Bridges, Poole, Maxey and the NBA's most improved player candidates

By Sports Desk January 06, 2022

There are no hard and fast rules for voters to determine the winner of the NBA's Most Improved Player Award. 

Does it go to a player who came out of nowhere to become a big-time contributor? Is it geared more toward players who take the next step on their journey to superstar status? Or is it for players who rebound from disappointing seasons for whatever reason?

The award can reasonably fit players from several different categories so as the season nears the halfway point, now is a good time to look at some of the leading contenders for a trophy that nobody is sure what it takes to win. 

MILES BRIDGES - CHARLOTTE HORNETS

The betting lines for the Most Improved Player Award have had Bridges on top for most of the season and it's not hard to see why. 

Bridges has improved every season since he was the 12th overall selection out of Michigan State in 2018, and he has taken a huge leap forward in 2021-22. 

With career highs of 19.5 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists, Bridges can affect the game in a myriad of ways. He is one of only 12 players averaging at least 19 points, seven rebounds, three assists and one steal per game this season.

Like a lot of players who ended up winning the Most Improved Player Award, Bridges has benefitted from a big increase in minutes. He has jumped from 29.3 minutes per game last season to 35.8 this year. 

While Bridges' field goal and three-point percentages are down from last season, that can be partly attributed to a change in his approach as he's attacking the rim more efficiently and shooting 40.9 percent from midrange, up from 28.6 last season.

Though he's proven capable of doing more than scoring, Bridges' ability to put up points in bunches has been a welcome sight for the playoff-hopeful Hornets. He already has six 30-point games this season after he had just three in his first 211 NBA games.

Bridges' case for the award gets even stronger with the success of the Hornets, who are in position for a playoff spot with 20 wins after winning 33 games all last season. With Bridges leading the way, Charlotte ranks second in the NBA with 115.5 points per game and features five players averaging at least 15 per game.

JORDAN POOLE - GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Perhaps no player with a legitimate chance to win this award has come further than Poole, who struggled mightily as a rookie in 2019-20 and was even sent to the G League in January 2021 after struggling to carve out a role with the team. 

This season, though, Poole has been nothing short of a revelation for Golden State, who are vying for the league's best record and are back among the NBA's elite after a dismal 2019-20 and a mediocre season last year. 

Poole has replaced the departed Kelly Oubre in the starting lineup and been the perfect complement for Stephen Curry while the Warriors await Klay Thompson's season debut. Poole is averaging 17.7 points – nearly six more than last season - and has increased his rebounds from 1.8 to 3.3 and his assists from 1.9 to 3.4. He's done all that as his minutes have jumped from 19.4 last season to 29.9 in 2021-22 while going from a fringe rotation player to the third-scoring option behind Curry and Andrew Wiggins. 

Golden State coach Steve Kerr said that Thompson will move into the starting lineup as soon as he's ready and that will certainly have an effect on Poole. Curry's ability to create open shots for his teammates simply by existing is obvious and Poole could struggle to adapt with only so many touches to go around between the Splash Brothers and Wiggins. 

The Warriors' stellar season thus far should only help Poole's case even if he does play in the same backcourt as the possible league MVP.

TYRESE MAXEY - PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

No player has improved his scoring at a greater rate than Maxey, who is more than doubling his scoring average, rebounds and assists from his 2020-21 rookie season. After making just eight starts all last season, Maxey has helped fill the void left by Ben Simmons with 31 starts in 32 games and is a big reason why the 76ers are fifth in the Eastern Conference.

Maxey entered the league with the reputation of a scoring guard, but he has added a new dimension to his game this season and looks more like a true point guard with each performance. He has overcome some early season turnover issues and his assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.58 ranks seventh in the league, not bad for a player who is in his first full season running an offense. 

His improvement in scoring stems mainly from a more polished shot and it's proven in his percentages. 

After shooting 30.1 percent from three-point range last season, Maxey is connecting on 38.0 from deep this season and has made double figures in field goals five times after doing so just twice in all of 2020-21. 

Additionally, Maxey hasn't had a problem being Philadelphia's primary offensive weapon when Joel Embiid sits out. In the 11 games Embiid has missed this season, Maxey has averaged 22.4 points on 49.2 percent shooting compared to 13.9 points on 45.9 percent when the two are in the same lineup.

DESMOND BANE - MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

There's an argument to be made that teammate Ja Morant is as worthy of the Most Improved Player Award as Bane but the difference lies with expectations. The otherworldly Morant is ascending as most believed he would after he was the second overall pick in 2019, while Bane has had a far more dramatic leap as the 30th overall selection the following year. 

Bane was an impressive shooter in his rookie season, averaging 9.2 points and hitting on 43.2 percent from long range. He has continued the stellar shooting in his sophomore season and has developed other areas of his game. Bane is tied for seventh in the league in three-pointers made (112) and at 17.4 points per game, only Tyrese Maxey has improved his scoring from last season at a greater rate. 

Bane's evolution truly became evident from November 28-December 19 when Morant was sidelined for 12 games. 

During that span, Bane averaged 17.5 points and 5.0 rebounds while making 36 of 79 (45.6 percent) from beyond the arc as the Grizzlies won 10 of 12 without their best player. In a 108-95 win over the Lakers on December 9 and Memphis also missing second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, Bane scored 23 points on nine-of-20 shooting, including five of 11 from downtown.

With almost no fanfare, Bane has become one of the elite shooters in the league. 

Earlier this season he became just the sixth player in NBA history to make 200 three-pointers and shoot at least 40 percent from deep in his first 100 career games. The others are Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Duncan Robinson, Voshon Lenard and Landry Shamet.

DEJOUNTE MURRAY - SAN ANTONIO SPURS

With the offseason departure of DeMar DeRozan, Murray has become the unquestioned leader of the rebuilding Spurs and he seems to finally be getting the attention he deserves as one of the best point guards in the league. 

Murray has improved his scoring in each of his five NBA seasons and is up to a career-best 18.0 this season. He's also averaging 8.4 rebounds - the most of any guard in the NBA – and ranks in the league's top five in assists (8.9), steals (2.03) and triple-doubles (6).

Whereas many of the candidates for this award have seen a huge uptick in minutes, Murray is averaging barely two more minutes per game (31.9 to 34.2). 

One area of his game that could prevent Murray from winning this award is his shooting. His 44.2 field goal percentage puts him 16th among point guards, while his 33.6 three-point percentage is ranked 23rd. He also is connecting on just 69.6 percent from the foul line.

San Antonio is currently 10th in the Western Conference and has a shot at qualifying for the play-in round of the playoffs. This award has traditionally gone to a player on a team that experiences a certain level of success so the Spurs finishing at least in the top 10 in the conference would be a big help to Murray's case. 

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