Monday, November 25, 2013

J-Speaks: Early Season Candidates For Most Improved Players in NBA

When a new season begins, one of the main questions that is asked is what players are going to put all of their amazing talent together and start to tap the potential that many so-called experts and analysts believe certain players have. Last season, it was Indiana Pacers' swingman Paul George who put it all together and not only won the Most Improved Player Award a season ago, but he helped lead the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they fell one game short of the NBA Finals to the eventual back-to-back champion Miami Heat. This season, there are five players who have done what George did a seasons ago and not only have played well themselves, but they have made their teams better.

Those five players who have improved their games as well as their teams are New Orleans Pelicans center Anthony Davis, Philadelphia 76ers center Spencer Hawes, Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, Atlanta Hawks point guard Jeff Teague and Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe have done exactly that.

A season ago, Davis put up solid numbers as a rookie with 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per contest.

In his second season, he numbers have been off the charts with averages of 20.7 points, 11.0 rebounds (5th NBA), 1.9 steals and 4.0 blocks, which ranks second in the league behind, Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who averages 4.3 blocks per contest.

In the Pelicans (6-6) 105-98 victory versus the Utah Jazz (1-14) on Wednesday night, Nov.13, Davis had 22 points on 9 for 12 from the field, nine boards and eight block shots. The eight rejections Davis had was the second consecutive outing that he recorded that number, joining current Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Garnett as the only players in league history to record back-to-back games of eight or more blocks at the 20 years of age or younger.

Davis had 13 points nine boards and nine blocks in the Pelicans 135-98 win versus the Sixers four days prior.

The improve play of Davis on both ends has helped to makes the Pelicans a very competitive team in the early part of this season. More than anything else though, he has made life a little easier for the likes of Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon. Davis' ability to shoot from 15 feet along with his ability to score around the basket and change ends helps the Pelicans to score quickly, which they have made a better effort to do this season and to keep teams from having easy chances at the rim in the half court.

Along with that, the effort and energy that Davis has shown on a nightly basis gives this talented group the most important thing they will need if they have plans on making the playoffs. A sense of urgency to bring a high competitive spirit to the court night in and night out.

That was never more prevalent than this past Friday versus the Cleveland Cavaliers (4-10). Trailing 93-81 late in the fourth quarter, the Pelicans closed the game on a 23-7 run the final 4:44 to win the game 104-100.

Davis was one of six Pelicans in double-figures with 17 points to go along with 13 boards and three blocks.

When Davis came out of the University of Kentucky as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 Draft out of Kentucky, he was a player in the eyes of many experts as one who can change the fortunes of a franchise.

This season in particular, he is living up to those expectations and if he continues to perform at the level he is this season, he not only has a strong chance of winning the Most Improved Player Award, but to make his first All-Star appearance, which would be really nice, since the game will be played in New Orleans.

Coming into the season, the Sixers (6-9) were in a rebuilding mode. The centerpiece of this new era of Sixers basketball was rookie guard Michael Carter-Williams (17.3 ppg, 7.4 apg-leads team, 5.7 rpg, 3.0 spg-2nd NBA). The anchor of the team was going to be swingman Evan Turner (21.7 ppg-leads team, 6.9 rpg, 3.6 apg). While he and forward Thaddeus Young (14.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 1.7 spg) was going to be important in this process as the veterans, no one expected the kind of start that starting center Spencer Hawes got off to this season.

His averages of 16.8 points, 10.3 boards and 1.6 blocks per contest are the best numbers of his career.

To put these stellar numbers of Hawes into perspective, there are only six guys who are averaging 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds per game. Those players are Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love (24.9 ppg-3rd NBA, 13.6 rpg-T-1st NBA), Los Angeles Clippers All-Star forward Blake Griffin (22.0 ppg, 10.8 rpg), aforementioned Davis of the Pelicans, Houston Rockets All-Star center Dwight Howard (17.9 ppg, 13.6 rpg-T-1st NBA), Orlando Magic starting center Nikola Vucevic (15.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg) and Hawes.

For much of his career, Hawes has been a solid player. In three of his prior six seasons coming into this one with the Sacramento Kings and the Sixers, he averaged double figures in points and aside from his rookie year, he has averaged between five and seven boards per contest.

His emergence has been a huge boost for the Sixers who have a lot of talented players in the aforementioned Turner, Carter-Williams, guards James Anderson (10.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Tony Wroten (12.6 ppg) to name a few.

When you have that kind of talent, it takes having guys like Hawes, Turner and Young who have some years in the NBA and production to go alongside it as teammates to see from practice to game action the kind of work ethic and committment it takes to succeed individually and to help the team succeed.

Hawes put that veteran experience on full display last Friday versus the struggling Milwaukee Bucks (2-10), when he hit a fall away three-pointer right in front of the Bucks bench with 1.7 seconds left in regulation to tie the score at 102-102.

He scored 11 of his team-high 25 points in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime to lift the Sixers to a 115-107 win, snapping a four-game losing streak. Hawes also had 12 to garner his ninth double-double of the season. He was 11 for 16 from the field, including going 3 for 6 from three-point range.

Hawes is a great example of how being prepared is the first step in becoming a great player and his stellar play combined with the young talent on the roster gives the Sixers hope for the future.

