Granger had league's 5th-best average

INDIANAPOLIS -- Danny Granger told a storybook tale of how he learned he'd been selected the NBA's Most Improved Player.

The Indiana Pacers star offered a picturesque image of riding in a gondola in Venice, Italy, with one hand in the water and the wind blowing through his hair.

Much of that was indeed a story -- he was in Venice, but in his hotel room instead of a boat when he heard the news. Upon coming clean at a news conference on Tuesday, those in the room broke into laughter.

"I can honestly say it really did come as a surprise," he said. "I really had it out of my mind for a while. I was on vacation, enjoying Italy, and all of a sudden, I'm winning the award."

He edged New Jersey Nets guard Devin Harris in voting (364 to 339) from a panel of 121 journalists. Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant was third with 83 points.

The storybook tale was almost believable because of Granger's remarkable last eight months.

Granger averaged a career-best 25.8 points this season, made his All-Star team debut and accepted an invitation to train with USA Basketball in July. That all happened after he signed a five-year, $65 million contract extension.

Granger improved his scoring average by at least five points in each of the past three seasons. He averaged 7.5 points as a rookie out of New Mexico, 13.9 in his second season and 19.6 in 2007-08.

Granger had the NBA's fifth-highest scoring average this season.

"I think in my fourth year, I just had the experience of playing a lot of minutes," he said. "I could read defenses a lot better. I could get my shot a lot easier than what I had in the past. I think I just thought my way through the game a little more than I had previously."

Granger's success has been a welcome change for a franchise that has had numerous off-court problems the past several years.

"He is the face of our franchise, and he handles himself well on the court and off," team president Larry Bird said. "I think going forward, he will continue to do the things he's doing, and continue to improve. That's all you can ask for."

The USA Basketball training camp is the first phase in selecting the squad for the 2012 Olympics in London. Bird, who has said he believes Granger can be an Olympian, said the camp will be good for Granger.

"There's a lot of talent over there, and most of the guys lead their teams -- probably all of them do," Bird said. "I think Danny being associated in the mix, he's going to learn from that, and he'll bring that back."

Granger elevated his game in January. He averaged 34.7 points and shot 49 percent during a six-game stretch that began on Jan. 3 against Western Conference teams.

Then he began making dramatic shots. He drained a game-winning 3-pointer over two-time MVP Steve Nash on Jan. 7 in Phoenix, then made a game-tying jumper late in regulation before the Pacers beat Detroit in overtime a week later.

He made another clutch shot on Jan. 19, a game-tying 3-pointer with 2.5 seconds left at New Orleans, before being one-upped by Chris Paul at the buzzer.

Granger missed 11 games in 2009 with a torn tendon in his right foot. He returned and averaged 28.4 points in 15 games the rest of the season.

But Granger knows scoring alone won't get him to the next level. Each of the top five players in the Most Valuable Player balloting also were on the first- or second-team All-Defensive squads. He knows that to become an MVP candidate, he must become a stopper.

"I don't just want to be a better defender, I want to be an elite defender," he said. "I really modeled my defensive game after [Houston forward] Ron Artest when he was here. He was a phenomenal defensive player when he was here. I probably got away from that the past two years. Next year, that will be my big focus."

Bird expects Granger to make good on his promise.

"Danny's one of our hardest workers," Bird said. "He spends a lot of time on the court working on his skills and trying to improve them. That doesn't go unnoticed. That's why we signed him up last year. He's a special player, and he gets better every year."