In the midst of one of the best basketball weekends of the season, San Antonio Spurs fans were greeted with a pleasant surprise when Dejounte Murray was named a finalist for the Most Improved Player Award along with Ja Morant and Darius Garland.
It shouldn't be a shock to see Murray as one of the three finalists for the award but I do have to admit I wasn't confident that he'd be selected. After all, how many times have we seen Spurs players overlooked for awards and recognition in favor of other names with bigger media profiles?
But, with all due respect to Garland and Morant, Murray shouldn’t just be on the short-list for Most Improved, he should be the one taking home the trophy when all is said and done.
Why Dejounte Murray deserves Most Improved Player over Ja Morant
Before we get into the finer points of Murray’s case for Most Improved, let’s talk about the spirit of the award. Maybe I am in the minority here, but something seems inherently wrong with giving MIP to a top-five pick.
Most Improved Player is one of the opaquest awards the NBA hands out. What should take priority – a player who has elevated themselves from fringe bench player to a solid starter, a guy who took the leap from solid starter to All-Star, or a fringe All-Star making a leap to an MVP level? How do age, draft position, and team record factor into the calculation?
It’s incredibly subjective and every voter surely has their own calculation for how they weigh the myriad of factors against one another. But look back at the history of the award and who has won it and one thing becomes clear – this is not an award that Ja Morant should win.
I firmly believe that no matter who wins Most Improved Player, their candidacy needs to have a certain element of surprise to it. And while that does not automatically exclude top picks like Morant from winning this award, it certainly doesn’t help them because, well, Ja is supposed to be this good.
For as good as he’s been this season – and he’s been absolutely showstopping – is anyone surprised by the year-over-year growth we’ve seen from Morant? I’m not. He was just as electrifying last season and everything about his game and his attitude indicated that we were in for another leap this season.
Lo and behold, look what happened – Morant took his game to another level and should be named to an All-NBA Team when all is said and done. But again, this is what he was expected to do. There’s no element of surprise here.
Now contrast that to Dejounte’s season. This is a guy who, in his fifth season, took a massive leap from solid starter to first-time All-Star, answering questions about his outside shooting and putting to rest any concern that he wouldn’t be able to be the killer the Spurs need, leading their team along the way.
While Morant came into the season wrapped in hype and expectations, Murray was surrounded by questions. Could he elevate his playmaking to make up for the absence of DeMar DeRozan? Would he improve his jumper enough to be respected by defenses? Would he be able to elevate his offensive game without sacrificing what he brings on the defensive end of the floor? Summarily, yes, yes, and yes.
The Award was made for jumps like Murray's
Murray averaged 9.5 assists a game this season, more than Morant and a +56% improvement over the 6.1 he was dishing out last season. And he did that while averaging fewer turnovers (2.7) per game than Morant (3.7).
Morant still has the edge over Murray as a scorer but that’s no surprise to anyone familiar with their games and should do nothing to detract from the improvements Murray made this season. Once viewed as a non-threat from outside the paint, Murray has slowly but surely improved his jumper to the point where defenses must step up rather than slink under screens or view him as an afterthought from the midrange.
And Murray did all of this while remaining one of the most destructive forces in the league on the defensive end of the floor. He led the league in steals and deflections and complemented that with a wide-ranging impact on the offensive end of the floor that helped him record the second-most triple-doubles in the NBA this season.
The improvement we saw from Dejounte Murray this season is exactly the kind of growth that this award was meant to reward. He’s a late first-round pick who gradually worked his way out of the shadow of other stars on his team and became an All-Star in his own right as well as one of the most dangerous all-around players in the NBA. How can you not reward that?
It sounds kind of silly to say that Ja Morant is too good to be considered for Most Improved but that’s really what it comes down to. He was the number two overall pick, and those guys are supposed to make dramatic improvements, especially early in their careers.
Murray should win Most Improved Player. The improvements he made are exactly what this award should be used to acknowledge. I just hope that voters will see that rather than falling for the narrative that has been built around Morant’s candidacy since the season started.