Round 4 NBL award leaders: Cotton takes control in MVP race

Round four of NBL20 set up a titanic battle in Perth, as the Wildcats hosted the then-unbeaten South East Melbourne Phoenix and MVP front-runner Mitch Creek. Facing the toughest road trip in the league, fans were eager to see if Creek and fellow superstar John Roberson could maintain their stellar play in the face of the defending champions, a raucous RAC Arena crowd and one of the league's best in Bryce Cotton.

Short answer; they couldn't. The Wildcats ran away with a 31-point drubbing, with Cotton knocking down shots while Creek and Roberson were held to just 14 points combined. It's the kind of statement performance that turns heads around the league and shifts the discussion around the players and teams involved.

With that in mind, we have our first change in the leader of the MVP race, as well as new contenders and plenty of movement across the board. With every team having played at least four games, the early-season small samples are becoming more and more meaningful, and the awards pictures are starting to really take shape.

MVP: Bryce Cotton

Vs SEM: 16 PTS, 4 REB, 8 AST, 2 STL, 4-5 3PT

Vs ILL: 21 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST, 3 STL

Per-game stats: 21.2 PTS, 4.7 REB, 4.8 AST, 2 STL, 44.4% FG, 48.6% 3PT

Late in the second quarter of Perth’s second game of the weekend, a road matchup with the Illawarra Hawks, commentator Corey Williams remarked that he’d barely noticed Cotton on the court. It was a fair comment at the time—Cotton had just four points at the main break, and his side trailed by one against a team missing one of their two imports.

Flash forward to the end of the game, and Cotton had willed his team to yet another win on the road. His 12 points in the third quarter saw the Wildcats pull away to a decisive lead that they never relinquished, and he was able to salvage a rough shooting night with one stunning burst. It was exactly the kind of performance that lifts him a class above much of the competition; even on a bad night, he’s able to make plays at the crucial moments to get his team the win.

That came after a less spectacular but still solid showing against the Phoenix, where he scored just 16 points but still shot 50% from the field and added eight assists in a blowout win. The Wildcats have now won three games in a row since their shock loss to Cairns, and with some of the competition faltering slightly Cotton’s consistency moves him into pole position for his second MVP award.

MVP honourable mentions

Mitch Creek

Vs PER: 9 PTS, 3 REB, 3 TO, 4-11 FG

Vs ADE: 18 PTS, 5 REB, 2 STL, 1 BLK, 5-16 FG

Per-game stats: 20.6 PTS, 6.4 REB, 4 AST, 1.6 STL, 43% FG

It was a rough weekend by Creek’s lofty standards, as the Phoenix suffered their first loss of the season and he shot just 33% from the field across two games. Friday’s clash against Perth was an unmitigated disaster, a 31-point drubbing where no Phoenix starter scored in double figures. It was comfortably Creek’s worst game since returning to the NBL, as he had almost as many turnovers as made field goals and struggled to have an impact.

His side bounced back with a win against Adelaide two days later and, similarly to Cotton, Creek was able to shake off a bad shooting night and lift in the game’s key moments. Heading into the third quarter with five points on 1-9 shooting, he scored 11 in the period as the Phoenix built a lead. That included a pair of threes when they were still trailing to wrest back the momentum.

There’s every chance that Friday’s loss will be a blip in an otherwise outstanding season for Creek, but for now he drops just a hair behind Cotton in the rankings.

John Roberson

Vs PER: 8 PTS, 3 AST, 1 STL, 3-7 FG

Vs ADE: 24 PTS, 4 REB, 7 AST, 2 STL, 6-10 3PT

Per-game stats: 21.6 PTS, 2.4 REB, 5.8 AST, 55.9% FG, 63.4% 3PT

Like Creek, Roberson struggled mightily against the Wildcats and defensive menace Damian Martin. Unlike Creek, he didn’t shoot particularly badly or turn the ball over a lot; he just struggled even get his shots off against the toughest assignment for the NBL’s guards. He was held scoreless in the first half, and while he broke that drought in the second he still couldn’t have his usual impact.

