Round 10 NBL award leaders: The Cotton takeover

Is it just us, or is this column fast becoming the NBL's kiss of death?

For the fourth straight week, our MVP leader and their team went winless in the following round. Casper Ware and the Kings still sit on top of the ladder, but their pride must have taken a hit with losses to Perth and Cairns.

Rookie of the Year leaders LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton both missed games through injury, with Ball expected to be sidelined for a month. Most Improved Player contenders Dane Pineau and Will Magnay both had their quietest outings for the year and battled through foul trouble.

All in all, it's becoming harder and harder to piece together the leaderboards for every award. As the NBL title race begins to tighten, so too does the race for the individual honours.

MVP: Bryce Cotton

Vs SYD: 27 PTS, 9 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 11-26 FG

Vs SEM: 26 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 7-10 FG, 3-5 3PT

Per-game stats: 21 PTS, 4.2 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 43% FG, 41.4% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZObd2S2Pi0

The Wildcats of old were back with a vengeance in round ten, as they emphatically beat the ladder-leading Kings before holding off the Phoenix on the road. There were plenty of strong performers in both games, with Nick Kay's rebounding and Terrico White's hot shooting key, but Bryce Cotton remains the offensive fulcrum of this team.

He became the first player this season with two 25-point games in a single round with a pair of complete scoring performances. In his side's demolition of the Kings, he dropped 20 points before the main break and made the most of their huge advantage on the offensive glass. With a 25-point lead secure at half time, his work was done, and the rest of the contest was fairly elementary.

It was closer on Sunday, as it took until the last quarter for them to pull away from the Phoenix. While it was White that closed out the win, it was Cotton that kept them close enough to do so. His 15-point third quarter lifted the Wildcats from a five-point deficit to a three-point lead. The fact that his tally came from just 10 field goals, with the usual array of deep makes and finishes inside and a healthy dose of free throws (9-12 FT), makes it all the more impressive.

It seems to be the norm now that Perth build their lead whenever Cotton is firing. Their recent losses have been a sign of his slight and occasional hiccups, but with Perth suddenly just one win from top spot, he looks to be back to his best.

MVP honourable mentions

Casper Ware

Vs PER: 13 PTS, 5 REB, 1 STL, 3-15 FG

Vs CNS: 23 PTS, 2 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 8-17 FG, 4-11 3PT

Per-game stats: 20.8 PTS, 2.8 REB, 3.9 AST, 38.8% FG, 29.5% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQSko3VEups

It was a tough weekend for Casper Ware and the Kings, as his one blistering quarter wasn't enough to offset seven periods of struggles. It took until the fourth quarter of their Sunday showdown against Cairns for last week's MVP frontrunner to fire, but that still wasn't enough to save his side from their first winless week of the season.

He was their top scorer in the loss to Perth, but that says more about their poor performance as a whole. On a night where his team shot just 39.7% from the field, Ware was smothered by Damian Martin and held to his worst shooting night of the season.

It looked to be more of the same through three quarters against Cairns, as he had just two points on 1-5 shooting at the final break. From there he produced one of the best quarters in recent memory, adding 21 points and almost single-handedly dragging his side back into a game they had no right to win. He drained four threes in the first four minutes of the quarter; when the defence closed out hard he adjusted, first with a dish to Shaun Bruce in the corner and then with a series of layups and floaters at the rim. It was the highest scoring quarter by any player this season, and yet it still wasn't enough to salvage a result.

Ware's shooting percentages are still well below his usual standards, and that's partly due to his unusual shot distribution. He's actually shooting 50.5% from inside the arc, but his misfires from deep (29.5%) are exacerbated by his taking more threes (129) than twos (103). His impact on Sydney's success more than offsets any statistical nitpicking, but on a week where they couldn't find a win that was a little less clear.

Scott Machado

Vs NZ: 22 PTS, 3 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 6-10 FG, 2-4 3PT

Vs SYD: 21 PTS, 7 REB, 9 AST, 3 STL, 6-15 FG, 2-4 3PT

Per-game stats: 15.9 PTS, 3.6 REB, 8.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 45.1% FG, 41.9% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67FJW_VMg24

The resurrection continues in Cairns, and both the Taipans and Scott Machado have quickly gone from a fun afterthought to a serious threat this season. Three straight wins suddenly has them sitting in fourth place and in the finals picture, and it's largely the play of their point guard that has made it happen.

For a player about to end his eighth year as a professional player, Machado's personal growth has been incredible. Never a big scorer, he has now scored more than 20 points in three of his last four games. Never a great perimeter shooter, he's now knocking down 41.9% of his threes, the 11th best mark in the league (min. 30 makes).

