It’s never too early to make predictions

Oftentimes, sports writers and columnists, in their fervent, desperate attempts to fill the off-season with material, throw the around the phrase, “it’s never too early to make predictions about this season.” No. It can definitely be too early to make predictions about the impending year, due to sports’ inherently erratic nature. Players, and hence teams, can be broken by injuries, off-the-court issues —be it a racist owner, arrest or locker-room tensions— or just pressure. So no, no freshman can sit in Mertz in September and pretend that he knows who is going to be Most Improved Player this year. Thus, aptly, I think now would be a good time to break down the potential candidates for the MIP awards for the 2014-2015 NBA season.

At the conclusion of each year, sports writers from the USA and Canada vote on the award. At the start of each NBA season, those same writers state with conviction opinions and predictions based on nothing but whims. Count me in.

The MIP award is, as its name suggests, awarded to the player who exhibits the most growth between last year and this year. Obviously, given the nature of the award, attempting to guess who will up their game the most is a tricky proposition. This year, however, there are several players who look posed to break onto the scene.

Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards is entering his third season on the back of a season where he averaged 17.1 points, 3.3 assists and 3.7 rebounds a game, shooting over 40 percent from three point range. In an increased role, with offseason addition Paul Pierce as another facilitator, who averaged 4.5 assists per game in his final two seasons with Boston, this could be the year Beal jumps to 21 points, 4 assists and 4 rebounds on a team vying for contention in a fractured and wide-open Eastern Conference. But is that enough?

Detroit Pistons’ big man Andre Drummond is also entering his third year —traditionally a breakout season for NBA stars— and has already proven his desire to improve. Between his first and second seasons in Detroit he raised his points per game from 7.9 to 13.5 and his rebounds per game from 7.6 to 13.2, while improving his shooting and free throw percentages. Drummond could parlay his experience playing internationally in the FIBA world this summer into a breakout season and become a bona fide star. The problem is simply that . . . he won’t.

Last season he averaged 32 minutes per game and shot nearly 10 times a contest. This season, however, there just won’t be more shots or minutes of which he can take advantage. The Pistons signed fellow big man Greg Monroe to a qualifying offer —meaning they retain him for a one year deal— and failed to unload Josh Smith’s contract and shot selection. Monroe averages 32 mpg and 11 shot attempts, while Smith chucked up a shocking 16 shots a game in nearly 36 minutes of action. With all three bigs on the squad, and new coach Stan Van Gundy dedicated to playing “J-Smoove” at power forward, Drummond just will not be given the sheer playing time or opportunity to demonstrate his improvement as a player until Monroe is offloaded next summer.

There is, however, one player who transcends all others in terms of potential for exponential growth: Anthony Bennett. The reason? Last season Bennett straight up stunk. He was historically bad. In fact, according to Sheridan Hoops columnist Shlomo Sprung, he had the worst debut season for any number one overall pick of all time. To add to that glorious distinction, he was also possibly the worst player in the NBA last season, and it wasn’t really close. Let me break it down using some advanced metrics.

In the NBA there is a statistic called “win shares”, which basically takes into account efficiency, impact on team while on the floor, pure production averages and other teammates’ production with him on the floor, in order to estimate approximately how many wins that player added over the course of an 82-game season. Last year’s most most valuable player, Kevin Durant, had nearly 20 win shares; in other words, his team won a whopping 20 more games because he played. Anthony Bennett? You might want to sit down before you read this. Anthony Bennett’s -0.9 win shares over the course of his rookie season were both the worst in the NBA last season and the worst of any top overall draft pick of all time! In fact, only one other top pick had a negative rating, and that was in 1972. Bennett was so bad that his playing time added up to a total of losing a game for his team.

Now, advanced metrics tell you this, but the eye test and raw data are almost as sufficient. It took him 33 games to score more than 10 points in one game more than three times longer than any other number one overall pick. He averaged just 4.2  ppg and 3.0 rpg while shooting a putrid 28.1 percent from the floor.

So why do I have hope? A number of reasons.

He entered training camp this year 20 pounds lighter than April, allowing him to be more mobile and play above the rim. He then went on to average 13.3 ppg and 8 rpg against other young, hungry competition, generally looked spry and athletic again and played with genuine confidence— something that was missing after he bricked his first 15 shots last year and 28 of his first 32.

Additionally, he’s in a new, positive situation, surrounded by tremendous young talent in Ricky Rubio, fellow overall number 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and Senegalese center Gorgui Dieng. He’ll also be offered a change in scenery from the toxic environment in Cleveland’s locker room last year and be allowed to grow into his role as a star with Thaddeus Young on the roster to soften his transition.

But what’s most significant is his raw talent. At UNLV he shot 3 point shots at an impressive 37.5 percent clip and averaged 16 points and 8 rebounds a game, despite only playing 27 minutes. He is a 6-foot-9, 240-pound power forward who can handle the ball in transition and shoot the three like a wing player. His physical tools and skill set present him as a similar player to Larry Johnson, a New York Knicks star from the ’90s.

So, I do think an increase in minutes, a decrease in pressure, a slimmer figure and a reminder that when he’s confident, he can still dominate like he did in college, will do him wonders. I see him averaging a solid 13 ppg, 8 rpg and just seeming like a genuine NBA starter rather than a bust. To me, for the worst player in the NBA to rise to a starter-caliber production has to be enough of an improvement to garner consideration.

Can I know? No. Might the media vote completely differently? Of course. Could Bennett have another horrid season and vanish from all radars? For sure. But I think just on principle of such a low starting point, Anthony Bennett has to be considered for the MIP award next year. 

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