Since he probably can’t win the statistical battle against Lauri Markkanen or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the best argument for Jalen Brunson as the NBA’s Most Improved Player boils down to this:
Leadership and impact on winning.
Tom Thibodeau loves to use those phrases when describing Brunson, and they’re appropriate. Between last year’s plunge to the draft lottery and this year’s ascension to 13 games over .500, the biggest difference, by far, is the acquisition of Brunson.
And after he was snubbed for the All-Star team – a decision from the NBA coaches that has looked worse over time – Brunson’s best hope for a major postseason award is M.I.P.
Just don’t expect the point guard, who often deflects attention away from himself, to campaign very hard.
“It’s a unique award,” Brunson told the Daily News. “It’s not something I’m really focused on 100 percent. I don’t really think about it but if it’s something I win or achieve, I’ll be very thankful. But it’s not on the forefront of my mind.”
To make a case with numbers, Brunson’s scoring average rose from 16.3 last season to 24. His assists jumped from 4.8 to 6.2. His 3-point percentage increased along with the volume of attempts. He is second among qualifying players for charges drawn per game.
Most importantly, the Knicks went from 37 wins last year to 45 and counting while Brunson went from Luka Doncic’s running mate in Dallas to the beating heart of his new team. Leon Rose gambled a $104 million contract that Brunson would improve with more responsibility and, today, it looks like a Knicks heist.
“I think the one thing when you look at him, wherever he’s been, whether it was high school, college, the pros, there’s been significant jumps every season,” Thibodeau said. “And that’s a testament to him and his willingness to grow and learn and work. His work ethic is off the charts. …He’ll get better every year. And so we were confident that he could do this. …He’s improved his scoring by eight points a game. He’s taking twice as many threes. He’s shooting almost 42% from three. He’s getting to the line, he’s doubled his free throw attempts. There’s significant things that he’s done. But I would say the most important thing is what he’s contributed to winning. And that’s always been his biggest attribute.”
The question of Brunson’s MIP candidacy is also about opportunity. Did Brunson really improve or did he just have the ball in his hands more often after leaving Luka Doncic? Does it matter? Markkanen, a leading candidate for the award, fits into the same box because he swapped a supporting role in Cleveland to the lead option in Utah. Markkanen’s statistical improvements are more dramatic (most notably, from 14.8 points per game to 25.6). Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges is another candidate whose big jump coincided with a team change.
Gilgeous-Alexander is different because he improved with the same team, the Thunder, jumping from 24.5 points per game to 31.
Brunson’s advantage is that the Knicks are headed to the playoffs, while the teams of Markkanen and Gilgeous-Alexander are under .500.
The Nets will be in the postseason but had a better record before trading for Bridges.
“He didn’t have the opportunity in Dallas, obviously for good reason,” Josh Hart told the News about Brunson. “He had a heckuva player down there (Doncic). He’s had a bigger role here, a bigger opportunity. And he’s just stepped it up. That’s a testament to all the work he’s put in before and it’s just the kind of person he is, the player he is. So I’m sure how they do all the Most Improved. But he should be in that conversation. Not just because of the stats, the numbers he’s putting up. But also the success of the team.”
Brunson, meanwhile, said he’s improved the most in one category: “Consistency.”
“Going into every summer, I don’t think of one thing I need to work on,” he said. “I think about how I can be more consistent in all aspects of my game.”
LAST 10 MOST IMPROVED PLAYER AWARD WINNERS:
2022: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)
2021: Julius Randle (Knicks)
2020: Brandon Ingram (Pelicans)
2019: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)
2018: Victor Oladipo (Pacers)
2017: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
2016: CJ McCollom (Blazers)
2015: Jimmy Butler (Bulls)
2014: Goran Dragic (Suns)
2013: Paul George (Pacers)