winning team.
4. Julius Randle (Power Forward, New York Knicks)
In his second season in the Big Apple, Julius Randle is finally starting to live up to the 62-million-dollar contract he signed back in 2019. In a season with every reason for players to sit games, Randle has played in every game. Randle is building off his 2019 breakout year, and if he keeps pace the entire season it’s safe to say his 2020 season will be considered just a down year for him. He’s risen to a career-high in free throw percentage, as well as points, assists, and rebounds per game (81%,22,6,11,). The most impressive of these is the better free throw shooting and playmaking. An 8% FT increase from one season to the next isn’t common and might go down, but the improved mechanics are evident when watching him play. His passing skillset is now in the same vein as Bam Adebayo, with handoff plays to guards at the top of the key and passing to open shooters out of the post helping to generate offense for his team. Randle should be considered for an All-Star reserve spot in 2021.
5. Gordon Hayward (Small Forward, Charlotte Hornets)
Believe it or not, but All-Star caliber Gordon Hayward might just be back. We can’t know for sure until he sustains this play for the entire season, but right now he’s playing on that level. After going to the Hornets in free agency, the opportunity was going to be there for him to play as well as he has in his entire career. All credit to him because he’s taking full advantage and posting career numbers. Of course, more minutes and shots will usually lead to more points. What isn’t all that typical, however, is a player’s scoring averages going up and maintaining or even increasing their efficiency as well. Last year Hayward posted a 59% true shooting and this year that mark has gone up to 61%, with obviously higher volume. While Hayward was in Boston, he showed spurts of his well-rounded game, but it’s on full display with the Hornets.
6. De’Andre Hunter (Small Forward, Atlanta Hawks)
Hunter has taken the kind of jump that I was expecting from teammate Cam Reddish. On both ends Hunter has built well off his rookie season. Starting on offense, he’s been receiving a similar workload to last year when it comes to minutes and shots per game. However, he’s scoring more and at an efficient clip. Interestingly, his three-point shot has remained the same at a solid 36%, however, his overall field goal percentage has skyrocketed from 41% to 51%. The reason for this change is shown in his commitment to improving his weak shooting areas on the court. In his rookie season, he shot 30% on attempts 3-10 feet from the rim. This year he’s been shooting 61%. Sure, the number will probably come down, but that kind of gap can only come from working on his game. On defense, he’s put all of his tools together to become one of the more quality wing defenders in the NBA.
7. Jerami Grant (Small Forward, Detroit Pistons)
Grant has been a shining example of what happens when a player takes complete advantage of a new situation in which the handcuffs are taken off. Not that Denver was using him wrongly – he was a very good role player for them and that’s all they needed him to be. Grant is proving that his surge in the bubble was no fluke by being a front runner for MIP. First, his scoring volume has taken off as his points per game has doubled from 12 to 24 and he’s remained a consistent shooter at 40%. His shooting has come on strong over the course of his career, but this year he’s shown how talented he is as an overall scorer. Additionally, in Denver he got great looks from playing with Nikola Jokic but there is no such guy for the Pistons. That hasn’t mattered a bit for Grant as he’s evolved into a guy that can create his own shot at all levels and hit contested shots off the dribble consistently.
8. Mike Conley (Point Guard, Utah Jazz)
Similar to Hayward, we’ve seen better days from both these guys and this year we’re seeing them return to form. This is the kind of impact we thought Conley would have on the Jazz. He’s been an excellent secondary scoring option on the perimeter and the necessary complement to Donovan Mitchell. Even when Mitchell hasn’t played, Conley led the Jazz to wins. He is clearly part of the reason they are the hottest team in basketball. 41% from three on 7+ attempts per game, a good assist to turnover ratio, and great perimeter defense has vaulted Conley into All-Star consideration. Conley ranks as the best perimeter defender in the NBA this year based on RAPTOR (which uses player tracking data to calculate value on both ends). Combined with his offensive value, he ranks as the number one player in that stat. Sure, he’s not actually the best player in the NBA, but that proves his immense value to the Jazz.
9. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Shooting Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder)
This is Alexander’s first year after being mentored by Chris Paul, and as of now, he’s building off his breakout season in 2020. Everything in his game looks refined and completely ironed out. Take his playmaking for example. Last year he showed all the signs of a solid passer who reads the floor well and can control pace. His 3 assists per game didn’t reflect all that growth because Chris Paul was next to him in the backcourt. The growth was still there, and this season he showed it by taking the lead on offense. Now he’s averaging 6 assists with All-Star level scoring production. Despite the heavier offensive load, Alexander’s defense hasn’t dropped too far. He has over 2 deflections per game and he contests over 8 shots per game, which is excellent for a guard. SGA is proving to be just the right franchise building block for the Thunder’s future.
10. Christian Wood (Center, Houston Rockets)
Saving maybe the best for last, Christian Wood is right up there with Grant as a favorite for the MIP award. Wood signed a deal with the Rockets for an average salary of 13.67 million dollars for the next three years. At the time lots of people (including me) thought the Pistons were foolish not to re-sign him and let the Rockets get him on a cheap deal. It turns out our suspicions were just the tip of the iceberg. Wood’s production has vaulted to 23 points and 11 rebounds per game, and he still shoots well over 50% from the field. With Harden on the court or now without him, Wood has been aggressive and versatile on both ends of the floor. You can tell Wood was motivated by his former team lowballing him because he is hustling on the glass, protecting the paint by contesting over 12 shots a game, and rounding out his scoring game by being an aggressive finisher and solid outside shooter. If not for the stacked Western Conference, Wood would be getting more love in the All-Star voting.