Ryan Anderson will likely win the NBA's Most Improved Player award this season, mainly because Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy finally saw the light and handed the versatile forward the minutes he deserved. Anderson's per-minute stats have improved considerably, but his jump in production is mainly just a result of taking in the sort of playing time that reflects his talents.
Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes? He's really improved. Really, really improved. If he isn't the NBA's most improved player (not the award, just the designation) in 2011-12, then he's close. And he may have former Seattle SuperSonics superstar Shawn Kemp to thank.
Hawes, whose game reminds of Kemp's in ways you might not anticipate nor remember, apparently worked out with Kemp over the extended offseason. Hawes grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where Kemp still resides, and the former All-Star apparently was more than keen to bestow a bit of this and that on the 76ers big man.
"He's got a lot of upside to his game," Kemp said. "I've been barking at him for a while. I thought it was time to step up and show he could play a little better."
Mostly they played one-on-one.
"Just getting dirty a little bit," Kemp said. "Me and Spencer down in the post, beating each other up. A lot of elbows being thrown. A lot of real physical play."
"It was fun, definitely," said Hawes, who at 7-1 and 245 pounds is more earthbound than Kemp. "I had to stop sometimes and catch myself: 'Damn, I'm working out with Shawn Kemp.'"
Even those who were around for Kemp's pre-lockout prime often forget that the biggest source of his points came from triple-threat plays that mostly included face-up jumpers or trips to the free-throw line.
The lobs and throwdowns fill up the YouTube clips, and rightfully so, but Hawes is right to point out that it was Kemp's availability (so to speak) both in transition and the half-court that allowed him to flourish. He met the ball on entry passes, he worked his way toward the strong side without having to bowl defenders over (well … sometimes), and he made it easy for both Gary Payton and Nate McMillan to find him for dishes that didn't show up on the assist register, or on decades-old videos that show up on YouTube mix tapes.
This is part of the reason Hawes, who has decided to become more than just a spot-up jump shooter in his fifth season, has improved considerably. Spencer is shooting nearly 63 percent from the field after eight games. His work has gone beyond steps taken on the offensive end, though. Hawes' rebounding has shot way up, his blocks and assists have spiked, and he's fouling less. After years of a Player Efficiency Rating that drooped to the ranks of the below average, Hawes is working with a 23.6 mark this season. That's at an All-Star's level. All he needs are about eight more minutes per game for everyone to understand just how big a jump he's made.
Shawn Kemp made plenty of big jumps before weight and expectations pulled him back to earth following the NBA's last lockout in 1998. Even when he was able to slap the top of the backboard, though, Kemp still mixed things up with face-up jumpers and drives in either direction. His impact on Hawes' turnaround may have been minimal -- Spencer is just 23, and Sixers coach Doug Collins deserves a say in this -- but it can't be termed coincidental.