With the 2021 NBA regular season in its final stretch and soon to head to the playoffs, it’s time to start taking stock of who’s impressed us the most this year. And while we all know the Durants and Antetokounmpos and Irvings who reliably make the headlines, many of us are also looking forward to the spirited debate over who deserves the league’s 2021 Most Improved Player (MIP) award.
The future of the league belongs to those who are gradually building up their skills in every practice, battling through every injury and making the most of their minutes every game. Some of these players are destined to have their images on NBA wall decals soon (if they don’t already) and some might simply be solid role-players throughout their careers. A few are already stars who just keep shining brighter. They all have one thing in common: a combination of extreme talent and hard work that gives them a bright future in basketball.
1. Jerami Grant, SF/PF, Detroit Pistons
Grant is among the consensus favorites for MIP, and if he hasn’t been able to salvage the Pistons’ ugly season, it’s certainly not for lack of effort. He came in from Denver blazing hot, single-handedly keeping his team afloat at times. His performance, though, has cooled off substantially in the back half, a fact that has allowed Julius Randle to lap him in many sportsbooks’ MIP analysis. It’s a reminder that even strong players need a supporting cast around them.
2. Julius Randle, PF/C, New York Knicks
Randle and Grant are likely to duke it out for MIP honors this season, and Randle might come out ahead based on how impressively New York has rebounded from the dismal seasons that preceded 2021. Randle has been an absolute force on both sides of the ball, matching killer shooting with stifling defense that gives opponents no breathing room. He’s also grabbing far more boards and providing more assists to his teammates than ever before, and Knicks fans hope to see him continue his evolution into one of the league’s most complete players.
3. Jaylen Brown, SG/SF, Boston Celtics
The Celtics haven’t had quite the season they wanted or expected, but you could forgive Jaylen Brown for celebrating a bit despite that. He’s had an enviable breakout season, putting up big points in one game after another, and between him, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker, the Celtics should be a top contender rather than a squeaker. Their puddle-deep bench is a common complaint. Boston needs to build up a more capable cast of role players to unlock Brown’s true potential as a superstar.
4. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings
Fox has hovered around the MIP conversation for several seasons. He finished third in 2019 MIP voting and has consistently improved his production for a few years running now. But the 23-year-old point guard has made the leap to bona fide offensive monster. His Q3 2021 numbers put him in the rarefied company of players like Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, including 10 30-point games—more than his first three seasons combined. And as his three-point shooting continues to develop, there’s reason to believe he could become an even scarier offensive weapon in the future.
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5. Zion Williamson, PF, New Orleans Pelicans
Williamson has rarely been less than excellent in his time with the Pelicans, but he’s gone full supernova this year. The bruising physicality that’s always been one of his key assets has come into full bloom, and he’s even excelled as a stand-in at point guard for an injured Lonzo Ball, despite his large frame that makes him a somewhat unorthodox fit for the position. Even with the Pelicans’ unimpressive record this season, Williamson and Ball are a great combination when both are healthy, and New Orleans could be a contender in future seasons if they can keep hold of the two young stars.
6. Zach LaVine, SG/SF, Chicago Bulls
Despite some promising pieces, Chicago has struggled to remain relevant in 2021. Zach LaVine is the main reason they’ve avoided the basement. He’s stepped into his role as the team’s lead scorer to deliver big-time numbers that have almost single-handedly carried the team for most of the season. Even in defeat, he’s been strong, like when he rammed through 50 points in a loss to Atlanta. The last-minute addition of Nikola Vucevic means that LaVine is no longer carrying the load by himself, and Bulls fans can hope that the two will continue to develop together.
7. Christian Wood, PF/C, Houston Rockets
It’s been a cruel season for Wood, who was a strong early contender for MIP before a brutal injury that doubtless inspired a thousand Rockets fans to fling their TV remotes at their NBA wallpaper. Since then, his Rockets have cratered, and even Wood’s return hasn’t been able to save them from their tailspin. He’s still notching impressive numbers on a regular basis, but he may have to wait for next season for another crack at the playoffs. And unfortunately for him, in the meantime, other blossoming stars like Randle and Grant have taken his place in the MIP race.
8. Nikola Jokic, C, Denver Nuggets
“The Joker” has played so well that he’s a candidate for straight-up MVP, but we shouldn’t overlook the way he’s taken his game to a new level. Every season, Jokic steps his numbers up yet again, and 2021 has been his most beastly yet. He’s been posting one triple-double after another, and would have far more had a few more breaks (and minutes) fallen his way. However, with Jamal Murray going down indefinitely to a torn ACL, Denver will need Jokic (and Aaron Gordon) more than ever as they get their playoff faces on.