NBA Awards Rankings: New No. 1 in Most Improved Player race

There's a new sheriff in town for the Most Improved Player race.

Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets / Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
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4. player. 81. . . Forward. 4. Raptors. Scottie Barnes. Scottie Barnes

The Toronto Raptors are entrenched in the middle of the pack. At 9-10, Toronto has the No. 11-ranked defense and No. 22-ranked offense under new head coach Darko Rajakovic. It's clear changes are imminent. Whether Masai Ujiri and the front office will be proactive or reactive about those changes, however, is another matter entirely.

If you're looking for a beacon of hope, however, it arrives in the shape of Scottie Barnes. The 2022 Rookie of the Year appeared to plateau in his sophomore campaign, but a third-year leap has elevated Barnes into the All-Star conversation. He has been a legitimate two-way force, playing the best defense of his career while carrying a heavier burden than ever on offense.

Barnes is a legitimate All-Defense candidate, averaging 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks. He is protecting the rim from the weak side, erasing passing lanes with his 7-foot-3 wingspan, and playing staunch on-ball defense when called upon. He has the luxury of an elite wing defender (O.G. Anunoby) and impactful rim protector (Jakob Poeltl) behind him, but Barnes' activity level on defense deserves commendation.

On offense, Barnes has elevated along with his jumper. He's splashing pull-up mid-range shots on the regular, combined with career-best volume (5.0 per game) and efficiency (.379) from 3-point range. Creating both for himself and for teammates, Barnes is starting to deliver on the promise of the ultra-modern, multi-faceted wing the Raptors were angling for with the No. 4 pick in the 2021 draft.