New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams said he’s never seen any key player improve as much as power forward Anthony Davis did this season.
And, Williams and the Pelicans had campaigned for Davis to be recognized for his play this season, in which he became a Western Conference All-Star in just his second year.
Davis, however, finished third in the voting for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award given annually. Point guard Goran Dragic, who led the Phoenix Suns to a 23-win improvement, was selected for the award, with Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson finishing second.
“Usually, it’s a role player who has a big season (who wins the award),” Williams said. “Show me a front-line player who means as much to his team as Anthony who made a bigger improvement.”
Davis, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft from Kentucky, averaged 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds — one of four players in the league to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. And, he led the NBA in blocked shots at 2.82 per game. Last season, Davis averaged 13.5 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in making the All-Rookie first team.
After showing improvement throughout his rookie season, Davis immediately went to work to get better. Most notably, he embarked on a weight-lifting program under player development coach Carlos Daniels while also working on enhancing his skills.
When Davis went to the USA Basketball camp last summer, he stood out, said coach Mike Krzyzewski, showing an ability to make jump shots consistently of which few knew he was capable. He continued putting in the work all season before and after Pelicans practices.
“He went to Team USA practice and did well, and he returned as a better player,” Williams said. “But he’d already begun putting the work in long before that.”
This season, Davis had three games of at least eight blocked shots. The rest of the league’s players totaled four. He had 13 games of at least five blocks.
He set a franchise record with eight consecutive games of 28 points or more between March 4-22, including 40 points and 21 rebounds in a home victory against the Boston Celtics on March 16.
Aside from becoming the team’s No. 1 option offensively, Davis, 21, clearly became the team’s leader.
However, the Pelicans, with season-ending injuries to starting point guard Jrue Holiday, starting center Jason Smith and key reserve forward Ryan Anderson, the team’s leading scorer into January, finished 34-48 this season. That is an improvement of just seven games compared to last season. Near this season’s end, eight Pelicans were out injured.
Dragic, meanwhile, led Phoenix to a 48-34 record. The Suns finished one game out of a playoff spot in the extremely competitive Western Conference. He kept the Suns in the playoff race despite backcourt mate Eric Bledsoe missing 43 games with an injury.
Dragic, who is in his eighth season, averaged career-highs in scoring (20.3 points) and field-goal percentage (50.5) and shot 40.8 percent on 3-point attempts. He is the only player in the league this season to shoot at least 50 percent overall and 40 percent on 3s. He averaged just 9.5 points in 2012-13.
He scored a career-high 40 points in a 116-104 Suns win against the Pelicans on Feb. 28 at Phoenix. Williams has called it the most dominant performance against New Orleans this season. Interestingly, Dragic was part of the rescinded Chris Paul trade before the 2011-12 season that would have brought him to New Orleans.
Dragic received 408 of a possible 1,134 points, including 65 first-place ballots, from 126 sportswriters and broadcasters from the United States and Canada.
Stephenson, who is in his fourth NBA season, received 158 votes, including 13 for first place. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.6 assists after averaging 8.8, 3.9 and 2.9 last season.
Davis received 155 votes, 16 of which were for first place. Five points are award for first-place votes, three for second and one for third.