Updated: Oct 9, 2021
"Most Improved Player" is the most variable award each season in the NBA. Winners can be any position, come from any college or country, and have any level of experience. The playing field is completely level, as long as they make a large enough leap from the previous season. To arrange the different winners of the Most Improved Player Award, I have three major categories:
They've risen out of obscurity and become an impactful contributor for their team, but they haven't quite reached All-Star level (Goran Dragic in 2014, Pascal Siakam in 2019).
They've jumped from solid contributor to All-Star, raising their game in a significant way (Victor Oladipo in 2018, Brandon Ingram in 2020).
They've unexpectedly improved in almost every major statistic, usually due to being promoted to the starting lineup (Boris Diaw in 2006, Aaron Brooks in 2010).
I believe there are four primary candidates in the race for Most Improved Player so far this season. I'll be taking a look at each one and their individual strengths and improved categories and predict a winner at the end of this season.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Drafted third overall in 2016, Brown's rise this season has been meteoric to say the least. Last season, he looked like a solid piece of Boston's future with averages of 20.3 points and 6.4 rebounds on a career-high 48.1 percent from the field. But what Brown has accomplished so far this season is extraordinary. He's upped his scoring to 27.1 points per game and all but cemented his first All-Star appearance.
The most intriguing part of Brown's heightened scoring is his proclivity for midrange jumpers. Every night, you'll see him draining shot after shot off the dribble, but he's often between the 3-point line and the paint. It's a fascinating sight in today's analytics-driven NBA. So far, he's converted a staggering 56.8 percent of his midrange shots. That figure is unsustainable, even in a shortened season, as Brown has made just under 69 percent of his free throw shots during his NBA career.
Nonetheless, it's highly impressive to watch Brown's poise and how smooth he's become in finding his spots each night for Boston. When Jayson Tatum missed five games after testing positive for COVID-19, Brown put the offense on his back. Even when Tatum is playing, the Celtics offense is running through Brown as well. He has a usage rate of 29.4 percent – one of the highest rates in the league, but so far, Boston's more than satisfied with that.
Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
Wood's journey is one of the best stories in the NBA: he went undrafted in 2015 and bounced around the league until finding the Detroit Pistons in 2019 – his fifth team at just 23 years old. He had an excellent second half of the 2019-20 season and earned himself a 3-year, $43 million contract with the Houston Rockets in free agency.
Through the first quarter of the season, Wood is making the Detroit front office look silly for letting him walk down south. Never too high or too low, Wood has been as steady a force as they come despite the major roster turnover in Houston. He's 20th in points per game and 10th in rebounds per game and could surely sneak in as an All-Star reserve in a loaded Western Conference. Plus, shooting 37.9 percent from deep gives those who are unfamiliar (looking at you, Shaq) a taste of the guard-like skillset that the 6-foot-10 big man boasts.
Houston has a top-10 center in the league for a bargain bin price. It's clear that the Rockets are looking to rebuild after dealing James Harden, but Wood is a fantastic building block for their future.
Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
Now, we look at the player that Pistons general manager Troy Weaver wanted in favor of Wood. To me, Jerami Grant has been the league's biggest surprise this season. Weaver was an assistant general manager for the Thunder during his time with the team, and he saw something special in the wing. After he inked a 3-year, $60 million contract with the Pistons, Grant knew that he would need a special season to prove he was that valuable.
So far, the Syracuse product has been worth every dollar. He's averaging 23.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game on 44.8 percent from the floor and 40.2 percent from 3-point range. What boggles my mind is that Grant doesn't truly fit into one of the three categories. I would put him into the third, but he started 77 out of 80 games for the Thunder during the 2017-18 season. He came off the bench last season for Denver but had a solid postseason performance that played a significant role in his new contract with the Pistons. I think Grant fits more into the second category: he'll likely be selected as an All-Star reserve barring any catastrophic slump in the next two weeks.
Some may say that Grant improved by proxy, as the leading scorers behind him are a 32-year-old Derrick Rose, an unusually hot Wayne Ellington, and a certifiably washed Blake Griffin. But he signed with the Pistons knowing he would become their primary option, and Weaver had to see something compelling enough to pay $20 million a year. Grant has surely delivered, and like Wood, he's the primary piece of his team's future.
Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers
After a tough 19-46 season in Cleveland last year, the Cavaliers are now sitting at seventh in the Eastern Conference, due in no small part to their breakout star Collin Sexton. Sexton is the heart and soul of Cleveland's offense, and he's fully emerged as one of the best pure scorers in the NBA. When he was drafted eighth in 2018, the Cavaliers expected him to step in as their point guard of the future. But that isn't his game. 2019 selection Darius Garland is better suited as the facilitator, and Sexton can focus on doing what he does best: putting the ball in the basket.
Sexton is putting up a career-best 24.6 points and (ironically) 4.3 assists per game. With Garland on the floor and Andre Drummond waiting to grab any misses, Sexton has free rein in Cleveland's system. His player efficiency rating of 20.3 and true shooting percentage of 59.9 are both career marks for the Alabama alum. That's the most remarkable component of his season so far. He's continuing to attack defenders and pull shots from all over the floor, but his efficiency is at a peak.
The city of Cleveland finally has another player to root for. Sexton has that kind of intensity to capture the hearts of fans and media alike, and he is the perfect archetype of a franchise player in a small market.
Who will win Most Improved Player?
Brown, Wood, Grant, and Sexton have all excelled in their respective roles this season and deserve league-wide recognition for their improvement. With that being said, I believe that Jerami Grant should (and has the greatest chance to) win the Most Improved Player Award this offseason. He's more than excelled in his role as the primary offensive weapon in Detroit, and help is unlikely to come this season. It's remarkable that Grant has more than doubled his scoring output from last season with such efficiency. Could his percentages regress slightly as we get closer to the playoffs? Sure, it happens to the best players. But Jerami Grant has undoubtedly enjoyed one of the biggest leaps in a season in recent NBA history.