Those improvements come on top of his well established strengths as a leader and playmaker. He continues to lead the league in assists by a wide margin, and he has completely transformed the Taipans offence. According to Liam Santamaria, they have had the most efficient offence in the league over the past month. Machado has a history of taking teams to another level offensively, so maybe it shouldn't be a surprise to see Cairns emerging as a finals contender under his watch.

Mitch Creek

Vs PER: 31 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 11-18 FG

Per-game stats: 22.2 PTS, 7.1 REB, 4 AST, 1.1 STL, 48.5% FG, 35.7% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJRSG-Ln2iM

New week, same old story for Mitch Creek and the Phoenix. As Creek poured in a season-high 31 points while shooting over 60% from the field, his team crashed to their fourth loss in their last five games.

On an individual level, round ten displayed everything that makes Creek one of the league's most dangerous scorers. He is a rare dual threat as both a ball handler and a pick-and-roll screener; per Jordan McCallum, Creek scores 1.31 points per possession as the roll man and 0.91 points per possession in isolation, both top-10 marks in the league (min. 20 possessions). Against the Wildcats he feasted in both areas, but it wasn't enough to overcome Perth's immense talent.

Even with Tai Wesley back, albeit on a minutes restriction, Creek lacked support from the players around him. There's no shame in losing to Perth, but if they can't beat them with Creek, Ben Madgen (20 PTS, 11 REB) and John Roberson (19 PTS) all firing, when will it happen? That's not exactly Creek's fault, but he'll need a finals berth at least to garner any serious MVP consideration.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Per-game stats: 17 PTS, 7.5 REB, 7 AST, 1.7 STL, 37.3% FG, 24.4% 3PT

Well, so much for the Rookie of the Year race being done and dusted. With the news that LaMelo Ball will likely miss four weeks, and with persistent rumours that he may end his season early, the door has been flung open once again.

He still has a sizeable buffer at the top of these rankings-- consecutive triple-doubles take a little longer than a month to fade from the memory. That could all change in the coming weeks, though, if the chasing pack can string together some strong performances.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

Kouat Noi

Vs NZ: 10 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 4-6 FG, 1-2 3PT

Vs SYD: 22 PTS, 5 REB, 1 BLK, 8-9 FG, 1-1 3PT

Per-game stats: 12.5 PTS, 6.7 REB, 1.1 AST, 44.4% FG, 33.8% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0xDZSeEbnts

Up against the league's best defence anchored by Andrew Bogut, Kouat Noi made his intentions clear from the outset. He attacked the reigning MVP early and often, with an and-1 finish and a tough layup over Bogut's outstretched arm inside the first five minutes.

That set the tone for the rest of the game, as he had a career-high 22 points on 8-9 shooting. Most of that damage was done inside the arc; averaging 4.64 three point attempts per game, Noi took just one shot from deep against the Kings. Where he has hesitated to drive at times this season, he immediately attacked off the dribble and reaped the rewards.

That performance followed a Friday night win over the Breakers, where he was much quieter but still impacted the game in a variety of ways. His six shot attempts were a season low, but he still managed to hit double figures in scoring while bringing his usual energy on both ends of the floor. The biggest concern around Noi early in the season was his perimeter shot, but he seems to have figured out that less may be more when shooting from outside.

RJ Hampton

Vs CNS: 4 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL

Per-game stats: 9.5 PTS, 4.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 42.2% FG, 32.4% 3PT

He may have played one game before sitting out through injury, but RJ Hampton's weekend was just as forgettable as fellow Next Star LaMelo Ball. He was almost invisible in New Zealand's loss to the Taipans, hitting just one field goal and adding one assist. That may be due in part to the presence of Glen Rice Jr, who took more shots than the rest of the Breakers starting lineup combined.

There was no chance for comparison in their next game against Brisbane with Rice absent, as Hampton also sat out with a hip injury. There's no word on how serious the injury is, but it's hard to imagine the Breakers rushing him back unless he's 100% fit.

Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau

Vs PER: 4 PTS, 6 REB, 2-3 FG

Per-game stats: 7.7 PTS, 7.3 REB, 3.8 ORB, 1.1 AST, 1.2 BLK, 0.8 STL, 66.7% FG

It's been a tough stretch for Dane Pineau, as his production has dropped along with foul trouble limitations. After playing at least 20 minutes in his first eight games this year, he saw 15 minutes of court time in round nine and 19 against Perth in round ten.

With that, his raw numbers have also dropped. He now has five straight games scoring in single figures and three straight games without a blocked shot. The eye test continues to back up the advanced metrics, though, as he is still the anchor of the Phoenix defence. He is fourth in the league in box plus-minus, per Spatial Jam's Andrew Price, ahead of higher profile names like Scott Machado, Bryce Cotton, and superstar teammate Mitch Creek.

