Any sort of power rankings with the phrase “way-too-early” tagged onto the title seem a bit futile. After all, it’s an admission that the list is subject to change – a lot. Still, it can be a good way to capture the current moment; in this case, the five players who are top of mind for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
Does Portland Trail Blazers guard Shaedon Sharpe, on the heels of the best game of his young career, find his way onto the list?
Way-too-early NBA Most Improved Player Rankings
Narrowing this list down to five isn’t an easy task. There’s a trio of players who deserve honorable mention status and certainly have time to creep toward the top of these rankings as the season unfolds:
- Jalen Duren, Detroit Pistons: 15.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.0 blocks per game, 63.8 field-goal percentage so far in 2023-24
- Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies: 24.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists per game, 46/35/90 shooting splits
- Devin Vassell, San Antonio Spurs: 20.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 51/33/74 shooting splits
Onto the top five.
1. Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia 76ers
At this point, on Nov. 2, Tyrese Maxey is the runaway winner of this award. The 22-year-old guard has finally stepped out of James Harden’s shadow, and his stats over the first week of the season are wild.
Maxey is seventh in the league in scoring at 30.3 ppg. He’s shooting 50 percent from the floor on almost 19 attempts per game; 56 percent from three on 8.3 attempts per game; and is hitting 91. 3 percent of his 7.7 free-throw attempts per game.
He’s averaging 6.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists and is only turning the ball over once a night.
Right now, the former Kentucky Wildcat is playing like the best player on a team with last year’s MVP.
2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Scottie Barnes is finally having the breakout offensive season people in Toronto have been waiting for. He entered the league as a defensive Swiss army knife and as more of a playmaking forward than a scorer.
But so far in 2023-24, Barnes is averaging a career-high 20.8 ppg, well above his 15.3 ppg the last two seasons. He’s pulling down 10 rpg to average a double-double and is dishing out a career-high in assists at 5.4. To add to the list of accomplishments, he has shooting splits of 52/43/79.
Barnes is better than ever defensively as well. The 2021-22 Rookie of the Year is blocking 2.4 shots and grabbing 1.0 steals on a nightly basis.
3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Cade Cunningham was one of the most promising players of 2021-22 after being drafted No. 1 overall by the Detroit Pistons. The 6-foot-8 point guard had a solid rookie season and looked to build on it last year, but only played 12 games after undergoing surgery for a stress fracture in his left leg.
He’s back and better than ever this year.
Despite being known more as a facilitator than a scorer, Cade is averaging 22.8 ppg, good for 24th in the NBA. He scored 17.4 ppg as a rookie. Despite turning the ball over 5.4 times a game (which seems like a small-sample-size outlier), he’s averaging a career-high 6.8 assists.
Cunningham was a decent long-range shooter during his lone season at Oklahoma State, but that shot didn’t translate to the NBA until this year. The former Cowboy is hitting 44.1 percent of his 6.8 threes per game.
A solid 3-point shot like that, coupled with Cade’s selflessness, playmaking ability and size, can unlock an all-NBA-type floor general.
4. Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Maybe it’s because he’s buried in an awful situation in Houston, but Alperen Sengun flew under the radar as one of the best young centers in the league last year, and he’s been even better this season.
The 21-year-old is doing his best Nikola Jokic impression as one of the most efficient playmaking big men in the NBA. The 6-11 native of Turkey is averaging 19.3 points and 8.5 rebounds but is also dishing out 6.0 assists, which puts him fourth in the NBA among centers behind Jokic, Joel Embiid and Domantas Sabonis. He’s averaging fewer turnovers (2.0) than any of those three.
He’s shooting almost 43 percent from deep on about two attempts per game, career highs in both categories. Sengun needs some more love.
5. Shaedon Sharpe, Portland Trail Blazers
That brings us to Shaedon Sharpe. If someone wants to argue that he should fall behind any of Duren, Vassell or Bane on this list, they have a solid case. But after the display the 20-year-old put on against Cunningham and Duren’s Pistons, he deserves the final spot in the top five for now.
Sharpe had an all-NBA performance in the Trail Blazers’ win in Detroit. He finished with 29 points – 26 of which came in the second half as he brought Portland back from an 18-point deficit to win its second game in a row. More importantly, he had a balanced, patient, all-around game that showed a level of maturity most players with his level of experience simply don’t have.
Sharpe shot 8 of 11 over the final two quarters and bullied his way to the rim consistently – 17 of his second-half points came either at the rim or from the free-throw line. He created shots for himself and his teammates. He added 7 rebounds and 5 assists compared to only 2 turnovers with 56/50/80 shooting splits.
The almost-Kentucky Wildcat is seventh in the NBA in minutes, and with Anfernee Simons missing until midway through December with a thumb injury, Sharpe will only take on a more crucial role for the Blazers. His numbers should go up, and if he has anymore nights like he did in Detroit, his spot on this list will as well.
The way Shaedon has improved in barely more than one season of NBA basketball – as a 20-year-old who didn’t play any competitive games between high school and the pros – has been nothing short of incredible.