Most Improved Phoenix Suns Players This Season
Although Goran Dragic was the winner of the 2013-14 Most Improved Player award, several of his teammates on the Phoenix Suns were also legitimate candidates.
The only way the Suns were capable of winning 30 more games than expected was by developing the entire roster, both offensively and defensively.
And for the most part, it worked. Benchwarmers last season suddenly became vital role players this year, while decent starters transformed into stars.
Here are the players who made the most progress this season.
Marcus Morris is primarily a scorer. That's always been his role throughout his short NBA career.
He did not suddenly develop an arsenal of deadly secondary skills, such as fantastic individual defense or rebounding. Those are the areas he still has to work on in the future.
However, Marcus did improve immensely this season by becoming an efficient and consistent scoring spark off the bench.
In 23 games with the Suns last season, Marcus shot 41 percent from the field, 31 percent from deep and 41 percent from the free-throw line. He averaged 5.7 points per game and gradually lost playing time as the season went on. Although acquiring Morris was a low-risk move in the first place (Phoenix gave up only a second-round pick), expectations were low going into this season.
But recently, with Jeff Hornacek's help, Marcus has become quite effective.
He averaged a career-high 9.7 points per game this season, and all of his shooting numbers increased as well. He became one of the team's best sharpshooters, knocking down 38 percent of his three-point attempts while shooting 44 percent overall.
And in addition to improving his perimeter shot, he also strengthened his mid-range game. In 2012-13, Marcus shot 10-of-31 from 10-16 feet (32 percent) and 17-of-67 from 16 feet to the three-point line (25 percent).
This season, Marcus shot 49 percent and 39 percent in those two areas, respectively. He also took over 100 attempts in both of those zones, showing that he has developed a greater confidence in his mid-range shooting.
Marcus Morris may not be a future star, but at the very least he could be an important role player or sixth man. The Suns have every incentive to keep him, but if they do happen to trade him within the next couple of years, one would only hope that both Morris twins are dealt as a package out of courtesy and respect.
Markieff Morris, the other Morris twin, was unable to win the Sixth Man of the Year Award that would have officially established him as the best bench player in the league.
But even so, the fact that he was even a candidate for the award shows how far he has come.
Markieff, like his brother, improved his efficiency more than anything else this season.
He stopped taking as many threes, and instead focused on attacking the paint and taking mid-range jump shots. His three-point attempt rate has now fallen from 28 percent in his rookie year to 13 percent in 2013-14.
The result? A nine percent increase in field-goal percentage. One would expect such an increase with smarter shot selection.
But Markieff has also improved the efficiency of his mid-range jump shot. According to NBA.com/Stats, Markieff made 86-of-236 mid-range attempts last season. That's only a 36.4 percent conversion rate.
This year, he knocked down 145-of-327 attempts, which is 44.3 percent.
There's also the fact that Markieff has become a consistent bench player who almost always produces a decent stat line. In the final 45 games of the season, he scored at least 10 points 41 times. And over that span, Markieff averaged 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 50 percent shooting from the field.
Watch out for Markieff Morris, because if the team fails to trade for a superstar power forward, he may be in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.
Unlike the Morris twins, who both received plenty of playing time in years prior, this was Miles Plumlee's first season as a regular rotation player.
However, his increased production was not only due to a boost in playing time. Despite his second-half slump, Plumlee had to develop his game tremendously in order to receive the starting center spot for the entire season.
After coming to the desert, Plumlee started 79 games and put up 11.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes.
Those are amazing numbers for a player who logged 55 total minutes with the Indiana Pacers and posted a PER of 8.8. He's still no dominant center, and may occasionally look awkward or ungainly on offense by dropping a pass, but his post moves, rebounding and defense made his season appear impressive overall.
However, there are a couple of questions regarding Plumlee's future.
