We may only be one round into the NBL 2019/20 season, but it’s never too early to start talking about the silverware on offer. The individual awards can often go under the radar until the tail end of the year, which is why we’ll be giving our round-by-round “clubhouse leaders” for the major awards. This will be a rolling leaderboard for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player and Best Sixth Man—a string of good performances could see new challengers emerge, while a drop in form could see these early leaders slide as the season progresses.
*You might notice one big award missing - Best Defensive Player is left out as it’s hard to judge a player’s defensive impact without watching every second of every game they play. We're always doing our best to see as much as possible, but great defensive plays often don’t make the highlights or the game log.
Most Valuable Player: Mitch Creek
Vs MEL: 28 PTS, 11 REB, 3 AST, 9/18 FG, 4/5 3PT
The South East Melbourne Phoenix shocked title favourites, Melbourne United in their inaugural NBL game; the underdogs claimed bragging rights in the first ever Throwdown. Both sides were below full strength, with David Barlow and Casey Prather ruled out pregame for United and Tai Wesley injured early in the contest for the Phoenix.
Mitch Creek filled the void and willed his team to a win. He set the tone early as the Phoenix built a lead, pushing the tempo and driving hard to the basket at every opportunity. When United made a run late, he iced the game with a pair of huge threes inside the last three minutes.
That perimeter shooting is a side of Creek’s game that hasn’t been seen before, as he knocked down four threes and missed just one. It’s unreasonable to expect him to keep shooting that well, but even an above-average season from deep will see Creek appear in these rankings more as the season progresses.
Defensively, the Phoenix harassed United relentlessly and forced them out of their rhythm early. Creek’s stats might not show it, but his effort and communication on that end set the platform for the rest of his teammates, and he led the team in rebounding despite spending time on the perimeter.
As the NBL’s newest team, this was South East Melbourne’s first chance to set their identity. It was also an opportunity for Creek to make a statement in his return to the league. After one of the best games of his career, he’s put himself and his team at the top of the pile after round one.
MVP honorable mentions
Vs ILL: 25 PTS, 8 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 7/13 FG
The Brisbane Bullets struggled to close out the Hawks after a fast start, but Patterson ensured they started the season with a win. He stepped up whenever they needed a bucket in isolation, and his back-to-back possessions of a three and a tough floater inside the last two minutes squashed what could have easily been a tight finish.
Some questioned Patterson’s match fitness coming into the season, but he picked up right where he left off last season as an MVP candidate with an excellent all-around display.
Vs CNS: 23 PTS, 5 AST, 2 REB, 8/12 FT
He took a little while to get going, much like the rest of his Sydney Kings teammates, but Ware’s class shone through in the end against the Taipans. After a quiet first quarter he started to heat up during the second, pouring in 13 points in the first half to keep Sydney close at the break.
He struggled shooting the ball from the field (6-18 FG), but he controlled the tempo, got to the line a lot and hit some big shots in a gritty win.
Vs MEL: 18 PTS, 8 REB, 7 AST, 2 STL, 7/8 FG
Kay's reputation is through the roof, after an outstanding World Cup campaign in which he did a lot of the dirty work for the Boomers. Given a bigger role for Perth, he continued that stellar form in round one and did all of the little things to get the Wildcats a last gasp win.
It was Terrico White that grabbed the headlines with a huge fourth quarter and game winner, but Kay was crucial to Perth's improved rebounding in the second half and he played perfectly within the flow of the offence.
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball
Vs BRI: 12 PTS, 10 REB, 5 AST, 4 STL, 0 TO
It was hard to imagine Ball living up to the hype in his debut, and even his impressive performance may not have done so. Despite some fairly notable flaws, he was a shining light for the Illawarra Hawks over a tough home loss to Brisbane.
Much like in his standout game at the NBL Blitz, Ball was smooth in his every movement and at his best when handling the ball. He had no trouble beating his man off the dribble and getting into the paint, and his smart decision making from there was highlighted by his finishing with zero turnovers. While his shot wasn’t always falling (6-17 FG, 0-5 3FG), he did make some clutch plays in the fourth quarter to keep the Hawks in the contest until late.
They were offset by some rough plays as the game wound down, but that inconsistency isn’t surprising for such a young player. The same goes for his defensive performance—his four steals hide the fact that he often gambled in the passing lanes, and he struggled at times to stay in front of his man.
