An incredibly premature case for Joe Ingles as Most Improved Player

The 2017/18 NBA season was a turning point for Joe Ingles. It was the best year of his career. The current season is still in its infant stages, but 2018/19 is showing early signs of being even better for Slo-Mo Joe.

The NBA’s Most Improved Player Award is typically a younger man’s prize, but 31-year-old Ingles may give the league’s young whipper-snappers a run for their money.

In October, championship calibre teams can look fragile and unimpressive, while simultaneously, the previous season’s basket cases have the facade of a title contender. Little is what it seems. Yet the man Rudy Gobert says looks like a farmer, is off to an undeniably hot start.

Last season, Ingles established himself as a key cog in the Utah Jazz machine. With Gordon Hayward out of the picture, Ingles was able to step out of the shadows and flourish in the spotlight. The forward from Happy Valley went from starting 26 games in 2016/17, to starting 81 games last season.

Ingles didn’t shy away from his new starting role either, asserting himself as one of the league’s most versatile and cunning basketball players. Night after night, he showed he was much more than the one-dimensional spot-up shooter many had pigeonholed him as.

Despite a lack of explosive athleticism, Ingles’ defence gave major headaches to some of the NBA’s brightest stars. With his great anticipation and ability to read the flow of play, Ingles became a thorn in many players’ sides. Just ask Paul George. Ingles’ defence was key in Utah’s conquest of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs. In the regular season he ranked 7th in defensive win share, among forwards who played at least 70 games.

Ingles not only shot the lights out from three at 44%, he also often took on the role of primary ball handler. 30% of his possessions ended with an assist, the highest on the team. His natural instincts as playmaker made him a versatile offensive weapon, and gave Utah’s head coach Quin Snyder a plethora of options when constructing his lineups.

In combination with his shooting touch, Ingles showed himself to be an extremely potent offensive weapon. He finished the year ranked 5th amongst small forwards in real plus-minus wins with 10.81, one spot ahead of Kevin Durant.

Ingles had a terrific regular season. Whilst his season averages of 11.5 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds don’t leap off the page, his overall impact on his team’s success was undeniable.

"There are certain players that when they are on the floor make the whole greater than the sum of the parts," Jazz head coach Quin Snyder said in March in an ESPN article. "Joe Ingles 'the part' has gotten better, and then Joe Ingles 'the teammate' makes other people better.”

Season 2018/19 is in its very early stages, with only 4 of the Jazz’s 82 games in the rearview mirror. Despite the small sample size, it is plain to see that Ingles isn’t slowing down or regressing in his growth as a player, particularly on offence. Ingles’ burden and production have sharply increased, reaffirming his importance to the team.

Currently, he is playing the most minutes of his NBA career, averaging 34.8. It’s a seemingly slight upgrade from his 31.4 minutes last season, but the increase is evidence of his value and importance in the eyes of the Jazz coaching staff.

In those extra minutes, Ingles cranked his scoring output up another gear. Throughout his NBA career, Ingles has steadily increased the number of shots he has taken. This season has seen the biggest spike in shot attempts per game at 12 per game, a 36% jump from last season. Ingles is also attempting more three-pointers per game than of any other point in his career, averaging 7.5 attempts, up 32% from last year.

It is apparent that Ingles has been given the green light to fire away with greater regularity, and we’ve already had a taste of what could be ahead. Ingles opened the season with two 20+point games; 22 against the Sacramento Kings and 27 against the Golden State Warriors. Ingles is currently sitting on an average of 17.3 points per game.

Ingles’ leap in scoring has been due to his pairing of quantity with incredible quality. His three-point shot has been hitting the bottom of the net 50% of the time. Ingles is currently taking more three-pointers per game than all-time great shooter Klay Thompson, and making them at a higher rate.

Maintaining this incredible level of accuracy is exceptionally difficult and likely unsustainable. According to Basketball Reference, only six players have shot greater than 50% from three for an entire season. Although highly improbable, it’s not beyond the realm of plausibility that Ingles could add his name to that short list.

Ingles is currently averaging 2.3 steals per game, more than double his average last season. This upgrade is perhaps the least likely of Ingles' improvements to remain intact throughout the whole season. Although a great defender, causing turnovers have never been central to his defensive game. What is more sustainable is his defensive rating, down from 101.7 to 98.0. Ingles is already widely recognised as a gifted wing defender; further improvement will only help build his case for Most Improved Player.

Statistics at this early stage can be misleading, and any interpretation should be done with some level of skepticism. In addition, the Most Improved Player award is mostly given to a young player (average age of 23.4) who has reached a turning point in their career, and has shown he has taken the next big step. Based on that criterion, Ingles may fit the profile, in defiance of his age. A win would make him to the oldest recipient of the title, a year older than Darrell Armstrong, who was age 30 when he won in 1999.

Although his chances may be slim, the 31-year-old Australian’s early season offensive explosion is undeniable. If Slo-Mo Joe can sustain some degree of his impressive early output throughout the year, he could be a dark horse candidate for the award at the season’s end.

After the Utah’s overachievements last season, the team has the full attention of the basketball world. The days of being hidden in obscurity are behind Ingles. This season may be his chance to shine even brighter.