The first of many “NBA Starting Fives” that will appear on this blog. This edition will include a starting five of the best “improvers” in the NBA thus far. Comment suggestions of starting fives you would like to see!
PG – Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
I know what you’re thinking, “Westbrook was already a beast.” You would be correct. However, the 28-year old scoring machine has increased his statistical averages in nearly every category (points, rebounds, assists, free throws made, free throws attempted, three-point percentage). The list could literally go on and on. I’m still currently writing a list, and I see no end in sight.
And these statistical increases are not small bumps. They are huge.
Westbrook has increased his points per game by 7.4, his rebounds per game by 3.3 and his three-point percentage by 5.1% (from 29.6 to 34.7). Obviously, Westbrook’s usage rate has gone through the roof with the departure of Kevin Durant, but the Thunder have just notched their 12th win in their first 20 games proving that there’s no harm in Westbrook’s “give me the ball and get out of the way” mentality.
Oh, by the way, Westbrook currently averages a triple-double as he has totaled nine on the year – 7 of those he poured in 30+ points.
Close Seconds: George Hill UTA (REALLY CLOSE SECOND), Mike Conley MEM, Kemba Walker CHO, D’Angelo Russell LAL
SG – DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
I’m thoroughly convinced that if DeRozan could ever develop a consistent three-point jumper, he would be the best scorer in the NBA by a long shot. But, that hasn’t happened in his eight years in the league thus far, and I don’t see it happening anytime soon. Regardless of his three-point insufficiency, DeRozan has continued his rise as a dependable scorer by increasing his points per game to 29.2-3rd best in the NBA. He started the season on an immediate tear: eclipsing 30 points in each of the first five games.
The lanky scrapper on defense averages 1.4 steals per game and continues to harass opposing scorers. DeRozan has led the Raptors to a 12-6 record and the fifth-best scoring offense in the NBA. He is also 78 field goals shy of Chris Bosh’s record of most field goals in a Raptors jersey which he will achieve this season barring any major setbacks.
Close seconds: Avery Bradley BOS, C.J. McCollum POR
SF – Otto Porter Jr., Washington Wizards
Porter has stepped up his game big time this year. With the addition of Kansas standout Kelly Oubre just a year ago, Porter was forced to pick up his meager 6 points per game and 33% three-point mark. This year, the 6-8 small forward has not only picked up his outside shot but has become a reliable force inside the arch as well. Porter is shooting nearly 59% on two-point field goals and has upped his rebound average by three.
Also, his .7 turnovers per game is the best by any small forward playing more than 30 minutes per game. Porter has boosted his averages in points, rebounds and shooting percentage each year since entering the NBA in 2013. While winning the most improved player in 2016-17 is unlikely, Porter should definitely receive the most improved from 2013-17. I’ll get a trophy made.
Close seconds: Jimmy Butler CHI, Wilson Chandler DEN
PF – Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Don’t look at the stats. I mean, you can look at the stats. Randle has upped both his field-goal percentage and effective field-goal percentage by about 10 percentage points. He’s also 3rd among power forwards in assists behind only Blake Griffin and Randle’s spitting image Draymond Green. Randle’s third year stats are frighteningly similar to that of Green during his third year in the league (Randle: 13.2 PPG, 3.7 APG, 8.9 RPG – Green: 11.7 PPG, 3.7 APG, 8.2 RPG)
I guess just don’t look only at the stats. Because Randle’s real improvement has been his transition from standby tank to outright “monster.” At least that’s the word Lakers head coach Luke Walton used to describe him. “He’s as big, strong and quick as anybody in the league,” the first-year coach of the purple and gold said. Randle has the potential to be even better than Green. If he plans on following Green’s trajectory, he’s going to have to double his assist totals in the following season. With Randle at the helm, the young, hungry Lakers might even finagle their way into snagging a playoff spot.
Close seconds: Anthony Davis NOP, Kevin Love CLE
C – Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
This might be a little bias. I have loved Turner ever since he was at Texas. An uber-athletic big man who blocks nearly everything in sight and shoots above 80% from the line? I’ll take him over all the centers in the league today due to his ridiculous upside. At Texas, Turner racked up the best defensive rating in the entire Big 12 while leading the conference in blocks and even ranking third in free-throw percentage at 83.9%.
The 20-year old ranks in the top 10 among centers in points per game, free-throw percentage, steals and blocks-where he ranks third behind Hassan Whiteside and Rudy Gobert. Turner also boasts 1.42 points per shot leading the young Pacers. While the Pacers sit at the bottom of the Central division, they have shown that they can compete at a high level beating the likes of the Cavaliers, Clippers and the Thunder. Keep your eye on Turner this year and next as he transitions into a top-5 center.
Close seconds: Clint Capela HOU, Frank Kaminsky CHO
PG, SG, SF, PF, C – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
I considered placing Giannis as the most improved point guard, then I saw his blocks per game. I also considered placing him at small forward, then I saw his assists per game. I had no idea where to put him so he could fit into any of these five positions and probably win most improved player if he continues his play this year. “The Greek Freak” is quite simply that–a freak. A freak of arm length. A freak of Eurosteps. A freak of running the break like a literal antelope.
The state of Wisconsin should formulate a petition to change their team name from Bucks to Antetokounmpos due to Giannis leading the team in nearly every category (points, rebounds, steals, blocks and second in assists). Teams are finding it just as hard to defend Antetokounmpo as it is to pronounce his last name.
The Bucks’ utility man has also stepped up big against primetime opponents (averaging 29.5 PPG against teams above .500) including a 34-point, 12-rebound performance against the defending champions-the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Close seconds: Such a player does not exist.