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Phoenix Suns’ T.J. Warren a strong candidate for Most Improved but he’s not alone

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Harden, Antetokounmpo, and teammate Booker among competition for award

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Since there’s no better time to speculate about end-of-season awards than when you’re two weeks into a new season, let’s talk about the chances T.J. Warren of the Phoenix Suns walks away with the Most Improved Player award this year.

He came onto the scene like gangbusters to start the season after most of the offseason attention was focused on teammate Devin Booker and reminded everyone that if there’s one thing Tony Warren Jr. does, it’s get buckets. That was on full display when he set a new career high of 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Suns’ second game of the season.

But he has done much more than score for Phoenix this year. His defensive effort and focus have been much improved, and his anticipation in the passing lanes has been outstanding. And his work on the glass ensured that the Suns wouldn’t feel P.J. Tucker’s absence quite as much.

Warren is off to a great start, but he has a long road ahead of him if he wants to be recognized for the improvements to his game. Gone are the days of Gheorghe Muresan, Isaac Austin, and Darrell Armstrong coming out of nowhere to win the award with solid-if-unspectacular seasons. The voters now seem to reward players who burst into the national consciousness by playing significant roles on successful teams (C.J. McCollum, Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragic, etc.)

Keeping that in mind, here is a look at Warren and his early competition for an award that won’t be handed out for months. Enjoy.

T.J. Warren

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 47 22.8 4.7 9.4 .501 0.6 1.5 .400 1.0 1.4 .703 1.2 1.9 3.1 0.9 0.8 0.3 0.7 2.0 11.0
2016-17 7 36.9 8.3 18.0 .460 0.9 2.1 .400 4.3 5.1 .833 2.4 3.7 6.1 1.1 2.1 0.3 0.9 3.4 21.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

Warren’s growth as an efficient high-output scorer has been one of Phoenix’s best stories through the early part of the season. His scoring average is up over 10 points from last season to 21.7 (19th in the NBA), and his field goal percentage was up over 50 percent before a couple off nights dropped him to 46 percent.

But his ability to score was never in question; it was the rest of his game that provided fuel for his critics, and that is where he could potentially impress voters the most. Never known as a defender, he is averaging 2.1 steals per game this season, which is 11th in the NBA and just behind Kawhi Leonard’s 2.4 steals average. He also ranks 17th in the NBA in rebounds per game among players 6’8 or shorter and 3rd among that same group for offensive rebounds per game, behind only Kenneth Faried and Draymond Green.

If Warren can maintain this type of well-rounded production for the whole season in a vastly expanded role with the Suns (36.9 minutes per game), it may be enough to convince the voters that he was doing more than just putting up empty stats on a bad team.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 80 35.3 6.4 12.7 .506 0.4 1.4 .257 3.7 5.1 .724 1.4 6.2 7.7 4.3 1.2 1.4 2.6 3.2 16.9
2016-17 7 32.6 8.3 16.1 .513 0.6 2.9 .200 4.0 5.1 .778 1.9 6.6 8.4 6.0 1.9 1.9 3.0 3.0 21.1
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

Antetokounmpo has improved every season he has been in the league, and 2016-17 is shaping up to be no different. What is different is what improvement means for him at this point.

Antetokounmpo is averaging 21.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 6 assists per game — all career highs. Only 20 times before in NBA history has a played posted at least 21 points, eight rebounds, and six assists over a full season, with Larry Bird (6 times) and Oscar Robertson (5) dominating the list. However, Antetokounmpo is also averaging 1.9 steals and 1.9 blocks per game. Factor those numbers in, and The Greek Freak would stand alone in NBA history.

He is also shooting career highs from the field and free throw line and posting a PER of 27.9. Add that all together with a return to the playoffs for the Milwaukee Bucks after a disappointing 2015-16 season, and this could be Antetokounmpo’s award to lose.

Harrison Barnes

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 66 30.9 4.5 9.6 .466 1.2 3.2 .383 1.5 2.0 .761 1.2 3.8 4.9 1.8 0.6 0.2 0.9 2.1 11.7
2016-17 6 38.5 8.5 17.3 .490 1.3 3.8 .348 2.5 2.7 .938 1.5 5.0 6.5 0.7 0.5 0.2 1.2 1.8 20.8
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

When he signed with the Dallas Mavericks after leaving Golden State, Barnes seemed poised for a breakout year. No longer relegated to being a fourth option behind Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Co., he finds himself the center of attention for the first time in his career.

Barnes scored a career-high 34 points in Dallas’ first win of the season Nov. 6 and has generally seen his offensive efficiency increase (including a career-high field goal percentage of .490) by showing a diversity in his game he didn’t get to with the Warriors.

But Barnes will be hindered by the fact that the rest of his stats haven’t enjoyed the same boost as his scoring numbers. In fact, most of his per 36 number differences are anything but impressive, giving the impression that he is a one-dimensional player. His defended field goal percentage may be five points lower than it was last season, but if Dallas can’t right the ship on its season, those quieter numbers may be lost to voters in the noise.

Devin Booker

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 76 27.7 4.8 11.4 .423 1.3 3.8 .343 2.8 3.4 .840 0.4 2.1 2.5 2.6 0.6 0.3 2.1 3.0 13.8
2016-17 6 37.0 8.5 19.2 .443 1.7 5.2 .323 4.3 5.5 .788 0.5 2.5 3.0 3.0 0.3 0.2 3.0 3.3 23.0
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

Voted by several outlets (including a survey of NBA GMs) as the likely 2016-17 breakout player, Booker doesn’t possess the element of surprise but did enter the season with many already primed to accept the narrative of Most Improved. His season did not start off the way he would have hoped due to a toe injury, but as that has cleared up, he has shown why so many chose to hitch their wagon to him.

