SECAUCUS, N.J., April 16 -- Look at the career of a star NBA player like the alphabet. When he comes into the league he is at "A". Being selected to the All-Rookie team puts him at "E." Making the All-Star team is somewhere around "N." First-Team All-NBA is at "R" or "S." An MVP award puts him at "X." The Hall of Fame is "Z."

Now that you know your NBA ABC's, you don't have to sing with me, but rather answer me this question:

Is it harder to make a big leap from "A" to "M" or a smaller, more advanced one from "N" to "O"?

How do you measure improvement? Any elite sprinter will tell you that the real challenge comes when you are running at your best, and still strive to shave off a fraction of a second from your time.

So what will it be? What's more impressive: Going from promising rookie to budding phenom or going from budding phenom to the go-to guy?

History has shown that the award usually goes to someone in the A-M stage of their career. Look at the last five winners:

2005-06: Boris Diaw, Phoenix - third season
2004-05: Bobby Simmons, L.A. Clippers - fourth season
2003-04: Zach Randolph, Portland - third season
2002-03: Gilbert Arenas, Golden State - second season
2001-01: Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana - sixth season

Three of the five were in their first three seasons in the league. As far as the others go, for O'Neal it was really more like his second year that counted because during his four years right out of high school in Portland he was relegated to the bench and for Simmons, it was the first season he played more than 30 minutes per game.

Last season Elton Brand had the best year of his life, but he was in his seventh season and already established himself as a marquee player and so his "N" to "O" jump wasn't given much credit by the voting committee -- Brand came in 13th for the award.

So while you could definitely argue that Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony have made the incredibly tough transformation from star to superstar this season, history shows that the award wasn't designed with them in mind.

Here are my top five candidates for the Most Improved Player (stats through April 15):

1. Kevin Martin, Sacramento
  • 2005-06 statistics: 10.8 PTS, 3.6 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL
  • 2006-07 statistics: 20.4 PTS, 4.3 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.2 STL
    I had Martin on my radar early in the season when he started off the season with 12 straight games of 15-plus points. Martin continued his production all year, netting 10 30-plus point games including a career-high 40 against the Wizards on Dec. 21. The third-year rail-thin guard out of Western Carolina with the '90s haircut and the funky jumper made a name for himself around the league as the other K-Mart and as the other Ohio native tearing up the league while wearing No. 23. He led the Kings in scoring on a team that features big names like Mike Bibby, Ron Artest, Brad Miller and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. The award belongs to Martin.

  • 2. Monta Ellis, Golden State
  • 2005-06 statistics: 6.8 PTS, 2.1 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.6 STL
  • 2006-07 statistics: 16.7 PTS, 3.1 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.7 STL
    Even if Ellis doesn't win the Most Improved Player, at the very least his stellar play this season has prompted everybody to properly pronounce his name MON-TAY instead of MON-TUH. The 6-3, 175-pound guard got the league's attention with his slam against the Suns in November, to his buzzer beater on the Nets in January all the way to his throw down in the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge in February. Ellis had just one year of post-high school experience coming into this season with Baron Davis, Jason Richardson, Dajuan Wagner and Anthony Roberson all on the roster. Despite the competition, Ellis shined whether it was in a starting role as he did for 51 games or coming off the bench which he did 24 times.

  • 3. Andre Iguodala, Sixers
  • 2005-06 statistics: 12.3 PTS, 5.9 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.6 STL
  • 2006-07 statistics: 18.2 PTS, 5.7 REB, 5.7 AST, 2.0 STL
    Iguodala's body size and athleticism often draws comparisons to Scottie Pippen and when Allen Iverson skipped town, Iggy made like Pip did in 1993-94 in his first season out of Michael Jordan's shadow. The third-year swingman had a coming-out party since the All-Star break, helping the 76ers to a 17-10 record and dominating games on both ends of the floor. About the only thing that didn't go his way since the New Year was his iron man streak coming to an end at 232 games when he sat out against Charlotte on March 23 with back pain.

  • 4. Al Jefferson, Boston
  • 2005-06 statistics: 7.9 PTS, 5.1 REB, 0.5 AST, 0.8 BLK
  • 2006-07 statistics: 16.0 PTS, 10.9 REB, 1.3 AST, 1.5 BLK
    Boston fans haven't had much to get excited for this season with perennial All-Star Paul Pierce missing a chunk of games and the team stumbling to a 23-57 mark, but Jefferson's play gives the Celtics faithful a beacon of hope. Big Al put it all together during the month of March when he played 15 games and scored 20-plus 11 times and grabbed double-digit boards 10 times. In just his third year out of high school, the 6-10, 256-pound Jefferson makes you believe that he has just scraped the surface of how good he can really be.

  • 5. David Lee, Knicks
  • 2005-06 statistics: 5.1PTS, 4.5 REB, 0.6 AST, 0.4 STL
  • 2006-07 statistics: 10.7 PTS, 10.4 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.8 STL
    Lee was the last pick in the first round of the 2005 draft but easily outperformed half the players selected before him this season. The second-year forward out of Florida had 29 double-doubles in 58 games played this season. Like Ellis, Lee just flat-out played no matter if it meant he was starting as he did 12 times, or coming off the bench which he did on 46 occasions. Unfortunately a right-leg injury pulled the plug on Lee's season as he only played in three games from Feb. 25 on. Lee's workman-like contributions on a team full of max-contract millionaires cannot be overlooked.
  • Others receiving consideration:

  • Deron Williams, Utah - His assists went up by 4.9 assists per game and his scoring jumped up by 5.6 points, but Williams really had already showed what he was capable of in the second half of his rookie campaign.
  • Gerald Green, Boston - Green translated his freakish athleticism to production as his scoring average more than doubled (5.2 ppg to 10.6 ppg) in his second season.
  • Andris Biedrins, Golden State - The third-year center from Latvia nearly averaged a double-double (9.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game) but was too inconsistent to be a top five candidate for the honor.
  • Luol Deng, Chicago - Deng's .518 field-goal percentage and 18.8 ppg were the best numbers of his three-year career.
  • Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix - Barbosa's points, assists and steals averages all went up, but the hardware he'll be receiving is the Sixth Man Award.
  • Tyson Chandler, New Orleans/Oklahoma City - Chandler became a rebounding machine in his sixth season, averaging a career-high 12.4 per game.

    Comment on your picks for Most Improved Player in our Fan Voice Forum.