By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As the regular season nears its end, the debate surrounding the league’s annual awards — from MVP to Rookie of the Year to Coach of the Year — has been kicked into high gear. With roughly three weeks to go, Nikola Jokic looks to be running away with the MVP, while the impending return of LaMelo Ball has vaulted him back to the top of the Rookie of the Year conversation.
While those two awards tend to carry the most prestige, this season’s Most Improved Player race has been perhaps the most interesting to track. In the last few weeks, Julius Randle has emerged as the betting favorite (he’s -500 at BetMGM), but throughout the season, many players — Jerami Grant, Zion Williamson, Christian Wood, Jaylen Brown, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, among others — emerged as serious contenders.
As the odds imply, Randle will almost certainly take home the award, adding his name to a list of recent winners that includes Brandon Ingram, Pascal Siakam, Giannis Antetokounmpo, CJ McCollum, Jimmy Butler, and Paul George. Randle’s individual improvement has been the driving force behind the Knicks’ surprising 33-27 record. Unsurprisingly, he’s also having by far the best fantasy season of his career, ranking inside the top 10 in eight-category total value.
More often than not, of course, improvement in real life and fantasy go hand in hand. But some players who make notable leaps in value aren’t recognized with an award or a spot on an All-Star or All-NBA team. In the spirit of the Most Improved Player debate, let’s take a look at the players who would be in contention for the award if it were based solely on fantasy improvement.
Overall rank refers to 8-category total value as of Thursday, April 22.
Julius Randle, Knicks
Overall rank: 5
The likely real-life winner is also among the most improved contributors in all of fantasy basketball. Randle (Yahoo ADP: 74.3) had a fine 2019-20 campaign, finishing 68th in total value and 87th in per-game value, but it was nothing remarkable. He struggled to shoot efficiently from the free-throw line (73.3% FT) and from three (27.7% 3PT) while handing out 3.1 assists per game. This season, he’s blown all of those figures out of the water, jumping all the way up to 6.1 assists per game while turning into a legitimately elite three-point shooter (40.0% 3PT; 5.3 3PA/G). Randle’s value is boosted by the fact that he’s only missed one game, but in a condensed season availability is more important than ever.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans
Overall rank: 36
As a rookie, Williamson showed plenty of promise, but in the context of fantasy basketball, he really only contributed in points (22.5 PPG), rebounds (6.3 RPG), and field goal percentage (58.3% FG). He added virtually no value on defense and was among the league’s most damaging free-throw shooters, hitting just 64 percent of his 7.4 attempts per game. In Year 2, Williamson still has some faults, but he’s a top-40 fantasy commodity and the single most valuable player (by a mile) in terms of field goal percentage. While he’s made some strides at the line (70.1% FT), if free-throw percentage were eliminated as a category, Williamson would jump all the way up to 10th overall.
Jerami Grant, Pistons
Overall rank: 59
Going from high-end role player in Denver to a legitimate No. 1 option in Detroit, Grant is a no-brainer. He’s up more than 10 points per game compared to last season, and while his overall efficiency fell (43% FG), he’s hitting a career-high 85.4 percent of his free throws (6.3 FTA/G) and adding 2.2 threes per game. Over his first 30 games, Grant averaged 23.5 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.2 blocks, 0.8 steals, and 2.5 threes with a 44-38-89 shooting line.
Terry Rozier, Hornets
Overall rank: 26
Moving from Boston to Charlotte last season, Rozier made a massive leap in nearly every category. While his improvement hasn’t been quite as dramatic this season, he’s averaging 20-plus points per game for the first time in his career while shooting a career-best 46.8 percent from the field. Rozier is again hitting better than 40 percent of his threes, and he’s currently tied for fifth in the NBA in total makes. Rozier doesn’t offer a ton in terms of rebounds or assists, but his career-high 1.3 steals per game have helped him jump more than 30 spots compared to last season’s ranking (58th in total value).
