NBA Most Improved Player: Lauri Markkanen, Jalen Brunson in Close Race

Posted on: March 8, 2023, 10:14h. 

Last updated on: March 8, 2023, 12:29h.

Forward Lauri Markkanen from the Utah Jazz is the consensus favorite to win the 2023 NBA Most Improved Player at -285 odds. As an NBA all-star, Markkanen emerged as a solid betting favorite over New York Knicks point guard Jalen Brunson (+320) and Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+400).

Lauri Markkanen odds Most Improved Players NBA Jazz Jalen Brunson Knicks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Thunder
Forward Lauri Markkanen from the Utah Jazz celebrates a 3-point shot during an overtime thriller against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City. (Image: Getty)

In other professional sports leagues like the NFL or NHL, the Most Improved Player award typically goes to a player who returned from a major injury and bounced back with a sensational season. Occasionally, that’s the case in the NBA. But the Most Improved Player typically gets awarded to a younger player who had a breakthrough season.

The three betting favorites to win the 2023 Most Improved Player each have their own unique stories, with two of them playing with a new team this season.

Lauri Markkanen -285

Markkanen grew up in Finland and played his collegiate ball with Arizona. After an impressive freshman season, Markkanen decided to go pro. Scouts loved the fact the seven-footer demonstrated deft guard skills and a deadly outside shot.

The Minnesota Timberwolves selected Markkanen with the seventh-overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He was traded on draft night to the Chicago Bulls, along with Zach LaVine, in exchange for Jimmy Butler.

Markkanen started 68 games as a rookie with the Bulls and earned a spot on the NBA All-Rookie first team. In four seasons with the Bulls, he averaged 15.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game.

The Bulls traded him to the Cleveland Cavaliers prior to the 2021-22 season. He lasted only one year in Cleveland before the Cavs traded him last summer to the Utah Jazz. Markkanen was part of a lucrative trade package that brought Donovan Mitchell to the Cavs.

Many pundits assumed the Jazz would trade Markkanen as soon as they had a chance, and that he wouldn’t last a full season in Salt Lake City. He was a good shooter, but struggled to stay healthy and missed 108 total games during his first five years in the league.

However, after a breakout season, including NBA All-Star honors, the Jazz would be foolish to part ways with Markkanen. He’s posting career numbers in all major statistical categories by averaging 25.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game. He’s shooting 51.3% from the floor and 40.9% from 3-point range.

Markkanen averaged 14.8 points per game last season with the Cavs and made a noticeable scoring increase of 9.5 ppg this season with the Jazz. His nearly double-digit jump in scoring is the most obvious reason why he’s the betting favorite at-285 odds to win Most Improved Player.

Jalen Brunson +320

Brunson joined the Knicks in the off-season when they offered him a lucrative four-year deal worth $104 million. For the first time in decades, the Knicks had a bona fide point guard with Brunson. The Knicks whiffed on other free agents in the last 20 years, so it was a relief to the legion of fans in the tri-state area that Brunson lived up to the hype.

In his first season with the Knicks, Brunson is averaging 23.9 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game. He’s become an instant fan favorite at Madison Square Garden, and often draws chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!” during home games.

During his first three seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, Brunson was a backup point guard. He started last season with the Mavs as a backcourt mate with Luka Dončić. In his fourth year in Dallas, Brunson posted his best overall season numbers by averaging 16.3 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds per game. Instead of playing second fiddle behind Dončić in a heliocentric offense, Brunson departed in free agency.

Brunson’s overall game flourished with the Knicks, and the offense runs through him as a true point guard. His scoring average jumped 6.6 points per game with the Knicks. He’s also shooting a career-best 41.1% from 3-point range, while averaging a career-high in points and assists.

The Knicks have been surging in recent weeks, which has impacted the awards markets at DraftKings. Teammate Immanuel Quickley is now the betting favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award, and Brunson saw his Most Improved Player odds bump to +320 after he moved ahead of Gilgeous-Alexander as the second favorite on the board.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander +400

Gilgeous-Alexander, widely known around the league as “SGA,” was the betting favorite to win Most Improved Player for the first half of the season. But his odds dipped to +400 after the NBA All-Star break.

Markkanen made a huge leap this season with the Jazz, and Brunson plays for the Knicks in the biggest media market in the NBA, which is why they’re at the top of the board. If Gilgeous-Alexander didn’t play on a small market team in Oklahoma City, he’d get more attention for MVP and MIP honors.

The Canadian-born Gilgeous-Alexander grew up as a multi-star athlete in Hamilton, Ontario before he played a one-and-done season of college hoops at Kentucky.

The Charlotte Hornets selected Gilgeous-Alexander with the #11 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. The Los Angeles Clippers acquired him in a draft-day trade for Miles Bridges and a pair of second-round draft picks.

As a rookie with the Clippers, Gilgeous-Alexander appeared in all 82 games, which is a rare feat these days. He earned a spot on the NBA All-Rookie second team, but only played only one season in LA before the Clippers traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of a deal for All-Star Paul George.

Gilgeous-Alexander surprised a lot of people when he signed a contract extension with the Thunder instead of bolting in free agency. The Thunder have been one of the worst teams in the NBA for the last few seasons, and Gilgeous-Alexander was easily the best player on a young and inexperienced squad.

Gilgeous-Alexander is the NBA’s fifth-best scorer this season. He’s averaging 31.2 points, 57 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game. He’s averaging 6.7 more points per game than last season’s previous career high of 24.5 ppg.