Who might be Boston's most improved player this season?
With the stockpile of young assets Danny Ainge has brought in over the last three years, it is reasonable to expect some major development from recently drafted players this upcoming season. Which Celtic is primed for a big improvement?
Smart is perhaps the player with the most expectations to claim this title. The Oklahoma State alum already received a large share of the backcourt minutes in 2015-16 thanks to his relentless defensive motor. His defensive presence will always make Smart a viable player in this league. What would really set him apart is an improved offensive game, which he may now be on tap for in his third season in the league.
Despite being the backup point guard to Isaiah Thomas, Smart split the ball handling duties with swingman Evan Turner for much of the season. In fact, Turner was considered to be a ball handler on 31.5% of his offensive possessions (highest rate on the team). Smart, on the other hand, was only a ball handler on 18.2% of his plays throughout the 2015-16 season. That is an odd position to put a non-shooting point guard in.
The departure of Evan Turner may work wonders for Smart's game depending on Brad Steven's plan for fellow young guard Terry Rozier. Rozier may takeover much of the ball handling duties for the second unit, which would leave Smart back in a similar situation as last year.
But if Smart is used as the dominant ball handler off the bench, he should see a significant spike in efficiency, most notably from three-point territory. He shot 15 percentage points higher on pull-up shots as opposed to catch and shoot jumpers. Smart is clearly most comfortable with the ball in his hands, and doing so would make it easier for him to knock down shots at a higher rate than last year. He has shown flashes of solid shooting off the catch, including this past April in the playoffs, he just has to be more consistent.
If you know Marcus Smart, you know he grinds. That alone will naturally bring improvement. Factor in his new role with the absence of Evan Turner, and he could be due for a big season.
Our beloved seven-foot Canadian with a sweet set of hair is another candidate for most improved player on the Celtics' roster this season. Assuming he comes back fully healed from surgery on his shooting shoulder, Kelly Olynyk could serve a huge role with his rare versatility and sharpshooting for a big man.
What Olynyk did last year was actually quite underrated. He was the most efficient seven-foot shooter in the league from downtown at 40% in 2015-16. He was sneaky good off the dribble and is a skilled passer who grew up playing point guard in high school. Maybe his occasional awkwardness and lanky appearance kept people from seeing how useful Kelly really was when healthy?
In contrast to Marcus Smart, it is Olynyk's defense that is holding him back the most. The transition from defending guards your whole life to defending jacked NBA big men is not easy. After three years in the league of eating burritos in four bites each, hitting the weights with professional trainers, and practicing defending his new position, Olynyk may finally be an improved defender. If he can do this, he may certainly be the most improved Celtic.
Rozier is set to have a much larger role on Boston's roster this season. After taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase his skills in the Summer League, the 16th pick of the 2015 draft may have solidified a rotation spot for the upcoming regular season.
At first glance, one may think the uptick in usage alone could be enough to make Rozier the favorite for most improved Celtic. The biggest concern though is his scoring ability. Yes, he put on a show in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas this summer averaging 20 points, but a short couple of months before that he was struggling to score against proven NBA talent.
Even when considering an increase in minutes, Rozier wasn't good at scoring the basketball. He finishing second to last on the team in points per 36 minutes (8.3 points), only above the curious case of James Young, while also shooting by far the worst from the field (27.4%).
The 6'2" guard from Louisville makes up for his scoring flaws with strong play in other areas. He is a terrific rebounder for his size (7.3 per 36), marking him as the top rebounding guard from last year's Celtics squad. In fact, Russell Westbrook was the only player under 6'4" to post a higher rebounding rate than Rozier in 2015-16. He also put up just over four assists per 36 minutes, which was third best on the team.
When you add on Rozier's evident development from this summer, he should be able to build off of last year's per 36 minutes stats very nicely. Especially if his scoring proves to be legit.
We all know what Jordan Mickey is capable of. In very limited time on the court last season, Mickey averaged 13.3 points, 8.2 boards, and 6.9 blocks per 36 minutes. Of course this is an extremely small sample size and we can't expect Mickey to have seven blocks per game this year, but you get the point. The kid was incredibly useful while on the floor.
The clear obstacle standing in Mickey's way is the crowded frontcourt. Al Horford, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller, and Olynyk will all be a higher priority to start the year, making Mickey a mere garbage time player for now. Unless one of the aforementioned suffers an injury or are struggling, it will be tough for Mickey to get enough playing time to make an impact.
A case can be made that Jae Crowder or Avery Bradley will prove worthy of this honor with their continuously improving offensive arsenals. Isaiah could top himself again this season and, who knows, flirt with MVP consideration. Having too many potential most improved players is a good problem to have.
Follow Erik Johnson on Twitter: @erikjohnson32
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