Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder: If Kendrick Perkins is to blame for the Thunderís overly conventional lineups with two court-clogging big men, Ibaka could rightly be credited for some of the teamís push-back solvency. If nothing else, Perkinsí very presence has forced Ibaka to stretch his game over the past few seasons, and this season weíve begun to see the considerable payoff from that evolution.
Such dividends begin with Ibakaís vast improvement as a spot-up shooter ó an area in which he has quietly done solid work for the last few seasons. But the difference between Ibakaís meek effectiveness last season (46 percent on 2.6 long two-point attempts per game, according to Hoopdata) and this seasonís confident hoisting (50 percent on 4.5 attempts) is stark. Those mid-range looks have become shots that both Ibaka and his teammates fully expect him to take and make, to the point that he receives an earful from Russell Westbrook if he shows even the slightest hesitation in pulling the trigger. That consistent vote of confidence has helped Ibaka to become a more dynamic player.
Thereís nothing sexy about converting long twos, and with how often the Thunder score at the rim, get to the free-throw line and convert their three-point tries, Ibakaís intermediate looks might not seem preferable by comparison. That said, his mid-range attempts ó born of ball reversals and dribble-drive playmaking ó represent the Thunderís capitalization of a slim but useful moment in time. Oklahoma City canít get every shot from the most efficient zones on the floor, just as it canít conclude every possession with a quality attempt for Kevin Durant. But OKC continues to build on its already brilliant offense by turning every advantage into a point of profit. The room offered to Ibaka on the perimeter has become one such advantage, and, given an offense rich with shot creation, an added bit of flexibility.
(Plus, Ibaka has periodically put the ball on the floor after making a mid-range catch in order to draw a foul or finish emphatically at the rim. Thatís an entirely new wrinkle to his game, and one thatís altogether frightening. Can you imagine what it might ultimately mean for the Thunder offense if those burst drives were to become a more dependable part Ibakaís repertoire?)
George Hill, Indiana Pacers: On a superficial level, it would be easy to call Hillís improvements (+1.9 points, +1.1 assists per-36 minutes relative to last season) modest. But the fifth-year guard has matured into a calming influence after years of inconsistent play both on and off the ball. Hill has become a lifeline for a Pacers team thatís otherwise starved for competent point guard play, and brought the NBAís 29th-ranked offense to league-average scoring levels whenever heís on the floor. Bolster those credentials with Hillís always solid defense, and he begins to resemble a primordial Chauncey Billups ó flexible defensively, characteristically unafraid and coming into his own as both a spot scorer and low-risk caretaker.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Bobcats: Young NBA players are expected to improve, but I wasnít totally convinced that Walker was capable of his current level of performance at all, much less in Year 2. Where many saw a natural leader and a former college standout, I saw only a quick guard who would likely struggle with the size and speed of NBA defenders, and an offense-first player reliant on pull-up jumpers. To me, that seemed to be the rťsumť of a decent backup, but hardly the kind of description befitting a lead guard.
But Walker has redefined his NBA potential in my mind by improving in so many phases of the game so quickly, a development that can only be attributed to his willingness to work on better understanding this caliber of opponent and the nuances of the game in general. Many have praised Walkerís composure in years past, but the way he now approaches his role and his skill set are fundamentally more intelligent. His quickness is deployed with more control, his shot selection is far more measured and heís already displaying an impressive ability to manipulate defenders in order to create offense. Walker seems likely to always skew toward the score-first mold, but that itself isnít a demerit so much as a stylistic footnote; as long as the Bobcats account for Walkerís style of play in their team construction, his passing limitations neednít hold back the development of their offense.
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder: Iíve already discussed Durantís growth at length in this space, but somehow KD has only been better since then. Self-actualization was clearly on Durantís to-do list, and his progress as a defender and ball-handler make that goal seem like a summer project rather than a lifelong endeavor. He was great as a focused scorer, but Durantís dedication to basketball completion has elevated him as a candidate to be the leagueís finest.
Chandler Parsons, Houston Rockets: A boost in playing time has helped Parsonsí per-game numbers, but beyond those statistical boosts is a fantastic role player who has bettered himself on a per-minute and per-possession level. He passes wonderfully, his cutting instincts are uncanny and heís been a solid defender on and off the ball. He has a complete package of complementary skills, and this season has added a concentrated dose of scoring to his already valuable profile.
Parsons was a particularly shaky shooter in his rookie season, and though heís increased his accuracy from beyond the three-point line by only about three percentage points (from 33.7 to 36.5), his consistency from that range is markedly improved. Whereas last season his feast-or-famine jumper sent many misses crashing on the far side of the backboard or whiffing the basket entirely, Parsonsí more controlled stroke now holds the potential for even further improvement. One can see a similar refinement across Parsonsí entire offensive game, a development that has enabled the Rockets to thrive behind his dynamic complement to James Hardenís pick-and-roll genius and Jeremy Linís frenzied dribble-driving.
