Hill, Meeks, Blake vying for most improved

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
11:05
PM PT
McMenamin By Dave McMenamin
ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The NBA All-Star ballot was released this week and three Los Angeles Lakers players -- Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash -- made the cut among the 50 names included from the Western Conference.

Not one of them deserve All-Star consideration in the slightest up until now, what with Bryant yet to play in a game (although it's a safe bet that he'll end up playing in the February showcase based on his popularity alone); Gasol averaging career lows in both points per game (13.0) and field-goal percentage (39.5); and Nash's case to make it even weaker than that after he has missed half of the Lakers' 12 games so far because of nerve issues in his back and hamstring.

[+] EnlargeJordan Hill
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsJordan Hill has had three double-doubles in his last four games since becoming a starter, including Sunday's 24-point, 17-rebound effort.
But if there were a ballot for the NBA's Most Improved Player award? Three Lakers players -- Jordan Hill, Jodie Meeks and Steve Blake -- would be three of the most appropriate names on the list.

The trio stole the show in L.A.'s 114-99 win over the Detroit Pistons on Sunday, showing that even though the Lakers' franchise is supposedly mired in a slump, there are still players on the team trending upward.

Think about all of the negative focus around the Lakers in the offseason -- losing Dwight Howard, losing Metta World Peace, missing Bryant, questioning the health of Nash and Gasol -- and now look at the positive direction that these three players have unexpectedly taken their games.

Hill's averages last season: 6.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 49.4 percent from the field. This season: 10.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 62.2 percent from the field. And he's only getting better, evidenced by his 24 points and 17 rebounds against the Pistons -- both career highs for the fifth-year veteran -- which was his third double-double in his past four games since becoming a starter.

"I feel I got a lot more confidence when I step on the floor," Hill said. "So, when I go out there, I just go after it."

Meeks' averages last season: 7.9 points on 38.7 percent shooting from the field and 35.7 percent from 3. This seasson: a team-leading 13.7 points on 52.8 percent from the field and 49.2 percent from deep. And he's only hitting his stride, going 16-for-27 combined in his last two games.

"I just put the work in," Meeks said. "I don't really worry about the numbers. I don't really look at my stats or anything like that. I just put the work in before and after practice, before the games, as many shots as I can get up and whatever happens, happens."

Blake's averages last season: 7.3 points and 3.8 assists on 42.1 percent shooting from 3. This season: 9.8 points and 7.3 assists while shooting 46.4 percent on 3-pointers. Like the other two, he is peaking, dishing out 10-plus assists in four straight games for the first time in his 11-year career (a whopping 16 on Sunday), making the fact that he had zero games of 10-plus assists in his first three seasons with the Lakers seem like those days are long gone.

[+] EnlargeSteve Blake
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesSteve Blake had 16 assists Sunday against the Pistons, and has had 10 or more in four straight games, a feat he had never accomplished in his career.
"I always wish the best for my teammates," said Blake, the one guy out of the three who is the furthest into his career and therefore -- if you believe that old dogs can't learn new tricks -- the least likely to be having this type of resurgent season. "I want to see them be successful and grow as basketball players and men, so it's fun. It's fun to watch. I'm sure the coaches are loving it. They're doing a great job helping guys be successful and as a point guard, it's my job to try to help them get better as well."

Blake, Hill and Meeks aren't the only Lakers playing well. Wes Johnson is settling nicely into his role as a starter, putting up 13 points, two blocks and a steal against Detroit. And Nick Young scored 19 against the Pistons, improving on his 16.5 points per game average as a sub which ranked No. 4 in the league coming into Sunday. But those three were all around for the Lakers' disastrous season a year ago. If they can all play better and flush 2012-13 from their systems, maybe the Lakers can do it as a team as well.

"I’ve always said for this year, we have great individual talent, but it’s going to take all of us working in unison together to be really successful," Blake said. "If we don’t do that, we’re going to lose. You’ve seen that happen on certain nights. But when you see us clicking together as a group, you see how good we can really be, and it’s fun."

Even with a depreciating roster last season, the Lakers did win 28 of their final 40 games. And now with one third of L.A.'s nine-man rotation clearly on the ascent, L.A. has won only five of their first 12 to start this season.

But things have a chance to improve overall, just like the individual displays being put on by Hill, Blake and Meeks.

"It's a long season and it's a young team, so we'll go up and down a little bit, but we can get better," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It's getting better. It's getting better."

Better is just another way of saying improved, after all.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Nick Young
PTS AST STL MIN
17.9 1.5 0.7 28.3
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsJ. Hill 7.4
AssistsK. Bryant 6.3
StealsK. Bryant 1.2
BlocksW. Johnson 1.0