SI.com will periodically panel its basketball experts and ask them a pressing question about the league. Today's topic... who will be the Most Improved Player in the 2015–16 season?
Chris Ballard: Giannis Antetokounmpo
This is not to say that Giannis will will in the Most Improved Player Award—he likely won't, as the Bucks are full of young talent vying for minutes. But at 20 years old and with his frame, skillset and wingspan, he has as much room to grow as anyone in the league. After all, how many other NBA players could conceivably play point guard on offense, as Giannis did at times last season, and center on defense, as the Bucks have discussed doing this year? That's a very small club—LeBron and maybe Draymond Green in a small-ball set?—and neither of them are still too young to drink.
Enjoy watching the Greek Freak now. My guess is he's going to have one of those years, similar to Blake Griffin's early days, where every night brings a new, goddam-did-he-just-do-that highlight.
Matt Dollinger: Roy Hibbert
I'm taking this question in the most literal of senses. Hibbert was once (briefly) considered one of the three best centers in the league, making two All-Star Game appearances and becoming a game-changing rim protector thanks to his "verticality" prowess. That changed rather quickly once the big man's physical and mental strength crumbled in staggering fashion. Hibbert turned into a shell of his former self, second-guessing every move and turning in more goose eggs than dominant performances. His star fell so far that the Pacers publicly lambasted him before trading him for essentially nothing to the Lakers.
Now, with a fresh start, Hibbert has a chance to reclaim his standing as one of the best centers in the league in L.A. If he needs further motivation—and he likely doesn't after being ripped by Larry Bird in a public forum—he's also in a contract year, which tends to be a good predictor of future success. Kobe Bryant notoriously shows tough love to his big men, but he knows he needs a vintage season from Hibbert to make the Lakers respectable. Lakers coach Byron Scott's throwback sets should be perfect for a Hibbert revitalization.
Ben Golliver: Bradley Beal
I see Beal as a very conventional Most Improved Player candidate who is well-positioned to take the torch from Jimmy Butler, last year’s winner. Like Butler in 2014–15, Beal will be entering year four and, most likely, he will do so without a rookie contract extension in hand, turning 2015–16 into a contract year. Like Butler, Beal will be looking to bounce back after an injury-marred third season for an established team with aspirations of making a deep playoff run. Like Butler, Beal has proven to be a reliable performer during his rookie deal and he’s survived multiple tests on the postseason stage. Like Butler, who stepped up in light of injuries to Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, Beal should see an increased scoring and play-making burden this year, especially in light of Paul Pierce’s departure. The 22-year-old Beal looks ready to shoulder that burden, as he’s demonstrated the ability to scale his production up in both the 2014 (19.2 PPG) and 2015 (23.4 PPG) playoffs.
Beal has the motive (a max deal), the opportunity (an A-list set-up man in John Wall and Washington’s clear need for his offense), and the means (a dependable three-point stroke and quality scoring instincts) to bring home the hardware. The 2012 lottery pick also belongs in the discussion for first-time All-Stars in 2016. Assuming the Wizards' winning ways continue, Beal has a real shot at joining Wall in Toronto as long as he stays healthy, gets to the line more frequently, and tightens up his shot selection.
Rob Mahoney: C.J. McCollum
All of the pieces are in place for McCollum to have a notable, attention-grabbing season: The momentum from last year’s playoffs, the minutes up for grabs in Portland after a mass exodus and the creative responsibility to be had on a team lacking in playmakers beyond Damian Lillard. McCollum had shown flashes before but nothing lasting. Next season will be a prime opportunity for him to leverage his development in a bigger opportunity with obvious results. The timing is perfect; McCollum wouldn’t have been ready for this kind of change a year ago, but in the season since his off-the-dribble game has matured to the point of NBA viability.
DeAntae Prince: Rudy Gobert
Few players are capable of the climb Gobert completed over the course of two short years. While he entered the NBA as a first-round draft pick in 2013, Gobert was still largely an unknown commodity. Slight of build and low on opportunity, Gobert possessed length and potential on defense. He played a mere 9.6 minutes as a rookie, averaging only 2.3 points and 3.4 rebounds. The numbers don't look like much to the naked eye, but they average out to 8.6 points and 12.9 rebounds per 36 minutes.
Gobert's breakout performance came in advance of his second season, when he played in the 2014 FIBA World Cup and propelled France to a win over a loaded Spain team. That show of skill translated to 2014–15 and Gobert was ranked third in the Most Improved Player voting, behind Bulls star Jimmy Butler and Warriors ace Draymond Green. If Gobert's star continues to trend upward from his 8.4 points, 9.5 rebound campaign, he should be in line to win the award many believed he deserved last season.