Booker has set a new career high for scoring in each of the last two games (38 points against New Orleans, 39 points against Los Angeles) and now sits tied with Kyrie Irving for 12th in the NBA for scoring (23 points per game), nearly a 10-point increase from last season.

Similar to Barnes, Booker is being held back by the rest of his numbers, which closely mirror those from his rookie season, but if he can help Phoenix outperform the team’s lowly expectations, he will receive the lion’s share of the credit.

Also, he’ll be awfully difficult to overlook if he continues averaging 38.5 points per game as he has been, but he can’t possibly keep that pace up, right?

DeMar DeRozan

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 78 35.9 7.9 17.7 .446 0.6 1.8 .338 7.1 8.4 .850 0.8 3.7 4.5 4.0 1.0 0.3 2.2 2.1 23.5
2016-17 6 37.2 12.8 24.5 .524 0.3 1.7 .200 7.7 9.2 .836 1.2 3.7 4.8 2.7 1.0 0.0 2.7 2.0 33.7
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

DeRozan’s new contract must have had a shot clause because he hasn’t been shy about getting up his attempts. Fortunately for the Toronto Raptors, he understands what a good shot is.

DeRozan leads the NBA in scoring at 33.7 points per game and has scored less than 30 points just once this season. His scoring average is over 10 points greater than his previous career high, and he is doing it with remarkable efficiency, shooting 52.4 percent on 24.5 field goal attempts per game. Over 90 percent of those attempts come from within the 3-point line as he continues to play to his strengths. And speaking of strengths, he also draws 9.2 free throw attempts per game.

Despite little change outside of his scoring numbers, he could be well positioned to come away with some hardware if he can get Toronto one of the top two seeds in the East while maintaining his production.

James Harden

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 82 38.1 8.7 19.7 .439 2.9 8.0 .359 8.8 10.2 .860 0.8 5.3 6.1 7.5 1.7 0.6 4.6 2.8 29.0
2016-17 6 36.8 9.7 19.2 .504 3.7 9.0 .407 8.5 10.3 .823 1.3 6.0 7.3 12.3 1.5 0.0 4.8 3.5 31.5
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

It is odd to think that a former MVP candidate would be on this list, but if Harden keeps playing like he has, he could win both awards.

He is averaging career highs for points (31.5), assists (12.3), rebounds (7.3), field goal percentage (50.4), 3-point percentage (40.7), and PER (35.4) without a significant jump in his usage (32.5 to 33.5). Most surprisingly from Harden, he has been head and shoulders above the rest of the league when it comes to assists, leading the NBA while outpacing his former career-best mark by almost five per game and owning an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.56-to-1. Clearly, the Mike D’Antoni offense has been kind to The Beard.

Continuing to put up such gaudy numbers seems unsustainable, but if he does, then he has to be considered a frontrunner for both MVP and MIP. However, if the Houston Rockets remain a middle-of-the-pack team despite his efforts, then voters might reward Harden with MIP honors while giving MVP to someone on a more successful team.

Kawhi Leonard

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 72 33.1 7.7 15.1 .506 1.8 4.0 .443 4.1 4.6 .874 1.3 5.5 6.8 2.6 1.8 1.0 1.5 1.8 21.2
2016-17 7 31.4 8.1 17.0 .479 1.4 4.3 .333 8.7 9.0 .968 1.1 4.3 5.4 3.4 2.4 0.4 1.7 2.0 26.4
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

With Tim Duncan no longer in uniform, the San Antonio Spurs needed someone to step up and take the mantle of leader. That someone appears to be the soft-spoken Leonard.

There should be no question whose team the Spurs are now, with Leonard ranking 7th in the NBA for both scoring (26.4 points per game) and steals (2.4 steals per game). He is also shooting a dizzying 96.8 percent from the free throw line on 63 attempts and has a PER of 35.2.

It can be argued that Leonard hasn’t grown in the same way that others on this list have, and that his numbers better suit him for the MVP discussion than the MIP one. However, his stellar play as he adjusts to the more difficult role of face of the franchise should at least warrant making the discussion, especially if he can maintain San Antonio’s lofty perch among the NBA’s elites.

Myles Turner

The Numbers

Per Game Table
Season G MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
2015-16 60 22.8 4.4 8.8 .498 0.1 0.2 .214 1.5 2.0 .727 1.1 4.4 5.5 0.7 0.4 1.4 1.1 2.6 10.3
2016-17 6 28.2 6.5 11.8 .549 0.3 1.3 .250 3.8 5.0 .767 2.3 4.8 7.2 1.2 1.0 2.7 1.3 3.3 17.2
Provided by Basketball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 11/8/2016.

Making the Case

Turner has solidified himself as the Indiana Pacers’ starting center in a lineup that seeks to be more athletic. His rebounding may be low for a center, but he has atoned for this by establishing himself as one of the NBA’s best shot blockers. His 2.7 blocks per game rank 2nd in the league, and his block percentage of 7.9 ranks behind only reserve center Dewayne Dedmon.

He’s also increased his scoring by nearly seven points from last season and become more efficient as his usage has increased. And his PER has gone from 15.4 to 25.4 this season.

With Indiana struggling defensively as a team, it may be more difficult to tout his status as a defensive anchor, but he has held his assignments to 9.1-percent below their field goal percentage for this season — the lowest by far of any Pacer playing a significant role.