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Sunday, November 19, 2017

12 most improved players in the NBA this season

Kristaps Porzingis

The calendar has flipped to November, Daylight Savings Time is no more, and most teams have played their first ten games or so, leaving roughly 72 contests remaining on the schedule. Of course, that can only mean one thing: [sounds airhorn] it’s Overreaction Season. And perhaps the most sacred of all the Overreaction Season traditions is fangirling over those who have successfully turned those 3 a.m. Instagram workouts and that reported 15 pounds of extra muscle into greater productivity on the court. Standing high above the rest of the field, here are the 12 most improved players of the 2017-18 season so far:

Kristaps Porzingis, PF, New York Knicks

Carmelo Anthony’s departure was all that was needed for our Latvian messiah to reveal himself fully. Porzingis has mutated into a nightly 30-point scoring threat now that he is the focal point of the Knickerbockers’ offense (sometimes even 40 as he proved on Sunday night in a comeback win over the Indiana Pacers), and he has been stunningly efficient despite the massive increase in volume (a career-high 50.0 percent shooting). One of Porzingis’ teammates thinks his scorching start should place him squarely in the MVP conversation. I might even take it a step further and call for beatification if he continues to flex with end-to-end displays of power like this:

Steven Adams, C, Oklahoma City Thunder

Spacing saves. With Carmelo Anthony starting at power forward instead of Taj Gibson, and Paul George stretching out opposing defenses instead of Victor Oladipo, Adams can finally rumble down the lane to his heart’s content for the Thunder. He has responded to the opportunity in kind with his best season both scoring (12.4 points per game) and rebounding (8.3 boards). Toss in his intimidating interior defense, and this mustachioed maestro looks like he’s worth every penny of the $100 million that Oklahoma City invested in him last season. What else is there to say? Funaki is a force.

Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic

Gordon suddenly becoming a lights-out long-range shooter this season may very well be the greatest surprise party that anyone has ever thrown. The high-flying forward has somehow more than doubled both his three-point makes (from 1.0 last season to 2.4 this season) AND his three-point percentage (from 28.8 to a flat-out absurd 55.9) through eight games. Yes, sample size, yada, yada, yada. But there’s reason to believe this might not be a total fluke.

The Magic have moved Gordon back to his natural power forward spot (praise be), and there he has a quickness advantage on opposing 4s off the dribble. That means the threat of his drive has to be taken more seriously and thus he can get his shot off easier. That kind of versatility has really opened up Orlando’s offense and unleashed Gordon’s own potential as a human cheat code, so expect his career year (19.1 points, 8.9 rebounds a game) to continue.

Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana Pacers

Oladipo is currently in the top 12 in the NBA in scoring because basketball is weird and unpredictable. I suppose some uptick in production from the fifth-year guard was expected after he moved out of the house of overbearing big brother Russell Westbrook. But Oladipo has already turned as many 25-plus point performances (four) as he did during all of 2016-17. And despite being a notoriously poor finisher as well as an inconsistent long-range shooter, he is hitting on 48.0 percent of his overall shot attempts and 44.6 percent of his three-pointers. Yes, Victor is free, and he is loving every minute of it.

Jaylen Brown, SG/SF, Boston Celtics

Boston needed some hope after the catastrophic injury to Gordon Hayward on opening night. That much Brown has helped provide despite it only being his second season in the league. He ranks second on the C’s in points (15.8), rebounds (6.6), and threes (2.0) per game and plays with that Philly cheese confidence every time he steps onto the floor. Brad Stevens can also trust him to put multiple positions in a straitjacket on the defensive end, as it seems Brown is doing whatever the exact opposite of a sophomore slump is.

D’Angelo Russell, PG/SG, Brooklyn Nets

Russell hasn’t quite been the torrent of wrath many expected him to be in his first year of post-Lakers exile, but he has still been pretty darn good. Jeremy Lin’s season-ending patellar tear in the opener meant more responsibility and more usage for D’Lo right off the bat in Brooklyn, but he has stepped up to the plate with team-leading tallies in points (21.1) and assists (5.3) per game (making him one of only nine players in the entire NBA to reach both of those marks so far this season). Russell’s fluidity as a scorer and his ability to create for his teammates in the halfcourt are well known. Now he is adding even more ways to make his defenders act a fool, and we just can’t stop watching.

See the rest on Page 2

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