He was back to his best by Sunday, though, as he knocked down six triples on his way to a game-high 24 points. He kept the Phoenix close when Adelaide threatened to run away with the game in the second, and then blew them away with a trademark barrage of threes in the fourth to seal the win. One bad game won’t define his season or the Phoenix’s, and he still has a very good claim to be the best guard in the league thus far.

Andrew Bogut

Vs BRI: 12 PTS, 11 REB, 4 AST

Per-game stats: 9.6 PTS, 11.6 REB, 3.6 AST, 1.2 BLK, 58.8% FG

After four rounds the Sydney Kings are the only undefeated team in the NBL, and while they’ve had contributions from across the board Bogut is still the engine of this team. That was no different in their big win against the Bullets, as he tallied another double-double and anchored their defence in another stingy performance. By the time he was ejected for a second unsportsmanlike foul in the fourth quarter, the damage was already done; the Bullets even won the final quarter as he sat but still lost by double digits.

Despite averaging less than ten points per game, and even with the addition of Casper Ware, Bogut remains the fulcrum of Sydney’s offense. Even when he doesn’t score or assist on a basket, their possessions usually feature his playmaking somewhere along the way. He’s also the anchor of a defence that is on track to the second best in modern NBL history, per Spatial Jam’s Andrew Price.

Daniel Johnson

Vs CAI: 19 PTS, 4 REB, 8-12 FG

Vs SEM: 20 PTS, 13 REB, 8-16 FG

Per-game stats: 20.4 PTS, 8.4 REB, 2.2 AST, 52.2% FG

It’s worth mentioning Johnson here, as he has taken the wheel for an Adelaide team that looked to be thin on talent in the pre-season. They’re currently 3-2 and sitting in fourth place, and even with the addition of Jerome Randle it’s been Johnson that has led the way on the offensive end. He has established himself as one of the best big men in the league in recent years, and he looks set to go to another level in NBL20.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Vs NZ: 10 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 5 TO, 3-13 FG

Vs PER: 16 PTS, 10 REB, 7 AST, 1 STL, 3 TO, 5-14 FG, 2-5 3PT

Per-game stats: 12.6 PTS, 6.4 REB, 5.7 AST, 1.7 STL, 2.1 TO, 34% FG, 18.4% 3PT

It was a typically mixed bag for Ball in round four, as his most well-rounded game of the season against Perth was offset by more shaky shooting and increased turnovers. The positives still outweigh the negatives, though, and the Hawks will need to embrace Ball’s strengths and weaknesses even more with the news that Aaron Brooks will miss the rest of the season with a torn achilles.

In the first showdown between Ball and RJ Hampton, the Hawks were blown out of the water as their point guard continued to misfire from the field. He also had a season-high five turnovers, but much of that was quickly forgotten when he produced one of the highlights of the season.

Sunday’s matchup with Perth was much more promising, as Ball made plays for others, crashed the boards and generally made life difficult for the more experienced Wildcats guards. His two made threes are a promising sign, but at this stage still look like more of an outlier given his 5-14 shooting from the field.

The early word from Illawarra is that the Hawks are looking for a shooting guard to replace Brooks, which means Ball should be given even more freedom to run the offence. That could be a blessing or a curse for the team, depending on whether he can tidy up some areas of his game. Either way, though, that makes this his award to lose.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

RJ Hampton

Vs ILL: 8 PTS, 7 REB, 3 AST, 2 BLK, 1 STL, 3 TO, 4-9 FG

Vs MEL: 14 PTS, 7 REB, 1 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 5-10 FG, 2-5 3PT

Per-game stats: 9 PTS, 4.5 REB, 2 AST, 1.8 STL, 1 BLK, 1.3 TO, 42.9% FG, 30.8% 3PT

Despite his more modest stats across the board, Hampton has looked every bit as comfortable as Ball early in the season. You could even argue that he is the more complete player at this stage, given his excellent defensive play thus far. His averages of 1.8 steals and 1 block per game are impressive, but it’s his ability to read the play and a knack for getting his hands on loose balls that has been most promising.

