The NBA announced today that Ja Morant of the Memphis Grizzlies has won the Most Improved Player Award for 2022, in a vote that saw the Golden State Warriors’ Jordan Poole finish 4th, despite his 15 first-place votes.
Morant made his first All-Star team this season while leading the Grizzlies to the second seed in the Western Conference. He upped his scoring from 19.1 to 27.4 points per game, which was 9th in the league. Morant improved his efficiency from all levels, raising his three-point percentage from 30.3% to 34.4%, and his two-point shooting from 49.9% to 53.4%, while getting to the free throw line 20% more often. Ja also increased his steals, blocks, and rebounds, and won Player of the Week twice.
By all measures, this was a great season for Morant. But he was the No. 2 pick in the draft in 2019, and won Rookie of the Year. Is he that much better this year than the guy who averaged 30.2 points and 8.2 assists in the playoffs against the No. 1 seed? (Granted, it was the Jazz) The Grizzly who improved surprisingly was former No. 30 pick Desmond Bane, who doubled his scoring, shot 44% from three, and led the Grizzlies in minutes. But Ja is 22! He’s supposed to improve in his third season!
The same goes for third-place finisher Darius Garland, who was the No. 4 pick in that same draft, and shares a birthday with Morant. Yes, Garland’s team got better and he made the All-Star team, but his individual season wasn’t demonstrably better than last year, except that he stayed healthier. Garland upped his scoring slightly, but his three-point shooting actually got worse. Cleveland won 44 games and finished 8th in the East, but much of that improvement has to do with the team adding Evan Mobley and a full season of Jarrett Allen. But also, the fourth pick in the draft is supposed to improve in Year Three!
Jordan Poole was the 28th pick in that draft, barely a first-round pick. At the end of February last year, he was still playing in the G League. This year he’s an integral part of the Warriors, a 53-win team, and carried the team offensively for long stretches with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson all missing significant time. Poole scored 18.5 points per game, up from 12, and down the stetch scored 20+ points in 17 straight games. He doubled his assist numbers and led the NBA in free throw percentage. “G League to star” feels like a much larger improvement than “Superstar to Better Superstar.”
It’s not so much that Poole got snubbed as much as no one has any idea what this award is supposed to be for. Last year, 26-year-old Julius Randle won after making his first All-Star team, seven years after he was drafted. Aside from third-place finisher Michael Porter Junior, who took a leap at age 22, the field of candidates was all seasoned NBA players making a leap, with only sixth-place Jaylen Brown and ninth-place Zion Williamson as former high lottery picks.
In 2021, it was totally the opposite. Former No. 2 pick Brandon Ingram won at age 22, after making the All-Star team in his 4th season. The rest of the top four was similar - lottery picks showing out in their third year, including No. 3 picks Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic (ridiculously in the running in his second NBA season after being a EuroLeague MVP).
Barring a tragic accident or developing the ability to levitate, top-5 picks should be barred from the voting in the first three years of their career, because that’s when you’re supposed to improve! And if a guy has already won Most Improved, he’s no longer eligible. Not that you can’t continue to improve, but really, what’s the point of that vote? Giannis Antetokounmpo won the award in 2017, then finished 12th in 2018, and 10th in 2019 - the year he won his first Most Valuable Player award. With finishes of 1st, 3rd, 7th, 10th, and 12th, Giannis is easily the Most Most Improved Player in NBA history.
The other important thing to remember is that all NBA awards are essentially little trophies given to millionaires, and to get too upset about any of them is to become a real Rudy Gobert.
Obviously we mean no disrespect to Morant, who is frankly too good for a participation trophy this season. Or Garland, or third-place finisher Dejounte Murray, all of whom have torn up the Warriors at various points this season. And for Poole, this might be a blessing. Because if he wasn’t already motivated enough for the playoffs and an upcoming contract extension, imagine how fired up he’ll get with Draymond Green reminding him of the disrespect, and Klay Thompson pointing to the voting results and yelling “They don’t want you, Jordan!”