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Utah’s Lauri Markkanen voted NBA Most Improved Player

Lauri Markkanen was considered just a throw-in on the trade that brought Donovan Mitchell to Cleveland — everyone talked about the three unprotected first-round picks (2025, 2027 and 2029) and two pick swaps. Markkanen was just in there to balance out the salaries.

Except nobody told Markkanen. He made the leap this year nobody expected, becoming a quality No.1 wing scoring option. Or, credit Danny Ainge for again seeing what few others did. Given a clean slate and a larger role under coach Will Hardy, Markkanen surprised people with an All-Star season averaging 25.6 points and 8.6 rebounds a game.

That earned him the NBA Most Improved Player Award this year.

Markkanen won comfortably with 69 of the 100 first-place votes. The Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finished second, with the Knicks’ Jalen Brunson third, and two Nets — Mikal Bridges and Nic Claxton — rounding out the top five. Here are the voting totals.

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(For the record, my official ballot had Markkanen, Gilgeous-Alexander, then the Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton third.)

Markkanen is off doing his required military service in his native Finland this summer.