After Julius Randle scored 37 points in a win over the Washington Wizards on March 23, shops around the country made the New York Knicks forward the odds-on favorite to win the Most Improved Player Award. The move was correct. Randle has clearly made massive leaps in his game with improvements as a shooter and a passer; all while keeping the Knicks in the hunt for their first playoff berth since the 2012-2013 season. As of now, the lowest price on Randle to win the award is -155 at both DraftKings and FanDuel, which carries an implied probability of 60.8 percent. That is a high price with no value in betting at this point, and while Randle is a rightful favorite, there is a candidate emerging to challenge him for the award.
Just one week ago bettors could have found Zion Williamson at 100-1 odds to win Most Improved Player. As of today, the best odds on him can be found at 80-1 at BetMGM and a price like that is worth investing in when you consider Williamson’s résumé. The sophomore sensation has improved his field-goal percentage from 58.3 percent to 62.4 this season entering Sunday’s game against the Rockets. That efficiency has led to him adding 3.9 points per game, but where he has arguably improved the most is as a facilitator.
Williamson has taken on bigger role as a ball-handler, and as result we have seen his assist numbers jump as well. Last season, Williamson averaged 2.1 assists per game, but this season that figure is up to 3.5 per game. That is not a massive jump, but his role change has come later in the season. In the first 18 games of the season Williamson was still playing more off the ball, and he averaged just 2.3 assists. In the past 26 games he has played entering Sunday, that average is up to 4.4 per game, and on the season his assist rate is up to 17.5 percent, according to Cleaning The Glass.
There are numbers that reflect Williamson’s improvement as a point forward as well. According to the NBA tracking data, when he is the ball handler on a pick-and-roll the Pelicans are averaging 1.09 points per possession, which leads the team. They shoot 58.8 percent from the floor when Williamson runs a pick-and-roll and they score 53.4 percent of the time. By comparison, the Knick average just 1.0 point per possession when Randle runs a pick-and-roll and their scoring frequency is just 45.3 percent.
Now, Randle is just a different player so the pick-and-roll numbers are not the best comparison, so what about post-ups? Williamson actually has the edge there, too. When Williamson posts up an opponent, the Pelicans average 0.98 points per possession compared to the 0.94 points per possession the Knicks average when Randle posts up. New Orleans scores 50.4 percent of the time on a Williamson post-up, compared to the Knicks’ 47.9 percent scoring frequency on a Randle post-up.
This piece is not meant to present a case against Randle to win the award, but to show bettors that Williamson has a case on par with Randle which presents value in the Most Improved Player market. At 80-1 odds, the market is saying Williamson has just a 1.2 percent chance to win this award — which is too low given the case he has. Other markets have started to make the adjustment, as well. PointsBet is as low as 25-1 and DraftKings currently has 30-1 odds on Williamson to win. Those prices still present some value, but that 80-1 price tag is the one worth investing in.
Most Improved seems to be a highly subjective criterion, but for me this is pretty cut-and-dry. How much has player improved his game from the season prior? Both Randle and Williamson have strong cases to show their improvement, and the winds are starting to shift in Williamson’s favor. Don’t miss out on it.