The NBA's 2021-22 Most Improved Player Award was announced on Monday, with third-year guard Ja Morant taking home the honor. San Antonio Spurs point guard Dejounte Murray came in second in the voting with 183 votes to Morant's 221.
Morant earned 38 first-place votes, beating out fellow finalists Murray and Darius Garland, who got 20 and 11 respectively. It's a nice moment for Ja, but it's disappointing that Murray didn't receive his due recognition after the unbelievable season he put together for the Silver and Black.
Moreover, it's downright confusing how we came to a place where Ja Morant is regarded as a player that improved his game more than Dejounte Murray did this year. Don't get me wrong, Morant is still a better overall player, but Murray's jump from last year to now was simply more significant.
Ja Morant Was Already A Star
In 2020-21, Ja Morant was already playing at a fringe All-Star level. In fact, he finished sixth among fans and ninth among players in All-Star voting. With those numbers, I'd even go so far as to say he was snubbed. And this was the expected result for a talent like Morant from the beginning. When he was selected 2nd overall in 2019, many already knew he would be the Grizzlies' point guard of the future, and his path to stardom was relatively clear.
The story is markedly different for Dejounte Murray. Taken 29th by the Spurs in 2016, Murray was an unrefined, undeveloped youngster out of Washington who didn't really know the game of basketball yet. He was playing with a team full of veterans and it was unclear if he'd ever carve out a truly meaningful role in the NBA.
That's why it's even more impressive that he's risen to the level of player he is today.
Last year, Murray was the Spurs' second scoring option behind DeMar DeRozan. He averaged 15.7 points and 5.4 assists per game. Playing alongside one of the top isolation scorers in the league, he wasn't able to let his improvement show just yet.
Dejounte's Jump Was Substantial
That all changed this year when Dejounte burst onto the scene as an elite two-way star. Murray lead the Spurs in scoring at 21.1 points per game and was absolutely automatic anytime he pulled up from midrange. He nearly averaged a triple-double, grabbing 8.3 rebounds per game (2nd among guards) and dishing out 9.2 assists per contest. Speaking of triple-doubles, he racked up 13 of them on the year, with only the reigning MVP Nikola Jokic having more.
Being relied on as the top scorer and playmaker is a lot of weight for a player to carry over the course of a full season. But Dejounte was able to successfully manage that load while remaining the team's top defender as well as one of the best in the entire league on that end of the floor.
He became the NBA's steals leader, recording 138 takeaways for the season while averaging a league-best 2.0 steals per game. To put that in perspective, Kawhi Leonard only recorded more steals than Dejounte did this year once, and it was when he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2015.
This season, Dejounte Murray became the only player in NBA history to average 20 points, eight rebounds, nine assists, and two steals while playing in at least 40 games. He was also the first Spurs player to have at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists in a season in franchise history. He went from being a good player to a bonafide star. By definition, Murray was the most improved player in the league. This award was created for seasons like the one he just completed.
Dejounte certainly took notice of his snub, tweeting out a photo when Morant was announced the winner.
While cryptic tweets are no rarity for him, I don't think losing out on this award is something he'll be dwelling on. Murray has always been a player that focuses on offseason improvements, and he's got some big-time extra motivation now.
There's no doubt he'll be using this to fuel him for every moment from now until October.