Summer Dreaming: Most Improved Player

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HANG TIME, Texas — Fire up the grill. Ice down those frosty cold beers. Nothing says summer like a backyard barbecue.

Or sitting out in the hot sun daydreaming.

Sure, the NBA schedule comes out in a few days. Sure, the season openers are less than three months away. But why stop there? Let’s continue to wander all the way out to next spring when the 2013-14 season is over and get a head start on candidates for all the awards.

Today we’ll look at my handful of picks for Most Improved Player and you can chime in below.

Kawhi Leonard, Spurs Doesn’t everybody already know about the many splendored talents of the guy with Charles Barkley’s favorite name after he played a key role in the Spurs’ run to The Finals last last season? Of course, Leonard drew the toughest defensive assignment though every round of the playoffs, doing a creditable job on LeBron James. There were also nights when he had bust-out games on offense. But the feeling here is that Leonard has only scratched the surfaced of what he can do. It’s no longer a stretch to think he could live up to coach Gregg Popovich’s “face of the franchise” prediction. As the years keep piling up and the minutes keep getting restricted on Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, The Quiet One is going to get every chance to make big noise as he shoulders more of the burden. He could take the leap that last year’s winner Paul George did for the Pacers.

Harrison Barnes, Warriors Before he conked his head on the floor and eventually had to leave Game 6 of the West semifinals, Barnes was doing all that he could to force a Game 7 in the series with the Spurs. A member of the All-Rookie first team, he averaged 9.7 ppg and 4.1 rpg in just 25.4 mpg. When coach Mark Jackson went to him more and more in the playoffs, Barnes showed more and more of the things he can do. He got to the basket. He drained 3-pointers. In other words, as the games got bigger, he showed why Golden State made him the No. 7 pick in the 2012 draft. With Andre Iguodala around to run the floor and get plenty of attention from opposing defenses, the opportunity will be there for Barnes to take that big step up.

Jonas Valanciunas, RaptorsAfter being named MVP in the Las Vegas Summer League, there are lot of folks on both sides of the border who are expecting the young Raptors’ big man to take off this season, especially now that he doesn’t give up minutes to Andrea Bargnani. He’s done work building up the upper half of his slim body without seeming to have surrendered quickness. His rookie numbers of 8.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg and a 55.7 field-goal percentage in 23.9 mpg showed that there’s room for growth with increased playing time, particularly on offense for a player who makes smart decisions and doesn’t force shots. But the Raptors will have to make an effort to get him to the ball. He gets to the foul line, trailing only Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond and Barnes among last year’s rookies in free throw attempts. As long as he keeps building up his bulk and strength, he can be a solid rim protector on defense. There is every reason to believe he can be the guy that Toronto spent the No. 5 pick in the 2011 draft on and then waited for year to get him to join the NBA. If not this season, then the next.

Eric Bledsoe, Suns There were a lot of places where Bledsoe could have wound up that would seem to make more sense than Phoenix. The Suns already have Goran Dragic at the point. But rookie coach Jeff Hornacek will likely play them in tandem and Bledsoe’s got the chops to play at the ‘2’ and use his defensive prowess to get steal and create transition chances and easy buckets for the offense. He’s been champing at the bit to get out from under Chris Paul’s shadow with the Clippers and if he can rein in a tendency to get a bit wild with his shot selection, Bledsoe could put up some nice numbers for a Suns team that will be thirsting for offense.

Jeremy Lamb, Thunder He moves around the court and makes every thing look so slow and easy that half the time you want to check to make sure that those sleepy-looking eyes are really open. He didn’t see much playing time as a rookie, doing a constant shuttle between OKC and Tulsa in the NBA D-League to get game experience. He scored big and played well at the Orlando Summer League and now with the departure of Kevin Martin, the door is wide open for the No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft to come in and knock down all those wide open shots that are created by playing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. If those eyes are wide awake, Lamb could see his way to some very big things on the championship contender.

