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NBA names Randolph Most Improved Player
Updated: 2004-04-23 09:42

Portland Trail Blazers forward Zach Randolph was disappointed when he didn't make the All-Star team. Winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award Thursday took some of that sting away.

Portland Trail Blazers forward Zach Randolph is all smiles as he is escorted by Blazers dancers Mindy Burns, right, and Daisy Thompson into a celebration for his being named the NBA's most improved player in Portland, Ore., Thursday, April 22, 2004. [AP]
Randolph, who became a starter this season and averaged double figures in points and rebounds, easily beat Cleveland Cavaliers forward Carlos Boozer in voting by sports writers and broadcasters with 59 first-place votes and 379 points.

"I wanted to be on the All-Star team but it feels good to win this award," Randolph said with a big smile. "It feels good."

Randolph averaged 20.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists for the revamped Blazers, who went 41-41 to finish 10th in the Western Conference, two spots out of the playoffs.

After the disappointment of missing the postseason, the honor gave the Blazers something to celebrate. On Thursday, Randolph was the star of an old-fashioned victory party, complete with balloons, hats and a band.

"I'm going to get back here next year and I'm going to get better," he said.

The 6-foot-9 forward had 43 double-doubles, tying him for fifth in the league. He had 20 or more points in 42 games, and 30 or more points in three games.

Last year, his second season in the NBA, Randolph averaged 8.4 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.5 assists.

"This is all Zach Randolph's award," Blazers coach Maurice Cheeks said. "It's about him. It's about him going out and working. ... Years ago they talked about Larry Bird coming to the arena long before anyone else did. And that's the kind of thing Zach Randolph did and really what helped him achieve this goal."

Randolph, the 19th overall pick in the 2001 draft out of Michigan State, first emerged last season when Rasheed Wallace was serving a seven-game suspension for threatening an official on the loading dock at the Rose Garden after a game. Randolph started, and the Blazers went 5-2.

Then in the Blazers' first-round playoff series against the Dallas Mavericks, Randolph averaged 13.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. Even though Portland was eliminated in seven games, the effort helped pave the way for a starting role this season.

"The Dallas Mavericks series - when he went out and put up the type of numbers that he put up, I think it kind of opened our eyes up a little bit that this guy could go out there and do this on a nightly basis," Cheeks said. "Then early in the season as he continued to put those numbers up you say, 'Can he continue to do this night in and night out?' And he did it. "

In October, the Blazers exercised a team option to keep Randolph on the roster through the 2004-05 season. He was hailed as a key to the future of the franchise, which had been plagued by several player arrests, team infighting and other trouble.

But Randolph was not immune to legal problems. He was stopped last December for driving erratically and taken into custody after the officer reported smelling marijuana in his car, authorities said. Randolph pleaded innocent to charges of driving under the influence of intoxicants and the case is pending.

Randolph apologized to fans and went on to become one of Portland's biggest stars as the Blazers tried to remake their image. The team traded away Wallace and volatile guard Bonzi Wells, and put an emphasis on character.

"He's had some difficulties in the past, as a lot of young people have, but I think the way in which he handled those difficulties, coming out immediately and acknowledging he made a mistake, back in the course of the season - I think that spoke volumes," Blazers general manager John Nash said.

"He acknowledged he made a mistake, stood up like a man before the media and the fans and apologized," Nash added. "I think we have been accurate in identifying Zach as a talent, but we've also identified him as a guy of some quality and character."

Randolph, known in Portland as Z-Bo, is the second Blazer to be selected as Most Improved Player; Kevin Duckworth received the award in 1987-88.

Boozer got 12 first-place votes and 166 points, followed by Memphis Grizzlies forward James Posey with 17 first-place votes and 137 points.

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