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Three Dark-Horse Candidates for the Most Improved Player Award

Apr 5, 2023; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Trey Murphy III (25) reacts to making a three point basket against the Memphis Grizzlies during the second half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Before the NBA season begins, award predictions are a favorite preseason activity of media members and fans alike. There’s no harder award in the league to predict than the Most Improved Player. While there are always pre-season favorites for the award, oftentimes it’s won by an unexpected player. Here are three dark-horse candidates for the Most Improved Player award this upcoming season.

Three Dark-Horse Candidates for the Most Improved Player Award

 Jaden McDaniels – Timberwolves Forward (+3500 odds)

Jaden McDaniels has had steady improvement each year since entering in the league in 2020. Last year, McDaniels established himself as one of the league’s most impactful defenders and an elite role player. Defensively, McDaniels is extremely disruptive, making big plays and guarding multiple positions. Offensively, McDaniels is a knockdown shooter. He shot an impressive 39% from three last year.


This skillset makes McDaniels a classic “3-and-D” player. McDaniels is poised for another leap as he enters his fourth season. If McDaniels develops more as a shot creator, his offensive game would reach another level. Last year, he averaged 12 points per game. With better shot-creation skills ,that number could increase into the 20 PPG range. A scoring jump like this would put McDaniels in All-Star conversations.

We’ve seen players such as OG Annouby and Mikal Bridges break out of the “3-and-D” label by becoming better shot-creators. It’s fair to predict McDaniels is the next elite role player to make a big jump and be in the M.I.P. conversation as a result.

Obi Toppin – Pacers Forward (+4000 odds)

Obi Toppin’s  first three seasons in the league with the New York Knicks have been filled with disappointment and inconsistent minutes. Toppin was never given a fair chance to develop in New York and played an average of 14 minutes per game in three years.

However, Toppin’s talent shined in the limited opportunity he had with the Knicks. A change of scenery in Indiana will greatly benefit Toppin’s game and unlock his potential. The 2020 lottery pick is an elite athlete who thrives as a finisher in the half-court and transition. Defensively, Toppin is a disruptive and physical defender who can guard multiple positions.


This skillset makes Obi a perfect fit next to Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner. Toppin fills a massive need for the Indiana Pacers at the forward spot. Given all of these factors, Toppin could have a huge statistical leap.

Toppin averaged 7.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, and 1 APG last year. With an increased opportunity this year, Toppin could double these averages and be considered in the Most Improved conversation. We’ve seen struggling young players like Lauri Marakken thrive on new teams and win the Most Improved Player. Toppin could be the next player to make this kind of surprising jump on a new team.

Trey Murphy III – Pelicans Forward (+8000 odds)

Trey Murphy made a huge jump in his sophomore season last year. His scoring average shot up to 14.5 PPG compared to 5 PPG in his rookie year. Murphy established himself as a high-upside young player and a key part of the New Orleans Pelicans‘ future. Entering his third season at 23 years old, Murphy can take another jump and could be on track to become a star.

Murphy is a high-quality two-way player. Offensively, he’s an elite floor spacer, shooting 40% from beyond the arc last year. Murphy compliments his shooting ability with great finishing skills and tons of athleticism. The combination of shooting, finishing, and shot-creating skills gives Murphy an extremely polished offensive game for his age. It also gives Murphy an elite scoring upside and a chance to boost his scoring average even more this season.

At 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, Murphy has great size and length that helps him on defense. Murphy is also incredibly quick and athletic. This allows Murphy to be a highly versatile defender. This skillset makes Murphy extremely valuable and a prototypical modern big-wing. A star jump in his third year is a strong possibility for Murphy and would certainly put him in M.I.P conversations. At +8000 odds, there’s perhaps no greater value pick for the award.

The Last Word

While the Most Improved Player award is incredibly hard to predict, Jaden McDaniels, Obi Toppin, and Trey Murphy III are poised for breakout years, and they have the potential to win this award as a result. Each NBA season has unique twists, and awards are a massive part of that. As the season grows closer, it becomes increasingly interesting to make award predictions.


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