Ja Morant’s spectacular season for the Memphis Grizzlies could land him on a number of ballots for the Kia NBA MVP, based on his continued excellence and the Grizzlies’ ongoing roll through the regular season.
But his opportunity to win another award – the league’s Most Improved Player Award – would be truly unprecedented for a former Kia Rookie of the Year.
That’s why it’s worth exploring Morant’s case for the MIP, something no ROY winner ever has won.
The angle to explore this possible breakthrough for Morant was inspired by a Twitter exchange. It led to the discovery that while the NBA’s ROY winners may go on to win championships and MVPs, they do not have much of a track record at snagging the league’s other annual awards.
Here’s a breakdown of Rookies of the Year in relation to some other major hardware:
• Twenty-eight of the 78 players who have won (or shared, with four ties) ROY went on to get an NBA championship ring.
• Seventeen of those 78 players were named MVP at least once.
• Of those 17, the 14 who are eligible all are in the Hall of Fame: Bob Pettit, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Bob McAdoo, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan. The other three still are active: LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose.
• Two of the above were named ROY and MVP in the same year. Chamberlain boosted Philadelphia by 17 victories while averaging 37 points and 27 rebounds in his first season, 1959-60. Nine years later, Unseld (father of the current Wizards coach) lifted Baltimore from last place to the league’s best record in his debut season.
• Breaking it down another way, 17 of the 35 Most Valuable Players – that’s the number of players who have collected the league’s 66 MVP trophies, led by Abdul-Jabbar’s six – started out as Rookies of the Year.
• Twelve ROY winners have been named Finals MVP at least once in their careers. That spans 32 players who have accounted for the 53 awards.
Now consider the other three most notable player awards:
• Only two former ROY winners, Jordan and Robinson, have gone on to be named Defensive Player of the Year. That’s two out of the 39 DPOY trophies awarded.
• No ROY winner ever has won Sixth Man of the Year. That award, too, has been presented 39 times.
• The ROY winners have been shut out for MIP across 36 years of that award’s existence.
So Morant has a rare opportunity. Last season, he averaged 19.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 7.4 assists, while shooting 44.9% overall and 30.3% from the arc. This season, those respective numbers are 26.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.8 apg, 49.3% and 34.4%. He also was voted in as an All-Star starter for the Feb. 20 showcase game in Cleveland, his first appearance.
There are other worthy candidates, but this isn’t the MIP Ladder so we’ll wrap this up. What it does mean is that the very best members of the Class of 2021 will continue to vie for this season’s ROY. But whoever wins it can really separate himself by adding some variety to his trophy shelf.
Evan Mobley as DPOY some year? Barnes as SMOY? Any of them as MVP or MIP? Time is on their side at least.
The Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Kia Rookie Ladder:
(All stats through Monday, Feb. 7)
1. Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers
Season stats: 14.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 2
Draft pick: No. 3 overall
It says something about Mobley’s contributions beyond scoring that Cleveland has been winning even when their rookie big man hasn’t. After his string of 17 games putting up double figures was broken, Mobley scored just 4, 8 and 9 points against New Orleans, Charlotte and Indiana, and the Cavaliers won all three games. In the Feb. 2 game in which he posted a season-best 29 points at Houston, they lost (though Mobley won the individual stats dual against the player drafted ahead of him, Jalen Green). The 7-footer tops his fellow Ladder rooks in rebounding, field-goal percentage (50.4), blocked shots (1.7) and contested shots (12.3).
#NBAAllStar Saturday Night plans? We got ‘em. 🤩
Catch Team Cavs in the #TacoBellSkills Challenge next weekend on @NBAonTNT!#LetEmKnow pic.twitter.com/btESQH64At
— Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) February 9, 2022
2. Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Season stats: 14.8 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 2.8 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 3
Draft pick: No. 4 overall
Barnes bumps up a spot after a strong week, helping the Raptors win six in a row and seven of their past eight through Monday. That includes averaging 40 minutes nightly while shooting 49.2% overall and 44.4% on 3-pointers during the 6-0 streak. Barnes leads the Class of 2021 in second-chance points (2.6) and is second to Chris Duarte in fast-break points (2.4). And he is creeping up on Mobley in his impact on winning – the Raptors are 24-20 when he plays, 5-3 when he does not. (For comparison, Cleveland is 30-16 with Mobley, 3-5 without him.)
