Though it may be difficult to fathom today, reigning NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo was once named the NBA’s Most Improved Player just five years ago.
He was also named an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career that season as he bumped up his scoring average from 16.9 points to 22.9 which he paired with 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Antetokounmpo made his name known to the world that year and was no longer just a League Pass darling.
The Most Improved Player trophy was a mere harbinger of things to come. Two seasons later, he won the first of his back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player trophies to become the first Most Improved Player awardee to snag the league’s most coveted regular season award.
It was a feat that was believed to be a one-of at the time, given the unique circumstances that have to be in place for a player to win both trophies. One has to go from a modest enough level that his development turns enough heads to win Most Improved Player before taking another leap to join the league’s elite and become a Most Valuable Player candidate.
Antetokoumpo’s exclusive distinction was thought to be safe for many years to come, but a rising young star from the Memphis Grizzlies is making an outstanding case to make it a party of two.
Similar to Antetokounmpo in 2017, Morant has risen to stardom this year and was rewarded with his first NBA All-Star game appearance where he made his debut as no less than a starter. He has bumped up his scoring average from 19.1 points to 27.6 while his field goal shooting has gone from 44.9% to almost 50% this year. The 22-year-old guard is also averaging 5.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 1.2 steals per game.
Morant is the odds-on favorite to win the Most Improved Player award despite appearing in only 56 games this season which further proves the strength of his case. He is likely to win the award over his sophomore teammate Desmond Bane and fellow NBA All-Star first-timers Darius Garland and Dejounte Murray.
What sets the second overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft apart from the tight competition is the impact that he has had on Memphis’ surprising season. They have gone from barely making the playoffs last year as the eighth seed in the Western Conference to the second best record in the league behind only the Phoenix Suns.
Even if the Grizzlies’ relentless style of play allows them to continue winning when Morant is sidelined, their move into the West’s top tier is still mostly driven by him. This gives him the clear edge over his sidekick Bane who would have had a much stronger case if they were not teammates. Meanwhile, Garland and Murray are on teams that are also much improved this season yet are only in the play-in tournament zone.
Morant was also included in the NBA Most Valuable Player discussion as recently as a month ago before his recent knee injury sidelined him. Although it was a stretch that he would actually win the award this season given the kind of numbers that Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid have registered, his status as a fringe candidate was well-deserved with the year that he and his team have had.
It is highly probable that the third-year guard will remain in this MVP conversation for many years to come. He should eventually win one of his own down the road, especially if he can keep Memphis on top of the Western Conference standings over the next few seasons.
In the meantime, he is expected to take home this year’s Most Improved Player award which should sit nicely next to his 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year trophy. If he eventually does become the NBA Most Valuable Player one day, he will become the only player in league history to have won all three awards.