The second half of the NBL season has felt like an inauguration of sorts for Will Magnay. Since his entry into the Brisbane Bullets' starting lineup in round 12, he has helped to turn their season around while spiking the shots of opponents at every opportunity. Round 17 was no different, as he blocked 12 shots across two games and filled the highlight reels as much as anyone in the league. His name will surely come up in the discussion for Defensive Player of the Year, and he has surged into the lead for the Most Improved Player.
The favourites for the other awards are starting to create some distance, but there's still time for the contenders to make their case. As the finals approach and teams start to stamp their tickets, who from their rosters will sprint through the finish line?
MVP: Bryce Cotton
Vs NZ: 23 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 7-17 FG, 4-8 3PT
Per-game stats: 22.1 PTS, 3.9 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.7 STL, 43% FG, 40% 3PT
It's hard to write about Bryce Cotton every week without becoming repetitive, such is the consistency of his output and impact. His ability to sense the big moments is uncanny, and it was evident once again in the first quarter against the New Zealand Breakers. As the Breakers got away to a hot start, Cotton poured in 16 of his team's 29 points in the period with his usual blend of fierce drives and long bombs. That set the tone for the remainder of the game, and as Perth's big men started to fire he settled back into a steadier style of play.
Cotton's biggest strength is his scoring, and players like him seem to be naturally viewed as ball-dominant or selfish at times. It's impossible to levy such claims at him, though, as he proves time and time again that he knows when to defer and when to take over. It never feels like he is forcing the action, even when he is taking the bulk of his team's shots.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs SEM: 24 PTS, 4 REB, 8 AST, 1 STL, 8-14 FG, 5-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 17.2 PTS, 3.5 REB, 8.1 AST, 1.4 STL, 46% FG, 41% 3PT
Is anyone playing with more confidence right now than Scott Machado? With the Cairns Taipans surging towards the postseason, he continues to lift himself and his team to greater heights.
Somehow, the player that was being gifted open shots from deep in the preseason has become a devastating scorer in the half court. He's still being given space outside the arc, but it's no longer by design - it's because defenders know that he can easily beat them off the dribble if they over-commit. Another five threes against the South East Melbourne Phoenix took him to 50 for the season, good for eighth in the league. That would have been unfathomable not too long ago, and it has helped to unlock his team's true potential.
Vs SEM: 27 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 9-19 FG, 3-5 3PT
Vs ADE: 29 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK, 8-19 FG, 3-7 3PT
Per-game stats: 21.2 PTS, 5.8 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 46% FG, 34% 3PT
Brisbane is tantalisingly close to locking up a finals berth, and Lamar Patterson continues to improve at the pointy end of the season. A pair of commanding offensive performances in round 17 sees him averaging 25 points, 6 rebounds and 4.5 assists over the last month.
Patterson was already one of the league's toughest matchups, but Brisbane's small-ball lineups have made him even more dangerous. Against the Phoenix he spent time matched up on Dane Pineau, and the big man had no answers for Patterson's quick first step and shooting ability. Add in the strength to battle with players like Pineau, and to bully those smaller, and Patterson will have any opponent a little nervous come the finals.
Vs SEM: 23 PTS, 6 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 8-11 FG, 2-4 3PT
Per-game stats: 19.7 PTS, 3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 51.6% FG, 42.3% 3PT
Another all-around display of excellence sees DJ Newbill promoted from the Most Improved Player discussion into the big leagues. With Cairns almost assured a place in the finals, he deserves recognition alongside Scott Machado as the catalyst for their surprising resurgence.
There's been plenty of talk around his potential place in the All-Defensive teams at the end of the season. The fact that those discussions can be had about a player leading his league in scoring and offensive rating differential, per Spatial Jam, is quite remarkable. Basketball is a two-way game, and Newbill makes a compelling case to be the best two-way player in the league.
Vs ILL: 10 PTS, 2 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 4-15 FG
Vs MEL: 26 PTS, 3 REB, 6 AST, 9-18 FG, 8-15 3PT
Per-game stats: 19.7 PTS, 2.7 REB, 4.1 AST, 38.4% FG, 30.3% 3PT
Every time I try to wash my hands of Casper Ware in these rankings, he manages to claw his way back in. This time, it was a ridiculous shooting display against his former team, as he dropped eight threes on Melbourne United and showed his unlimited range.
The problem? That performance just barely nudged his three-point percentage for the season above 30%. Ware continues to dominate against United, but he needs to bring that same level of play to every matchup. As per NBLfacts, he's averaging 28.7 points per game against Melbourne, shooting 53% from the field and 48.8% from deep. Against the rest of the league, that dips to 17.9 points at 35% from the field and 26.2% from three. Melbourne aren't going to be in the finals; something has to change.
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
Apologies for the false alarm in last week's column - the NBL confirmed with The Pick and Roll that Sunday Dech is not eligible to win Rookie of the Year. That sees Ball regain his place at the top of these rankings, and with his nearest competitors still banged up he may have the award locked down. His lack of games played can hardly be used against him, with no one playing a significant amount more making a compelling case at this stage. With narrative also on his side, it's hard to see the trophy going to anyone else.
