Round 3 NBL award leaders: Can anyone stop Mitch Creek and the Phoenix?

Round three of NBL20 is now in the books, and with every team having now played, the picture of the season is starting to become a little clearer. The Adelaide 36ers blew off the rust with a pair of impressive wins, while the New Zealand Breakers made their season debut and pushed the ladder-leading Kings in a pair of close losses.

For the NBL20 award races, a host of new faces are now jostling for position in some very crowded fields. Did the super reserves of the 36ers do enough to leapfrog the early leaders? Which Next Star is leading the way for Rookie of the Year? And can anyone stop Mitch Creek and the high-flying South East Melbourne Phoenix?

MVP: Mitch Creek

Vs ILL: 23 PTS, 6 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL

Per-game stats: 25.3 PTS, 8 REB, 5.3 AST, 2 STL, 47.5% FG, 35.7% FG

It might be time to retire the talk and the rhetoric about how good Creek might be with an outside shot. Maybe that matters to NBA executives, but the last two games have shown that Creek doesn’t need to hit threes to be the best player in the NBL. Since starting the season shooting 4-5 from deep in round one, he has been a combined 1-8 on threes in the two weeks since.

It hasn’t mattered at all, as Creek has continued to thrive and the Phoenix have remained undefeated through the first three rounds. He again had plenty of offensive support from John Roberson, but it’s hard to decide which of the two helps the other more. Either Creek’s hard drives to the basket collapse the defence and give Roberson space to fire, or Roberson’s ridiculous range stretches the opposition and allows Creek to finish more easily.

It still feels like Creek sets the tone for this team, though, and his phenomenal defence gives him a clear edge in the MVP race. He’s leading the league in scoring and ranks inside the top three for rebounds per game (third) and steals per game (second). All of that has been done on a team that has outperformed expectations with one of their imports injured, and it’s Creek’s versatility that has allowed them to deal with that loss so spectacularly.

MVP honourable mentions

John Roberson

Vs ILL: 26 PTS, 10 AST, 4 REB, 5-9 3PT

Per-game stats: 25.3 PTS, 2.3 REB, 6.3 AST, 62.2% FG, 69.2% 3PT

They may only be three games into their debut season, but the Phoenix might have the best one-two punch in the league with Creek and Roberson. The American guard is yet to have a bad game in the NBL, and on a night where the Phoenix shot just 28.2% from deep he continued to fill it up from the perimeter, hitting five of his nine threes.

Roberson is dead even with his teammate at first in the league for points per game, and his ten dimes against the Hawks saw him move into second in assists. He may lack the defensive impact of Creek, but Roberson is making a case as the best offensive player in the NBL early in the season. He’ll be tested next round, though, as the Phoenix face travel to Perth to face Damian Martin and the Wiildcats.

Bryce Cotton

Vs CAI: 14 PTS, 6 REB, 4 AST, 5-13 FG

Vs MEL: 27 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 8-16 FG

Per-game stats: 22.5 PTS, 4 REB, 4 AST, 1.8 STL, 47.5% FG, 52.4% 3PT

At half time of Perth’s second game of the round, Cotton was threatening to drop off this list altogether. By the end of the 95-93 win over Melbourne, he was well and truly back in the frame after a stunning second half and game winner.

Over his first six quarters in round three, Cotton scored 21 points on 7-20 shooting. In the last two against United, he had 20 points on 6-9 shooting. It could have been a disastrous weekend for Perth after their shock loss to the previously winless Taipans at home on Friday night; by Sunday, both the Wildcats and Cotton were celebrating once more. It’s the kind of performance NBL fans have come to expect from the former MVP, but that doesn’t make them any less impressive.

Andrew Bogut

Vs NZ: 11 PTS, 15 REB, 5 AST, 5 BLK

Vs NZ: 13 PTS, 16 REB, 2 STL, 1 BLK

Per-game stats: 9 PTS, 11.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 1.5 BLK, 57.7% FG

Ladies and gentleman, the champ is back!

After a relatively slow start to the season, Bogut came into round three under an injury cloud but emphatically dismissed any concerns with a pair of dominant performances. Playing twice against the New Zealand Breakers, he was far too much for Rob Loe, Brandon Ashley and the rest of their frontline to handle under the basket.