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35 Comments

  1. nba fan says:

    I think Kawhi won’t win the award, becaus e a lot of people already perceive him as a great player. His improvement came with playoffs, so if you compare 2013-2014 season’s play to what he was doing in the 2013 playoffs, can it be considered a great improvement if he goes from great production in 2013 playoffs to great production in 2013-2014. I think most people will think he is already past his imrpovement stage and will expect him to put up great numbers on a nightly basis.

  2. Chrisbasketballguru says:

    Its gunna be Jimmy Butler or Eric Bledso, they are both guys who have shown that they can score, play defense, and they are both super athletic,…i would add Drummond, but i feel this award should go to starters, Jimmy and Eric are both starting next year, and Drummond is behind Greg Monroe and Josh smith

  3. blah blah.. says:

    how about jeff green?

  4. Donald says:

    Derrick Favors in Utah, Enes Kanter in Utah, and Evan Turner in Philadelphia, will all have a drastic increase across the boards, for their respective teams, with more scoring responsibilities and playing time.

  5. captainobvious234523 says:

    leonard is the real deal

  6. Phil Cross says:

    This list is pretty solid. However, I don’t think you can go without mentioning the one and only Andre Drummond from Detroit. This man showed so many flashed of future superstardom and straight up dominance. His leap to a starting center this year will boost his production and with all the new pieces the Pistons have, his improvement of play will be sky high and in my opinion the best of all NBA players in the 2013-2014 season. Watch out, folks. 2-3 years from now Mr. Drummond will be the best Center in the NBA. Bank on it.

  7. Matt says:

    This list does make sense. With Bledsoe earning a bigger role in the suns i think he is a candidate. Another player i think can win this award is Mook or Kief Morris their minutes will go up and with what they showed in the summer they have a lot of potential to win this award especially because they havent had their breakout season yet. i think this upcoming season will be their breakout season!!!

  8. m. cunningham says:

    Can’t argue with this one. Kawhi Leonard will be on the All Star roster next season.

  9. jedreq says:

    Tobias Harris?

  10. Vlad says:

    DeMarcus Cousins is going to be a beast and he matured so his number are going to be even better and he won’t be getting kicked out of the game!!!

  11. marty says:

    Why do people keep throwing out names of rookies who should be on this list. It just showas the intelligence of some “fans”. Great list do beleive that Anthony Davis should be listed. You could call it wishful thinking but I do beleive Brandon Knight should have made the cut

  12. chigchig says:

    Iman shumpert, with JR being gone and him getting alot of minutes and being over a year back from injury

    Kemba walker, shown flashes and hes playing with some low post offense in his team.. finally

    Klay thompson – he has confidence in his shot at this level and plays D.. he could score 20 a game (emphasis on could)

    Drummond – mans a beast.. whether its this year or next dude is going to be a freak

    • chigchig says:

      wildcard pick is derrick favours/enes kanter for me.. both have the tools and now have the time in salt lake.. whens the last time the jazz didnt have a double double big man.. one of them is bound to shine

  13. J says:

    kawai leanord
    Jonas Valanciunas
    Jeremy lamb (only if he starts) (which he should and better!!!!!!)
    jimmy butler
    enes kanter

    all of these players have tremendous potential

    great article!!! cant wait for the next one!

