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NBA Fantasy Trends

Low-Key Most Improved Players

by Mike Gallagher
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

Making predictions on the NBA awards can be kind of simple to figure out. Besides team wins being a factor, Rookie of the Year is going to be linked strongly to minutes, Coach of the Year is correlated even stronger to wins, MVP will be mostly about points, and Sixth Man of the Year is even more about points than anything else.


Most Improved Player is the trickiest award in the NBA. You could say it’s also one of the tougher ones to make a call on for all pro sports because you’re basically judging two seasons. In other words, you have to gauge both last season and compare it to this season. People voting for the award may feel that last season a player wasn’t as bad or as good as others may think. A good example of that is Giannis Antetokounmpo as last season’s MIP. After the break in 2015-16, Giannis averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 boards, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.4 steals and 0.4 treys on 50.9 FG%. Last season overall, he averaged 22.9 points, 8.8 boards, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.6 steals and 0.6 treys on 52.1 FG%. So is that really that much better? 


This year, it’s going to be pretty easy to give Victor Oladipo the award. He had a disastrous 2016-17 season by almost any standard, but this year he’ll be in the mix for an All-NBA Team nod. Fantasy wise, nobody else bumped up from a mid-round pick to becoming a top-10 player. Although, Dipo winning the award is hardly a surprise, which is kind of the point of this article today. Just to put a quick bow on the 2018 MIP, there’s really not much else to say on Dipo and he’ll be coming off the board in the first round of drafts next year.


After him, there are still a lot of players that will get a lot of MIP love. Most of these guys were on the radar in fantasy drafts, so they really weren’t that surprising. For instance, Josh Richardson, Jamal Murray, Clint Capela, Taurean Prince and Steven Adams all having big seasons was certainly in the realm of possibilities. Plus, all of those guys were drafted in most competitive fantasy leagues.


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Nevertheless, I thought it might be cool to run down a list of improved players that almost nobody saw coming. Sure, a lot of these guys that follow were just given a big opportunity due to an injury, but coming through on that chance is no small feat. To be clear, the biggest factor on this is the “wow” factor on these guys having career years. Basically, almost all of these guys below were not drafted in fantasy leagues. I’ll also go over if we can buy it for next season.


Low-Key Most Improved First Team


Spencer Dinwiddie - He picked up 6.2 minutes per game compared to last year, but Dinwiddie had a major increase with 3.5 assists per game in that time. He also had a 6.3 usage rate bump from last year, but his efficiency did drop this season. His breakout year was largely due to Jeremy Lin going down to start the season, but still Dinwiddie exceeded even the highest of expectations.


His advanced stats saw a big bump with a 0.9 increase in VORP (value over replacement player) and a 2.9 increase in win shares. He couldn’t even make the Bulls in October 2016 and Dinwiddie didn’t really get a chance on the Pistons before that. Recently, he hasn’t progressed too much since D’Angelo Russell came back, so it’ll be tough to buy him as a mid-round fantasy pick next year.


Trey Burke - When the Knicks signed Burke in January, not many thought he would even stay in the rotation to the end of the season. Well, he played 35 games and was shockingly a productive scorer with his 56.3 TS%. Add that to career highs of a 36.8 assist percentage, a 25.5 usage rate, and a career-low 9.5 turnover percentage. Before this year, he only had a 39.0 FG% in his career, but somehow increased his FG% to 50.5 thanks to finishing at the rim and nailing mid-range jumpers.


Moving forward, it’s still going to be tough to buy Burke. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent and it doesn’t really feel like a team will be giving him a multiple-year deal.


Joe Harris - While Dinwiddie picked up run from Jeremy Lin going down, it was Harris who had stepped in for the injury to D’Angelo Russell. Harris didn’t play in the first game and wasn’t expected to be in the rotation at all to start the year. Before the year, he said he wanted to shoot 40 percent from deep, and he’ll hit his goal as long as he doesn’t go 0-of-16 in the season finale. Plus, his assists are up, too.


For next year, this one could be tough because he’s an unrestricted free agent. He’ll be getting a nice raise from his $1.5 million from this year and he’ll almost certainly be making a team’s rotation.


Dario Saric - The lone exception to the criteria. A lot of people were not expecting The Homie Dario to get better, and many thought he should’ve won Rookie of the Year because of volume after the break, including me on both counts. In fact, I had him outside of my top 150 for rankings. Well, this year the volume took a hit and there was some concern that his minutes were going to drop because of Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid set for a lot of playing time. Saric’s playing time did go up with a 3.7 minutes increase per game, but his usage rate fell 3.8 percentage points. The biggest improvement for Dario was a massive increase with his 7.3 true shooting percentage jump. He went from a below-average shooter, to becoming a 39.3 shooter from deep. In this offense, that is massive and part of the reason why the 76ers are a sexy pick to make a postseason run.


