2022 Utmost Improved Player

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam in Toronto Raptors v Milwaukee Bucks
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Giannis Antetokounmpo gave himself a D- grade for his rookie season.

Which at least partially explains how he got here.

Drafted as a massive project who didn’t even crack the lottery – a malnourished 18-year-old who faced the difficult transition to America while missing his family in Greece – Antetokounmpo quickly earned a rotation spot and endeared himself to fans with his athleticism and personality. Bucks coaches named him the team’s best player by February. He even made an All-Rookie team.

By every reasonable standard, Antetokounmpo’s rookie year was a smashing success.

But Antetokounmpo holds himself to unreasonable standards.

So, he hit the weight room hard. He honed his skills. He studied the game.

Antetokounmpo received Most Improved Player votes the next year. And again the following year. In his fourth season, he won the award. Then, he became the first Most Improved Player ever to receive MIP votes each of the next two seasons. That second year, Antetokounmpo won MVP. He won a second straight MVP, doing what’s usually necessary for back-to-back winners to offset voter fatigue – improving yet again.

Now, he’s arguably better than ever.

Antetokounmpo almost certainly won’t get Most Improved Player votes this year. If he’s ahead of his 2020 MVP season, it’s only barely.

But Antetokounmpo is winner of the 2022 Utmost Improved Player.

The award, introduced last year, honors the player who improved most since his rookie year. Unlike Most Improved Player, which rewards a single year of improvement, Utmost Improved Player celebrates a full career of growth.

Antetokounmpo was one of the original inspirations for the award, but he didn’t qualify last year (when Jimmy Butler won it). The only ground rule: A player must be having a career year to be eligible.

Antetokounmpo’s latest improvement is subtle. Playing without Brook Lopez – whose floor spacing and defensive size opened so many doors for Antetokounmpo – Antetokounmpo had to up his own game on both ends to keep the Bucks humming.

Antetokounmpo has become more advanced offensively – scoring moves, passing, screening-and-rolling. He became a more staunch paint protector. However, his overall defensive impact was lessened without Lopez freeing him to roam more.

Utmost Improved Player attempts to balance crediting both skill advancement and impact increase. It’s a fine line.

The top 10 for 2022 Utmost Improved Player:

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s biggest advances came in earlier seasons, when he spent time playing like a point guard then center. In era of positionless basketball, Antetokounmpo can do nearly everything.

That all came together last season, when Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee to one of the most-satisfying championships in years. His leadership, loyalty and confidence showed a player at the pinnacle of his sport.

And Antetokounmpo came back even better this year?

This is one of the all-time great player-development stories in NBA history.

2. Nikola Jokic

  • Where he was in 2015-16 (Nuggets): Finishing a distant third in Rookie of the Year voting
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Nuggets): Likely winning his second straight MVP

The Nuggets spent years imploring Nikola Jokic to shoot more. Despite his high efficiency, he preferred to pass. What felt like a genuine unselfishness was actually limiting his team.

That seems like a distant memory.

Jokic is mastering offense.

Jokic scored a career-high 27 points per game, compensating for injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter. Jr. Jokic gets the ball in the interior and aggressively hunts baskets, using his size and touch to score in a bevy of ways. His 2-point efficiency (65%) is the highest by anyone ever to score even 25 points per game. He can also shoot from distance – just the start of his ways of keeping defenses on their toes.

Drawing more defensive attention has also allowed the best passing center in NBA history even more opportunities to set up his teammates. Jokic has gotten into better shape, boosting his defense, too.

No. 4 on this last year, the former second-round pick continues his remarkable rise.

3. Darius Garland

  • Where he was in 2019-20 (Cavaliers): Not even making an All-Rookie team despite having the hype of being a top-five pick and starter
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Cavaliers): First-time All-Star

Drafted No. 5 onto a team that seemingly thought it already had its point guard of the future, Darius Garland began his career in an awkward pairing with Collin Sexton.

Garland has already proven why the Cavaliers made the right choice.

Without knocking Sexton, who has made his own major strides, Garland has stepped up as Cleveland’s best player. This is why fit should take a backseat to ability when drafting.

Like most rookie starting point guards, Garland was in over his head. The game was coming too fast. As he struggled to work inside the arc, 6-foot-1 Garland looked too small.

Garland hasn’t become a bruiser, but he’s strong enough to allow his skills to shine. He’s an excellent shooter, off the dribble and spotting up. His ability to mesh with another point guard has led some of the brightest moments of the Cavs’ season (and bodes well if Cleveland re-signs Sexton in restricted free agency. Garland’s passing has developed quickly.

