Memphis’ Ja Morant wins NBA Most Improved Player award

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Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant discusses a call with referee Scott Twardoski during the first half of Game 3 of the team’s first-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday, 21 April 2022 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

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Ja Morant was Rookie of the Year in 2020, swearing he would improve from there.

And he did just that.

The Memphis Grizzlies guard won his second major award in three seasons on Monday, being announced as the NBA’s most improved player. He is the first Grizzlies player to receive the award – and the first player in league history to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Improved.

“It’s definitely a great moment,” Morant said.

Morant set career highs in scoring (27.4 points per game), rebounds (5.7), steals (1.2) and shots on goal (49.3%). His points average last season was 19.1 per game, and he took the leap by playing essentially the same number of minutes.

“This award is mine, but I feel like it’s teamwork,” Morant said.

The Grizzlies had three players who got MIP votes — besides Morant, Desmond Bane was fifth and Jaren Jackson Jr. was 10th. The trio led Memphis to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and second best in the league behind Phoenix.

At 56-26, Memphis also tied the best regular season mark in franchise history.

“It pretty much shows our work ethic, as a whole, as a team,” Morant said. “We all push each other. We all want to be better. I thought we all had that “never satisfied” mindset and that’s why you see three guys on the same team getting votes for this award.

Morant, an All-Star this season for the first time, was not a runaway winner. He finished with 221 points from a panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league, with five points awarded for a vote for first place, three for second and one for third.

San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray was second with 183 points and Cleveland’s Darius Garland was third with 178. Murray appeared on 63 ballots, more than anyone. Garland appeared on 62 ballots.

Morant appeared on 51 of 100 ballots – but got far more first-place votes than anyone else. He had 38, while Murray had 20 and fourth, Golden State’s Jordan Poole had 15.

Morant, 22, said he spent last offseason working on becoming more consistent from 3-pointers and perfecting his midrange game.

“Those are pretty much the two main areas I worked on last summer,” Morant said during the award’s televised announcement. “It allowed me to take a big leap forward in my game, as you can see from my score.”

In all, 12 players got votes. Bane got seven first-place votes, Tyrese Maxey of Philadelphia was sixth and six first-place votes, and Miles Bridges of Charlotte was seventh and won three first-place votes.

Anfernee Simons of Portland finished eighth, followed by Robert Williams III of Boston, then Jackson, Jalen Brunson of Dallas and Max Strus of Miami.

And now Morant can aim for the next big prize: league MVP. So far, only one player – Giannis Antetoktounmpo of Milwaukee – has won the most improved and then won this trophy.

“That’s the goal,” Morant said.

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Sandy A. Greer