Giannis Antetokounmpo ahead on Stein's Most Improved ballot

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

You have to be a rebel sometimes.

You have to break the rules on occasion.

This is one of those occasions.

Regular readers of our thrice-annual award missives are well-acquainted by now with our hang-ups about Most Improved Player candidates. But we'll repeat them here for the uninitiated: Second-year players, as well as top-tier draftees with any amount of service time, typically struggle for consideration with us, since dramatic improvement is what you expect and frankly demand from those sorts of players.

Which is why, just to cite a few examples, established stars who are scoring like never before such as Anthony Davis and DeMar DeRozan, or blossoming Year 2 forces like Kristaps Porzingis and Myles Turner, really don't factor into our thinking here.


Milwaukee's one-of-a-kind Giannis Antetokounmpo ‎is proving to be a different case entirely, forcing us to divert from our usual MIP policies.

Maybe it's not even as much of a rules violation as we fear, given that The Greek Freak is a No. 15 overall pick, two turns outside the lottery. At that spot in the draft, nothing is guaranteed.

Yet here we are in Year 4 and, well, just look. Antetokounmpo is an All-Star lock in the East -- or dang sure better be -- and a certifiable Defensive Player of the Year candidate for his role in leading the young Bucks from No. 26 in that category last season back to the brink of the top 10.

He's raised his scoring average from 16.9 points per game last season to 22.6 PPG this season. He's also the only player in the league who's averaging at least two blocks and two steals, which puts the 22-year-old on course to join a very short list headlined by Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Gerald Wallace.

With his jumper still a work in progress, Antetokounmpo ‎has nonetheless emerged as an all-over-the-floor menace under Bucks coach Jason Kidd when you throw in his 9.1 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game.

Get this: For the fourth successive season, Antetokounmpo is on pace to increase his average in five major categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks) and to better his field goal percentage.


The debate here, however, might have gotten more heated if Utah's George Hill hadn't missed so much time in the season's opening third.

Hill has responded to his contract-year status by playing the best ball of his life, boosting his 11.3 points per game career scoring average to 20.0, shooting a career-best .456 from 3-point range after only one previous season in the 40s and hiking his player efficiency rating (PER) from 13.9 last season to a career-high 24.97 this season.

The problem, of course, is that myriad injuries have caused Hill to miss more games (16) than he's played (11).

Celtics guard Avery Bradley's reinvention as a rebounding machine is another fun surprise to give Antetokounmpo some solid competition. Bradley ranks alongside MVP candidates James Harden and Russell Westbrook as the only guards in the league averaging at least 18 points and seven boards, thanks to a transformation that has taken the 6-foot-2 Bradley from a minuscule career rebounding average of 2.6 RPG to a Rodman-esque 13 games already in which he's either held or shared the highest Boston total off the glass.

Other players who've shown us some MIP flashes so far include Houston's Clint Capela stepping into the Dwight Howard void, Dallas' Harrison Barnes emerging as the Mavericks' go-to guy and ‎New Orleans' Tim Frazier establishing himself as a full-fledged NBA rotation player.

This, though, is Giannis' domain. Thus far, in 2016-17, Antetokounmpo is pronounced M-I-P.