Welcome back to the latest installment in our potential-end-of-season award series. For each of the NBA’s major gongs I’ll be making a case as to why a player from the Magic should be the one taking home the hardware. We’ve already seen Evan Fournier claim the MVP, Jonathan Isaac the DPOY, and MCW the Sixth Man. Today we turn our attention to the Most Improved Player award. Could we again have someone in pinstripes ready to claim the crown? You bet!
A quick disclaimer: although I’m building a (largely) serious case for each individual award winner, please understand that this is not a totally serious endeavor. The Magic won’t be bringing home any awards come season’s end. However, in my world I’m letting my Floridian bias shine. So strap on those Magic-tinged glasses, keep those faces straight, and join me as we envision a world in which Orlando claim award after award after award. Let’s dive in and have some fun!
Most Improved Player - Markelle Fultz
Fultz might be the Magic player most likely to actually secure votes when the end-of-season awards are determined, even though he only has the slimmest of chances to take home the prize. There are a number of players across the league who took a leap this year, either from role player to relevance (Devonte’ Graham), or from relevance to stardom (Brandon Ingram), or from stardom to the absolute upper tier (Luka Doncic). Yet all of these cases should pale in comparison to the magnitude of the strides made by Fultz. His trajectory isn’t yet complete, but even at this point it’s enough to lay claim to the title of Most Improved.
Orlando’s young point guard ultimately put together a campaign so unexpected as to basically be unprecedented. Although optimism remained high among Magic fans, it was fair to say that the basketball world had largely given up on the idea of Fultz as a productive NBA player, let alone a key cog on a playoff side. Instead he played well, forcing his way into a starting role within six games and continuing his steady ascent over the course of the season. In less than twelve months he went from zero value to an untouchable piece.
Remember, this is a player who came in with a stellar pedigree and the highest of expectations before suffering through perhaps the oddest debilitating injury saga in the history of professional sports. No one could say with any certainty what was going on, but for all intents and purposes it looked like he had literally forgotten how to shoot a basketball. This was accompanied by an understandable expiration of confidence, as the line between mental and physical ailment became increasingly blurred. There was a genuine chance that Fultz was going to go down as the most disappointing number one pick ever.
Instead, he turned things around. Orlando’s decision makers obviously saw enough behind closed doors to pick up his fourth-year option before he had even taken the court for the franchise. Steve Clifford obviously saw enough when he made the decision to insert him into the starting lineup less than a month into the season. And fans, thanks to a growing number of impressive performances, are starting to see enough to think that Fultz could ultimately be something pretty special for the team moving forward.
The numbers aren’t immediately mind-blowing, although they are strong. 12.1 points and 5.2 assists, with 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals for good measure, make for pleasing reading. So too do the numbers he put up related to shooting within the arc; Fultz shot 52.0% on two-pointers, including an eye-popping 44.8% from the mid-range (16-23 feet). He doesn’t yet have a three-point shot, but in his first interruption-free season he proved adept at scoring from just a step or two inside the long range line. Also worth noting is that he connected on 72.3% of his free-throws on a decent number of attempts (143 total). These are data points that suggest further growth remains a distinct possibility.
Perhaps most impressively, Fultz turned his greatest weakness — availability — into a strength. The third-year guard played in 64 of the team’s 65 games, seeing the court for 28.3 minutes per contest, a figure he had topped only once previously in his short and interrupted career. He was a pillar of dependability for an injury-marred Magic side, an outcome that no one would have predicted before the season began. It wasn’t that long ago that there was a looming threat that Fultz’s career would ultimately be defined by injury; now, such worries are fast receding in the rear view.
A single game does not a season make. However, it’s hard to overlook how blindingly impressive Fultz has been in his brightest moments, and no performance shone with the intensity of his output against LeBron and the Lakers in January. He was sublime down the stretch, playing with a poise and decisiveness that belied his relative inexperience. He went at LeBron — figuratively and literally — finishing with a triple-double and cementing the best game of his young career with three consecutive clutch plays. For some he claimed the Most Improved crown that night when he took down the King.
Let me be clear: there is no player in the league who has made more progress this season than Fultz. No player who has achieved a greater gain when comparing their circumstances from the end of last season to now. No player who has demonstrated greater improvement in terms of their performance and output.
There’s no need to overthink this: Markelle Fultz is the right choice for the Most Improved Player award.
With the case now made for four award winners out of Orlando, we bring the latest installment in this very serious series to an end. Be sure to come back in a few days time to find out how the Magic can unexpectedly lay claim to even more accolades such as Coach and Rookie of the Year. The award season sweep is on!