Well, here we are-- with just one round left in the NBL regular season, it's almost time to start handing out some silverware. Can long-time leaders like Bryce Cotton and Eric Griffin hold on for one more week? Does LaMelo Ball have the Rookie of the Year sown up already? Who will win the battle between Dane Pineau and Will Magnay for Most Improved Player?
There's only one week left to make a case, and only a handful of games before the answers to those questions are locked in and written into the history books.
MVP: Bryce Cotton
Vs BRI: 25 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 5-14 FG, 1-2 3PT, 14-14 FT
Per-game stats: 22.5 PTS, 3.9 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.7 STL, 42.5% FG, 38.5% 3PT
For the second straight game, Cotton lived at the free throw line and found a way to win despite another off shooting night. He's 24-25 at the line over the last two games, which has helped to offset his 14-39 shooting from the field. Most importantly, the Perth Wildcats won both games to essentially lock in a top two finish and home court advantage in the semi-finals.
It has helped Cotton that teammate Nick Kay has lifted in recent games, averaging 21.8 points and 9.3 rebounds in Perth's last four. Still, it's Cotton that is usually setting the tone, particularly on the offensive end. He had nine points in the first quarter, all from the field, and when his shot stopped falling he willed his way to the line with the usual array of shifty dribbles. His crossover is still the most unguardable move in the league-- no matter the defender, he rocks back and forth with the ball and always finds space at the end of the play.
Great players find ways to be effective, even when they're not at their best. Cotton's shot is a crucial part of his game, but he's showing every week that it's not the only thing he has going for him.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs ADE: 12 PTS, 7 REB, 6 AST, 2 STL, 3-11 FG, 1-6 3PT
Per-game stats: 16.8 PTS, 3.7 REB, 8.1 AST, 1.4 AST, 45.8% FG, 40.5% 3PT
Scott Machado continues to do exactly as much as he needs to in any given game. Against the Adelaide 36ers, that mostly meant staying out of the way while Cam Oliver dominated in the paint.
Even when Machado isn't dominating on the scoreboard as he has done for much of the second half of the season, he still brings plenty to the table. It was a cold shooting night against Adelaide, but he was still able to open up the floor for others with a range of shifty moves to create penetration. He's had just 24 points in the last two games combined, but he's also had 17 assists with just four turnovers. All players struggle at times, but the best players don't let that struggle spread across their whole game.
Vs NZ: 18 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 6-14 FG, 2-6 3PT
Vs PER: 25 PTS, 11 REB, 3 AST, 9-22 FG, 2-8 3PT
Per-game stats: 21.6 PTS, 6.1 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.1 STL, 46.6% FG, 34.5% 3PT
Just like that, Lamar Patterson and the Bullets are on the outside of the finals race looking in. All it took was one tiny slip-up against the New Zealand Breakers, and unfortunately for Patterson it was his quietest game in weeks. He played less than 25 minutes, with his lowest point total since round 15 and his lowest assist tally since round 13.
That's not to say it was a poor performance, by any means. It was simply below his extraordinarily high standard, which is the level of play that the Bullets have relied on during their late-season run. If they do miss out on a place in the finals, none of the blame should be placed on Patterson's shoulders.
Vs BRI: 31 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 11-22 FG, 1-5 3PT
Per-game stats: 19 PTS, 5.9 REB, 4.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 47.4% FG, 40.7% 3PT
From the outset, it was clear that Scotty Hopson wasn't going to let his team lose in round 19. Placed in a do-or-die scenario against the Brisbane Bullets, he put in one of the best performances of the season to keep New Zealand's season alive.
Surprisingly, that started on the defensive end. With Brisbane pulling away after a 10-0 start, Hopson tipped a pass to teammate Sek Henry, took off down the floor and finished a tough layup in transition. He had ten points in a first quarter shootout to keep the Breakers close, and he only continued from there in a dominant display from inside the paint. New Zealand's run to the finals has coincided with his return from injury-- if that's not "valuable", I don't know what is.
Vs ADE: 17 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL, 7-14 FG, 1-5 3PT
Per-game stats: 19.6 PTS, 3 REB, 3.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 51.7% FG, 42.3% 3PT
There's not much to say about DJ Newbill that hasn't already been said. Playing alongside the flashy Machado and the occasionally up-and-down Cam Oliver, Newbill is a steadying presence whose performance never wavers.
The best summation of his consistecy? It could be argued that Saturday's game was his "quietest" since the start of the new year. When a player can shoot 50% from the field, chip in across the board and grab three steals in a win and it just feels normal, that's a very good sign.
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
Vs ADE: 3 PTS, 5 REB, 1 STL, 1-6 FG, 1-2 3PT
Per-game stats: 10.9 PTS, 6.7 REB, 0.9 AST, 42% FG, 35.2% 3PT
Finally, some action in the Rookie of the Year! Unfortunately for those looking for some suspense on award night, Kouat Noi's return has come too late to make much of a difference. His performance against Adelaide certainly wouldn't help either, as he unsurprisingly showed some rust after nearly two months out.
