It’s a two-horse race for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award between Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lauri Markkanen but for me, the Flying Finn should be clear favourite.
The recent injury to Tyrese Haliburton looks to have taken the Indiana Pacers point guard out of the running, and while the likes of New York’s Jalen Brunson have some supporters at a price, most books have narrowed it down to a heads-up battle between Oklahoma City’s SGA and Utah’s Markkanen.
Both are having career years, and both should receive their first All Star Game call-up next month, a fully deserved reward for their stellar seasons.
Looking at the numbers, SGA is averaging 31 points per game along with 5 rebounds and 5.5 assists, while Markkanen is putting up 25, 8.5 and 2. Shai is shooting 50% overall, 35% for threes and a massive 91% from the free throw line, a full 10 percentage points higher than in any other season. Markkanen is at 52% overall, 41% from three (both career highs) and 87% from the charity stripe.
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Numerically it’s close, with Shai scoring a few points more per night, while his extra assists are balanced out by Lauri’s extra rebounding. Both are shooting the lights out, each in with a chance of posting the sainted 50/40/90 season.
But hang on, we’re not comparing these two against each other. We’re not trying to decide who is the best player, or which one we’d select if we were building a new franchise.
Rather than compare them with each other, the Most Improved Player award dictates that we actually compare them with their previous selves - after all, this award is for who has improved the most. And for me, Markkanen is head and shoulders the winner.
Before this season, the gangly Finn has been a bit of a disappointment after being selected 7th by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2017 draft.
He was dealt on draft night to the rebuilding Chicago Bulls as part of the Jimmy Butler trade, but after a decent start, his numbers started to decline. After career lows in minutes, points and rebounds in 2020/21, Markkanen was offloaded in a sign and trade to Cleveland.
In his one season with the Cavs, he averaged 15 points, 5.7 rebounds and just over 1 assist on 45/36/87 splits before he was on the move again as a makeweight in the blockbuster Donovan Mitchell trade with the Utah Jazz.
Over his 6-year NBA career he’s averaging 17 points on 45/37/85 percentages, and looked for all the world like a journeyman never destined to make a big impact. But he’s found a new home in Utah, has embraced the Jazz and their rebuild and has made a huge jump in his breakthrough year, averaging 10 full points more than last season (or any of the past three seasons for that matter).
Celebrating what a huge improvement Markkanen has made isn’t a sleight on Gilgeous-Alexander, it’s just he started from a higher baseline, and has long been thought of as a future star.
Shai was dealt by the Clippers to OKC after his rookie year, but only because the Thunder played hardball and insisted LA’s highly rated young guard, who they’d traded up to take with the 11th pick in the 2018 draft, was included in the Paul George deal. Last year, SGA averaged 25 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists on 45/30/81 shooting and for his five-year NBA career he’s averaged 20, 4.5 and 4.5 on 48/35/83 shooting.
If this was an award for who is the best player, I would favour SGA too - he’s blossomed into a genuine NBA star scoring 30 points a night and his career continues on an upward trajectory which has seen his scoring output jump from 11ppg in his rookie season to 19, 24, 24.5 in successive season to this year’s 31ppg.
But ask yourself who has improved the most and it’s an easy call. The kind of keep from role player to main man that Markkanen has shown this season is what Most Improved Players is all about. The 13/10 won’t be around for long on a man who should be the odds on favourite, so take it while you can.
Latest NBA Most Improved Player Odds:
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, odds 1.92
Lauri Markkanen, odds 2.20
Jalen Brunson, odds 15.00
RECOMMENDATION: 10 points, Lauri Markkanen NBA Most Improved Player 2.20
By Max Bennett | 01/17/23
Follow Max Bennett on Twitter at @MaxBTheJumpHub