Julius Randle of the New York Knicks was made the odds-on favorite to win the Most Improved Player Award after scoring 37 points in a win over the Washington Wizards on March 23. The decision was right. Randle has clearly improved his game as a shooter and passer, all while holding the Knicks in contention for their first postseason berth since the 2012-2013 season. The lowest price on Randle to win the award right now is -155 at both DraftKings and FanDuel, with a 60.8 percent implied chance. At that amount, there is no value in betting at this time, and although Randle is the clear favorite, a contender is emerging to challenge him for the prize.
Zion Williamson may have been found at 100-1 odds to win Most Improved Player just a week ago. The best odds on him right now are 80-1 at BetMGM, and a price like that is worth investing in when you consider Williamson’s track record. Before Sunday’s game against the Rockets, the sophomore sensation had increased his field-goal percentage from 58.3 percent to 62.4 percent this season. He has added 3.9 points per game as a result of his productivity, but it is as a facilitator that he has arguably improved the most.
As a result of his increased position as a ball-handler, Williamson’s assist totals have increased as well. Williamson averaged 2.1 assists per game last season, but that number has risen to 3.5 this season. That isn’t a huge leap, but his new role came later in the season. Williamson also played more off the ball in the first 18 games of the season, averaging just 2.3 assists. According to Cleaning The Glass, his assist rate has increased to 17.5 percent in the last 26 games he has played, and his average has increased to 4.4 per game in the last 26 games he has played.
There are also figures that show Williamson’s progress from this point forward. When he is the ball handler on a pick-and-roll, the Pelicans average 1.09 points per possession, which leads the team, according to NBA tracking data. When Williamson runs a pick-and-roll, they shoot 58.8% from the field and score 53.4 percent of the time. When Randle runs a pick-and-roll, the Knicks average just 1.0 point per possession and just 45.3 percent of the time they score.
Now, since Randle is a different player, the pick-and-roll numbers aren’t the most accurate, so how about post-ups? Williamson has a small advantage in this area as well. The Pelicans average 0.98 points per possession when Williamson posts up an opponent, compared to the Knicks’ 0.94 points per possession when Randle posts up. A Williamson post-up is scored 50.4 percent of the time in New Orleans, while a Randle post-up is scored 47.9% of the time in New York.
This article isn’t intended to make a case for Randle to win the award; rather, it’s intended to show bettors that Williamson has a case that’s on par with Randle’s and offers value in the Most Improved Player market. Williamson has a 1.2 percent probability of winning this prize, according to the market, which is too poor considering his situation. Other markets have begun to change their positions as well. Williamson’s chances to win are as low as 25-1 on PointsBet, and 30-1 on DraftKings. Those rates are still fair, but it’s the 80-1 price that’s worth investing in.
Most Improved seems to be a highly arbitrary parameter, but it’s a no-brainer for me. How much has the player’s game changed from the previous season? Both Randle and Williamson have compelling evidence of their progress, and the tide is turning in Williamson’s favor. Don’t let this opportunity pass you by.