Before the season started, I was adamant in my prediction that Ja Morant was going to be the winner of the NBA’s “Most Improved Player” award for the 2021-2022 season. To anyone who would listen, I would get on my soapbox and preach about it. He had all the intangibles to grow and seemingly got better in every game of his second season. The main reason for my gut feeling about Morant jumping into superstardom, stemmed from his postseason performance though. He first knocked off the Steph Curry-led Warriors in the play-in tournament with an outstanding performance, then in his first postseason series ever against the Utah Jazz last season, he ascended into the superstar that the Grizzlies needed at just the right time.
While the rest of the team did not perform well enough to knock off the very talented Utah Jazz, Ja Morant did his best to do it single handedly. The 21 year old guard put up a career high 47 points in Game 2 of the series. He also averaged over 30 points and 8 assists over the series as a whole. There are not many guys that have been able to have the same impact as Morant at such a young age, but I saw him taking an even bigger leap in year three. That leap has surely come, much to my enjoyment because I love being right. The problem is, Morant may be doing even better than just a “Most Improved Player” award. I believe there is a legitimate argument for Ja Morant as the league MVP this year.
By the Numbers- the Other MVP Candidates:
Don’t call me crazy, I know the arguments for some of the other top guys in the league this year, and some other guys are also having stellar seasons. Ja Morant is just too good to not give the MVP award to this year in my eyes though. Let’s first look at some of the other guys who are challenging for the award this year. The first guy that comes to mind for many is Philadelphia 76ers center, Joel Embiid. The man they call “The Process” has been close to the award a couple of times, and now that he is putting together a healthy campaign, he is winning over a lot of the media. Embiid is averaging 29.8 points and 11.1 rebounds for the Sixers, who are third in the Eastern Conference at 37-23.
Another guy we can look at is Nikola Jokic, the center for the Denver Nuggets. Jokic, the winner of last year’s MVP award, is averaging 25.5 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 8 assists per game. His stats match that of his MVP campaign a year ago, and you could argue he has been more valuable this year because he is doing it all without his two best scorers, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.. Despite everything being thrown at him, he has carried the Nuggets to sixth in the Western Conference at a respectable 36-25.
While those two seem like the biggest competition, there have been rumblings and pushes for the award made by guys like DeMar DeRozan, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and Devin Booker. These are all guys who have gotten talked about like MVP candidates, and it is very fair to give them that praise based on the seasons that they have all had and the places they have their respective teams. I believe Ja Morant deserves the award more than all of them, and there are plenty of stats to back this belief up.
A Deep Look- Ja Morant:
Ja Morant made his first all star game this season, and that must have sparked something in him. While he was outstanding before the all star break, he is on one of the most unreal stretches in recent basketball memory since coming out of the break.
Let’s just look at two of his last three games. Three games ago against the red hot Chicago Bulls, Morant put up a regular season Grizzlies record with 46 points on 15-28 shooting and 3-4 from three point range. After setting the record against the Bulls, Ja Morant broke his own record a game later against the San Antonio Spurs. He was unstoppable, going for 52 points on 22-30 shooting and a 4-4 shot chart from three point range.
This was against arguably the best defensive point guard in the league in Dejounte Murray as well, who has a knack for locking up opposing point guards and also earned his own first all star selection this season. Morant did not seem to be at all shaken by the challenge that Murray brought, and his shooting lines show just how in control he was. Some of those shots were logo-range three pointers, fully in air buzzer beaters, and slam dunks over a seven foot tall center that will surely be on a kids poster in his bedroom in the very near future.
It was a show, and the fans loved every second of their young star leading the charge against Gregg Popvich and the Spurs. Popovich went on to say after the game that Morant was a physically gifted player, and probably the fastest guy in the league. Popovich also acknowledged that everyone knew that though, he said that what was making Ja Morant really stand out this year was his comfortability with the NBA speed and his overall basketball IQ and abilities as a playmaker, scorer, defender, and of course crowd pleaser. It was a high compliment from arguably the greatest NBA head coach of all time.
What Gregg Popovich said was completely true, Ja Morant does look more confident and comfortable this season. It has led to his jump to superstardom. Looking at his stats, we can notice that Morant is nearly 28 points and 7 assists a game on about a 50% field goal percentage and 35% three point field goal percentage, he is also averaging a career high in rebounds, steals, and blocks. This shows that Morant’s game has evolved on both sides of the floor. There is also no doubt that numbers Ja Morant is currently putting up are of MVP caliber.
What Ja’s Numbers Don’t Say:
While his stats can go toe to toe with anyone in the league, that is not the biggest reason for the Ja Morant MVP train in my opinion. The biggest reason is how much success the Grizzlies have had this season, and their vast improvement from last season. When Morant made his jump from young, up-and-coming star to league-wide superstar, the Grizzlies jumped from play-in tournament to the top of the ridiculously competitive Western Conference. That is something rarely mentioned in the MVP debate for some reason. The Grizzlies are a single game back of the Warriors for the second seed in the West, something that absolutely nobody saw coming. They are there because of Ja Morant. He has been the most valuable player in the league this year. Being a game out of second in the West with no other superstars surrounding him is an unbelievable accomplishment.
While Jaren Jackson, Desmond Bane, and Dillon Brooks are solid players, none of them are all star caliber players. It is Ja Morant leading this charge, and he has this average roster playing well above average. The best part is that he has played his best basketball at the most important moments in the season. He has been outstanding in crunch time situations like late in the quarter and in overtime, and he has played his best basketball coming out of the all star break when there was an opportunity to catch up to the injury-riddled and cold Warriors. He took it upon himself to get the Grizzlies into position to find success, much like he did in the playoffs last year. When the game is on the line, when the Grizzlies need some key victories or a clutch shot, it is always Ja Morant.
When looking over his stats so far this season, his recent stretch at the most important part of the season, the position that he has the Grizzlies in with no other all stars on the roster, and his ability to perform in clutch situations, I see no one as more deserving of the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for the 2021-2022 NBA season than Ja Morant. While the play of many others is indeed impressive and the competition for the award will be fierce, I think Morant deserves the hardware and the argument above is my reason for believing so.
Keep an eye on Morant, and really think about this MVP race using the argument above. I remember another young star guard taking the league by storm and lifting his team into championship contention out of nowhere using his ridiculous speed, playmaking, athletic gift, and most of all his appeal to the home crowd. That young guard was named Derrick Rose, the 2010-2011 Most Valuable Player. Will history seemingly repeat itself with this young Grizzlies guard taking the league by storm in many of the same ways? I believe it should.