Is Most Improved Player Award Siakam’s to lose?
Pascal Siakam, D’Angelo Russell, De’Aaron Fox. Three deserving stars, all three with their names in the hat for an award that validates their efforts, and confirms their intent to step into the spotlight and carry more of the weight – whether offensively or defensively – for their teams when the new season tips off.
In recent seasons, the winners of the Most Improved Player (MIP) of the year Award have been clear-cut: there had been no ambiguity. In fact in the last four years, of the quartet that had won the award: Jimmy Butler, C.J. McCollum, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Victor Oladipo, only one was not named an All-Star for the first time the same year they were declared Most Improved Player: McCollum. The All-Star selection underlined and validated the choices of the other three.
And that story looked about to repeat itself when ‘Spicy P’, that is Cameroonian Pascal Siakam, seemed to take up the gauntlet thrown down by his countryman, Joel Embiid, at the start of the 2018/19 season. Both had started playing in the league the same year, even though Embiid was drafted two years earlier. The playful Embiid dominated when he played in his injury-blighted first season, while Siakam took baby-steps. Then last season, while Siakam took even more baby-steps, Embiid hogged the headlines and took his team to the playoffs for the first time in years.
When the season started, it looked like Siakam was still baby-stepping: Spicy P averaged 7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists through the first four games, then he exploded. Over the next 14 games, Siakam’s averages jumped to 16.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and he added 2.2 assists per game. By the time the All-Star break came round, the boy from Douala had recorded monster games and career highs: his 24 points and 19 rebounds on the road against the Washington Wizards were landmark statistics, and he further raised the bar when he dumped 44 points - again on the Wizards, when they came to Toronto. At that point, the consensus was that Siakam has locked up the MIP Award.
But over in Sacramento, De’Aaron Fox was also making a statement. ‘The General’ was making good on that title by marshaling the Kings. Fox had shown what he is capable of in his rookie year by averaging 11.6 points and 4.4 assists. Therefore when he opened the season on a tear, averaging 20.3 points and 7.7 assists in the first three games, it went almost unnoticed. Then, the Kings travelled to Atlanta and Fox dropped a triple-double of 31 points, 10 rebounds and 15 assists also on the Wizards in a 146-115 win.
‘Swipa’ would go on to end the season with a 17.3 points and 7.3 assists per game average, a huge jump from his rookie numbers of 11.6 points and 4.4 assists. He improved to 81 games as a starter, as against the previous season when he made 61 starts. The 16 double-doubles he recorded were markedly better than the mere three of his rookie season. Fox may have ended the season tamely, (he averaged ‘just’ 14.3 points in his final 9 games) but the speedy, wild-haired guard definitely made the jump from rookie to established star.
D’Angelo Russell must have felt like a castaway when the Los Angeles Lakers included him, alongside Timofey Mozgov in the Draft Day deal that brought Kyle Kuzma to the Purple and Gold. The Kentucky native had been touted as one of the cornerstones and the future of the rebuilt Lakers franchise, so, to be packaged and then sent to the no-no land that was Brooklyn, after averaging 14.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.4 assists over two seasons in LA was a shock. He has since prospered in Brooklyn.
D-Lo had a breakout 2018/19 season after almost replicating his final season with the Lakers in his first season with the Nets. The 21.1 points and 7.0 assists he posted, both led the Nets and marked career highs for Russell. And he got his first All-Star Game appearance to boot, the only player of the three finalists with the honour.
Now, all three have a chance to be named Most Improved Player, the question is with all three parading impressive dossiers, who gets the nod? We find out at the NBA Awards in the 24th of June in Los Angeles.