  14. Savannah says:

    I think Austin Rivers could really have a breakout season. He doesn’t have to worry about trying/having to play the Point this season since the Pelicans now have Jrue Holiday. If his coaches do a better job of calling plays for him and using his strengths I believe Rivers skill will finally shine. Sure, he’ll have to work for playing time underneath Eric Gordon. But I don’t think Rivers has such a maverick attitude since his poor rookie season. He’s regained his confidence during the Summer League. Or maybe I’m just hoping…. Either way good luck to Rivers. DukeNATION

  15. buck hill says:

    jimmy butler is going to be A BREAKOUT!!!!!!!! THE KID HAS IT ALL AND HE PLAYED GREAT D ON LEBRON JAMES AS WELL AND MADE BIG SHOTS IN BIG MOMENTS

  16. steve says:

    its either gonna be jimmy butler or kawhi leonard getting the most improved player award

  17. Dcon says:

    I’m a bit of a Utah homer, but how can Hayward, Favors, Burks and Kanter not be on here, especially Hayward! He is going to take the next step toward superstardom…he is vastly underrated ,and I’m sure I’ll get heckled over it, and that just furthers my point that he is underrated. All 4 of those jazz guys are going to be improved and will be candidates mainly because they’re finally getting minutes.

    I like your choices overall, just disappointed that zero jazz guys made the cut, because they seem like obvious choices considering the direction the franchise is going this season with the young guys.

  18. Mark says:

    Jeremy Lamb? No. Jimmy Butler I think will be great. Anthony Davis will improve a lot, and I love what Kawhi and the Black Falcon have in store. Also Rubio didn’t exactly get the chance to show it because of the early struggles coming off of surgery but he really improved. Plus, I would be surprised if a player on a horrible team like the Celtics or (my) Sixers steps up only because they have no one.

  19. fanbouillezoui4 says:

    good list, others are hyped or could be in the list but not this year (lillard etc)

  20. Rizzy says:

    JIMMY BUCKETS!!!

  21. Anthony says:

    I have no problems with the picks already on the list, but where is Jimmy Butler? He improved last year, but has barely scratched the surface of his true potential. With Rose back in Chicago, we could see a huge breakout year for Butler. Don’t sleep on him.

    • chigchig says:

      im a huge butler fan after watching him get work last season..

      but lets not forget these factors

      deng out, rose out, noah was out alot.. which meant the ball was in nate and his hand alot..

      he played like 44 mins a game during the back end of the season.. he wont be able to do that again and with a healthy bulls there is not much o he is getting, he will make hte already stingy bulls d ALOT better tho.. they match up with MIA well this year if they healthy

  22. jon1256 says:

    no Dion Waiters or Tyler Zeller” who had a very good summer. And what about Drummings from Detroit ?

  23. Tim says:

    McCollum *

  24. Opeo says:

    WTF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No Jimmy Butler Man this list is WACK

  25. Tim says:

    No Lillard ?? Cj Maccolum T-Rob !!!

  26. Jimmy Hoops says:

    Valanciunas could flat out dominate this year. He has all of the skills and physical tools and he’s in a better situation to become a star than the other players that you mentioned. Lamb and Leonard have tremendous upside, but are in systems where they will still be role players. I’m interested to see how Bledsoe and Dragic co-exist. It could be special. It could be Jennings/Ellis.

    • Kenny says:

      Nothing special about Jennings and Elis ,, ummm Anthony Davis should be on list thank you !

      • BillWaltonFanClub says:

        Yeah that’s what he meant…It could either be special or it could be Jennings/Ellis.

  27. onearmy says:

    Jeremy lamb or reggie jackson sixth man of the year!!!

  28. ac says:

    I like all these choices, almost exactly in order that they are listed. I think Valanciunas is primed for a huge season. Kawhi Leonard barring any injuries should definitely be an all-star this season. Harrison Barnes is also a key guy to watch for sure. Bledsoe and Lamb round out the bottom of the list for sure. They will both get huge minutes due to Phoenix being terrible and OKC losing Kevin Martin.

    I also think a guy who should be mentioned in this conversation is Iman Shumpert. He was inconsistent last season but that was in part due to regaining his health and confidence. If he continues his development he can be the secondary scorer in the starting lineup that the Knicks definitely need. I’m looking for him to have a surge in his points, possibly going as high as 14-15ppg for this season. I also like Andre Drummond, Tristan Thompson, and Chandler Parsons as guys who could have breakout seasons.