How good is the NBL? Round 11 brought plenty of high-quality basketball, a few nailbiting finishes and some stunning individual displays.
The Perth Wildcats were pushed hard in both of their games but emerged 2-0, while Jerome Randle almost single-handedly willed the 36ers to a pair of wins and knocked down the weekend's first game winner. Not to be outdone, John Roberson put together an all-time great performance with 21 points in six minutes, a game-tying bomb in the dying seconds and an overtime win for the South East Melbourne Phoenix.
There were some disappointments too, with injuries to star rookie Kouat Noi and Melbourne import Casey Prather, as well as a slow start for Illawarra's newest Americans. All of that action has shaken up the NBL20 awards, with every trophy still well and truly up for grabs.
MVP: Bryce Cotton
Vs CAI: 24 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 8-20 FG
Vs BRI: 23 PTS, 3 STL, 9-16 FG
Per-game stats: 21.3 PTS, 4 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.5 STL, 43.5% FG, 40.2% 3PT
"But he has so much more help than other stars."
It's an easy argument to make against Bryce Cotton, and it's a crutch that plenty of fans have leaned on in making their MVP arguments. The same has been said for Casper Ware, and it makes sense with the Sydney Kings and Perth Wildcats sitting first and second on the NBL ladder.
The past month has shown Cotton's true value, though, and it goes above and beyond the talent around him. The Wildcats have reeled off four straight wins, and Cotton has scored 100 points across those four contests. More importantly, he has scored the bulk of those points at the times that his team has needed them most. He made vital contributions in both of their Round 11 wins, neither of which was a walk in the park.
That added context turned a pair of solid performances into the type of games that have cemented his status as the league's best crunch time player. Facing a six-point deficit at the last break against the Cairns Taipans, Cotton scored nine points in the fourth to cap a 16 point second half as the Wildcats won in a sprint to the finish. Their offence looked stagnant for much of the game against Brisbane two days later, but he kept them afloat with 23 points scored largely in isolation.
In fact, Cotton is third in the league with 61 isolation possessions this season, per Jordan McCallum. Among those with at least 25 such possessions he's the most efficient, scoring 1.08 points per possession. His crossover is a thing of beauty and remains one of the most dangerous weapons in the league, as Nathan Sobey and Will Magnay both learned trying to defend him over last round.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs MEL: 28 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 7-13 FG, 5-10 3PT
Per-game stats: 21.3 PTS, 2.8 REB, 3.9 AST, 39.6% FG, 30.9% 3PT
Casper Ware started Sydney's day with a step back fadeaway three, and it was more of the same from there for much of their win over Melbourne United. The Kings built a double-digit lead in the first quarter and never looked back, and Ware led the way with 28 points in just 26 minutes.
With his early-season shooting woes banished, he's looked a completely different offensive player of late. Over his past five games, he's averaging 23.2 points while shooting 46.6% from the field and 41.3% from deep. Add in his usual defensive intensity and the league's best record, and he's unlikely to drop too far from MVP contention before the end of the season.
Vs ADE: 27 PTS, 11 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 11-22 FG
Vs CAI: 25 PTS, 9 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 10-14 FG
Seriously, what more can Mitch Creek possibly do? Two phenomenal individual efforts were almost not enough to save the Phoenix from another 0-2 weekend.
It's becoming ridiculous how easily he brushes off defenders and scores at the rim. They all know by now exactly what he wants to do; against the 36ers he took just four shots from outside the paint, and his lone outside attempt against the Taipans was a buzzer-beating heave.
Predictable? Maybe, but it didn't matter. He shot a combined 21-36 (58.3%) over the weekend and bulldozed countless opponents with his freight train drives to the rim. While that's largely due to his excellent touch around the basket, it's also in part thanks to his patience and decision making. Despite sometimes giving a different appearance with his hard drives, he never forces the action and is more than willing to take a back seat when required, as he did during the fourth quarter and overtime against Cairns when John Roberson took over.
All of that combines to make the near-perfect player for the NBL: a physical wing or small-ball big who can score inside, step out when needed, handle the ball, make plays for others and defend every position. The Phoenix's lacklustre recent form holds him back here, but their thrilling win against Cairns may be the turning point for that to change. If his game-winning layup attempt against Adelaide had rolled in instead of crawling off the rim and out, there would be a lot more buzz about them already.
Vs PER: 13 PTS, 12 AST, 5-13 FG
Vs SEM: 18 PTS, 6 AST, 2 STL, 7-19 FG
The toast of the NBL and the hottest team in the league heading into Round 11, the Taipans fell back to earth with a pair of tough losses. Scott Machado was his usual creative self with ball in hand, but his shooting touch deserted him for long stretches across both games.
