Skill boosts: This is where players have improved the most this season

Skill boosts: This is where players have improved the most this season

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Skill boosts: This is where players have improved the most this season

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Every year, it is fascinating to track the incredible progress that players around the league have made during their most recent offseason.

Considering that the NBA is home to some of the best athletes in the world, it’s always remarkable to see how these world-class find ways to get better and develop their games.

The league clearly loves it, too, and celebrated these accomplishments by introducing the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award (MIP) back in 1985.

Earlier this season, we have written about the impressive strides we have seen from 2020-21 MIP candidates Julius Randle (playmaking) and Jordan Clarkson (shot selection and efficiency) thus far. We have also highlighted the most improved players on each team, including first-time All-Stars Zach LaVine and Jaylen Brown.

But we wanted to highlight some of the ways that certain individuals have gotten better at distinct elements of their game since last season as well.

Jerami Grant: Creating for himself

Feb 26, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9) brings the ball up court during the first quarter against the Sacramento Kings at Little Caesars Arena.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

When he played for the Nuggets, he often yielded to star teammates Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. But on the Detroit Pistons Pistons, Jerami Grant is making the plays by himself, carving out space for himself to score.

Last season, according to Cleaning the Glass, he was assisted on 84 percent of his field goals. He has lowered that rate to just 66 percent on the year, showcasing an ability to make an impact as the focal point of his offense.

For a better understanding of how much he has improved, just look at the chart below that shows the increase in self-creation productivity:

Grant uses his long strides and length to extend from the perimeter to then attack the basket, carefully exploiting mismatches and switches, especially when he plays the three. Grant, who has a 7-foot-3 wingspan, does not need very many steps for impressive finishes at the rack.

He utilizes that to his advantage as he is averaging 11.0 drives per game so far this season, which is especially ridiculous considering that the forward averaged just 3.2 drives last year.

Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder has said that Grant is “dynamic” off the dribble, and it shows, as he hasn’t been afraid to shoot off the bounce. He is taking a team-high 4.3 dribble jumpers per game in 2020-21 after averaging only 0.6 last season, via Synergy.

The mark of a star on the rise is often found when someone is able to create their own offense and that is exactly what Grant is doing on the Pistons. He still needs to work on his efficiency and a tighter handle would help limit his turnovers but he has made huge progress.

Jamal Murray: Point of attack defense

Feb 14, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1) controls the ball as Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray (27) guards in the second quarter at Ball Arena.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets made a splash last season, earning their spot in the Western Conference Finals. One of the main reasons they were able to make it as far as they did was the stellar play of Jamal Murray.

The Kentucky product has long been a star on the rise on offense. But earlier this season, Ryan Blackburn noticed a distinct change in the Nuggets guard (via SB Nation):

“Jamal Murray is taking defense seriously this year. Gone are the days where Michael Malone is hiding Denver’s prized point guard on offense in favor of an easier matchup. Murray is going to guard his position all year, and when he switches onto stars, he’s going to make them work for buckets.”

The data backs this up, too, especially when looking at the one-on-one numbers for him so far in 2020-21. His opponents just have not been able to beat him in isolation.

Murray has allowed just 0.56 points per possession when guarding his man in isolation this year, per Synergy. If you compare that to last year, when that number was nearly twice as high at 1.08 PPP, you will see a huge improvement.

He has increased his steal rate to a career-high 1.81 percent and he has become a much better lockdown defender. He has been tasked with picking up the opponent’s best player and in the process he has been successful in grabbing loose balls, forcing deflections and pulling down a large number of defensive rebounds for someone at his position.

Put it all together and on the season, he has the fifth-best mark on ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus among all guards. If he keeps trending upward, you may be hearing “clamps” to describe his game.

Seth Curry: Dribble handoff

Feb 27, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Seth Curry (31) shoots against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the third quarter at Wells Fargo Center.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

During the Brett Brown era, Philadelphia had one of the most feared three-point shooters in the NBA with JJ Redick, a reliable sharpshooter, especially when coming off a pindown from either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid.

While that chapter of the franchise is over, under new head coach Doc Rivers, the Sixers have given a similar role to Seth Curry, who has since mastered the dribble handoff.

Curry is averaging 1.41 points per possession on handoffs, per Synergy, which ranks in the 96th percentile among all NBA players.

Since joining Philadelphia, the 30-year-old guard has scored 2.3 points per game on these opportunities, which puts him eighth-best in the league. That is noteworthy when considering he averaged just 0.5 points per game on handoffs last season.

Allow expert analyst Nekias Duncan to explain why the play works (via Basketball News):

“Like Redick, Curry has the touch and body control to sink shots on the move. Unlike Redick, Curry has the on-ball chops to create for himself and others beyond the simple quick dump-off against a hedge or trap. There’s legitimate manipulation in his bag, making handoffs a pick-your-poison exhibition for opponents.”

