In my opinion, this is one of the most fun awards races to follow each season. Sometimes it’s clear from early on who the prize is going to, like last year when Oladipo won it. However this season it is wide open with 10 players that I can think of who could be in the running for it at this stage of the season. The 10 players I think could win it (in no particular order) are: Lavine, Siakam, Fox, Richardson, Randle, Hield, Sabonis, Harrell, Vucevic, and Murray.
These guys have all come on leaps and bounds this year. There are clearly too many to cover in this article so for now I’m going to focus on guys who I think are my favourites (not necessarily who I think are most likely to win, but who I think should win). I’m going to exclude Fox and Murray because I talked about those guys in an article recently (see ‘Should Fox be an All-star’). I’m also going to exclude many people’s favourite, Zach Lavine, because of his terrible efficiency and attitude for a team which he is supposed to be the leader of. Coach Nick of BBALLBREAKDOWN recently did a video explaining how Lavine has been hurting the Bulls this year, so I encourage you to watch that here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHSc_coQhW8 (from 6:45 onwards in the video).
From the remaining seven players I think Harrell, Siakam, and Vucevic have best shot at getting the award, so I’ll explain why.
The Clippers are currently 18-13 on the season which puts them 5th in the western conference currently. Harrell has been their sixth man this season, averaging 25.5 minutes per game (0.5 minutes more than perennial sixth man of the year candidate Lou Williams) and scoring 15.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Last year his numbers were just 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks in 8.5 minutes fewer per game. This is clearly a huge improvement statistically. But where you really see the improvement from Harrell is the eye test. This guy is clearly so important to this Clippers team. He has a non-stop motor, working tirelessly for every rebound – offensive and defensive – and hustling for every loose ball. The way Harrell’s energy affects the game is reminiscent of Dennis Rodman.
Siakam is playing 30 minutes per game starting for arguably the best team in the NBA this season. He is absolutely stuffing the stat sheet with 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game. Last season his numbers were 7.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks per game. Those numbers are good but there has clearly been a huge improvement since last year. He is playing roughly 10 more minutes per game this season so that will be a large factor in why his box score jumps off the page now, but besides that there is another big factor which is his 3-point percentage. Last season it was at 22.0% and he was shooting 1.6 per game, whereas this season he has improved drastically to 36.9% on 2.0 attempts per game. This has helped his team mightily as he is now able to be an effective floor spacer for the likes of Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard so they can go to work inside. It also means defenders have to stay home on him in the corner, which opens up backdoor cuts along the baseline, pick and pop opportunities with Kawhi, Lowry or Van Vleet as the ball handler.
Further to that, Siakam has always been a good defensive player with his supreme length and athleticism. This is seen in the defensive box plus minus stat which was 2.2 last year and is also 2.2 this season. However his offensive plus minus was 0.0 last season and is now 2.6 this season. That is a huge leap! If that doesn’t scream most improved player then nothing does.
The last guy I’m going to talk about here is a little bit of a wild card given that this award usually goes to a second or third year player when development of players tends to be at its highest. So to pick 28 year old, 8th year player, Nikola Vucevic, may seem a bit rogue. But strangely this guy has got to be considered for the award.
By Christmas last season, the Magic were 11-23 and were ranked 30th on the NBA power rankings for that week. This season they are 14-17 and ranked 19th in the NBA power rankings. That is a huge jump for a team that seemed like they would be in the draft lottery forever (they still may well be). They are now 9th in the Eastern conference and actually fighting for a playoff spot, for what seems like the first time in a million years.
The reason for this team’s resurgence is mostly down to their big man, Vucevic. In 31.0 minutes per game this season he is averaging 20.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. Last season he played just 1.5 minutes less and only averaged 16.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. It is clear from looking at those stats he has increased his production massively this season. He has also increased his 3-point percentage from 31.4% to 39.4% and his PER from 19.7 to a whopping 26.4. That puts him joint sixth in the entire NBA fro PER with Kawhi Leonard. The only players above him are AD, Giannis, Harden, Curry, and Lebron. That is quite the list to be on.
Most importantly of all though for Vucevic, he has made these enormous improvements on roughly the same number of minutes per game as last season. This is something you can only really say about him compared to other players on the list like Siakam and Harrell who have both had big boosts in their minutes this season, which obviously inflate their statistical improvements.
For me, I would actually give the award to Vucevic this season if he can keep it up and actually get the Magic into the playoffs. That is not a popular opinion but with the facts I’ve laid out for you above, I’d suggest it is very clear why I think that, and I hope I will open some more people’s eyes to this too now.