An oversized Jarrett AllenEvan MobleyLauri Markkanen frontline wouldn’t usually flow so well offensively. Garland’s advanced offensive game is a big reason it has.

Essentially, the difference between the Cavaliers having some fine building blocks in a rebuild and the Cavaliers having a good team with a bright future: Garland.

4. Fred VanVleet

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Raptors): Riding the bench
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Raptors): First-time All-Star

Fred VanVleet used to sit on the end of the bench, pissed about not playing, and talk to his teammates about what he’d do with an opportunity on the court.

To a certain degree, VanVleet should’ve known what he was getting into. As an undrafted free agent, he chose the Raptors despite Toronto having three point guards ahead of him (Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright). Merely making the regular-season roster was an accomplishment for VanVleet. But he never sold himself short, not even as an undrafted rookie.

“I did 18 workouts. So, I saw almost everybody throughout the draft process,” VanVleet said. “And I was like, ‘I know guys that’s going lottery that I would shred.’ You know what I mean? So it was like, ‘I know I can play.'”

VanVleet was right.

After barely playing as rookie, he became a quality reserve then a part-time starter then a full-time starter than a good starter. He’s not necessarily way better than the previous couple years, but with Kyle Lowry gone, VanVleet has really gotten to spread his wings this season and made an All-Star team.

VanVleet is a high-quality 3-point shooter and dogged defender. Without Lowry, VanVleet has improved his point-guard skills, though those responsibilities are shared with Raptors forwards Pascal Siakam and Scottie Barnes. Credit VanVleet, who’s relatively small (6-foot-1) and unathletic, for being able to handle 38 minutes per game. That heavy playing time goes a long way toward maximizing his value.

And is what VanVleet wanted all along.

5. DeMar DeRozan

  • Where he was in 2009-10 (Raptors): Not making an All-Rookie team despite being a top-10 pick who started 65 games
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Bulls): Potentially cracking MVP ballots

DeMar DeRozan had already doubled his scoring average from his rookie year when he signed a four-year, $40 million contract extension entering his fourth season with the Raptors.

That deal was universally panned.

But DeRozan proved to be worth the money – and then some.

By 2014, he was an All-Star. By 2016, he definitely deserved to be an All-Star.

He improved his ball-handling, allowing him to take far better advantage of his athleticism on dribble drives. He drew more free throws. He got to better spots for his jumpers.

DeRozan became an All-Star mainstay by expanding his all-around game.

Traded him to the Spurs in 2019,  DeRozan regressed and appeared to age out of stardom. Still, he really honed his point guard skills in San Antonio.

Yet, he’s suddenly having a career year in his 13th season. The oldest player on this list by more than four years, 32-year-old DeRozan is among the several players vying for fourth- and fifth-place MVP votes.

DeRozan has become so comfortable in his own skin. He’s a flamethrower from mid-range, never embracing 3-pointers the way his generation has. He made 47% of his non-paint 2-pointers this season – six percentage points above league average and seven percentage points above his prior-career mark – while attempting a high volume against defenses that know his preferences.

All the elements of DeRozan’s offensive game have come together like never before. Playing with (and without) Lonzo Ball, DeRozan has frequently used his point guard skills in Chicago, too.

Though still not a good defender, DeRozan is at least providing value with his versatility as the nominal power forward in many Bulls’ lineups. Tangling with bigger opponents speaks to his toughness.

Just another way his determination has shined through a long career.

6. Pascal Siakam

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Raptors): Surprisingly ready to contribute as an unexpected first-round pick, but still not ready for a major role on a good team
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Raptors): Playing like the total package, drawing All-NBA third-team consideration

Pascal Siakam won 2019 Most Improved Player and was mounting an incredible case to repeat in 2020.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Siakam struggled in the bubble. As the Raptors played a difficult year in Tampa last season, Siakam looked particularly out of sorts. He missed the start of this season with a shoulder injury.

But Siakam has regained his momentum as he heated up down the stretch this season.

He averaged career highs in points (23), rebounds (nine) and assists (five) per game. His scoring efficiency (56% true shooting) is the best it has been in the three years Siakam has expanded his offensive repertoire and taken a larger load. Even while playing 38 minutes per game, he sustains energy for defense, where his length and mobility cause terror.

Essentially, Siakam is combining the hustle skills and role acceptance that endeared him early in his career with the enhanced skill set that has allowed him to take the next step. He is a definite contender for All-NBA third team (though I went with Jimmy Butler).

