Round 18 NBL award leaders: 15 expert nominations, but Bryce Cotton remains our MVP

Well, I think I've been upstaged this week. The NBL announced the official nominees for each of the major awards on Tuesday, with the usual mix of certainties and surprises.

All but one of the players listed below have been officially nominated for their award, which means that the expert panel and I agree to some extent. That doesn't mean the discussion has to stop around the specifics, though. Until those trophies are handed out at the end of the season, they're still well and truly up for grabs.

*A quick note on one nominee: Will Magnay for Best Sixth Man. While he is technically eligible having started more games on the bench than on the court, he and his team have both had their most impressive performances late in the year and with him in the starting lineup. When it comes to the Sixth Man argument, I see his games in the starting lineup as largely irrelevant-- they're great performances, but they're not in the role that the award is for. That's why he hasn't featured in our Best Sixth Man rankings for some time.

MVP: Bryce Cotton

Vs MEL: 21 PTS, 2 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 8-20 FG, 0-2 3PT

Vs SYD: 30 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 5 STL, 9-25 FG, 2-12 3PT, 10-11 FT

Per-game stats: 22.4 PTS, 3.9 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.8 STL, 42.7% FG, 38.3% 3PT

It was a horror shooting weekend for Bryce Cotton, at least by his high standards. Despite that, it was a lack of support from his teammates that ultimately saw the Perth Wildcats fall against Melbourne United. An even worse shooting display against the Sydney Kings could have cost his team again, but Cotton found a way to remain effective and the Wildcats found a way to win against the ladder leaders.

By the time Cotton made his first field goal, a triple with 38 seconds left in the first, he already had seven points on the board. Ten made free throws in the game helped to offset a 9-25 shooting night from the field, as well as 2-12 from deep. As per usual, he did most of his damage when the Wildcats needed it most, with ten points in a high-scoring first quarter and seven in the final frame when their offence dried up.

Cotton's individual efficiency was much better against United and he fought hard throughout, but his teammates struggled mightily across all four quarters. Cotton and Nick Kay combined for 44 points on 44.4% shooting; the rest of the Wildcats had 23 points on 28.1% shooting. The loss would sting and Cotton was a little below his best, but it's hard to place too much blame on his shoulders.

MVP honourable mentions

Scott Machado

Vs ILL: 12 PTS, 3 REB, 11 AST, 1 STL, 4-6 FG, 2-3 3PT

Per-game stats: 17 PTS, 3.5 REB, 8.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 46.4% FG, 41.6% 3PT

With the Cairns Taipans essentially locked into the top four, Scott Machado played their matchup against Illawarra perfectly. From their 21-7 start onwards the Taipans never looked like losing, and Machado took the opportunity to take a back seat and get his teammates involved with some easy offence.

He took just five shots, making four of them, and dished out 11 assists with two turnovers. Ten different Taipans hit the scoreboard, the perfect preparation for the bigger games still to come. Meanwhile, Machado became the first player to have 200 assists during a season in the 40-minute era of the NBL. It was fitting that he brought up the milestone in a game where his passing was the true focus after an impressive scoring run.

Lamar Patterson

Vs MEL: 31 PTS, 12 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 11-19 FG, 5-9 3PT

Per-game stats: 21.6 PTS, 6.1 REB, 4.7 AST, 1.2 STL, 47% FG, 35.2% 3PT

The NBL MVP is officially a three-horse race. Lamar Patterson is finally getting the credit he deserves for another outstanding season, and Brisbane are the hottest team in the league as they ride a six game win streak. Over that stretch Patterson has scored 30-plus points twice and 20-plus five times, while shooting 54.8% from the field and 44.1% from deep.

Melbourne tried every versatile defender they had, but none of Mitch McCarron, Stanton Kidd, Shea Ili and David Barlow could slow Patterson down. After spending plenty of time in the post over recent weeks, he did most of his work on the perimeter against United, making 7 of his 11 field goals from outside the paint. When Patterson is hitting those jump shots, he is essentially unstoppable.

