Dallas star Luka Doncic dubs former Jayhawk Devonte' Graham more deserving of spot among NBA's Most Improved Player finalists
For months, former Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham had been touted as a possible, perhaps even likely, candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award this season.
But when the list of finalists came out last week, Graham’s name was not on it.
Instead, the list included three former lottery picks, — Brandon Ingram, Luka Doncic and Bam Adebayo — two of whom were selected in the top five of their respective drafts.
Now, there’s no stipulation that says that lottery picks can’t improve. They can and do all the time.
But most people tend to think of the winners of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award as guys who come out of nowhere a little bit and explode onto the scene the way Graham did for the Charlotte Hornets in his second season in the NBA.
Graham’s numbers were up across the board and he became a bona fide weapon and go-to scorer for the Hornets while starting 53 of 63 games during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season.
Doncic, who is the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year and trending toward becoming one of the league’s best all-around players, certainly seems to fall in that camp who believes a player’s emergence from unexpected territory should put them on this list more easily than a star shining even brighter.
In an interview with Dallas Morning News beat writer Brad Townsend after the list came out, Doncic even lobbied for Graham. Townsend shared the brief exchange on Twitter.
“Who votes in this,” Doncic asked Townsend.
“Well, 100 of us, including me,” Townsend replied.
“Take me off the list and put Devonte’ Graham on there,” Doncic answered. “I don’t deserve to be on there.”
Whether that last part is true or not is up to Townsend and the 99 other voters for the award.
In the interest of full disclosure, Townsend revealed that he voted Doncic second on his MIP ballot, with Adebayo taking the top spot.
But there’s no denying that Doncic did improve. After one of the strongest rookie seasons in recent NBA history, the young star bumped his numbers up significantly in all three major statistical categories — from 21.2 to 29.0 points per game; from 7.8 to 9.4 rebounds per game; and from 6.0 to 8.8 assists per game.
Graham, meanwhile, saw his numbers jump from 4.7 points, 1.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game as a rookie to 18.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game in Year 2.
Put another way, Graham improved his scoring and assist totals by roughly 300% and his rebounding by nearly 150% while Doncic’s numbers jumped by 37% in scoring, 21% in rebounding and 47% in assists.
That’s not to say this debate should come down to which player is better or had the better year. Graham appears to be well on his way to carving out a nice career while Doncic appears to headed toward becoming one of the best players in the world.
But it was cool to see Doncic recognize and say what a lot of fans already believed about the award – that it should go to rising talents not mega superstars.
Here’s a quick look at the last five Most Improved Player award recipients:
2019 – Pascal Siakam, Toronto – The versatile forward more than doubled his scoring average and started 79 games for the world champions, one year after starting just five games in his second year in the league.
2018 – Victor Oladipo, Indiana – Started every game he played and led the league in steals per game while bumping his scoring from 16 points to 23 per game and improving his shooting percentages across the board.
2017 – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee – In Year 4 of his career, the eventual NBA MVP averaged 23 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game for Milwaukee, showing improvement in all three categories for the fourth consecutive season.
2016 – CJ McCollum, Portland – His jump is the closest in recent years to what Graham did this season. McCollum pushed his scoring average from 6.8 points per game to 20.8 while averaging 4.3 assists per game, up from one per game the season before. He also became one of the better 3-point shooters in the league, knocking in 42% of his triples.
2015 – Jimmy Butler, Chicago – Led the league in minutes played (38.7 per game) while bumping his scoring average from 13 per game to 20 per game.