As mentioned earlier, the emergence of George is a big reason why the Pacers (12-1) pused the back-to-back champion Heat to the limit in the Eastern Conference Finals a season ago. The other player who emerged a season ago and has really raised his game this season is swingman Lance Stephenson.

In the East Semifinals against Heat two years ago, Stephenson got attention not for a play that he made on the court, but for a chocke gesture he made when back-to-back Most Valuable Player forward LeBron James of the Heat missed a technical foul free throw. It was not received well afterwards, especially since the Pacers after winning Game 3 of the series to go up 2-1, they lost the last three of the series to fall 4-2.

Last season though, the Brooklyn, NY native grew up and allowed his play on the court to do the talking as he averaged 8.8 points and 3.9 boards as a starter for the East runner up Pacers who took the Heat all the way to Game 7 before falling again to the Heat one game short of the NBA Finals.

This season, Stephenson has been stellar as the Pacers second leading scorer at 13.4 points to go along with 5.9 rebounds and a team leading 5.2 assists per contest.

His play along with the continue emergence of leading scorer Paul George (24.4 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.7 spg) is the reason why the Pacers are becoming a true threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference.

It is not just his scoring, but like George, Stephenson has raised his game in every other area with his rebound and assists averages. Stephenson has learned that he can effect the game in other areas besides scoring.

He demonstrated that the 103-96 overtime win at the struggling New York Knicks (3-9) last Wednesday night. He struggled scoring the ball putting in just nine points, but he had nine boards and five assists.

In the Pacers 97-82 win at the Celtics (5-10), Stephenson recorded his second triple-double of the season with 10 pionts, 11 rebounds, 10 assists to go along with four steals.

Of all the players mentioned who are in early running for the Most Improved Player Award, Stephenson is the one player who is on a championship contender and his continued improvement will play a major key to the Pacers this season, especially if they want to unseed the Heat in the East.

It is one thing to have a breakthrough season it is another to go to an even higher level. That is the case for Hawks (8-6) lead guard Jeff Teague.

Last season, the product of Wake Forest University had the best season of his young career averaging 14.6 points, 7.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game.

The question coming into this season though, with a new head coach in Mike Budenholzer, former teammate Josh Smith moving on to the Detroit Pistons and a new cast of teammates like forwards Paul Milsap, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll, Cartier Martin, could Teague bring his game to another level.

So far, the answer has been a solid yes, leading the team in scoring at 18.0 and assists at 8.8 for the Hawks.

In their 113-103 victory over the Sixers 10 days ago, Teague had a career-high of 33 points to go along with 10 assists in the victory.

When you are the floor general for your team, you are an extension of your head coach. You are the engine that makes the car go. So far this season Teague has been driving the train for the Hawks pretty nicely and is a big reason why the Hawks are going to be in the playoff hunt once, despite the fact that the roster has had some major changes to it.

Another starting guard who has risen his game to a different height has been Eric Bledsoe for the Phoenix Suns (7-6).

In the first three seasons of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers, Bledsoe has been a reserve who has shown flashes of brilliance. He has also had the chance to be an understudy to one of the best at his position in All-Star Chris Paul.

When he was traded to the Suns this summer, he finally was going to get his chance to prove that he can run a team on his own.

So far, the former Kentucky Wildcat guard has done a stellar job averaging career-best of 20.4 points, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 50 percent from the field and 83.3 percent from the free throw line.

Bledsoe has been a solid compliment starting backcourt mate Goran Dragic (16.4 ppg, 6.4 apg). They along with other new additions in guard Gerald Green (15.2 ppg), starting center Miles Plumlee (10.2 ppg, 8.8 rpg-leads team, 2.1 bpg-leads team) and some of the current core which includes the Morris twins Markieff (11.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg,) and Marcus (10.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg), P.J. Tucker (9.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and forward Channing Frye (8.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg).

Of the five players that I have mentioned that are on early watch for Most Improved Player Award, Bledsoe was the one player that has been the most impressive.

He was coming to a new team that was coming off one of the worst season in the history. There was a new head coach in Jeff Hornacek. Other new players in Green, who had shown flashes that he could be brilliant and Plumlee, who barely got any time with the Pacers a season ago and a first round pick (5th overall) Alex Len, who has played little this season and core players like the Morris twins, Dragic and Tucker who had a lot of room to grow.

So far, the match of Bledsoe and the Suns has been one made in heaven, even though he has missed the last four games because of an injury to his left shin.

Davis, Hawes, Stephenson, Teague and Bledsoe are players who entered this league with a world of talent. Unlike a lot of players who have a lot of talent, these five players have taken their skills to another level and made themselves better individuallly and have made their teams better.

These are five worthy candidates for Most Improved Player Award and who ever wins it will be worthy because it is not just the fact that these players have taken their games to another level, but the teams they play for are benefiting from that improved play in the win column.

While the Pacers were expected to be great this season and so far they are living up to the bill, not much was expected from the Sixers, Pelicans, Hawks and Suns. Many experts thought the Suns and Sixers were going to be two of the worst teams in the league. While they and the Pelicans are longshots to make the playoffs, their futures look a lot brighter because of the play of the Bledsoe, Hawes and Davis. Teague's continued emergence has given the Hawks a fighting chance to make their seventh straight playoff appearance this April.
Information and statistics are courtesy of 11/23/13 5 a.m. edition of NBA TV's "Gametime" with Vince Cellini, Mike Fratello and Michael Redd;;

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