DJ Newbill

Vs ILL: 20 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 7-13 FG, 4-7 3PT

Per-game stats: 19.8 PTS, 3 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.3 STL, 51.7% FG, 43.1% 3PT

It has become increasingly rare to see DJ Newbill make the wrong play. Admittedly, the Illawarra Hawks and their lacklustre defence made it obvious what the course of action should be. Still, plenty of players would find a way to make the incorrect decisions.

Not Newbill. His first two buckets were in transition, as he simply outworked the entire Hawks squad. When AJ Ogilvy switched onto him on the perimeter, he calmly stepped back and drained a three. He knocked down three more triples in the contest, two from Scott Machado feeds and one after navigating a screen on the wing. On the ball or off the ball, he's a chameleon who fills in the spaces around his teammates and plays every role perfectly.

Mitch Creek

Vs ADE: 27 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 9-19 FG, 1-3 FG

Per-game stats: 20.4 PTS, 7.2 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.2 STL, 48.1% FG, 35.4% 3PT

With the South East Melbourne Phoenix sliding towards the foot of the ladder, it's hard to see Mitch Creek contending for MVP. It's worth acknowledging his return to form, though, after a down month in which he reportedly played through injury. After six consecutive games with less than 20 points, he's scored 32 and 27 in his last two outings.

More importantly, he's looked more and more like his old self. Creek is at his best when he can rip down a rebound or get an outlet pass and push the ball in transition. He did that with aplomb against the 36ers, driving hard into the defence and either finishing at the rim or finding open teammates. Creek's achilles soreness brought down all of his numbers, because every element of his game is predicated on his athleticism and work ethic. Now back at 100%, he has the chance to finish the season on a high.

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

Out for the remainder of the season (foot injury), returned to the United States.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

Kouat Noi

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).

RJ Hampton

Per-game stats: 8.8 PTS, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 40% FG, 29.5% 3PT

Another one bites the dust-- RJ Hampton is now officially done for the season, and his hopes of winning Rookie of the Year have crossed the Pacific with him. The Next Star didn't have the impact in the NBL that many hoped he would, but there were plenty of promising signs from a player that will be among the youngest in his NBA draft class. He leaves Australia as a projected top-ten pick, experience against older professionals and a handy paycheck in his wallet. All in all, it's hard to see his lone NBL season as anything but a success.

Most Improved Player: Will Magnay

Vs MEL: 7 PTS, 7 REB, 4 ORB, 1 AST, 1 BLK, 3-5 FG

Per-game stats: 8.6 PTS, 5.8 REB, 1.2 AST, 2.2 BLK, 49.6% FG

If this looks like a quiet game for Will Magnay, that's only because he's set the bar so high for himself in recent weeks. He was still a solid contributor in Brisbane's win over Melbourne, their sixth consecutive victory that edged them closer to a guaranteed finals berth.

With Matt Hodgson (14 points, 14 rebounds) enjoying a strong outing, Magnay was able to take something of a back seat. Brisbane's biggest advantage in the game was on the boards, though, and he was able to chip in with four of his team's 28 offensive rebounds.

In a close game where a tiny swing could have changed the outcome, Magnay and Hodgson were able to keep Shawn Long off the glass while holding him to 15 points. Rim protectors like Magnay won't always have big statlines or flashy plays, but he continues to have a positive impact on his team week in, week out.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Dane Pineau

Vs ADE: 6 PTS, 10 REB, 5 ORB, 2 STL, 2 BLK, 3-3 FG

Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 8.8 REB, 3.5 ORB, 1 STL, 1.1 BLK, 67.4% FG

This may be the quintessential Dane Pineau game: crashing the glass, making all the right plays defensively, and taking as many or as few shots come to him in the flow of the offence. The recordbreaking rebounding performances were nice, but this should be the benchmark for Pineau moving forward.

Much like Mitch Creek, it's a shame that so many of Pineau's good moments aren't backed up by his teammates. During one sequence in the third quarter, he snagged back-to-back offensive rebounds, but the Phoenix still failed to score on the possession. It was a similar story in crunch time-- Pineau blocked a go-ahead effort from Daniel Johnson, only for Jerome Randle to put in an open layup moments later to take the lead. Still, it was another rock-solid performance from the Defensive Player of the Year nominee.

