2017-18 NBA Most Improved Player: Value Bets at 1/4 Mark

Aaron Gordon is one of many players fighting for this year's Most Improved Player award. Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr) CC License

One of the most intriguing props for NBA bettors is the Most Improved Player Award. Introduced in 1986, the honor is given out annually to the player who demonstrates the most development from one season to the next. The winner is selected by a panel of seasoned sportswriters and is announced each June.

The award gets plenty of attention, but is notoriously difficult to predict as the recipients are often overlooked and underappreciated players who have spent the first part of their careers buried on the bench. Knowing precisely who will have a breakout season is as much art as it is science.

888 Sports is one of the few websites that allows you to wager on the Kia Most Improved Player award, which is one of the reasons we think so highly of it. We took a long, hard look at their odds and have the lowdown on which players are being over and under-valued. Spotting the difference between the two can make you a bundle.

Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks): 3/20

The Most Improved Player award has historically been reserved for scrubs who make the jump from obscurity to stardom. That changed in 2016-17, when voters rewarded Bucks point forward Giannis Antetokounmpo after he became just the fifth player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Unlike previous winners, the Greek Freak was already a well-known commodity, but his leap from good to great was impossible to ignore.

It feels like we’re witnessing the same thing this season with the ascendance of Kristaps Porzingis. The Unicorn has increased his scoring average by 9.5 points per game to 27.6 PPG, despite logging the same number of minutes. The difference has been a higher usage rate, better efficiency, and management’s decision to kick Phil Jackson’s outdated triangle offense to the curb. It probably doesn’t hurt that Porzingis also packed on some muscle in the offseason and no longer looks like a well-coiffed stick figure.

Despite his marked improvement, 888 Sports’ 3/20 odds still feel too short. Porzingis only appeared in 66 games last season and players of his size are prone to injury. There’s also a very real chance that he’ll slow down as the season progresses. His scoring average for November is already two points lower than in October, and he experienced a post-All-Star Game drop off last season as well.

Porzingis is still the prohibitive favorite, but 888 Sports’ odds are extremely short for such a long player.

Victor Oladipo (Indiana Pacers): 7/1

You’re not alone if you thought the Pacers got fleeced when they traded Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The trade looked more lopsided than Dolly Parton in a windstorm, but it’s basically been a push for Indiana so far. The Pacers are two games above .500 and comfortably in control of the eighth seed in the East. They finished last season as the seventh seed, two games over .500. The Thunder, meanwhile, are 8-9 and have gone through more cold spells than Edmund Hillary.

It’s quite an unexpected turnaround, and much of the credit is due to Oladipo, who is averaging a career-high 22.9 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.7 steals per game. As impressive as those numbers are, they’re likely to get even better as the season progresses and Oladipo becomes more comfortable with his new teammates and coach Nate McMillan’s aggressive, up-tempo style.

Should Porzingis falter or get injured, Oladipo is perfectly positioned to swoop in and claim the Most Improved Player award. Consider him your best value in this crowded field.

D’Angelo Russell (Brooklyn Nets):  9/1

D’Angelo Russell looked like a worthy candidate for Most Improved Player honors until Friday, November 11th, when the third-year guard injured his left knee in a loss to the Utah Jazz. He has since undergone arthroscopic surgery and is out indefinitely. That’s bad news for Russell, who was enjoying his finest season as a pro, and even worse news for the Nets, who are now without both of their point guards.

Russell is expected to return later this year, but it likely won’t be soon enough to salvage the Nets’ season or to earn serious consideration for the Most Improved Player award. He is a serious longshot and not worth a wager, despite his decent 9/1 odds.

Jaylen Brown has been a shooting star in his second season in Boston. Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr) CC License

Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics): 10/1

Unlike the MVP award, voters don’t usually factor in a team’s performance when determining the league’s most improved player. That’s bad news for Jaylen Brown, who is having a great season for a great team. The second-year guard/small forward is averaging 16.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 1.3 steals per game and was a huge part of Boston’s recent 16-game winning streak. His length and speed allow him to guard multiple positions and, just as importantly, cover up for Kyrie Irving’s frequent miscues. His offense has also been a welcome surprise, and has helped the Celtics make up for some of the production lost when they shipped Avery Bradley and Isaiah Thomas out of town.

As important as Brown is to Boston, he’s far from the team’s best player. That puts him at a considerable disadvantage to Porzingis and Oladipo, both of whom get the most touches and take the most shots on their respective teams. That’s something to take into consideration before betting big on Brown. Also note that no second-year player has won the award since Monta Ellis back in 2006-07.

Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic): 14/1

Put your hand up if you thought the guy who jumped over Stuff the Magic Dragon in the Slam Dunk Contest would become a lights-out three-point shooter. Yeah, we didn’t think so either. Aaron Gordon has put the world on notice this season by nailing 43-percent of his shots from behind the arc. That’s a 15-percent increase from a year ago, and it’s part of the reason he’s become virtually impossible to guard. Opposing bigs now have to pick their poison whenever Gordon is on the court: do they get up in his grill to contest threes, knowing he can blow by them in a heartbeat, or do they fall back and protect the lane knowing he can tickle the twine from 23 feet away? It’s the NBA’s version of Sophie’s Choice, and the results have been fascinating.

Although we love watching Gordon’s new inside-outside game, we’re skeptical he can remain this hot from outside all season long. If you’re more optimistic about his three-point prognosis, 888 Sports’ 14/1 odds make sense.

Brandon Ingram (Los Angeles Lakers): 14/1

The skinny on Brandon Ingram is that he’s not as thin as he used to be. The long-limbed forward packed on ten pounds of muscle over the summer, and it’s been evident in his play. Ingram is taking the ball to the rim with more regularity in his second season and has been finishing plays more often. That’s a stark contrast to a year ago, when his awkward forays to the hoop generally resulted in him getting drilled into the ground like a rivet.

Despite his weight gain, Ingram still resembles a fireman’s pole more than a professional basketball player. Until he truly fills out, he probably isn’t a legitimate candidate for any of the NBA’s major awards.

Jonathon Simmons (Orlando Magic): 14/1

Gregg Popovich’s system in San Antonio is designed to accentuate players’ strengths while hiding their weaknesses. That’s worked well in the past for limited athletes like Marco Belinelli and Matt Bonner, but it may have held Jonathon Simmons back. The Magic’s open-court approach is far better suited for an athlete of his calibre, and J-Simms has flourished with the new freedom he’s received under head coach Frank Vogel. The third-year guard is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, and steals, while highlights of his thunderous slams have been blowing up YouTube.

888 Sports’ 14/1 odds for Simmons feel about right, as the 28-year-old wing will likely grab a few votes, but has little shot of actually winning the award.

The Rest of the Pack

  • Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers): 16/1
  • Clint Capela (Houston Rockets): 25/1
  • Tim Hardaway Jr. (New York Knicks): 25/1
  • Rodney Hood (Utah Jazz): 25/1
  • Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers): 25/1