When it comes to breakout years, few can match what Phoenix Suns forward Boris Diaw has done this season.
When we last saw the 23-year-old Frenchman, he was mired at the end of the bench for the lowly Atlanta Hawks. After briefly breaking into the starting lineup as a rookie, he quickly fell out of the rotation in his sophomore season and by the end of the year rarely saw action. When he did play, his inability to connect from long range and his reluctance to shoot from any range were a constant source of frustration. He was, arguably, the worst player on the worst team in the league.
That all changed when he arrived in Phoenix as a throw-in to the sign-and-trade deal for Joe Johnson. Suns coach Mike D'Antoni thought the 6-foot-8 Diaw's combination of size and versatility would be an asset in Phoenix's open-court system and figured Diaw might be a diamond in the rough. But even D'Antoni wasn't totally sure.
"I thought he could be effective as a four or five," said D'Antoni. "But I didn't know if he could guard fours or fives because he always played one, two or three [in Atlanta]. ... Then he came in and he could guard fours and fives really well. That just opened his whole game up, because he can drive to the basket, he plays like a point guard at the four position, and we can run offense through him."
Diaw took that opportunity and ran with it, thriving as a power forward in the Suns' small-ball lineup and creating nightly mismatches with his varied skills. He averages 11.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists for the Pacific Division-leading Suns. Additionally, Diaw is shooting 49.7 percent and has keyed one of the league's most improved defenses. As a result, he's one of the favorites to win this year's Most Improved Player award.
Diaw credits a better fit in Phoenix for his sudden blooming.
"The philosophy of the game, they way we play here in Phoenix, it's really unselfish," said Diaw in his French accent. "A lot of passes, a lot of shots, a lot of up and down. The game is faster, too. When I'm on the court I'm able to read better and make passes to my teammates because I know where they're going to be."
Needless to say, his exploits have left those who saw him in Atlanta flabbergasted. While many Hawks fans complained that the team gave up too much by sending two No. 1s to the Suns for Johnson, absolutely nobody said a peep about throwing Diaw into the deal. His hesitant offense made him a bad fit in the backcourt, and the Hawks' overcrowded forward position made moving him to the frontcourt impossible.
"You've got to be happy for a player like that." his former coach, Mike Woodson, said. "I think he's always had skills. I think the fact they're playing him at the four and five has put him in a position where he's found a niche for his game."
That's not to say Diaw is done enduring growing pains. His shooting remains a work in progress -- 20 percent on 3s, 69.3 percent from the line -- and the passive play that marked his years in Atlanta still creeps to the fore once in a while. For instance, during one sequence in his return to Atlanta last week, Diaw caught a pass in the lane and had a chance to post up from short range. Instead he took a dribble, surveyed his options and fed the ball back out to the perimeter, earning a three-second violation for his efforts.
"He's still got to be more aggressive, he's still got to dunk with authority, he's still got to work on his shot," said D'Antoni. "He has those [reluctant to shoot] tendencies, but you can't get upset with him. That's how he plays, that's his game. He'll do that, but I think little by little we can get him to be a little bit more aggressive in finishing."
Despite D'Antoni's efforts, Diaw isn't planning to go on a Kobe-esque gunning rampage anytime soon. That unselfishness, though taken to extremes at times in Atlanta, is part of his style.
"I don't think I changed a lot," said Diaw of his breakout. "I still play the same way, kind of a versatile player. I got better for sure, I get better every year, but I don't think I changed as a player."
Regardless, he's changed enough to have the inside track on the Most Improved trophy. "I didn't realize he was this good," admitted D'Antoni, even though the Suns had been interested in Diaw since he was playing professionally in France.
But the race isn't over just yet. Here's a look at some others who figure to get votes for Most Improved (in alphabetical order):