First of all, can he take the next step? He's already 25 years old, and rookie center Alex Len will surely be looking for more playing time in the future as well. Plumlee showed some flashes of brilliance this season, but his post moves are still wildly inconsistent and his interior defense seemed to weaken as the season went on.
Furthermore, why did Plumlee, the team's only consistent center, play just 20.2 minutes per game after the All-Star break? Was it because coach Hornacek lacked confidence in him? Or perhaps it was even a physical problem and Plumlee lacks the stamina to give starting-quality production for 30-35 minutes each night?
Whatever the answer, Plumlee did have a fantastic season. Even if he has some work to do over the summer, his athleticism and ability to run the floor made him the perfect center for the Suns' uptempo offense.
Gerald Green has shown flashes of greatness before.
In 2011-12, in 31 games with the New Jersey Nets, he put up 12.9 points and 3.5 rebounds per game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 39 percent from downtown.
That was impressive. But this was the first time in his career that Green was able to give that type of production for a full 82-game season. And it was especially impressive considering that in one year he went from being a scarcely used bench player with the Pacers to one of the most important pieces on a 48-win team.
For the season, Green averaged a career-high 15.8 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the field. He was also one of just a few players to make at least 200 three-pointers.
He had five different games with 30 or more points, and his 41-point performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder was one of the greatest individual performances we've seen from a Phoenix Sun in recent years.
Despite a great season, most people could still classify Green as a "chucker". Had he not shot with such efficiency this season, he would have been as unpopular as former Suns such as Shannon Brown and Michael Beasley.
But for some reason, Green became a master of making jump shots that aren't supposed to go in. And other than the fact that Green must work on his shooting assiduously in practice, the only explanation for his sudden success is that coach Hornacek must have instilled him with a great amount of confidence.
Allowing Green the freedom to take shots as he pleases may occasionally backfire, but overall that trust between players and their coach has been beneficial.
Eric Bledsoe was spectacular as the Los Angeles Clippers' backup point guard last season, but some were skeptical of his ability to effectively run the Suns offense.
He has clearly proved those doubters wrong.
While Bledsoe only played 43 games this season due to injury, he was impressive enough that re-signing him this offseason should be a priority.
Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.6 steals per game this season. He made 36 percent of his three-point attempts, but his real strength lies in his aggressiveness. Although his ball control could be better, few defenders can stop Bledsoe from getting to the rim when he's motivated. His speed and athleticism is matched by few other NBA guards.
And it doesn't only help him on offense. Bledsoe also uses that athleticism for great perimeter defense against opposing guards. When he does force turnovers by playing the passing lanes, he becomes nearly unstoppable in transition.
The end of the season was when we really saw Bledsoe heat up. For a period of 10 games between March 24th and April 12th, Bledsoe averaged 20.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game on 51 percent shooting.
If that's the type of production he can consistently bring in the future, a Dragic-Bledsoe backcourt should scare the rest of the NBA.
And now, the obvious choice for "most improved player".
In one season, despite only a minimal increase in playing time, Goran Dragic improved his scoring by 5.6 points per game. His field-goal percentage rose from 44 percent to 51 percent, and his three-point shooting efficiency also increased by nine percent.
Dragic is now just the fourth player in the past 20 years to average at least 20 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep (with a minimum of 100 three-point attempts required). The other three are Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Dirk Nowitzki.
He is also following in the footsteps of his coach Jeff Hornacek, who accomplished the same feat with Phoenix during the 1991-92 season.
But it isn't only his three-point range that has improved. Much of Dragic's success as a primary scoring option comes from better mid-range shooting.
And of course, don't forget about his ability to attack the basket, even against the league's greatest post defenders. Offensively, Dragic has become more versatile than he ever was before.
He continues to be a solid on-ball defender as well, capable of both stopping his man from getting to the rim as well as forcing turnovers that can lead to transition opportunities.
Dragic has transformed into one of the NBA's stars. If he can keep up this level of production, the All-Star appearances will surely come in the future.
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