Every week, Yahoo Sports’ Vincent Goodwill will reveal his ballot for an NBA superlative award for the 2019-20 season. The ballots were due before the restart of the season at Walt Disney World.
Judging the NBA Most Improved Player candidates is as difficult as any individual award because natural progression must be factored in against substantive leaps of performance.
Therefore, Dallas Mavericks wunderkind Luka Doncic didn’t make this ballot, with the acknowledgment he’s a franchise player and clearly would be the best player in the present and future of those on this list. He’s elevated to an All-Star this season and will be a big part of why the Mavericks can be contenders if things break right with the roster. But he entered the league with a veteran’s savvy already, so a Year 2 jump was quite predictable all things considered.
The three candidates on this ballot emerged from different places. New Orleans swingman Brandon Ingram looked like a good scorer but not anything close to a complete player, and after uneven years with the Los Angeles Lakers, there was considerable doubt as to his future — not as a talent but in the role which would fit best.
Boston’s Jayson Tatum had similar questions but differing circumstances after two seasons that showed glimpses of tantalizing potential. Miami’s Bam Adebayo seemed the most likely to improve with his skill set, but the Heat’s roster construction felt like it would enable him to thrive more than any other factor. He took that jump and added more in his third year.
The case for Brandon Ingram
The common theme among all three? Consistency, and in Ingram’s case, he had the biggest adjustment of all in prepping for the debut of New Orleans Pelicans franchise savior Zion Williamson. Ingram had to learn how to play with Williamson before Williamson stepped on the floor, so the adjustment wouldn’t be so jarring.
He also had the task of repairing his own confidence, having been the second pick of the 2016 draft and enduring the natural comparisons to Kevin Durant. Having played fewer than 60 games the last two seasons and not fitting in perfectly with LeBron James took some sheen off his game before being sent to New Orleans in the Anthony Davis deal.
Once he arrived, he looked more confident, more sure of himself and his game. There were some aspects that he improved on — open-floor playmaking and rebounding, but playing winning basketball and carrying a load for a franchise in “wait” mode can’t go ignored. Of the three, he had the most questions about playing effective basketball in the context of winning and the most difficult circumstances to prove himself.
And he turned himself into an All-Star and possibly a max player whenever things settle out in the offseason. He’s a threat to score anywhere on the floor, and his 23.8 points always seemed to come in the flow, as if he could do more but didn’t want to assert himself at the expense of his teammates.
His PER raised from 13.4 to 18.8 and, most importantly, seems to have meshed with Williamson in their limited playing time. Even though there’s still room on his plate for growth, he finished first on the ballot because the red carpet was not laid out for him — he succeeded in spite of an imperfect world.
The case for Jayson Tatum
Tatum will finish higher on All-NBA ballots than the other two, and most certainly has superstar written all over him. The Kyrie Irving experience last season dulled some optimism surrounding Tatum as the Celtics flamed out in five quiet games in the second round. Tatum still had his fans, but was being questioned by those who believed the Celtics overvalued he and fellow youngster Jaylen Brown.
Tatum looks like a franchise player who’ll carry the Celtics into contention for the reasonable future. He looked like he belonged in the MVP conversation in February following an uneven Celtics start to 2020, averaging over 30 a night. He even gave the Pelicans a taste a couple of weeks prior to his explosion, scoring 41 in 30 devastating minutes.
Like Ingram, consistency was the improvement along with his development. Even though Kemba Walker arrived to replace Irving, Tatum was atop everyone’s scouting report and he faced the best defenders nightly. His PER rose to over 20 and he shot nearly 40% from the 3-point line.
On a talent-rich Celtics team that could’ve capsized similar to last year, Tatum found a way to dominate without alienating his teammates. It’ll be a group effort if the Celtics are to surprise and get through Milwaukee in the East, but Tatum will be the toughest cover with the highest potential to go off in the bubble playoff.
Adebayo could come across as a surprise given the success of Doncic and, say, Devonte Graham of the Charlotte Hornets (whom Doncic openly campaigned for when Doncic was announced as a finalist).
Graham had the green light for the Hornets and took massive advantage in the counting stats, going from 4.7 points and 2.6 assists to 18.2 points and 7.5 assists. His 38% shooting, though, is cringe-worthy, and the Hornets were nearly 20 games under .500. It’s not Graham’s fault in the least, but circumstances must be taken into account when the air is thin and there were plenty of worthy candidates.
The case for Bam Adebayo
Adebayo is Erik Spoelstra’s Swiss Army knife in Miami, perhaps the lone defender on Planet Earth quick enough to stay with Giannis Antetokounmpo and strong enough to not be overpowered in a seven-game series.
Adebayo’s versatility is the chief reason why Miami feels well-positioned to match up with the Bucks, along with the leadership and clutch playmaking of Jimmy Butler.
Adebayo is part-pivot, part-point forward and part-mid-post operator for an intriguing team. Shipping Hassan Whiteside to Portland only opened up minutes and space for Adebayo, who showed he could play underneath the rim and on the perimeter on both ends. Miami’s “anybody can score 20 tonight” offense is heightened by Adebayo’s playmaking, identifying cutters and shooters to 5.1 assists a night, scoring 16 and adding 10.3 rebounds.
But more than anything, he’s shown the difference between playing productively and being impactful since taking up a stronger role in Miami’s rise back to the East elite.
Performing when it’s expected—and when it’s not—made these three the most improved candidates in the NBA this season.
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