No. 12 at Work: Declared the NBA's Most Improved Player, Ja Morant led the league in points scored in the paint. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)
Terry Davis

Soon after learning that he had been named the NBA’s Most Improved Player for this season, the Grizzlies’ star point guard Ja Morant was dishing out assists.

“Although this award goes to me, it is a team effort,” said Morant. “I want to thank my teammates and the Grizzlies organization for everything they do for me.”

With Jaren Jackson Jr. taking the lead, Ja Morant (center) and the Grizzlies go through their pre-game huddle routine — a measure of the team’s togetherness. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

With Memphis set to defend its home court against the Minnesota Timberwolves in Game 5 of the knotted (2-2) opening-round playoffs series on Tuesday night, Morant was not thinking awards when head coach Taylor Jenkins sought the team’s attention.

“I was definitely surprised. I did not know what was about to happen,” said Morant.

“I thought we had another meeting. I thought we were going to go over some rules. Coach just called me up to the middle of my teammates … (and) presented me with this award. You could just see the joy on everyone’s faces.”

Seeing that joy did not come as a surprise to Morant. He knows what type of teammates he has and “how happy we are for one another. That is all that matters. My guys are proud of me and (I know) that if I won the award or didn’t, they are still pushing me to be better.”

In his third NBA season, Morant, who won Rookie of the Year, set career highs for scoring average, rebounds per game, steals per game, field goal percentage (.493) and 3-point percentage (.344).

Compared to the 2020-21 season, he raised his field goal percentage by 4.4 percent, while increasing his shot attempts by 5.4 per game, and upped his 3-point percentage by 4.1 percent on an additional 0.7 attempts per game.

The 22-year-old was selected as a starter for the 2022 NBA All-Star Game, becoming the second All-Star starter in franchise history and the youngest Grizzlies player to participate in the event. He averaged 27.4 points, 5.7 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.16 steals in 33.1 minutes in 57 appearances (all starts) during a regular season that ended with the Grizzlies engineering a 56-26 record, the second-best in the NBA.

Morant is the first player to win the Rookie of the Year Award and Most Improved Player Award. Teammates Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. also received votes for the Most Improved Player Award.

Memphis teammates Jaren Jackson Jr. (center), Ja Morant (12) and Desmond Bane (22) all received votes for NBA Most Improved Player Award. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender)

“It just shows our work ethic as a whole,” said Morant, reflecting on Bane and Jackson also drawing votes for the award.

“We all push each other to be better. We all have that never-satisfied mindset. That is why you see three guys from the same team receiving votes for this award.”

As the Most Improved Player, Morant totaled 221 points. He is the first player in history to receive 38 first-place votes from a global panel of 100 sportswriters and broadcasters. Players were awarded five points for each first-place vote, three points for each second-place vote and one point for each third-place vote.

Ja Morant dunks over Minnesota’s D’Angelo Russell in Game 1 of the playoffs. (Photo: Warren Roseborough/The New Tri-State Defender_

Memphis’ floor general from the point-guard position, Morant led all NBA players in points in the paint per game (16.6), becoming the first guard to do so in 25 seasons since data was first tracked. He ranked second in fast-break points per game (4.4), helping the Grizzlies lead the NBA in both categories. He set a single-game franchise record with 52 points on Feb. 28 vs. San Antonio, the first 50-point performance in Grizzlies history.

In addition, Morant became the sixth player in NBA history to average at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists in his age-22 season, joining Oscar Robertson (1960-61), Kobe Bryant (2000-01), Tracy McGrady (2001-02), LeBron James (2016-17) and Luka Dončić (2021-22).

So, what’s next?

Outspoken about his desire to win an NBA Most Valuable Player Award, Morant noted that he is not a finalist this year and then pivoted to the possibility of “being an (NBA) champion and potentially a finals MVP.”