Jimmer Fredette is boasting impressive per-36 minute averages in his second season (22 points, 3.8 assists). (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Jason Kidd, New York Knicks: To say that Kidd was washed up a season ago wasnít some premature eulogy for a player in decline ó it was the undeniable truth to anyone who watched him play in Dallas. Kiddís playmaking style has always been a bit risky, but the return on his passing investments grew increasingly meager as the mental errors piled up.
But Knicks coach Mike Woodson was able to turn one of the greatest point guards of all time into a fascinating standstill shooting guard. As a functional 2, Kidd could benefit from open three-pointers (of which heís making 43 percent) while also using his natural creativity to jazz up New Yorkís swing-passing game. Kidd still participates in the standard side-to-side passing that occurs whenever a defense gets too stretched, but in a split second, the 39-year-old can also read the floor for more interesting alternatives. He might fake the pass and take the shot himself after reading the close-out patterns of the defense. He might thread a feed inside to an inexplicably open Tyson Chandler. He might even put the ball on the floor once in awhile, just for kicks. Kidd has been put in a position where he can read the floor without having the pressure that comes with being a teamís primary creator, and that redistribution of his individual skills has breathed new life into a career that was looking downright funereal.
Jimmer Fredette, Sacramento Kings: SB Nationís Tom Ziller was all over the Jimmer-as-MIP angle on Monday, and the second-year guard deserves to be in the conversation for the award. Improvement may be assumed for young players, but Fredette has jumped from rookie incompetence into a showing as one of the leagueís most potent bench scorers ó a rare bright spot in Sacramentoís most recent flop of a season, and a leap that was completely unexpected given all that we saw of Jimmer the first time around. Who knows what the future holds for Fredette in terms of his optimal role and consistent defensive concessions, but heís succeeding as an offensive player.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers: Most NBA fans seem to regard Griffinís current season with pessimism, but I see an all-around superior player who is improving each of his greatest weaknesses. Defensive positioning was a big issue for Griffin in his first two seasons, but he and frontcourt mate DeAndre Jordan have been in the right place at the right time more reliably this year. Free-throw shooting is still a bit of an issue, but Griffin has at least jumped to 62 percent from 52 percent a season ago. The expansion of Griffinís mid-range game is a work in progress, but a smoother form and a greater willingness to shoot jumpers has led Griffin to make a career-high 41 percent (nearing David West and Zach Randolph territory) on long two-pointers, per Hoopdata. And thatís coupled with Griffinís still-impressive scoring on a deeper Clippers team, his quality defensive rebounding, elite passing skills for his position and effective-as-ever face-up game. Whereís the alleged regression?
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers: A 34-year-old guard in his 17th year is having the best offensive season of his career because of a conscious change in his possession usage. What a wonderful coda for an already outstanding career.
Corey Brewer, Denver Nuggets: Brewer has always had value as a high-energy cutter and defender, but he had such an inconsistent shot that opponents could disregard him whenever he retreated to the corners. That doesnít theoretically matter much to a high-motor player like Brewer, but it does inconvenience his teamís offense. As much as we praise those who move without the ball, there are times when wing players need to space the floor from the weak side or at least not muddle up the strong-side action with a random baseline cut, and itís in that area of the game that Brewer had previously struggled. His effort and value were obvious, but offenses can only afford so many range-less players while still preserving the necessary driving lanes and post-up space.
Brewer, 26, is still no marksman, but by converting long-range shots at a league-average rate (a career-high 34.8 percent), he has dramatically improved his utility. As a result, the Nuggets are able to take full advantage of Brewerís scrambling, long-armed defense and open-court sprinting without much concern for what happens when he catches the ball in the corners.
Eric Bledsoe, Los Angeles Clippers: We knew of the torment that Bledsoe could cause opposing ball-handlers, and we even had a glimpse of his incredible off-ball potential while playing with Chris Paul in the 2012 playoffs. But the 23-year-old has played the part of a fully functional reserve point guard for the most exciting second unit in the league this season, complete with an improving set shot and some slick pick-and-roll play. At some point the Clippers will need to consider whether Bledsoe is a luxury they can really afford, but for now heís a fantastic change-of-pace player with emerging skills as a playmaker.
J.J. Hickson, Portland Trail Blazers: Hickson doesnít make all that much sense as a part of Portlandís rebuilding core, but that hasnít stopped the fifth-year veteran from having a career year as a center placeholder. Though playing alongside LaMarcus Aldridge apparently yields the opportunity for any eager center to get their fill of rebounds, Hickson has surpassed any reasonable expectation by doing elite-level work on the glass. Reggie Evans and Anderson Varejao are the only players in the league to post a higher total rebounding percentage than Hickson, and itís by his efforts alone that Portland is even remotely passable in any rebounding department. Hickson has had flashes of this kind of productivity before (most notably in 2010-11, in his last season as a Cavalier), but the consistency of this rebounding surge offers his game a new credibility.