De’Aaron Fox, Kings
Overall rank: 21
Due in large part to missed time, Fox was one of last season’s biggest disappointments, finishing outside of the top-90 in total value. He was better on a per-game basis (56th), but Fox didn’t make the leap many managers anticipated. After another slow start, Fox turned on the jets in mid-January and hasn’t looked back. Since the All-Star break (22 games), he’s up to 28.4 points, 6.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 1.9 steals, and 1.7 threes per game to go with a 50-30-77 shooting line. Like Williamson, the free throw percentage remains a major drag on Fox’s value. Without it, he’d be a top-eight overall player on the season.
Chris Boucher, Raptors
Overall rank: 34
Boucher flashed plenty of potential in 2019-20, averaging 16.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, and 1.7 threes in the 12 games in which he saw at least 20 minutes. Nick Nurse has once again been hesitant to fully unleash the lanky big man, but even in fairly limited action (24.2 MPG), Boucher has been able to hold onto third-round value. Per 36 minutes, Boucher is putting up elite fantasy numbers: 20.4 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.8 blocks, 0.9 steals, and 2.3 threes. At the end of the day, though, he’s left most managers wanting more.
Richaun Holmes, Kings
Overall rank: 45
Holmes did rank inside the top-60 in per-game value last season, but his 25 missed games sent him tumbling out of the top-125 overall. He hasn’t been perfectly healthy in 2020-21, but his eight absences thus far have been offset by the league-wide rise in injuries and rest. After the All-Star break, Holmes averaged 17.0 points, 10.4 boards, 2.0 blocks, and shot 63 percent from the field over a 17-game stretch, ranking as the 12-most-valuable player during that run.
Kelly Olynyk, Rockets
Overall rank: 57
For the most part, Olynyk is doing what he’s always done, but he’s barely missed any time, and his uptick in production since joining the Rockets has him inside the top-60 after finishing 142nd a year ago. Despite shooting a career-low 33.7 percent from downtown, Olynyk is hitting a career-high 1.8 threes per game, while also chipping in a career-best 6.5 rebounds and 0.9 steals. Olynyk doesn’t blow you away in any one category — he’s simply a rock-solid contributor across the board. In a fantasy season where dependability is at a premium, Olynyk has been a godsend.
RJ Barrett, Knicks
Overall rank: 93
Like several players on this list, Barrett has benefited greatly from staying healthy (he’s yet to miss a game). On a per-game basis, his ranking falls by nearly 50 spots, but to borrow a well-worn cliche: Availability is the best ability. In terms of his numbers, Barrett has made massive strides in efficiency, hitting nearly 39 percent of his 3.9 three-point attempts per game. He’s also shooting a tolerable 74 percent at the line — up from a ghastly 61.4 percent a year ago. Barrett still has room to improve as a passer (2.9 APG) and defender (1.1 combined blocks/steals), but overall it’s been an encouraging sophomore campaign for the 20-year-old.
Nikola Vucevic, Bulls: Vucevic has long been a mainstay in the late-second/early third-round range, but he’s up to third overall in total value this season, thanks in part to career-highs in points (24.0 PPG), threes (2.6 3PM/G), free-throw percentage (83.6% FT) and three-point percentage (41.5% 3PT).
Zach LaVine, Bulls: Like his teammate, LaVine has made the leap from very good fantasy player to legitimate first-round talent. Before landing in the league’s health and safety protocols, LaVine ranked fifth overall in total value.
Darius Garland, Cavaliers: After ranking outside the top 200 as a rookie, Garland has climbed up to 79th in per-game value. He’s improved in virtually every category, including jumping from 3.9 to 6.0 assists and 0.7 to 1.2 steals per game.
Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets: Denver took the training wheels off of Porter this season, and he’s responded with 17.6 points and 2.4 threes per game on 54-43-77 shooting while hovering around 1.0 block per game.
Myles Turner, Pacers: Injuries have diminished Turner’s overall value, but his career-high and league-leading 3.4 blocks per game are a massive asset for fantasy managers.
Norman Powell, Trail Blazers: The Raptor-turned-Blazer is flirting with top-40 value on the season, and he’s not that far off from sniffing 50-40-90 territory.
TJ McConnell, Pacers: McConnell has long been a great per-minute value, but with his workload climbing to 25.7 minutes per game this season, he ranks 51st overall. The 28-year-old is averaging 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and shooting 57.3 percent from the field.