DJ Newbill

Here it is-- the one player that the NBL's expert panel and I disagree on. It's not exactly surprising, as Most Improved Player awards the world over are dominated by people who go from minimal playing time to a more substantial role. These types of players usually, and deservedly, win these awards.

It's easy to gloss over the type of jump that Newbill has made. I was as guilty of that as anyone this season, as it took until past the halfway point for him to be included here. The improvement from fringe starter to great player is arguably more impressive than the improvement from non-rotation player to starter. That doesn't necessarily mean someone like Newbill should win the award, but it's hard to see how he isn't in the top seven candidate list.

Sunday Dech

Vs CNS: 8 PTS, 5 REB, 4 AST, 3-9 FG

Vs NZ: 3 PTS, 6 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 1-6 FG

Per-game stats: 8.6 PTS, 3.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 0.8 STL, 36.9% FG, 31.3% 3PT

It's incredibly hard to judge a player like Dech, a defensive-minded guard on the worst team in the league. The Hawks were torched on the perimeter once again in round 18-- Scott Machado, DJ Newbill, Sek Henry and Scotty Hopson all had their way with the Illawarra defence. How much of the blame for that should be assigned to Dech is unclear, but he's proven himself enough this season to receive a pass given the circumstances.

Shooting continues to be an issue, as he's now nine games removed from his last 50% performance from the field. His playmaking looked steadier, though - over the two games in round 18, he had six assists and just two turnovers.

Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin

Vs NZ: 4 PTS, 1 BLK, 2-3 FG

Vs SEM: 13 PTS, 10 REB, 2 BLK, 4-12 FG

Per-game stats: 14.7 PTS, 6.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 1.3 BLK, 54.2% FG, 34.6% 3PT

Eric Griffin continues to be the league's most baffling import. Round 18 illustrated that perfectly, as he was a total no-show once again in their first game, before bouncing back with a double-double in the second.

The above play sums up Griffin's game against the Breakers, and a lot of his other lacklustre games, perfectly. After hustling back on defence but being dunked on by Jordan Ngatai, Griffin inexplicably decided to inbound the ball to... himself? It was a truly bizarre moment in a truly bizarre performance, as he played 13 minutes, failed to grab a single rebound and took just three shots.

Sunday's outing against the Phoenix was far from perfect, but at least there was a little more urgency and effort in Griffin's play. He was switched on defensively from the outset, and his ten rebounds took away one of the major strengths of Dane Pineau. It's not surprising that the 36ers lost to the Breakers and beat the Phoenix. It should, however, be a little disappointing, both for Adelaide and for Griffin.

Best Sixth Man honourable mentions

Jason Cadee

Vs MEL: 6 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL, 3-6 FG

Per-game stats: 11 PTS, 2.2 REB, 2.5 AST, 44.8% FG, 43.2% 3PT

Saturday's game against Melbourne United was Jason Cadee's first without a made three since round four against the Sydney Kings. That's a testament to his consistency, and goes some way to explaining his place in the top five in the league for made threes despite coming off the bench.

Even on an 0-3 night from deep, Cadee found other ways to be effective. He made all three attempts from inside the arc, committed just one turnover while controlling the offence and grabbed two steals at the other end. Steady production is what separates Cadee from award leader Eric Griffin, and it's what may still see him take home the silverware.

Shaun Bruce

Vs PER: 7 PTS, 3 REB, 5 AST, 3-8 FG

Per-game stats: 7.5 PTS, 1.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 44.2% FG, 33.7% 3PT

In many ways, Round 18's game against the Wildcats was a typically steady one for Shaun Bruce-- 5 assists, no turnovers and solid team defence. He's still the hottest shooting point guard on his team (thanks Casper Ware!) but he has cooled considerably after a hot start to the season. It's now been five games since he last shot over 40% from the field, and seven since he hit more than 35% of his threes. He may not be a focal point of the offence, but he'll need to knock down open shots in the finals.