Introducing Utmost Improved Player

Knicks big Julius Randle and Heat wing Jimmy Butler
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Most Improved Player is a good award.

Despite all the hand-wringing about unclear criteria, difficulty of assessment, second-year advantages… it’s nice to honor someone who improves.

But the official NBA version of the award has a limitation: It celebrates only players who make large single-season leaps. Steady year-to-year progress goes unrewarded.

So, I created a new award: Utmost Improved Player. Utmost Improved Player honors the player who has improved the most since his rookie year.

Improvement is rarely linear, and it needn’t be here. The only requirement for Utmost Improved Player: A player must be having a career year to qualify for this annual award.

A player’s ability can be judged by both impact and skills. I try to balance both when assessing improvement.

Top 10 for 2021 Utmost Improved Player:

1. Jimmy Butler

  • Where he was in 2011-12 (Bulls): Outside the regular rotation
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Heat): Deserving serious All-NBA consideration despite missing significant time

When a report emerged in 2015 that some Bulls resented how Jimmy Butler handled his newfound stardom, it was hard not to suspect some of his veteran teammates were jealous.

Butler had become Chicago’s best player.

Expected to be just a hustling defensive specialist, Butler initially looked like he’d accentuate – not displace – the Bulls’ top players. As a rookie on a good team, Butler barely played. Though he looked solid when on the floor, that was in such a limited role.

He moved into the rotation his second year and the starting lineup his third year. In his fourth season, he became an All-Star and won Most Improved Player. His ascent transformed Chicago’s plans.

If Butler did anything behind the scenes to fall into the trappings of stardom, it didn’t show on the court.

Not then, not after.

Butler approached superstardom in 2017. He got traded to the Timberwolves and dragged them into the playoffs. He got traded to the 76ers and elevated them more than anyone (in part by recognizing Joel Embiid‘s ascension and empowering Embiid). He joined the Heat, led them to the Eastern Conference title and went toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the 2020 NBA Finals

The NBA’s vagabond star has seemingly found a home in Miami.

Can Butler be brusque? Of course. But he meshes well with Heat Culture, and he now has teammates receptive to his messages.

He’s also playing better than ever.

Butler is averaging a career-high 7.2 assists per game, the latest way he’s taking advantage of his high basketball intelligence. He’s still a disruptive defender on and off the ball. He’s still getting to his spots with and without the ball, drawing fouls and sinking shots. He’s still opportunistically rebounding.

In part due to coronavirus, Butler has missed 18 games this season. That limits his overall contributions. But he has been so, so good when on the floor.

2. Julius Randle

  • Where he was in 2014-15 (Lakers): Missing nearly the entire season due to injury
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Knicks): A first-time All-Star who could make All-NBA

Julius Randle has an overrated, though still valid, Most Improved Player case. Too many voters will compare his breakout season only to his down year last season, not accounting that he was better in his final year with the Lakers and his season with the Pelicans.

But Utmost Improved Player? Randle’s case has so such blemish – though a complication.

Randle broke his leg just 14 minutes into his NBA career. That meant his rookie-year production was nil and his rookie-year ability requires estimation.

He was probably pretty bad.

Most rookies struggle and Randle had major shortcomings his second season. Though he averaged a double-double, he shot just 44% on 2-pointers and 28% on 3-pointers (while barely attempting any). He had more turnovers than assists. His defense lagged. Then-Lakers coach Byron Scott cut him no slack.

In the seasons since, Randle steadily improved. He got into better shape, polished his interior scoring skills and eliminated some of his worst tendencies. Randle finished fifth in 2018 Most Improved Player voting.

He could win the award this year.

Always a good ball-handler for his size, Randle is the hub of New York’s offense – and thriving in the role. He’s so comfortable controlling the ball in the mid-range and beyond the arc. His jumper is especially efficient considering the relatively high number of shots he takes of the dribble. Randle barely gets to the rim anymore, at least somewhat a product of the Knicks’ lack of spacing. But he has compensated by shooting 41% on 3-pointers. And he’s not just hijacking the offense. Randle is a better passer than ever.

He’s holding up defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s rigorous system, too.

Randle has a complete game and is leading the Knicks into the playoffs. Retroactively, the Knicks didn’t strike out in 2019 free agency.

3. Zach LaVine

  • Where he was in 2014-15 (Timberwolves): In over his head starting as point guard
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Bulls): A first-time All-Star

Rookie starting point guards are usually erratic.

