I hope you got your Tyrese Maxey Most Improved Player bets in before the season. Our own Ameer Tyree to grab a Maxey ticket at +700 before the season. His odds were far longer than that at various stretches over the summer. But now? The best odds you'll find for Maxey at the major books are a +200 line at FanDuel and BetRivers. We're only a week or so into the season and we already have a prohibitive awards favorite.
Given the award's recent history, Vegas is right to line up behind Maxey. Voters have tended not to award rags-to-riches improvement in recent years. The last nine winners have all been recent first-round picks, with seven of those nine being taken in the top half of the first round and three of them being No. 2 overall picks. These are the sort of players you'd generally expect to improve over time, but, notably, most of them were already strong players. Of those nine winners, only C.J. McCollum and Pascal Siakam averaged fewer than 13 points per game before their victorious seasons.
But every winner except McCollum in that stretch had something else in common: they were first-time All-Stars. This is the trait voters look for in Most Improved Player candidates, and it makes the field of eligible candidates relatively small. Take Devonte' Graham as an example. His scoring shot from 4.7 points per game to 18.2 during the 2019-20 season. He finished fifth in voting.
The four players ahead of him? Brandon Ingram, Bam Adebayo, Luka Doncic and Jayson Tatum. All four of them were first-time All-Stars. Ingram won in a season in which his scoring jumped just 5.5 points per game. That jump was smaller than the one he made between his rookie season (9.4 points per game) and his sophomore campaign (16.1). We're not looking for the most improved player here. We're looking for the player who leapt from non-stardom into stardom even if the player who makes it is one that we expected to make that leap eventually. Ingram, Tatum and Dončić were all top-three picks.
Maxey, right now, is the player most visibly making that specific leap. He was already a very good player last season, averaging just over 20 points per game, but nobody would have mistaken him for a star. He even came off of the bench 19 times a year ago. But, now, with James Harden gone and the keys to Philadelphia's offense firmly in hand, Maxey is averaging over 27 points per game. He's making the star leap, and the star leap is what tends to win this award.
Obviously, that somewhat violates the literal name of the award, which theoretically should compel voters to look for the player that improves the most, not the player whose improvement made him the best player out of the available candidates. On paper, there is a candidate that comes closer to checking both boxes.
Cam Thomas has odds ranging from +800 (Caesars) to +1400 (FanDuel). At some books, he's second only to Maxey, and like Maxey, he's posting some wild scoring numbers. Through four games, he's averaging 28 points per game on over 51% shooting from the field. That's a 17.4-point improvement from the 10.6 points per game he averaged last season, and if his 3-point shot comes around as expected, that number could grow. Maxey came off of the bench last season. Thomas started six games in his career before this season. If we're looking for a player who went from obscurity to the top of the league, Thomas is probably our best bet.
Here's the catch: it's not clear how much, if at all, Thomas actually improved. He was always a bucket. He averaged 39 points per game in his four starts a season ago... but there's a reason he only started four times. All Thomas does is score. That's it. He's never defended. He passes only out of necessity. Only five players have ever averaged at least 28 points per game while averaging under two assists per game. Four of them were big men: Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Bob Rule and Wilt Chamberlain. The fifth is Thomas so far this season.
The difference for Thomas is opportunity. He spent most of last season on a team with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Nets didn't need another gunner. But Brooklyn's current roster was built perfectly for Thomas. When healthy, it starts two complete non-shooters in Ben Simmons and Nic Claxton. Simmons can be the offense's primary playmaker so Thomas doesn't have to be. Claxton can protect the rim when opposing guards blow past Thomas on the other end. Between Simmons, Mikal Bridges, Dorian Finney-Smith, Dennis Smith Jr. and Royce O'Neale, the Nets have accumulated so many wing defenders that Thomas will almost always be able to hide on weak matchups. What the Nets lack is one-on-one scoring, and Thomas provides plenty of it. He didn't necessarily improve as a player. He just happened to find himself on a roster better-suited to his specific talents.
So far, we've taken issue with both the "most" and the "improved" elements of the Most Improved Player race. From a betting perspective, those concerns are meaningless. Your money should be on Maxey and Thomas. In all likelihood, assuming they are both eligible, one of them is going to win the award. But it's still worth asking if there are any players making tangible improvements across the entirety of their skill sets that deserve some recognition, if only to give you a couple of long shots to watch here. We've largely only discussed scoring in this space, but there are a number of other ways of improving.
Scottie Barnes isn't quite making the star leap. The horrific spacing on his own roster likely prevents that this season, and his counting stats, while impressive, aren't quite All-Star level. But his actual skill-improvement on both ends of the floor is one of the most important developments of the season. His 3-point shot is starting to fall. He's comfortable working one-on-one in the post and his half-court passing has taken a noticeable leap. He's overshadowed defensively by OG Anunoby on defense, but he's been spectacular on one of the league's best units.
Jalen Johnson's scoring has more than doubled from 5.6 to 13.2 points per game, and on a crowded Atlanta roster, there might not be room for his counting stats to go much further this season. It's not even clear if Johnson will wind up being a full-time starter. But he's gone from a raw athlete to a dangerous threat all over the court. The vicious dunks have produced the highlights, but significant defensive growth and a more diverse overall offensive package have been the story here.
Alperen Sengun faces a different sort of challenge. Of those past nine winners, only Ingram failed to reach the postseason. Sengun has thrived as Ime Udoka has given him more control of the Houston offense. That has resulted in more scoring and a 50% increase in assists, but it has also made life easier for teammates. Dillon Brooks and Jalen Green are hitting career-high's in 3-point percentage, and Fred VanVleet isn't far off. It's just unlikely that voters will notice Sengun's growth enough for him to win on a likely lottery team.
In the end, history suggests that Maxey is probably going to win this award, and if he doesn't, Thomas is the next man up. But improvement is nebulous. Voters tend to be so fixated on a certain kind of it that they ignore all the rest. That will benefit Maxey and Thomas, and possibly you as a bettor, but it's hardly the spirit of the award they're voting on.