We are over two months into the 2023-24 NBA season and 30 games into the Miami Heat’s 82-game season. It’s not the biggest sample in the world, though the holidays are around the time when different award noise begins to percolate around league circles.
One of the awards rewarded is the “Most Improved Player” award, which isn’t looked at on the same pedestal as the MVP, Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards.
The MIP could also be the most difficult to interpret; what constitutes “improvement?” How should we judge it? How could one quantify who’s done it the most, even if the numbers don’t suggest improvement?
In fairness, the public debates these same definitions of meaning with the MVP (who’s the most “valuable?”), DPOY (how should we judge who has the grandest impact defensively?) and even ROY (Uh … should Chet Holmgren/Blake Griffin/Ben Simmons be considered rookies?).
One player across the NBA who hasn’t received enough buzz for the Most Improved Player award is Miami Heat sharpshooter Duncan Robinson. So let’s talk about it!
But first, who are some other candidates in the discussion?
- Tyrese Maxey: Having a career year with Philadelphia, averaging 25.8 points, 3.9 rebounds and 6.6 assists on 45.9 percent shooting and 39.3 percent from distance. Maxey is a blur in open space because of how quick/shifty he is. He’s improved as a decision-maker alongside Joel Embiid–developing a near-unstoppable two-man game now that James Harden is no longer in the fold.
- Scottie Barnes: The 22-year-old is having a resurgent third season, averaging career bests in nearly every conceivable category. He’s also developed into a consistently good 3-point shooter, canning 38.9 percent of his 5.4 triple tries per game, a far cry from his 29.0 3-point percentage on 2.8 attempts over his inaugural two seasons.
- Alperen Sengun: Houston has still been a below-average offense this season, but there’s more flow and cohesion than there was a season ago. And Sengun has been a primary beneficiary now that they’re running offense through him; he’s averaging 20.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists on 58.8 percent true shooting through 29 games.
- Coby White: Have you seen how electric he’s been since Zach LaVine’s injury? Whew! He’s averaging 17.7 points–nearly doubling his 9.7 point-per-game mark from a year ago–including 23.4 points and 6.4 assists on 47.6/41.1/80.0 shooting splits in 13 games since LaVine’s injury; Chicago’s 9-4 over that stretch (including 1-1 against Miami).
We’re not going to campaign why Duncan Robinson should win it. He may win it, he may not. But let’s discuss the case for Robinson to at least be in the conversation for Most Improved Player.
For starters, Robinson, in the third year of a five-year, $90 million deal, averaged just 6.4 points per game last year. This year, he’s averaging 15.1 points! Even on a per-75-possession basis, Robinson’s nearly averaging 4.3 points more on only 0.7 more attempts.
Well, speaking of his efficiency, the former Michigan product is having a career year from beyond the arc, albeit a small sample of 28 games. He’s shooting 44.9 percent from distance, an improvement from his absurd career-best 44.6 3-point percentage in his first full season as a starter in 2019-20 across 68 games. He’s attempting one shot fewer from deep this year, but is still heaving 7.1 3-point attempts per contest, which isn’t anything to balk at. His true shooting percentage has also elevated from 53.4 percent last year to 66.1 percent–a 12.7 percentage point increase.
Robinson’s maintained himself as a spot-up threat, but continues to out-leverage opposing defenses as a movement shooter flying around dribble handoffs, pin-downs and flare screens–developing greater awareness when to pump fake and take an extra dribble to generate extra separation with deadeye accuracy.
Though arguably no player has revolutionized his career as much as Robinson, who entered the NBA specifically as a 3-point specialist.
While we’ve seen flashes of it over the last few seasons, the 6-foot-8 wing has completely transformed into a player who’s more willing to attack off the dribble off the catch and as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, where he’s graded in the 79th percentile this year, per NBA.com’s tracking data (he graded in the 27th percentile last season).
His 3-point rate–the percentage of field goal attempts attempted from beyond the arc–has plunged nearly 15.0 percentage points from 81.0 percent to 66.2 percent from last year. He’s also averaging a career-best 5.5 drives per game after a combined 1.9 drives over his previous three seasons. Robinson’s attempting 35 percent of his shots inside ~14 feet (his previous career-best was 17 percent) at a 60.2 percent clip, an above-average mark by a player with his skill set.
No, I did not forget that Duncan Robinson whipped out “The Smitty” against Victor Wembanyama.
Robinson isn’t just Miami’s best shooter–he’s also one of its best passers (and screeners). Not all assists are created equally, but his assist rate has skyrocketed nearly seven percentage points (9.7 to 16.2) while maintaining a similar turnover rate–a byproduct of him having to make additional live-dribble reads when he draws two (gravity!) or in traffic.
You combine that with his prolific sharpshooting and you have one of the most proficient players in the sport–have I mentioned already that he averaged 6.4 points and was viewed by many as a near afterthought? Now, he’s one of their most important offensive players who’s become indispensable.
The aforementioned candidates are more than worthy of being in the conversation. But next time you and your cohorts discuss who’s been the most improved player at the water cooler, feel free to mention Duncan Robinson, the current living embodiment of “most improved.”
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