Especially when they’re a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard.

Zach LaVine began his career playing out of position in Minnesota, and he was quite destructive. The Timberwolves got outscored by a whopping 14.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor his rookie. For perspective, the team with the worst net rating in the seasons since – this year’s Thunder – was outscored by just 10.7 points per 100 possessions.

But the lessons served him well. He became a better ball-handler and saw the court better. Shifted to shooting guard, LaVine improved steadily his next two years.

Then, he tore his ACL and fell back toward square one (though thankfully not all the way back). He barely played for Chicago – sent there in the Jimmy Butler trade – before pressing the Bulls into action.

LaVine signed a four-year, $78 million offer sheet with the Kings in 2018. Though the decision appeared questionable, Chicago matched.

Now, the contract is such a bargain for the team, it’s difficult to build an extension off it.

A first-time All-Star, LaVine has become a prolific multi-level scorer. He’s shooting 65% at the rim, 46% from mid-range, 42% on 3-pointers and 85% on free throws. Those marks are particularly impressive considering LaVine is tasked with creating so many of his own shots.

LaVine has also improved a bit defensively and as a rebounder, but his athleticism still shines brightest in dunk contests. Though he’s not an empty-stats player, he makes few subtle contributions that advance winning.

There’s plenty of room for the talented 26-year-old to grow even further and climb this list in future years.

4. Nikola Jokic

  • Where he was in 2015-16 (Nuggets): Finishing a distant third in Rookie of the Year voting 
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Nuggets): Likely winning MVP

Nikola Jokic was so surprising good as a rookie, he incited two debates: Should the Nuggets build around Jokic or Jusuf Nurkic at center? Should Jokic or Kristaps Porzingis finish second to Karl-Anthony Towns for Rookie of the Year?

The questions seem so trivial now.

Jokic has surpassed Nurkic, Porzingis, Towns and everyone else. The center Denver correctly empowered will probably win 2021 MVP.

What an incredible rise for the former second-rounder.

Though he displayed many skills early, it was tough to see Jokic putting everything together like this.

He really turned the corner once the Nuggets convinced him to more aggressively hunt his own shot. A naturally unselfish player, Jokic can score efficiently on every level. His 3-pointer is more dependable than ever. Coupled with his interior game and floater, he’s a matchup nightmare.

Jokic’s passiveness was understandable, though. He’s the best passing center of all time, peaking this year. Given how often he brings the ball up court, it might just be more accurate to call him Denver’s point guard.

Jokic has also gotten into better shape. His defense has improved, particularly his defensive endurance.

After finishing second for Most Improved Player in 2017 and getting votes again in 2018, Jokic could again get votes this year. But he has moved onto bigger and better things – like MVP.

5. C.J. McCollum

  • Where he was in 2013-14 (Trail Blazers): Mostly injured and riding the bench
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Trail Blazers): Building his case to succeed Mike Conley as the best current player never selected as an All-Star

Predicted by a plurality his peers to win Rookie of the Year, McCollum broke his foot in a preseason practice and never got on track.

“My number one piece of advice to the incoming rookies,” McCollum wrote that offseason, “is to humble yourself now.”

McCollum played a little more and a little better his second season, but didn’t stand out.

Then, McCollum suddenly got his opportunity. Starting shooting guard Wesley Matthews tore his Achilles. Backup Arron Afflalo got hurt, too. McCollum started Game 1 of Portland’s first-round playoff series against the Grizzlies in 2015.

He shot 1-for-8.

McCollum got demoted and shot 3-for-13 off the bench in Game 2.

But in the final three games of the series, McCollum scored 26 points on 14 shots, 18 points on 12 shots and 33 points on 20 shots. He finally arrived.

McCollum built on that performance, became a starter and won Most Improved Player in 2015-16. His scoring average jumped from 6.8 to 20.8 points per game. He was even better the following season, scoring 23.0 points per game and shooting more efficiently from all areas of the floor.

Though he has fallen off from an amazingly hot start after injury, McCollum is still having another career year. He has reoriented his shot selection to bomb more 3-pointers while still shooting nearly 40% from beyond the arc. He’s also distributing more while keeping his turnover rate extremely low.

McCollum has combined huge leaps with shorter bursts to keep getting better and better.