Cairns could have easily won against the second-placed Wildcats but suffered some costly late-game jitters. Machado would have surely loved to step up and steady the ship, but he shot just 1-4 in the fourth quarter as they let a four point lead slip with a 15-25 final term. Still, there's no shame in losing to a team as talented as Perth, and the fact that they were even close enough to win showed the positive progress they've made this season.
Their last-minute implosion against the Phoenix was a little less excusable, but Machado did his best to secure a win in the fourth. He checked back in after a quiet game and an extended rest, and immediately stripped Dane Pineau and drained a three in transition. With a little over a minute left he hit a tough jumper for a four-point lead, then smartly ran the clock down on the next possession before making a layup over Pineau to seemingly ice the game.
That should have salvaged the round for Cairns and kept them within half a game of the top four. Alas, it wasn't to be, and Machado's weekend looks a lot less impressive as a result.
Vs SEM: 26 PTS, 4 REB, 8 AST, 10-21 FG
Vs NZ: 29 PTS, 4 AST, 2 STL, 12-19 FG, 3-5 3PT
Ladies and gentleman, the real Jerome Randle is back! After an injury-affected season with Sydney in NBL19, Randle was a last-minute addition as the 36ers looked to add some more firepower to their offence. They certainly ticked that box, as the 2017 league MVP looks to be well and truly back to his breathtaking best.
While he was excellent across all eight quarters, he saved his best work for the fourth in both contests. His back-to-back buckets in the last minute against the Phoenix gave them a lead that they wouldn't relinquish, while his three-point bomb in the dying seconds against the Breakers proved to be the game-winner.
While the numbers are impressive and the timing even more so, it's the degree of difficulty on Randle's shots that makes him such a joy to watch. With such a diminutive build almost every shot he takes is contested, but with his trademark handles and a crafty in-between game he's able to score over anyone and everyone that tries to guard him. Those skills have dragged the 36ers into the top four, a position that looked almost unfathomable early in the season.
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
Did not play in round 11 (foot injury).
Rookie of the Year honourable mentions
Vs PER: 3 PTS, 5 REB
Vs SEM: 5 PTS, 9 REB, 3 ORB, 2 STL, 1-1 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.4 PTS, 6.8 REB, 1 AST, 42.9% FG, 34.8% 3PT
With LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton both sidelined by injuries, the door was left open for Kouat Noi to make his run at the Rookie of the Year title. His form heading into Round 11 was great, as he’d been a key contributor on what was the hottest team in the league.
If this is indeed the start of Noi’s run, it’s fair to say that it’s a false start. He opened the round with one of his quietest games of the season in the loss to Perth; three points on 1-7 shooting, zero assists to three turnovers, and five rebounds in 27 minutes. The Taipans pushed the Wildcats right until the final buzzer, and it’s hard not to feel like they would have won, had Noi been a more reliable shooting threat.
He came out firing and looking for redemption against the Phoenix and was set for a monster game, with five points and nine rebounds before half time. It was chasing down yet another offensive board that he turned his ankle and immediately pulled up sore. Despite trying to run it off and return to the game, he was forced to sit out during the whole second half as his team fell in overtime. Once again, it felt like he could have easily been the difference down the stretch, as his energy and hustle were crucial in the first half.
Round 11 was disappointing enough for Noi and the Taipans, but it could quickly become even worse if his injury is more serious than first thought. They'll be keeping their fingers, toes and everything else crossed for a speedy recover.
Per-game stats: 9.5 PTS, 4.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 42.2% FG, 32.4% 3PT
Did not play in round 11 (hip injury).
Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau
Vs ADE: 9 PTS, 7 REB, 2 STL, 3-4 FG
Vs CAI: 10 PTS, 9 REB, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 5-9 FG
Per-game stats: 7.9 PTS, 7.4 REB, 3.7 ORB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 1.1 BLK, 65.8% FG
The Phoenix came from behind the stun the Taipans on Sunday, and a trio of plays from the fourth quarter summed up Dane Pineau's season perfectly.
The first was a staple of any big man’s game, as he pulled down a defensive rebound, got the ball to his guards and took off for the other end of the floor. His hard running earned an easy layup on the break to keep his team close.
The second was Pineau’s bread and butter followed by a piece of unexpected brilliance. After fighting for and winning an offensive rebound, he was able to fling the ball over his head to the red-hot Adam Gibson behind the arc. The veteran guard's three pulled the Phoenix back to within four points with three minutes left.
Finally, the cherry on top of the cake was the steal that made their win possible. Guarding the inbounder with 11.1 seconds left, Pineau found a way to get a hand on the pass and control the possession. That, of course, led to John Roberson’s huge three to send the game to overtime.
