There are two things to consider when deciding on a Most Improved Player: Is there room for their numbers to take a massive leap, and are they in the right situation for that to happen?
The first requirement is essential when scrolling through the deep list of names in a convoluted market. The winner usually had a good prior season, but not a great one. He’s rarely considered a star entering the year. The last six winners are Lauri Markkanen, Ja Morant, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam, and Victor Oladipo. Five out of six went from scoring averages in the teens to the low-to-mid 20s.
Players on bad teams often stand out because there are ample shots available. But when it comes to the most improved award, an unwritten rule appears to have emerged that requires the player’s team to be relevant.
The last six winners’ teams averaged 45 wins. The only team that won fewer than 35 games was Ingram’s Pelicans during the 2019-20 season.
Now that we’ve addressed some of the major trends with this award, let’s sift through the flooded field and identity the best candidates.
Most Improved Player odds
Jabari Smith Jr.
Certain players might be primed for a great year but don’t fit the profile of an award winner. For instance, only two sophomores have won the award since the turn of the century: Monta Ellis (2007) and Gilbert Arenas (2003). That eliminates Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith Jr. from contention.
Historical trends suggest we can eliminate another pool of candidates: players from teams with win totals set below 30. That group includes Cade Cunningham, Anfernee Simons, Jordan Poole, Shaedon Sharpe, Tyus Jones, and others.
So, let’s get to our projected award winners.
Franz Wagner +3000
Franz Wagner made strides in his sophomore season, improving his scoring, passing and 3-point shooting, before creating some buzz with an impressive FIBA World Cup stint. The Magic may have a franchise cornerstone who could garner All-Star consideration this season.
Wagner’s a 6-foot-10 forward who can shoot from the outside and handle the ball. He shot 36% from three last season. Here he is coming off a screen with the screener’s defender in drop coverage. Wagner steps back to the left wing – he shot 40% from long range from that spot – and makes Oklahoma City pay with a smooth jumper.
He had the second-highest usage on the Magic behind Banchero at 23%. That should increase this season. Wagner’s versatility makes him unique. He can shoot on the catch and is an underrated creator; 45% of his field goals were unassisted last season.
His touch, change of pace, patience, and footwork make him difficult to guard. Just watch how he keeps his defender on his hip, invites the help defender, and uses brilliant footwork to step through and create space.
A more efficient shooting season from Wagner will catapult him from a player with potential to a piece the Magic can build around.
Josh Giddey +2500
Giddey is a unique 6-foot-8 guard with uncanny vision. His passing ability in transition and the half court is incredibly rare for someone his size. He has the qualities of a true point guard but the size of a big.
He’s not noticeably explosive, but he is smart and shifty. He averaged 16.6 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 6.2 assists last season. However, Giddey’s a mediocre finisher around the rim and a subpar 3-point shooter.
If he can improve in those areas, his numbers will skyrocket. He shot 32.5% from three on 3.1 attempts per game last season, which was 6% better than his rookie season. He’ll get ample looks from distance playing alongside All-NBAer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Chet Holmgren on a rising Thunder squad.
Here’s an example of Giddey hesitating on his 3-pointer, indicating a lack of confidence. Instead of releasing it in the window when he’s open, he thinks about it and takes a worse, contested shot as the clock winds down.
Defenses are clearly comfortable giving him space on the perimeter. Once Giddey forces defenses to guard him, he’ll be unstoppable.
Giddey needs more balance in his shot chart as 63% of his shots came from within 10 feet of the basket. Although he’s a horrific long-range shooter off the bounce, he’s so-so on catch-and-shoot threes.
His strength is as a pick-and-roll ball-handler where he can either get downhill or find open teammates. This is Giddey at his best: He uses the screen and takes advantage of the Timberwolves‘ switching defense to blow by Karl-Anthony Towns and find a baseline cutter.
Giddey’s confidence as a shooter trended in the right direction last season. Another jump in volume and efficiency will turn him into an All-Star.
Desmond Bane +2500
Desmond Bane got off to a blistering start last season: He averaged 24.7 points, 4.9 boards, and 4.8 assists through 12 games before a toe injury sidelined him for over a month.
He averaged 21 points on 40% shooting from three in 58 games across the entire campaign. It’ll be a challenge to significantly improve his scoring average, but Bane’s capable of it – and his team’s counting on it. Ja Morant was by far the highest-usage player on the Grizzlies, but with Morant suspended for the first 25 games, Bane’s offensive role should increase. Dillon Brooks, who also got a significant number of offensive opportunities, departed for Houston.
Bane averaged virtually the same percentage on catch-and-shoot threes and pull-up threes on the same number of attempts, proving his value as a shotmaker.
Bane’s gone under the radar in his three seasons in the NBA, but a breakout is coming.
Sam Oshtry is a sports betting writer at theScore. You can follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @soshtry for more betting coverage.
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