NBA preseason is also open season for predictions. Earlier this week, Ben Standig looked at John Wall's Vegas odds for winning the NBA MVP. Perhaps more realistic are Bradley Beal's prospects for winning the Most Improved Player Award.
Typically, the MIP honors go to players in their third or fourth seasons, as with last year's winner Jimmy Butler. Beal has been a starter for all three of his years in the NBA, but is still only 22 years old.
Sure, he was unusually mature coming into the league, but most players aren't done developing at his age. It's enticing to think that a player who averaged 15.3 points and shot 41% from 3-point territory last year will only get better.
Being so young should give him plenty of time to work on his weaknesses -- shot selection, free throw shooting and ball handling -- or so the thinking goes. Granted, Beal has to stay healthy, but if he can improve those things and follow through on his pre-season goals of shooting more beyond the arc and doubling down on defense, he could be the favorite to win MIP.
There's only one flaw in the logic that assumes Beal will trend upward: He hasn't exactly been doing that, at least not yet. Let's look at his statistical progression in several key categories.
3-point shooting: 39% (1.6 of 4.2 attempts per game) in year one; 40% (1.9 of 4.7 attempts) in year two; 41% (1.7 of 4.1 attempts) in year three.
His free throw shooting is similarly flat: 79% (2.2 of 2.8 attempts per game) in year one; 77% (2.0 of 2.6 attempts) in year two; 80% (2.1 of 2.6 attempts) in year three.
As for turnovers per game, he averaged 1.6 in year one, 1.8 in year two and 2.0 in year three.
Beal went on a scoring tear in the 2015 playoffs, jumping from 15.3 points per game in the regular season to 23.4 in the postseason. But his efficiency took a hit, especially 3-point shooting percentage. He turned the ball over more often, too.
Is it a bad sign that his numbers haven't shown much year-over-year growth? Unclear, but that wasn't the case with the past three Most Improved winners: Butler, Paul George and Goran Dragic.
Butler won it in his fourth season (second starting) and showed significant growth in nearly every statistical category each year. George also won in his fourth season (third starting) as the culmination of a steady upward trajectory on offense. Dragic took five years, but received the award following his first full season as a starter, this after starting no more than five games in any of his first three seasons.
None of this means that Beal can't or won't make a MIP-level leap, but that if he does, the graph of his growth will look quite different from those of recent winners.
The Wizards are making some changes this season that will benefit Beal's Most Improved hopes. Namely, coach Randy Wittman wants his team to attempt more 3-pointers instead of settling for long 2s, the most inefficient shot in basketball.
For a player that shoots so well from beyond the arc, Beal should be averaging more attempts per game. According to Basketball-Reference.com, only eight players shot a better 3-point percentage than Beal did last season (41%), but he didn't even crack the top 20 in number of 3-pointers taken.
His attempts from downtown will almost certainly increase this year, as will his fast-break opportunities as the Wizards transition to an up-tempo offense. A small-ball, fast-paced style should also result in more trips to the free throw line.
There's also the not-so-little matter of his contract situation: The Wizards and Beal have not yet agreed to an extension. He will become a restricted free agent next year if he doesn't re-sign with Washington.
The player's camp is likely seeking a max deal or something close, but Washington seems more content to let the season begin than make that financial commitment up-front. The circumstance puts pressure on Beal to prove he's worth max money -- many million dollars of motivation to stay healthy and step up his game.
One thing's for certain: a Most Improved Player Award would all but lock up the big bucks.