Things looked promising when he knocked down his second shot of the game from deep, but that was as good as it got in the scoring column. Still, he brought his usual energy off the bench while crashing the glass, pulling in five rebounds in just eight minutes. That will likely be his role now, with Mirko Djeric settled in the starting lineup.
Per-game stats: 8.8 PTS, 3.8 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.1 STL, 40% FG, 29.5% 3PT
Out for the remainder of the season (hip injury), returned to the United States.
Most Improved Player: Will Magnay
Vs NZ: 3 PTS, 11 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3 BLK, 1-3 FG
Vs PER: 5 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 2-7 FG
Per-game stats: 8.2 PTS, 6.1 REB, 1.2 AST, 2.2 BLK, 48.3% FG
It's been a rough stretch offensively for Will Magnay. He's up to four games in single figures for scoring, and he shot just 30% from the field across round 19.
Realistically, though, it's not his job to light up the scoreboard. Magnay is a defensive weapon, and he continues to block shots at a high rate. His 2.2 blocks per game lead the league by a wide margin, and they always come with plenty of athletic flair.
While his season rebounding numbers don't jump off the page, his work on the boards has improved over the season-- he's averaging eight per game in his last 12 outings, including 2.3 offensive rebounds. This award highlights improvement from previous years, but Magnay has taken huge strides during the season too.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs SYD: 5 PTS, 13 REB, 6 ORB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 1-4 FG
Per-game stats: 7.9 PTS, 8.9 REB, 3.6 ORB, 1 STL, 1.1 BLK, 66.2% FG
Much like Magnay, Dane Pineau has settled into the role that suits him best. A run of double-doubles and record-setting rebounding efforts set the bar high, but games like these are where he will make his money for years to come.
He has been the only thing holding together a Phoenix defence that ranks dead last in the NBL, as per Spatial Jam. It's hard to give him much chance in the Defensive Player of the Year race given that fact, but he's one of just two players averaging a block and a steal per game (min. 10 games). He may have the best instincts of any player in the league-- he can tip passes, block shots and read offensive rebounds better than almost any other player.
See MVP honourable mentions.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs CAI: 11 PTS, 8 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 4-11 FG
Per-game stats: 14.6 PTS, 6.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.3 BLK, 53.4% FG, 32.7% 3PT
Every week, it gets harder and harder to evaluate Eric Griffin's play. As the 36ers continue to slide, Griffin is still putting up solid raw numbers. But he's also an import coming off the bench, and an athletic big man shooting just 44.2% from the field over his last five games.
With Griffin leading the way, this was meant to be an Adelaide team that would grind out wins with solid defence. That plan changed slightly when Deshon Taylor was replaced by Jerome Randle, but it's still disappointing that they sit seventh in the league with a defensive rating of 119.4 points per 100 possessions (per Spatial Jam).
There's no doubting that Griffin has the most impressive numbers of any player coming off the bench. It's becoming more and more uncertain how much he's helping his team win, though. That's why Jason Cadee is right on his tail for this award; with one round left, it could go right down to the wire.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Vs NZ: 14 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST, 4-10 FG, 4-7 3PT
Vs PER: 8 PTS, 4 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 3-8 FG, 1-4 3PT
Per-game stats: 11 PTS, 2.3 REB, 2.4 AST, 44.3% FG, 43.3% 3PT
Jason Cadee's big advantage over Eric Griffin has dipped slightly, as Brisbane have dropped outside of the top four. He was his usual steady self across both games, draining five threes and committing just two turnovers, but it wasn't quite enough to get a win in either contest.
That's hardly on Cadee, though-- he's not the type of player that will single-handedly take over a game. He continues to do his job every week, just as he has done all season. Can his Bullets teammates go with him and sneak into the finals with a late push?
Vs BRI: 14 PTS, 3 REB, 1 STL, 5-12 FG, 4-8 3PT
Per-game stats: 9 PTS, 1.9 REB, 0.9 AST, 41.6% FG, 41.8% 3PT
It's easy to see Clint Steindl as a one-dimension player. Whether that's true or not is open to debate. It doesn't really matter, though, when your biggest skill is shooting the ball and when you're as good at it as Steindl is. He's tenth in the league for made threes despite playing just 17.5 minutes per game, and among the top ten he's fourth in three point percentage.
More importantly, he has lifted in recent weeks as star wing Terrico White struggled. In his last three games, White has averaged seven points while shooting 25.7% from the field and 15.8% from deep. In those same three games, Steindl has put up 12.7 points on 52% from the field and a scorching 62.5% from three. If White's shooting woes continue into the postseason, Steindl will become even more crucial to the Wildcats.