6. Terry Rozier

  • Where he was in 2015-16 (Celtics): Looking like a predictable bust
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Hornets): Living up to his contract as a good starter

When Boston drafted Terry Rozier No. 16 in 2015, it looked like a reach. That assessment appeared even more correct during Rozier’s rookie year. He barely played. When he did, he was dreadful.

But Rozier earned a rotation spot his second year. After infamously not getting traded by Celtics president Danny Ainge, Rozier came into his own his third season. He was a young quality backup point guard looking to become a starter.

That never happened in Boston. The Celtics acquired Kyrie Irving, whose presence really derailed Rozier.

In 2019, Boston and Charlotte did a double sign-and-trade with Kemba Walker and Rozier. At this point, it’s fair to wonder whether the Hornets came out ahead.

Rozier is carrying Charlotte into the postseason amid other injuries. He’s more dynamic in getting off his jumper, and his conversion rate is much higher. Rozier is averaging 20.6 points per game and shooting 40% on 3-pointers.

Though he’s still not distributing as a well as starting point guard should, Rozier is surrounded by other playmakers. The Hornets have positioned him to succeed – and he is.

7. Joel Embiid

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (76ers): Nearly winning Rookie of the Year despite missing 51 games
  • Where is in 2020-21 (76ers): Falling short of MVP because he has missed 19 games

Joel Embiid missed his first two professional seasons due to injury. In his third/rookie year, he really showed what the fuss was about. Embiid was so dominant in his limited minutes (786), he nearly won Rookie of the Year over Malcolm Brogdon (1,982 minutes).

That high bar leaves only moderate room for further improvement, especially if not just through playing more.

But Embiid has cleared it.

He is a complete player – dominant inside and outside offensively and defensively. If not for missing so many games (some due to coronavirus issues), Embiid might have won MVP this year.

8. De'Aaron Fox

  • Where he was in 2017-18 (Kings): In over his head starting at point guard
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Kings): Near stardom

De’Aaron Fox made one of the biggest single-season leaps in NBA history, going from typical wayward rookie starting point guard to dynamic attacker leading an up-and-coming team. He should have won 2019 Most Improved Player. (He finished third behind Pascal Siakam and D'Angelo Russell.)

Fox has leveled off some since. He’s not quite as pesky of a defender. His 3-point accuracy has dropped.

Still, Fox has gained even greater command of his offensive tools. He attacks downhill with fury while remaining in control as a passer and scorer.

The 23-year-old has plenty of room to put everything together and get even better.

9. Brandon Ingram

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Lakers): Being overrated as a part-time starter on a bad team
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Pelicans): Borderline stardom

When the Pelicans discussed a contract extension with Brandon Ingram in 2019, he wasn’t open to negotiation. Max or bust.

But Ingram hadn’t proven to be a good NBA player at that point. He gained considerable hype by being the No. 2 pick and playing for the Lakers, making an All-Rookie team he didn’t deserve. He improved considerably his second season. He flashed potential of even greater contributions.

He just hadn’t sustained much quality production.

Then, Ingram bloomed last season, made an All-Star team, won Most Improved Player and got his max contract.

If Ingram is better this season, it’s only marginal so. He didn’t make an All-Star team. His defense still stinks. But he proved his gains as an outside shooter are sustainable, and he improved his passing.

That got him on this list, even if honoring his year-over-year improvements would have been more inspiring last season.

10. Jerami Grant

  • Where he was in 2014-15 (76ers): Forcing his way into the rotation of an awful team
  • Where is in 2020-21 (Pistons): Go-to scorer on a bad team

When Jerami Grant declared for the 2014 NBA Draft, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim told him he wasn’t ready for the NBA. When Grant got hurt at the beginning of his rookie season, then-76ers coach Brett Brown thought the second-rounder would fall too far behind to earn playing time even once healthy.

But Grant worked hard and earned minutes.

With the Thunder then Nuggets, he continued to develop as a role player. He honed his defense and developed his 3-pointer.

But Grant wanted more.

So, he signed with the Pistons, who made him their go-to scorer. Grant has shown such an impressively wide set of skills as Detroit’s primary offensive player this season.

But because Grant was good in his limited prior role, his impact isn’t necessarily as high. His shooting efficiency is well below ideal. His defense has slipped while handling such a large offensive burden. His passing isn’t good enough for someone who has the ball so much.

Still, it’s easy to believe in Grant’s approach. He’s another strong candidate to climb this list next year.