While all the trademarks of a classic Bogut performance were there, it was his aggression when looking for his own shot that was the biggest change. Bogut’s playmaking is his calling card on offence, but when he’s taking and making shots in the post it opens things up for his teammates even more. He’ll always be among the league’s best rebounders and defenders every week, but if he continues to attack opposing defences as he did against the Breakers he could move up these rankings very quickly.

Lamar Patterson

Vs ADE: 21 PTS, 4 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL

Per-game stats: 20.8 PTS, 5.5 REB, 4.3 AST, 1 STL, 54.2% FG, 15.4% 3PT

It was a typically well-rounded game for Patterson, but Brisbane’s second straight loss would be concerning given his excellent play in both games. Most expected the Bullets to have the depth to cover for an occasional down game from Patterson, but not many would have picked them to lose even when he plays well. It’s not time to panic for either player or team yet, but he would be hoping for some more support in next week’s crunch clash against the Kings.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Vs SEM: 11 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 4-9 FG

Vs ADE: 15 PTS, 5 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 1 TO

Per-game stats: 12.4 PTS, 5.6 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.8 STL, 1.6 TO, 36.3% FG, 12% 3PT

Just as it looked like LaMelo Ball had his shooting woes at least partially sorted, they reared their head against Adelaide in the last game of the week. His all-around impact was still there in both of Illawarra’s round three games, but where he was more selective and efficient against the Phoenix, he was much more trigger-happy against the 36ers.

In that game, he and Aaron Brooks combined to take almost half of Illawarra’s total field goal attempts. The main difference, though, was that Brooks scored 31 points and shot 65%. Ball, meanwhile, was 6-19 from the field and 1-7 from three.

It almost goes without saying by now, but there were still plenty of highlight plays to leave NBA scouts drooling.

At this stage of his career, this may be who Ball is—an inventive and fluid playmaker and a below-average shooter. That’s fine, but if that is the case then he’ll need to continue to refine his shot selection, particularly when a teammate as talented as Todd Blanchfield is taking just six shots in an entire game. LaMelo is still well ahead in the Rookie of the Year race, though, and will stay there for as long as he continues to impact games in other ways.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

Kouat Noi

Vs PER: 13 PTS, 3 REB, 1 STL, 5-10 FG

Per-game stats: 9.8 PTS, 7.0 REB, 2.5 ORB, 32.6% FG, 30% 3PT

Much like Ball, Noi has struggled with his shot so far this season but had one of his better scoring games against the Wildcats. As the Taipans caused the upset of the season in Perth, Noi shot 50% from the field and was able to finish well in the paint in one of the league’s toughest matchups.

His rebounding is still his bankable attribute, and while that was down he remains nestled among the league’s leaders. While Noi won’t take over a game in the way Ball can, he could still challenge the Next Star here if he can get his outside shot to start falling.

RJ Hampton

Vs SYD: 7 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK

Vs SYD: 7 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 2 STL

It was a tough debut for Hampton, as the Breakers played their first two games of the season against the league-leading Sydney Kings. The Kings currently have the best defensive rating in the league by a wide margin, and Hampton was guarded by MVP runner-up and defensive menace Casper Ware for long stretches.

With that context considered, Hampton gave a fairly good account of himself across the weekend. He didn’t put up big numbers, and he lacked the razzle and dazzle of fellow Next Star Ball, but he had some impressive defensive possessions on Ware and showed enough on the offensive end to encourage Breakers fans. New Zealand pushed the Kings in both games, and both they and Hampton should be better for it in the long run.

Sam Froling

Vs SEM: 10 PTS, 6 AST, 1 BLK

Vs ADE: 12 PTS, 5 REB, 5-7 FG

Per-game stats: 6 PTS, 3.4 REB, 60% FG, 50% 3PT

After a slow start to the season, round three was a breakout weekend for the younger Froling. After playing 20 minutes across Illawarra’s first three games, he had 13 in Josh Boone’s absence against the Phoenix and 19 as AJ Ogilvy fouled out against the 36ers. He certainly made his case for a regular spot in the rotation, knocking down shots from inside the paint and beyond the arc and bringing plenty of energy to the table.

Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau

Vs ILL: 12 PTS, 10 REB, 6 ORB, 6-7 FG

Per-game stats: 5.3 PTS, 7.7 REB, 3.7 ORB, 1.3 BLK, 61.5% FG

Pineau’s first career double-double was just the latest in a string of impressive performances for the Phoenix. There were questions around import big man Keith Benson at the start of the season, but even the most pessimistic of onlookers wouldn’t have predicted that he would play less than six minutes in round three with Pineau playing almost 25. That’s less to do with the American’s struggles than it is to do with Pineau, who now sits in the top five in the league for rebounds (fourth) and offensive rebounds (third), and in the top ten for blocks (ninth).

Last season, he played just 6.5 minutes per game for the Sydney Kings; this year, he’s the starting centre on an undefeated team, and he’s already made more field goals (eight) than he did for the entirety of NBL19 (six).

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Will Magnay

Vs ADE: 7 PTS, 3 REB, 3 BLK, 3-4 FG

Per-game stats: 9.7 PTS, 4.3 REB, 1.7 BLK, 59.1% FG

Magnay again played more minutes than starter Matt Hodgson, but this time it was foul trouble more than a coach’s choice. Hodgson scored 16 points in just 15 minutes before fouling out, leaving Magnay to shoulder the load the rest of the way. He had a quieter scoring game, as will happen for a player not adept at creating his own shot, but he still had an impact at both ends and recorded three blocks in another impressive outing.

Jack McVeigh

Vs BRI: 16 PTS, 7-9 FG, 2-4 3PT, 1 STL

Vs ILL: 14 PTS, 2 REB, 2 BLK, 5-7 FG, 2-3 3PT

Per-game stats: 10 PTS, 1.3 REB, 60% FG, 50% 3PT

After being held scoreless in Adelaide’s first-up defeat, McVeigh was a key cog in their back-to-back wins in round three. A tall guard with the ability to shoot from distance, he’ll be a key weapon off the bench for the 36ers and will need to step up given their lack of depth of talent. This weekend’s games certainly gave the indication that he’ll be able to do so, as he hit double figures in both games and knocked down 57.1% of his threes. After a rookie year in which he averaged just 3.7 points in 8.9 minutes per game, McVeigh looks to be trending in the right direction.

Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Cadee

Vs ADE: 13 PTS, 5 AST, 1 STL, 2-4 3PT

Per-game stats: 9 PTS, 3.3 AST, 0.3 TO, 1.5 STL, 47.1% 3PT

There has been little to no consistency among the contenders for this award, so a strong showing against Adelaide is enough to vault Cadee to the top of the pile. The Bullets went down in a close one, but with Nathan Sobey struggling Cadee stepped up to keep them in the game late.

He scored ten of his 13 points in the fourth quarter, including six straight points for Brisbane early in the term to draw them level. A pair of long bombs threatened to steal the momentum before an Adelaide run saw them squeak home, but the end result shouldn’t take away from an impressive outing for Cadee.

Now a veteran in the NBL, he has the ability to fill whatever holes the Bullets have on the perimeter on any given night. The strength of the Bullets is their depth across the board, and Cadee personifies that with his solid contributions on both ends of the floor.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Will Magnay (as above)

Harry Froling

Vs BRI: 10 PTS, 4 REB, 5-10 FG

Vs ILL: 15 PTS, 2 REB, 2-3 3PT

Per-game stats: 11 PTS, 4 REB, 52.6% FG, 60% 3PT

The NBL19 Rookie of the Year looks set to challenge for more silverware in NBL20, as he’s leading the league’s reserves in points per game and playing key minutes for the 36ers. Playing behind Daniel Johnson means there will be games where he doesn’t hit the court as much, and the fit when they share the court is still a little clunky. If he continues to score as he has and hit his shots from behind the arc, though, it’ll be hard to keep him off the floor for too long.

Craig Moller

Vs NZ: 6 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST

Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 7 REB, 1 BLK

Per-game stats: 7.8 PTS, 5 REB, 1.3 AST

The Kings have the best defence in the league, and Moller’s versatility on that end of the floor has been a handy boost. He spent time guarding New Zealands plethora of perimeter threats, and on Sunday in particular he was instrumental in holding the Breakers to just 66 points and 33.3% shooting from the field. While his numbers will never blow you away, Moller has been a steady improver since joining the NBL and should continue to earn consistent minutes for the Kings.