There was no shortage of highlights either, meaning the hype train won’t be slowing down any time soon. If you’re not on board already, you may as well jump on and hold on for dear life. It could be a bumpy road at times, but Ball’s debut showed that he will have a big impact in his rookie season.
Rookie of the Year honorable mentions
Vs SYD: 14 PTS, 12 REB, 6 ORB, 3/6 3PT
Kouat Noi was one of the hottest names of the NBL offseason, and he did nothing to dissuade that hype in round one. Both Noi and the Cairns Taipans fell in a heap in the fourth quarter, but that shouldn’t take away from what was an impressive debut.
He was aggressive driving to the basket, and had plenty of confidence when launching from the perimeter. Noi's biggest impact was on the glass, as he pulled down twelve rebounds and got his hands to a handful more. His six offensive rebounds gave the Taipans the extra possessions they needed as they struggled shooting the ball, and his energy chasing down misses was infectious to the rest of the team. When he dropped off late, so did the rest of his teammates.
Most Improved Player: Dan Grida
Vs BRI: 9 PTS, 4 REB, 2 BLK, 1 STL, +4
After earning a few meaningful minutes as a rookie a year ago, Grida looks set to take another step forward in his sophomore NBL season. His game against the Bullets wasn’t flashy, but his defensive work and complimentary offensive skills should see him emerge from Illawarra’s crowded guard rotation as a consistent contributor.
He played 14 minutes, more than starter Emmett Naar, and made his presence felt for every second of that time. A pair of blocks and two steals are a good return defensively, but more important was the energy that he brought on that end. His four fouls may have kept him from bigger minutes, but the intent was there even if the results weren’t always perfect.
Offensively, he was able to chip in 9 points despite lacking his usual success from deep (0-2 3PT). Once that shot starts falling, as it surely will, Grida will only become more valuable to the Hawks.
Most Improved honorable mentions
Vs MEL: 8 REB, 2 AST, 2 BLK, 1 STL
Last season, Pineau was best known as the man that claimed Andrew Bogut’s Best Defensive Player award. He looks set to have a much bigger impact this season, with his starter status and key role in the Phoenix’s first win.
He did the dirty work down low against United, banging with superstar Shawn Long and making his presence felt on the glass at both ends. Mitch Creek labelled him “the most unrelenting player” he’s ever played with; that’s good enough for me.
Best Sixth Man: Aaron Brooks
Vs BRI: 23 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL
Brooks was at his fiery best in his NBL debut, and there were no real surprises in his game. He was looking to score on just about every possession, and the rest of the Hawks seemed happy to clear out and let him do his thing.
They would hope for some more efficient performances to come (7-21 FG, 1-8 3PT), but on a night where a lot of the Hawks were struggling with their shot, it wasn’t a bad gameplan. The ten-year NBA veteran was dynamic off the dribble and had no issues creating space for his shot or getting into the paint. That allowed him to get to the line (8-10 FT), which offset his shooting woes somewhat.
A pair of drawn charges in the first quarter showed the veteran savvy and leadership that he can also bring to the table. Brooks is a prototypical sixth man in his style of play, but it remains to be seen whether the Hawks can afford to keep starting him on the bench.
Sixth Man Honorable mentions
Vs ILL: 12 PTS, 4 REB, 4 AST, 4-6 FG
The Bullets shot a league-high 31 three-point attempts in round one, and Cadee was a big reason why that brought them a win.
He went 3-4 from deep and stepped up in the big moments, with his first triple halting a dangerous Hawks run just before the half, and his second coming during a Bullets push just after the break. Always a steady presence in the backcourt, he’s the perfect complement to Brisbane’s star-studded perimeter rotation.
Vs SEM: 2 PTS, 1 REB, 2 BLK Vs PER: 14 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 2 BLK
“Big Jo” was barely sighted in Melbourne’s first game of the round, but he stepped up in a big way as they almost stole a win in Perth.
With David Barlow, Casey Prather and Chris Goulding all absent, he played 27 minutes and forced coach Dean Vickerman to sit star import Shawn Long down the stretch. His defensive energy and rebounding were expected, but his polished scoring game will be a pleasant surprise if it continues.