NBA99: Ranking the most improved players in the NBA this season

With the release of FanSided's first ranking of the top 99 players in the NBA, we're looking at the players who have taken the biggest leaps this season.
Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors
Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors / Ezra Shaw/GettyImages

This week the NBA team at FanSided rolled out the first edition of our NBA99, ranking the 99 best players in the NBA. These rankings are a living document, updated regularly throughout the year, exploring how each player has carved out their NBA niche and how it is evolving over time.

Because we don't have a don't have a preseason version to compare to for this year, celebrating growth is a bit of a subjective exercise. But here are five players who either (probably) wouldn't have made a preseason version of the list or would have been ranked significantly lower.

5. Jonathan Kuminga, Forward, Golden State Warriors — No. 95

Jonathan Kuminga has seemed on the edge of slipping out the Warriors long-term plans for most of last year but he really turned things around. He appeared in 74 games with 46 starts, averaging 26.3 minutes per game — all career-highs. He earned those opportunities with his production — 16.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. His outside shooting is very much a work in progress and he finished the year at just 32.1 percent but he did bump his free-throw percentage to 74.6 and, in general, he's been a much more reliable and under-control contributor on offense.

Aggression and physicality are still his primary contributions but he's cut down on mistakes and added a measure of control. On a team with a deficit of size up front and plenty of finesse woven into their approach his ability to batter opponents gives the Warriors an element they haven't had in a while and one they'll definitely need for the future.

4. Aaron Nesmith, Forward, Pacers — No. 93

Aaron Nesmith was a consistent part of the Pacers' rotation last season but mostly by default. They were incredibly thin at the 3 and the 4 and he so he started 60 games, played nearly 25 per contest and put up some modest numbers. But it seemed likely those opportunities would shrink this year with newcomers Obi Toppin and Bruce Brown taking the two remaining spots in the starting lineup and rookie Jarace Walker needing developmental minutes.

Instead, Toppin has faded from the rotation, Brown was traded as part of the package to bring in Pascal Siakam and Aaron Nesmith has become firmly entrenched as the starting 3. On the season, he averaged 12.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.9 steals per game. He hit an eye-popping 41.9 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and he's become one of Tyrese Haliburton's most comfortable perimeter targets, taking over from Buddy Hield.

Nesmith's upside may be capped in this 3-and-D role but he's been exceptional in it — one of the most consistent spot-up shooters in the league, and a plus-defender comfortable using his strength to compensate for his lack of height (6-foot-5) and smoothly shifting between matchups on guards, wings and bigger forwards. He's never going to create much offense for himself but he's a great finisher, a savvy cutter and increasingly confident and competent attacking closeouts with straight-line drives.

Nesmith's development has solved a lot of team-building problems for the Pacers and helped slot the rest of their young players into more defined roles. He's been one of the biggest and best surprises of the season and he's made himself a key part of their future.

3. D'Angelo Russell, Guard, Los Angeles Lakers — No. 88

If you're the kind of person who already thought D'Angelo Russell was a star or one of the best point guards in the league, this season probably seemed more about the haters being exposed than actual improvement. But for those of us who saw Russell as a deeply flawed player, a disastrous defender and an offensive engine whose efficiency was never really good enough to justify his usage, we need to admit he's been much, much better.

Russell hit 41.5 percent of his 3s this season, a career-high and cut his turnover percentage to a career-low 11.8 percent. And while his defense certainly hasn't been good, it's been better and it's clear that he's putting more effort and work into it than he has in some recent seasons. I don't know that Russell has dramatically changed his reputation but he was good enough to keep the Lakers from trading him at the deadline and he made the first iteration of the NBA99, something he almost certainly wouldn't have done before the season started.

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2. Coby White, Guard, Chicago Bulls — No. 70

White wouldn't have sniffed the NBA99 list before the season started, establishing himself as a solid if thoroughly unspectacular backup point guard across his first four seasons. But this year he emerged as an above-average starter, putting up 19.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds, shooting 37.6 percent from beyond the arc on than seven attempts per game.

The numbers were remarkable but it was the context. He did it after showing now real sign of being able to sustain this level of production across his first four seasons. He did it across the entire season without any real dropoff. He did by stepping into the void left by Zach LaVine. And he did it will keeping the Bulls in the Play-In Tournament race when they looked dead in the water.

1. Alperen Şengün, Big, Houston Rockets — No. 30

Şengün went from an interesting young piece to a legitimate star this season. He averaged 21.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game, all career-highs. He dramatically increased his usage while cutting his turnover percentage to a new career low, while becoming a near-elite creator from the elbows and an offensive hub. But perhaps most significantly, he completely supplanted Jalen Green as the most important piece of the Rockets' future.

The Rockets are loaded with young talent but Şengün is the first to make the leap, (season-ending hot streak from Jalen Green aside). He probably would have made a preseason version of this list but nowhere near the No. 30 ranking he's slotted into now.

NBA99. NBA99. Ranking the 99 best players in the NBA right now. dark