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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Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images /

4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

An unsteady second year in the NBA called into question whether Tatum’s precocious rookie season was a promising harbinger or a blip on the radar. In his third year, Tatum bounced back, delivering the best season of his career as a central part of one of the NBA’s best teams. He increased his scoring average from just under 16 points to over 23 while improving his rebounding and scoring volume in a system that asked more of him. Much of that improvement was a result of picking low-hanging fruit and fine-tuning certain areas of his game.

While Tatum has long had the size and technique to create a shot virtually from thin air, his shot selection often left Boston wanting as he settled for difficult midrange jumpers rather than stepping into easier 3s or getting all the way to the rim. This season, he took more 3s and fewer pull-up 2s than ever before, which also led to more attempts at the rim and the foul line. He blossomed into one of the league’s best pull-up 3-point shooters, and hit a shade under 40 percent of his triples on over seven attempts per game. Tatum improved noticeably as a playmaker, setting up teammates more often and reducing turnovers, all while pushing his usage rate toward 28 percent.

His overall scoring efficiency doesn’t stack up to the league’s best offensive engines, but his versatility and ability to create in a pinch made him integral to Boston’s offense. The Celtics were nearly six points per 100 possessions better offensively with Tatum on the floor and used him as a tentpole of their system. Defensively, he built upon an already solid foundation of instincts and activity off the ball. Tatum is an adequate defender at the point of attack, but with better one-on-one options in Boston’s rotation, he has thrived as a disruptor and help defender.

Tatum still has room to improve, and a strong second half of the season helped overshadow an inconsistent offensive start to the year. We may not know how his leap would have carried into the postseason or whether it would have sustained the Celtics through the end of the regular season. All we have is the data available, and in that sample, Tatum’s progress is undeniable.