We kind of have to buy it, right? He had a big improvement at the rim with his 66.1 FG% on shots from within three feet. He will get the same concerns next year because Fultz has really shown he can be an explosive player. Obviously the 76ers won the Elfrid Payton for Dario deal.


Domantas Sabonis - Much of the fantasy community isn’t too happy about Sabonis busting out because it hurt our guy Myles Turner, who may have been the Most Improved Player from a fantasy perspective last year — Giannis was going in the first round. Sabonis just came off a career-high 30 points on Sunday to bump his season averages of 11.7 points, 7.7 boards, 2.1 dimes, 0.4 blocks and 0.2 treys on 51.4 percent from the field. He almost doubled his rebounding rate from 9.8 to 17.8, while he added a ridiculous 9.8 TS% points from last year.


Sabonis is still just 21 years old and he’ll be 22 in May, so there’s still room for growth. I still am not ready to buy Sabonis 100 percent because Turner’s upside is still sky high.


Second Team


Terry Rozier - Another guy that saw increased opportunity. Rozier didn’t make any starts in his first two seasons, but he’ll be making at least his 16th start of the year tonight. In his 15 starts, he averaged 16.1 points, 6.6 boards, 5.1 assists, 1.3 steals and 2.9 treys.


We'll see what the Celtics wind up doing with Marcus Smart and others. For now, Scary Terry is shaping up as a Kyrie Irving handcuff in fantasy.


Quinn Cook - Sure, we’re going off just a small sample, but he’s been unreal as a starter. In his 17 starts, Cook averaged 15.0 points, 3.6 boards, 4.1 assists, 0.6 steals and 2.3 treys on a 50.2/47.6/87.5 slash shooting line. That’s good for a 61.5 TS% in those 17 games. Again, it’s really only a quarter of the season, but going from two-way player to starting point guard for the Golden State Warriors to start the playoffs is enough to overcome the lack of volume. This guy couldn't even make the Hawks.


What does it mean going forward for next year? Well, Cook earned a multi-year deal officially today, so he’s probably going to be the backup PG for next season. Stephen Curry is 30 years old now and hopefully his ankle issues are behind him. If not, we’ll see Cook as a fantasy add throughout the year.


E’Twaun Moore - Jrue Holiday should probably get some MIP love, but Moore has been surprisingly effective as a shooter. He had a 51/43/70 slash shooting line with career highs in points, boards, dimes, steals and 3-pointers. Holiday did wind up guarding a lot of SFs this year, but Moore made a whopping 63 starts at forward this season. That’s impressive for a guy who is just 6’4”, 191 pounds. It also looks like he'll be playing in 82 games overall.


Next year I still can’t see myself drafting him in fantasy leagues.


Kyle Anderson - When you think Slo Mo, you think how he’s probably going to have statue in front of Thomas & Mack Center for his play in Las Vegas Summer League. Productive July aside, it rarely turned into actual production in the NBA, but not this year. He almost doubled his total minutes from last year while putting up a 58.1 TS% — that’s up from 50.7 TS% in his career before this season. He doubled his career high in VORP, almost doubled it in win shares and upped basically every category in the box score.


Besides LaMarcus Aldridge being an All-Star and Dejounte Murray stepping up, the Spurs making the playoffs had a lot to do with Slo-Mo. Still, it’ll be really tough to draft him next year, assuming Kawhi Leonard and Anderson are back.


Kevon Looney - Much like Cook, maybe this is about a recency bias, but Looney has transformed his game. If we knew a couple months ago that the Warriors would have to cut someone off their roster to make room for Quinn Cook, most people would've thought it would’ve been Looney or Damian Jones getting the boot off the roster. Well, now Looney has passed just about every center on the roster and he appears to be the No. 2 PF/C behind Draymond Green -- that's not counting small-ball four-ish lineups with Kevin Durant, etc.


Moving forward, I honestly am not sure yet. A strong postseason could get Looney on the radar, and the Warriors are going to have to make some roster decisions, too.


Others in the mix that exceeded expectation and a quick reason why I didn’t put on the teams above: Tyreke Evans (too much time off late), Joe Ingles (was great last year, still was drafted in most leagues), Delon Wright (light scoring, shoulder injury), Fred VanVleet (quiet during the time Delon was out), Dewayne Dedmon (Hawks), Bojan Bogdanovic (too many Pacers already), Trey Lyles (faded late), Jerami Grant (quiet early), Tomas Satoransky (didn’t do much before Wall injury), Kris Dunn (missed time, inefficient scorer).

Mike Gallagher

Mike Gallagher has covered fantasy hoops for eight years and this season is his second with NBC Sports Edge. You can find him on Twitter talking about a player's shots at the rim.