You can watch what this screening action looks like as it unfolds in Philadelphia’s offense by watching the clip below:

As we know, Simmons isn’t going to shoot from beyond the arc very often. But when he catches the ball on the perimeter, Curry can sprint over for a handoff as they execute a deadly two-man game.

Simmons is more trustworthy with the ball in his hands than many other screeners, which gives the Sixers an advantage on DHO sets. While it doesn’t happen as often, Curry is just as solid on stationary handoffs as well.

When it comes time for the playoffs, the Sixers will be glad to have such an excellent scoring option during crucial moments.

Richaun Holmes: Floater

Feb 6, 2021; Sacramento, California, USA; Sacramento Kings center Richaun Holmes (22) shoots the ball over Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the third quarter at Golden 1 Center.

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

You may not realize it if you don’t watch them often but Sacramento Kings big Richaun Holmes has developed one of the league’s most lethal signature shots.

Even back in 2019, like The Arizona Republic’s Duane Rankin wrote back then, Holmes had one of the game’s most accurate floaters. The big man had developed a delightful in-between game when he wasn’t throwing down dunks, though it was in smaller spurts because his role was not particularly big.

But now that he is more prominently featured, as noted by Sabreena Merchant, it has become integral to his team’s offensive identity (via SB Nation):

“The Kings rely on Holmes to create spacing with that shot. He may not have a reliable jumper from distance, but he can hit the floater from free-throw range, which allows him to space out and leave some driving lanes open. Holmes can also bust out that floater against drop coverages when Sacramento is running pick-and-roll. If bigs try to get in his air space, that leaves an opening under the basket, so it’s a win-win.”

Holmes has fully taken his push shot to the next level. After averaging 1.6 points per game on runners last season, per Synergy, he is now up to 3.9 ppg on these looks in 2020-21. That is by far the largest year-over-year improvement among all players on such opportunities.

Meanwhile, as teammate De’Aaron Fox said on “The Lowe Post” podcast back in early February, the big man doesn’t miss that shot. He has increased his output and his accuracy.

If you look at his shot chart from just these looks, you will see him absolutely annihilate league averages:

He is currently shooting 61-for-95 (64.2 percent) when taking floaters, which easily makes him the most automatic of any player who relies on their floater as one of the tools in their offensive bag.

For comparison, Atlanta’s Trae Young is the only player to score more points on floaters thus far but the Hawks guard is just 82-for-180 (45.6 percent) on the season.

The midrange isn’t supposed to be an efficient shot but if it goes in as often as Holmes nails his teardrop, he is encouraged to take it all day long.

Miles Bridges: Slipping the screen

Jan 30, 2021; Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) drives past Milwaukee Bucks guard Jrue Holiday (21) with help from forward Miles Bridges (0) during the first quarter at Spectrum Center.

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

When the Charlotte Hornets drafted LaMelo Ball with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, they landed a player who has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on his teammates.

Perhaps chief among them was Miles Bridges, who has played well when flanked by Ball. As Ricky O’Donnell wrote, a new position has also helped with his improvements (via SB Nation):

“Playing at the four has allowed Bridges to finally be used as a roll man rather than a spot-up shooter. Bridges has always had natural ability as a lob catcher but it’s rarely been made a focal point of his game. That’s changed this year, and the results have been electric.”

During every game they played together, Bridges used his high-flying athleticism to make the most of playing alongside a remarkable playmaker like Ball.

The 22-year-old was constantly diving towards the basket and was an excellent lob threat for Ball. Per 36 minutes, the rookie averaged 2.1 assists to Bridges, including an exciting 1.4 at the rim.

Bridges is still seen as a non-shooter whose release does not make him a particularly good fit for the pick and pop. But even at 6-foot-6, he has been an excellent counterpart to Ball for more traditional ball screens.

Whenever defenders would try to trap Ball, it would give Bridges an open lane to the hoop, getting behind the defender before Ball even used the pick.

While it is exciting to watch Ball connect with Bridges, it is honestly just as fun to look at the numbers to see the 23-year-old’s increased productivity.

He averaged 0.72 points per possession as the roll man on ball screens last year and is now up to 1.59 PPP in 2020-21. The improvement is dramatic.

The former Michigan State stan dout has also increased his total scoring as the roll man from 0.58 points per game last season to 1.38 ppg this season. Of course, any increase of more than 200 percent is noteworthy, especially for a rebuilding franchise like Charlotte’s.

Bridges was already one of the league’s most switchable, versatile defenders. But his role gravity now makes him an incredibly valuable player on offense as well.

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