Who was the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season?

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images /
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As many as a dozen players could make strong cases they belong on this year’s ballot for Most Improved, but these seven stood out from the pack.

The beauty of an award like Most Improved Player is in how wide a net it casts across the NBA. The more glamorous MVP and Rookie of the Year draw only on a select pool of elite candidates; by definition, Sixth Man of the Year ignores most of the league’s best players; Defensive Player of the Year looks only at one side of the ball, which typically makes it easier to parse.

Most Improved leaves itself open for interpretation. The criteria for the award is rather fluid, which gives voters different ways to make sense of players’ improvement and, thus, arrive at different — but equally valid — conclusions. There are so many ways a player can improve, and nearly as many to measure growth. A new context might ask a promising player to suddenly become a proven one; roster turnover could mandate that a bench player step into a leading role; perhaps a fringe All-Star makes the leap into true stardom and carries his team to new heights.

As many as a dozen players could make reasonable cases they belong on this year’s ballot, but seven stood out from the pack.

7. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

Were it not for a certain Slovenian Wonderboy, Adebayo would have as rightful a claim to Most Improved Player as anyone. There isn’t another player who checks as many different boxes for this award as Adebayo. After starting just 28 games last year, the third-year big man transitioned into a full-time starter, first-time All-Star, and indispensable player on a bona fide playoff team. Even as he became a focal point of opponent’s scouting reports, Adebayo nearly doubled his scoring average and carried a heavier offensive load — all while maintaining lofty efficiency numbers and a central defensive role.

Even in an era where big men handling the ball and setting up teammates has become commonplace, Adebayo’s skill and acumen stand out. Among centers, only Domantas Sabonis and Nikola Jokić had more games with at least eight assists, and few handle the ball with the sort of fluidity and instincts Adebayo does. What separates Miami’s big man from other playmaking centers, however, is his malleability. He may not singlehandedly galvanize an offense in any one capacity, but he can be a propellant in nearly any area of the game. By acting as a ball-handler, passer, screener, and roll man, Adebayo fits all kinds of teammates and lineup configurations, which gives Miami a kind of optionality it wouldn’t have without its Swiss-Army center.

Defensively, Adebayo plays with an uncommon force and tenacity. He stifles opponents both at the rim and on the perimeter and was instrumental in preserving what defensive integrity Miami had left by the end of the season. Few defenders serve as on-ball stoppers and back-line anchors, but Adebayo threaded that needle constantly — and often on the same possession. The leap from promising young rim protector to one of the most valuable and versatile defenders in the NBA seldom happens — let alone in a player’s third professional season.

The lone weakness left in Adebayo’s ever-expanding game is his jumpshot. While he compensates for a lack of range with ball-handling dexterity and furious downhill drives, Adebayo’s opponents can anticipate those counters without the threat of him rising up from beyond the arc. He began to incorporate a 15-footer into his game this season but has yet to flesh it out into a consistent weapon. Still, Adebayo’s leap was significant enough as is. He has time enough to round out the few rough edges that remain.