7. Dejounte Murray

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (Spurs): Averaging 3.4 points per game and looking like his career could go any direction
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Spurs): First-time All-Star, albeit as an injury replacement

Dejounte Murray was overhyped by the mock-draft community. So, when he “fell” to the Spurs with the No. 29 pick in the 2016 draft, a narrative took hold: San Antonio got another steal.

But that obfuscated just how big a project Murray was.

Murray barely played as a rookie, showing flashes and – perhaps more importantly to the Spurs – coachability. He was too often out of control, though.

Murray first found his footing as a defender, making an All-Defensive team and becoming starting point guard in his second season. At 21, he was the youngest All-Defensive teamer in NBA history.

Missing his third season due to an ACL injury only barely stunted Murray’s growth. He kept getting better and better, improving as a shooter and decision-maker.

This season, Murray really broke out with career highs in points (21), assists (nine) and rebounds (eight) per game. He took hold of San Antonio’s offense unlike ever before, though he has plenty of room to become more efficient in that go-to role. His defense remained solid despite having so much more responsibility on the other end.

In other words, Murray is a prime candidate to keep climbing this list.

8. Joel Embiid

  • Where he was in 2016-17 (76ers): Nearly winning Rookie of the Year despite missing 51 games
  • Where is in 2021-22 (76ers): Seriously challenging for MVP

Joel Embiid was already playing like a star when he finally took the court in his third professional season. Despite injury issues limiting him to 31 games, he nearly won Rookie of the Year.

So, this is a story more of greater impact than greater skill.

But don’t lose sight of the work Embiid did to handle 34 minutes per game in 68 games – both career highs. He has taken better care of his body, doing the work to improve his conditioning.

Embiid has also improved his skill. He didn’t have the moves to lead the league in scoring before. As double teams become more frequent, Embiid has become more adept as a passer (though still has plenty of room to grow). He has sharpened his defense.

All told, this is Embiid’s fifth career year in six NBA seasons. If he keeps improving from such lofty initial heights, he’ll eventually get that MVP he covets.

9. Jordan Poole

  • Where he was in 2019-20 (Warriors): Playing like a bust
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Warriors):

It’s foolish to write off a 20-year-old first-round pick after only one season.

But Jordan Poole certainly looked like he might fall out of the league quickly.

As a rookie, Poole seemed SO far from even a decent NBA player. He shot 39% on 2-pointers and 28% on 3-pointers. And shooting was supposed to be his strength!

It’s not as if Poole’s underlying talent level were absolutely reassuring, either. The Warriors drafting him No. 28 was considered a surprise at best, a reach at worst. Publicly at least, he was mostly considered a second-round-caliber prospect. Second-rounders sometimes play like that – then wash out.

But in a progression that should have generated more Most Improved Player-ballot consideration, Poole became a solid backup last season. He’ll probably get more MIP love this year.

If not for injuries to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, Poole could be contending for another award. Poole’s stats (22 points and five assists per 36 minutes, 60% true shooting) resemble presumptive Sixth Man of the Year Tyler Herro‘s (23 points and four assists per 36 minutes, 56% true shooting). But Poole started 51 of 76 games, making him ineligible for Sixth Man of the Year.

Too good for that award, Poole cracks this list with his rapid progress. Just he and Garland made this top 10 in their third seasons. Everyone else is an at least their sixth.

10. Terry Rozier

  • Where he was in 2015-16 (Celtics): Looking like a predictable bust
  • Where is in 2021-22 (Hornets): Living up to his contract as a good starter

Terry Rozier still hasn’t gotten his desired job as starting point guard.

But he’s settling in nicely with Charlotte.

The starting shooting guard signed a four-year, $96 million contract extension before the season. In just a couple years, Rozier completely silenced the talk he was overpaid on the three-year, $57 million deal that brought him to the Hornets.

Strikingly, Rozier has outplayed the other player in that Boston-Charlotte sign-and-trade – Kemba Walker, whose Knicks tenure has gone wayward.

Rozier has become a strong outside shooter. He’s more under control as a passer and scorer when probing inside the arc. Playing with LaMelo Ball, Rozier helps as a secondary playmaker.

Rozier was rated as having career year this season by the narrowest of margins. His output was quite similar to last season. So, he was barely eligible for this list – a close call that meant Raptors wing Gary Trent Jr. (who began his career with the Trail Blazers) was the last cut.