LET'S GO @ScottBarnes561
See y'all in Cleveland 👀#NBAAllStar | #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/uCTcq6omcu
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 9, 2022
3. Cade Cunningham, Detroit Pistons
Season stats: 15.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 5.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 6.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 1
Draft pick: No. 1 overall
The Ladder can be a treacherous thing, with rungs greased when guys don’t play. No fault of Cunningham’s, of course, that he suffered a right hip pointer on Feb. 1 and hasn’t played since (including Detroit’s only trip to Cunningham’s home market of Dallas Tuesday). No blame heaped on the Pistons, either, if they’re being cautious – remember, Killian Hayes missed 45 games as a rookie last year with a torn labrum in his right hip. They have gone 11-30 when their prize piece for the future plays, 1-12 when he doesn’t.
🌟 The 2022 #TacoBellSkills field! 🌟
CAVS: @_bigjayy_, @dariusgarland22, @evanmobley
ANTETOKOUNMPOS: @alex_ante34, @Giannis_An34, @Thanasis_ante43
ROOKS: @ScottBarnes561, @CadeCunningham_, @joshgiddey#StateFarmSaturday: Feb 19, TNT pic.twitter.com/D7zjxPN4lb
— NBA (@NBA) February 9, 2022
4. Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City Thunder
Season stats: 12.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 6.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 7.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 4
Draft pick: No. 6 overall
Giddey has been picking up slack big-time since backcourt mate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander went down with an ankle injury. The 19-year-old Australian has averaged 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 34.6 minutes, shooting 46.7% and helping the Thunder to a 3-2 mark in that span. That included a career-high 24 points vs. Sacramento and his 12th and 13th games with 10 or more boards. That’s a good start on pushing his 3-for-3 mark in Western Conference rookie of the month awards to 4-for-4.
Serious Skills ✔️
Watch @joshgiddey in the Skills Challenge on #NBAAllStar Saturday night! ⭐ pic.twitter.com/zTMZXujrGE
— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) February 9, 2022
5. Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic
Season stats: 15.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.9 apg
Since last Ladder: 15,5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 5
Draft pick: No. 8 overall
How strong is this rookie class? Of the past 20 Rookie of the Year winners, Wagner is averaging more points than four of them, more rebounds than seven and more assists than five. Yet here he sits at fifth on the Ladder, a comment on his peers rather than his own exciting potential. Wagner leads all rookies in total points, has topped the Magic in scoring 12 times and has scored 20 or more in 13 games. He has played in every game, logging more than 200 minutes more than any other rookie.
Earning his 1st #CloroxRisingStars selection… Franz Wagner of the @OrlandoMagic! @franzboogie was drafted as the 8th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft out of Michigan. pic.twitter.com/CHDnJx0Pjx
— #NBAAllStar (@NBAAllStar) February 6, 2022
The Next 5:
6. Herbert Jones, New Orleans Pelicans
Season stats: 9.6 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.0 apg
Since last Ladder: 13.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 1.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 6
Draft pick: No. 35 overall
Want growth? How’s 18 points in fourth quarter in W at Denver?
7. Chris Duarte, Indiana Pacers
Season stats: 13.3 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
Since last Ladder: 15.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 8
Draft pick: No. 13 overall
Pacers reaping benefits (poise, etc.) of Duarte being 24 years old.
8. Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
Season stats: 7.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 2.7 apg
Since last Ladder: 9.8 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 7.6 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 7
Draft pick: No. 38 overall
Pair of hard blows vs. Sixers sent him into concussion protocols.
9. Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State Warriors
Season stats: 7.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.6 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: 10
Draft pick: No. 7 overall
Reacted to Rising Stars snub by focusing heavily on his “craft.”
T10. Jalen Green, Houston Rockets
Season stats: 14.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 17.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.0 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Draft pick: No. 2 overall
Dunk contest: reset his season or lock in style-over-substance views?
T10. Davion Mitchell, Sacramento Kings
Season stats: 10.3 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 3.4 apg
Since last Ladder: 20.3 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 4.3 apg
Last Ladder’s rung: N/A
Draft pick: No. 9 overall
Ready for a bigger role in the revamped Kings backcourt?
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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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