The NBA season isn’t even half over, and I’m already prepared to give out the year’s Most Improved Player Award. His stats are down and he’s limped through the last month or so, but I guarantee there isn’t an NBA player who is exceeding past performance and expectations like Houston’s Ron Artest.

When Artest was traded to Houston, the swap was hailed as a smart move, but not for a reason most Houston fans would now embrace. It was Artest’s contract, which ends after this season – not his defense or scoring – that made the trade palatable to most analysts who regarded Artest as a time bomb just waiting to destroy the locker room and shame the franchise.

With Artest’s legal history (domestic abuse and a seized dog) along with his infamous involvement in the 2004 Palace brawl, his chemistry-damaging reputation was certainly well-deserved. As a young player in Indiana, Artest battled with legend Reggie Miller, who still seems to carry a grudge. His hot-and-cold relationship with Sacramento coaches and management culminated in his decision to not opt out of his contract, leading to public regret over his decision and trade demands, making him a less-than-stellar trade asset for the Kings.

Beyond his off-the-court reputation, Artest’s on-court game also diminished his value. As the Kings got younger and faster, with players like Kevin Martin, Spencer Hawes and John Salmons, Artest’s style of play often seemed out of place and detrimental. Perhaps because he had grown accustomed to playing with poor talent around him in Sacramento, even when Martin and Salmons showed promise, Artest tended to hog the ball and take ill-advised shots. His stats were still stellar and his defensive intensity never wavered, but it seemed that Artest was headed for the Mike James and Ricky Davis category of players that put up great numbers on a bad team but rarely win.

However, when “Ron Ron” arrived to Houston, he quickly began dispelling concerns that his me-first ego had come with him to Texas. Though he had initially hoped to land with the Lakers, Artest celebrated the move saying, “I’ll be a kid in a candy store . I’m going to dance with the stars.” He insisted he had no problem coming off of the bench and that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady were the leaders of the team; he was happy to help in any way possible.

Despite his humble proclamations, Artest has been one of the few factors keeping the Rockets above water this season. All-Star Tracy McGrady, always a reluctant leader, has battled a knee injury all season that has made him tentative and lazy. Shane Battier, the team’s glue-guy and defensive specialist has missed a majority of the season, and various other injuries have forced Rick Adelman to start over 10 different lineups so far.

The constant, through the Rockets’ rollercoaster, has been the play of Ron Artest. Though one can occasionally see flashes of the old “Ron Ron,” the ball-hogging nut job who collected technical fouls faster than wins has been replaced by a fiery, resilient sixth-man who outscores, blocks, steals and rebounds “McBaby.”

When McGrady decided he wasn’t playing hours before the Rockets’ Dec. 27 matchup against Western Conference rival Utah Jazz, Artest, who had been battling an ankle injury for weeks and had planned on sitting out (even promising his wife he would not play), took one for the team and scored 28 points in a double-overtime victory.

While his passion and energy off the bench have been a much-needed boost, Artest has also kept himself under control. Last season, though he only played in 57 games, Artest was 21st in the league in technical fouls. This year he isn’t in the top 40, and his first technical of the season came from defending his teammate in a scuffle.

The Most Improved Player Award usually goes to young players who have breakout years (the last two winners were Monta Ellis and Boris Diaw), but improvement by young players with potential is almost expected. It seems far more remarkable that in his ninth season, Ron Artest has transformed his game and attitude enough to fit in, even leading a perennial playoff team with championship dreams.

Of course the season is still young and a lot could change, but with all the damage Artest has done to the NBA’s reputation and image, recognition of his on- and off-the-court improvement is the kind of redemption story that sports fans love.

And while Artest’s placement on David Stern’s hate list is probably up there with baggy pants and Dennis Rodman, if Artest leads the Rockets to their first playoff series win in over a decade, it may be hard to ignore the achievements of one of the NBA’s most infamous goons.

Jamie Leader is a senior in the College and can be reached at He hosts the sports radio show “Tournament Edition” on Georgetown Radio every Monday from noon to 2 p.m. FOLLOW THE LEADER appears in every other Friday issue of HOYA SPORTS.

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