Rookie of the Year honourable mentions
Per-game stats: 11.4 PTS, 6.8 REB, 1 AST, 42.9% FG, 34.8% 3PT
Did not play in round 17 (ankle injury).
Per-game stats: 8.8 PTS, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 40% FG, 29.5% 3PT
Did not play in round 17 (hip injury).
Most Improved Player: Will Magnay
Vs SEM: 19 PTS, 6 REB, 1 AST, 7 BLK, 5-9 FG
Vs ADE: 9 PTS, 7 REB, 1 AST, 5 BLK
Per-game stats: 8.7 PTS, 5.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 2.2 BLK, 49.3% FG
Talk about timing your run! Both Will Magnay and the Brisbane Bullets are charging to the finish line of the regular season. The Bullets have pulled clear in fourth spot as the finals approach, and Magnay has been the catalyst for their change in fortunes.
A pair of stunning defensive performances in round 17 mean he now has 22 rejections in his last four games. Maybe most impressive was that he has had just eight fouls over that same stretch-- when players are simply chasing blocks, they generally pick up cheap whistles. Magnay's ability to challenge shooters without fouling is the best indicator of his instincts, judgement and timing on the defensive end, all skills that are tough to learn.
Round 17 was a masterclass in rim protection, with a handful of clutch blocks coming in Magnay's trademark explosive style. His block on Dane Pineau in the dying moments against the Phoenix was one of the plays of the season. Brisbane are now 6-2 over the past month, and it's been clear that Magnay's introduction to the starting lineup has been one of the catalysts. Moments like that against the Phoenix are now ironclad proof that they would be losing more games if it weren't for him.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs BRI: 10 PTS, 12 REB, 2 AST, 2 STL, 3 BLK, 5-8 FG
Vs CAI: 2 PTS, 6 REB, 2 STL
Per-game stats: 8.1 PTS, 8.7 REB, 3.5 ORB, 1 STL, 1.1 BLK, 66.7% FG
Dane Pineau hasn't done much wrong to lose top spot here, and he's still neck and neck with Will Magnay for the silverware. Their head-to-head battle in round 17 was a head-scratching affair for Pineau - his numbers were rock solid, but watching in the moment it felt like a tough outing. He struggled to guard Lamar Patterson in the post, and the defining moment of the game was Magnay blocking his shot late in the piece.
Against Cairns, the struggle was a little more tangible. He picked up four fouls in 25 minutes, and the inside-out big man combo of Cam Oliver and Majok Deng made it a tough matchup. Again, Pineau still hasn't done much wrong overall, as he sits inside the top ten in the league for rebounds and blocks per game, and second in offensive rebounds per game. The rise of Magnay shouldn't take away from the phenomenal season that Pineau is having.
See MVP honourable mentions.
Vs SYD: 11 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 4-10 FG, 3-5 3PT
Per-game stats: 8.9 PTS, 3.5 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.8 STL, 37.6% FG, 31.9% 3PT
Defensively, Sunday Dech continues to terrorise the opposition's best guards. In round 17 it was Casper Ware on the hot seat, and the Kings star finished with ten points on 4-15 shooting. Dech is compiling an impressive list of player's he has shut down, and on that end of the floor he never looks like slowing down or taking a backward step.
Offensively, there is still plenty of work to be done. The game against the Kings was far from his worst shooting performance, but it was still below the standard the Hawks would hope for him to reach. Knocking down three triples helped to offset that, but it's fitting that his finishing inside the arc dipped with his first game over 40% from deep in six outings. It's also now been seven games since he shot over 50% from the field.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs BRI: 21 PTS, 5 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 8-14 FG, 2-3 3PT
Per-game stats: 15.2 PTS, 6.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.3 BLK, 55.1% FG, 37.5% 3PT
It was good to see Griffin bounce back from what was, quite frankly, a bafflingly poor performance a week ago. His game has continued to expand throughout the season, and his full offensive arsenal was on display against the Bullets.
It's easy to forget at times that Griffin is a big man. His first step off the dribble is as quick as any player in the league, and his dexterity around the rim makes him almost impossible to stop in close. Even up against the big Bullets frontline, he found ways to put the ball in the basket, while holding his own on the other end of the floor. The 36ers suffered another tough loss, but their effort and the effort of Griffin couldn't be faulted against the red-hot Bullets.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs SEM: 13 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 4-7 FG, 2-5 3PT
Vs ADE: 11 PTS, 2 REB, 4-7 FG, 3-5 3PT
Per-game stats: 11.2 PTS, 2.1 REB, 2.5 AST, 44.7% FG, 44.1% 3PT
Much like with Bryce Cotton, it's hard to find new ways to talk about Jason Cadee's consistency for the Bullets. In round 17, he averaged 0.8 points above his season scoring average while shooting over 50% from the field and from three. He chipped in in other areas, but most importantly, he hardly made any mistakes. Somehow, his two turnovers against Adelaide marked his highest tally since January 3.
That near-faultless play comes from Cadee's acute awareness of his strengths. He's a fantastic three-point shooter, so he has taken a remarkable 76.1% of his shots this season from deep. Playing within yourself is a skill in itself, and it's one that Cadee has mastered.