His scoring numbers may not jump off the page, even more so now than early in the season, but that's not what the Phoenix need from Pineau anyway. As long as he continues to be a deterrent at the rim and a threat on the glass, he will be crucial to their finals push.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Sunday Dech

Vs BRI: 14 PTS, 7 REB, 5 AST, 4 TO, 4-15 FG

Per-game stats: 7.1 PTS, 3.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 38% FG, 36.7% 3PT

With LaMelo Ball sidelined and new imports Darington Hobson and Billy Preston still en route, emerging star Sunday Dech was left to shoulder a much bigger load than usual. While he stuffed the stat sheet in the loss to Brisbane, he did struggle to adjust as one of Illawarra's primary creators.

His 14 points came at a clip of less than 30% from the field and from deep, and his 5 assists were almost matched by four turnovers. Given the situation, though, it was still a positive display from Dech. He was able to make plays for others on the offensive end, while his trademark pesky defence limited Bullets star Nathan Sobey to 3-15 shooting. It will be interesting to see how Dech will fit alongside Illawarra's two new signings when they do arrive, as well as how he continues to adjust to life without Ball.

Will Magnay

Vs ILL: 2 PTS, 2 REB, 1 BLK

Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 2 REB, 2 BLK, 3-5 FG

Per-game stats: 7.2 PTS, 4.7 REB, 1 AST, 1.2 BLK, 46.3% FG

All in all, it was a tough week for Will Magnay. In Brisbane's win over the Hawks, he fouled out after just seven minutes of play and watched from the bench as starter Matt Hodgson posted a near-double-double. It was a better personal performance in their second game, as he chipped in nine points and a pair of blocks in almost 20 minutes, but the Bullets fell to a Breakers side that had their two best players in their first game back from injury.

Despite his struggles with foul trouble, Magnay still sits inside the top five shot blockers in the league despite playing less than 19 minutes per game. Playing in a limited role behind a Boomers representative, his impact this season has been nothing short of remarkable.

Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin

Vs MEL: 34 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL, 2 BLK, 11-14 FG, 4-6 3PT

Per-game stats: 15.6 PTS, 5.8 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.5 BLK, 0.9 STL, 55.3% FG, 34.5% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WntsuRePYnM

Has Griffin found his niche in a reserve role? That certainly seems to be the case, as he put together his most complete game of the season despite a tough loss to Melbourne.

It's hard to overstate just how impressive his game was-- he did absolutely everything the 36ers could ask of him and more. His 32 points came from all over the court, as he slammed home a pair of putbacks, posted up on United's talented bigs and knocked down four shots from deep. Defensively he was as active as always, and his two blocks lifted him to second in the league for blocked shots.

With such a dominant individual performance, it would be easy for Joey Wright to move him back into the starting lineup. That may not be the best move, though-- Griffin's points, rebounds, assists and steals per game are all higher as a reserve than as a starter.

To quote Liam Santamaria: " If Joey continues to use Griffin as a weapon off the pine, lock him in for this year’s Best Sixth Man Award."

Best Sixth Man honourable mentions:

Casey Prather

Vs ADE: 17 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 7-8 FG, 2-2 3PT

Per-game stats: 9.2 PTS, 3.2 REB, 1 AST, 47.4 FG, 33.3% 3PT

After missing five games with knee and back issues, Casey Prather looks to have shaken off the rust after a strong showing against Adelaide. He missed just one field goal on his way to 17 points in just 20 minutes, and he chipped in across the board with active play on both ends.

If completely healthy, Prather is far too talented to be coming off the bench. With his recent injury history, though, he will likely be on a minutes restriction for the immediate future. Even if that changes, it's hard to see where he would slot into Melbourne's loaded starting lineup, with Chris Goulding and Mitch McCarron both in excellent form on the wings. Health permitting, Prather should immediately be one of the favourites to take home this award.

Majok Deng

Vs NZ: 20 PTS, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 6-9 FG, 3-5 3PT

Vs SYD: 7 PTS, 4 REB, 1-2 3PT

Per-game stats: 13.9 PTS, 4.1 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.8 BLK, 51.2% FG, 44.9% 3PT

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BG0DyMrh7qE

Majok Deng's position in Mike Kelly's rotation seems to be a week-by-week proposition. For the third straight round he was shuffled into a new role, this time back into the second unit. Despite the uncertainty, he continues to thrive for the surging Taipans, playing starters minutes and giving a starter's production.

He was lights out against the Breakers, canning three triples and topping 20 points for the first time this season. While he was quieter against the Kings, he was still able to provide his unique blend of floor spacing and interior defence. He's now fourth in the league in three point percentage among players with at least 15 makes, which makes him the perfect foil for his trio of import teammates-- the rim-running big Cam Oliver, the pass-first point guard Scott Machado and the slashing scorer DJ Newbill. All three need space to operate, and Deng is the most reliable source of spacing that the Taipans have.