As the 2020-21 NBA season nears its midpoint, we’re rating the top performers so far.
Most Improved Player
Kurt Helin: Jerami Grant (Pistons)
Grant was a role player and key perimeter defender in Denver last season (and they miss him this season) who was asked to come to Detroit and play a completely different role as a No. 1 offensive option — and he has thrived. He has had genuine improvement while seeing a massive jump in usage rate this season and remaining fairly efficient on offense and scoring 23.4 points per game. Christian Wood is also in the mix for this award with his play in Houston (the Rockets 13-game losing streak is tied to the 13 games he has missed). Julius Randle and Zach LaVine both have become much more efficient in their roles this season and deserve consideration as well (their roles and usage have remained pretty much the same, they are just better at it under new coaches).
Dan Feldman: Julius Randle (Knicks)
Julius Randle is far more effective as an interior scorer, which was previously his strong suit. He’s also drilling 3-pointers unlike ever before. And passing. And defending. This is a complete package of improvement, bettering both strengths and weaknesses.
Pistons forward Jerami Grant has recast himself as a go-to offensive player – a far more valuable role. But that must be weighed against how darned effective he was as defensive-minded, fit-in-offensively role player.
Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter and Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum were on pace to rate much higher if not for injury.
Last year, Atlanta looked darned foolish for trading up to get Hunter with the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft. He appeared to be in so far over his head. This season, Hunter asserted himself as a confident mid-range shooter who passes better and a stouter defender. The difference is night and day.
McCollum was bombing more from beyond the arc – more efficiently, no less – and playmaking more. Though sample size is a valid concern, he was one of the NBA’s very-most productive players early in the season.
Bulls guard Zach LaVine, like Randle, climbed into stardom. But LaVine’s improvement was more gradual over multiple years. He left last season ahead of Randle.
Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are into new levels of superstardom. R.J. Barrett has made major strides after a rocky rookie year.
There are multiple ways to assess this award. Randle checks several boxes.