Ellis edges Martin, wins most improved award

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Monta Ellis felt forgotten when he slipped down the draft board nearly two years ago.

The NBA now knows all about the Golden State guard, who won the
Most Improved Player award Thursday for his transformation from an unsung Mississippi high schooler to a speedy scoring threat for the improving Warriors.

Ellis edged Sacramento's Kevin Martin by three points in the closest voting in the award's history, earning 47 first-place votes and 352 points from a media panel. Martin, the Kings' high-scoring guard, got 44 first-place votes and 349 points.

Ellis averaged 16.5 points, 4.1 assists and 3.2 rebounds this season with new coach Don Nelson and the revitalized Warriors, who returned to the playoffs after a 12-year absence.

The second-round pick's improvement on his 6.8-point scoring
average in his rookie season was the NBA's largest increase this year, and he caught the nation's attention with a dunk-filled 28-point performance in the Rookie Challenge during All-Star weekend.

"Playing in the [rookie] game, getting this award and making the playoffs in the same year, I really can't explain it," Ellis said. "I worked so hard this summer to put myself in this position to win this award, and I just want to thank everybody around me for giving me the opportunity and keeping me on my toes."

Ellis emerged as a key contributor to Golden State's uptempo offense in his second season, earning his teammates' trust and playing in big situations while learning to play point guard at Nelson's behest. Among second-year pros, only New Orleans' Chris Paul averaged more points per game this season (17.2).

Not bad for a high school star who had visions of instant stardom when he joined the NBA's last prep-to-pro class in 2005. Ellis held a big draft-day party for himself in his native Jackson, Miss. -- but most of the guests left before he was chosen by the Warriors with the 40th overall pick.

"I think Monta is just scratching the surface, really," Nelson said. "I gave him an opportunity because he was one of my best players. That he was just 20 years old didn't matter to me, because he could flat-out play."

The previous closest finish in the award's balloting was in 1990-91, when Scott Skiles of Orlando edged Boston's Kevin Gamble by four votes. The award has been presented annually since the 1985-86 season.

Nelson immediately recognized Ellis' skills after taking over the Warriors late last summer, putting him in the starting lineup for 53 games and playing him in most key situations. Ellis' slashing speed works perfectly in Nelson's preferred style.

"When we watched him come out of high school, he had a lot of
things he's showing now," said Chris Mullin, the Warriors' top executive. "Not as refined, but as a high-school player you always have to keep working and keep improving, and he's done that. Nellie's system has been a good fit for him."

Ellis got a standing ovation in the Warriors' locker room when Nelson announced the award Thursday. The Warriors face the top-seeded Dallas Mavericks in Game 3 of their first-round series on Friday night in Oakland's first NBA playoff game in 13 years.

Ellis is the second Golden State player in five years to win the award, after Gilbert Arenas -- another second-round pick who blossomed in Oakland before moving to the Washington Wizards -- in 2003. Ellis also beat out teammate Andris Biedrins, who finished fifth in the voting.

Martin's scoring average went up to 20.2 points per game this season from 10.8 in 2005-06, but the lanky guard struggled down the stretch of the regular season along with his spiraling teammates. The Kings missed the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons, and coach Eric Musselman was fired last week.