<
>

Most Improved Player of First Trimester

12/24/2013
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Most Improved Player of the First Trimester: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

You've heard it a zillion times ...

That guy didn't really "improve." He just got more minutes.

Well, sorry.

Eric Bledsoe is indeed getting more playing time in Phoenix than he's ever received before, but increased minutes alone don't guarantee that a point guard will more than double his scoring and assist averages, shoot nearly 50 percent from the floor and pump his PER all the way to 21.56 entering Christmas Day.

And that's where Bledsoe is after his first 21 games as a Sun.

Surrounded by the usual deep cast of contenders in this category -- Boston's Jordan Crawford and especially Indiana's Lance Stephenson and Orlando's Arron Afflalo chief among them -- Bledsoe still stands out. He's proven more than worthy of the trade investment Phoenix made to get him ... as well as the fat new contract he's due to receive in the summer.

Stephenson has taken on more responsibility for the Pacers on a variety of fronts (playmaking, rebounding, perimeter D) and leads the league with three triple-doubles already. Afflalo, meanwhile, is 10th in the league in scoring thanks to significant jumps in his 3-point shooting and overall marksmanship to counter claims that his gaudy average (21.7 PPG) is simply the product of playing for a bad Orlando team that needs someone to take all the shots.

Bledsoe, though, clinched the MIP lead heading into Trimester 2 because he's the standout candidate for the award on a team full of them. Suns twins Marcus and Markieff Morris and fellow forward P.J. Tucker are all MIP hopefuls, too, only to be overshadowed by the new star point guard, who plays 34.2 minutes nightly after averaging 20.4 MPG last season in Clipperland as Chris Paul's backup.

PS -- Regular readers surely anticipated the way we handled second-year players who are blossoming like they're supposed to: Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Andre Drummond, John Henson, Tony Wroten, etc. The likes of John Wall and Derrick Favors -- drafted too high to fit into what I've always seen as the true spirit of the MIP -- were also not considered no matter how much better they might be playing than they did last season. Standard Stein Line policy, remember, contends that lottery picks are drafted with the idea that they'll keep developing into franchise cornerstones. Crawford, Stephenson, Afflalo and Bledsoe all come far closer to the criteria we have in mind.