That last play in particular is a microcosm for Pineau’s whole season. The headline-grabbing play came from Roberson, and he deserves all the credit in the world for his late-game explosion. Without Pineau, though, he and the Phoenix would never have even had the chance to send the game to overtime. He’s a winning player, and he continues to make winning plays.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs MEL: 4 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST
Per-game stats: 6.9 PTS, 3.3 REB, 1.5 AST, 0.8 STL, 38.1% FG, 35.5% 3PT
The less said about Illawarra's performance on Monday night, the better. Even in a close first quarter they struggled to find any rhythm and were eventually blown out by 21 points.
Sunday Dech had his worst game since moving into the starting lineup, but it's hard to be too critical of his performance. He was limited by foul trouble, playing just under 18 minutes, but he at least brought some intensity on the defensive end that was lacking from some of his teammates. On a night where the Hawks shot just 36.5% from the field and gave up almost 100 points, Dech was far from their worst performer.
Vs SEM: 12 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 5-6 FG, 1-2 3PT
Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 3-5 FG, 1-1 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.9 PTS, 4.9 REB, 2.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 53.6% FG, 38.5% 3PT
December has been a quiet month for Drmic, if only by the lofty standards he set in November. After a career-high 15 rebounds against Sydney in round five and back-to-back 20 point hauls across rounds seven and eight, he's been held to single figures scoring twice in Adelaide's last four games. The new month has seen his rebounding (2.75 per game), assists (2 per game) and steals (0.5 per game) all dip from his season averages too.
That doesn't mean he's been playing badly, though, as he's filled his role perfectly for a team that has won four of their last five. Across Adelaide's two games in round 11, he shot 72.7% from the field, 66.7% from three and was a combined plus-six in two close wins. With Jerome Randle and Eric Griffin both firing, Drmic has been able to take a back seat and chip in when needed.
Vs MEL: 11 PTS, 4 AST, 1 BLK, 2-3 3PT
Per-game stats: 7.3 PTS, 1.6 REB, 3.4 AST, 52.1% FG, 42.2% 3PT
Is there anything more fun to watch than the development of a late bloomer? So often in basketball it seems that once a young player passes a certain age without becoming a superstar, they're seen as damaged goods. Maybe critics had reason to write off Shaun Bruce; he's 28 years old, had already spent seven seasons in the league before NBL20, and spent most of last season out of the league before being called in as an injury replacement for Adelaide.
Fast forward to today, and he's become one of the most reliable reserves in the NBL for a team that has dominated the competition. He's one of 13 players with more than 50 total assists (51), and among those players he has the least turnovers with just 13. His scoring has gotten better and better too, as he's topped double figures in his last three games while shooting at a 52/42/93 clip for the season.
A year after playing just seven games and averaging 2.4 points per contest, Bruce's emergence as a key contributor for the championship favourite is as surprising as it is pleasing. If he can continue his steady play, he'll be a worthy contender both here and in the Best Sixth Man race come the end of the season.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs SEM: 20 PTS, 10 REB, 8-13 FG, 1-2 3PT
Vs NZ: 14 PTS, 8 REB, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 5-7 FG
Per-game stats: 15.8 PTS, 6.3 REB, 1.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.3 BLK, 56.6% FG, 34.4% 3PT
It feels like we're seeing Eric Griffin mature right before our eyes. He's played with an unbridled energy since he first hit the floor for the 36ers, but every week he seems to be more and more in control and making better decisions on the fly. Where he was once settling for jump shots, he's driving hard to the basket. Where he was forcing tough shots, he's finding open teammates. Where he was skying for unrealistic blocks, he's more efficiently protecting the rim.
There are shades of Jacob Wiley for Adelaide last season-- an uber-athletic big man that took a while to find his footing in the league. Wiley eventually blossomed as the season went on, and Griffin has done the same as Adelaide have charged into the top four. Across their last six games, and mostly from a reserve role, he's averaging 20 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. Those marks would see him inside the top ten for scoring and steals, as well as 11th for rebounding, across the whole season.
There are still some frustrating moments, such as the two quick offensive fouls down the stretch against the Breakers that saw him foul out of the game. The good is starting to vastly outweigh the bad, though, and the 36ers are reaping the rewards.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs PER: 10 PTS, 2 REB, 4 AST, 4-8 FG, 2-5 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.5 PTS, 2.1 REB, 2.2 AST, 44.5% FG, 43.3% 3PT
After leading the way early in the season, Cadee returns to the Best Sixth Man conversation after a lengthy stint in the Bullets starting five. His move back to the bench wasn't due to poor performance, as he has thrived in any role even as his team has struggled. Round 11 marked his fifth straight game scoring in double figures, a mark he has only missed once all season.
Sitting sixth in the league for made threes is no mean feat either, especially considering his fluctuating role. Among the top fifteen shooters from deep, he trails only John Roberson for accuracy, knocking down 43.3% of his triples at a high volume.
As the Bullets continue to flounder, Cadee is the steadying force among their crowded guard rotation. Whether starting or coming off the bench, he'll be a major contributor to any success they hope to have this season.
As per earlier.