His offensive game is starting to blossom too, as he finished strong against Illawarra with some late drives to the basket before adding a season-high 14 points in the loss against Melbourne. He looks to be growing in confidence with every game, and if his outside shot can continue to fall more regularly he could be set for some big scoring nights in the near future.

Kouat Noi

Vs ADE: 10 PTS, 5 REB, 2-5 3PT

Vs MEL: 7 PTS, 9 REB, 1 BLK

Per-game stats: 9.3 PTS, 7.2 REB, 2 ORB, 31.7% FG, 29% 3PT

Noi’s performance against the 36ers was a perfect summary of his season so far—flashes of superstar potential followed by a disappointing letdown. Coming off of his best shooting performance of the season against Perth, he started the game on fire and scored the first eight Taipans points. With ten points at the first break, he looked set for a monster game. Unfortunately, those would be his only points for the game as he was held scoreless through three quarters and the Taipans dropped a close one to a fellow fringe finals contender. Noi’s rebounding and athleticism are huge assets, but until he starts hitting more shots there will be a clear ceiling on his potential.

Sam Froling

Vs NZ: 9 PTS, 5 REB, 1 AST

Vs PER: 5 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST

Per-game stats: 6.3 PTS, 3.6 REB, 1 AST, 50% FG

With Aaron Brooks out for the season and Josh Boone battling through a broken nose, the youth movement is set to take over for the Hawks. Any time missed from Boone should open the door for Froling to shine in extended minutes, although he played just 15 against the Wildcats despite the import’s absence. He continues to provide plenty of energy on both ends, though, and the Hawks seem to like his fit with many of their regular lineups.

Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau

Vs PER: 5 PTS, 8 REB, 1 BLK

Vs ADE: 11 PTS, 8 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL, 3 BLK

Per-game stats: 6.4 PTS, 7.8 REB, 1 STL, 1.6 BLK, 66.7% FG

Still holding onto his starting spot over import Keith Benson, Pineau continues to make winning plays for the Phoenix. He wasn’t alone in struggling in a blowout loss against the defending champions, but he bounced back in a big way in Sunday’s win over Adelaide. In a game that the Phoenix won by ten, he was a game-high plus-20 and dominated defensively with three blocks and three steals. That saw him move into second in the league for blocks per game, and while his scoring ability is more limited he is also second in offensive rebounds.

While the Phoenix’s offensive rating drops slightly when Pineau is on the court (-4.0), their defensive rating improves dramatically (-23.1). Playing for a run-and-gun offensive team and anchoring their defence, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Pineau garner some votes for Best Defensive Player based on his early-season production.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Jack McVeigh

Vs CAI: 10 PTS, 3 REB, 2-3 3PT

Vs SEM: 9 PTS, 2 REB, 1 AST

Per-game stats: 9.8 PTS, 2 REB, 54.8% FG, 46.7% 3PT

After a breakout performance against the Bullets in round three, McVeigh was less spectacular but still a very steady contributor as Adelaide split their round four games. He and the 36ers bench kept their side in the game against the Phoenix, and he was a team-high plus-13 in 18 minutes against the Taipans. Always a ball of energy off the bench, he should continue to earn significant minutes for as long as his shot continues to drop, even if it eats into the playing time of starter Anthony Drmic and import Ramone Moore.

Will Magnay

Vs SYD: 9 PTS, 3 REB, 1 AST, 1 BLK

Per-game stats: 9.5 PTS, 4 REB, 1.5 BLK, 59.3% FG

Magnay again played more minutes than starter Matt Hodgson against the Kings, and he held his own in a tough matchup with reigning MVP Andrew Bogut. This type of solid contribution is starting to feel like the norm for the young big man, and that speaks volumes of his rapid improvement early in the year. Hodgson may be too big a name to be dislodged from the starting lineup, but Magnay looks set to give him a serious run for his money.

Best Sixth Man: Sek Henry

Vs ILL: 21 PTS, 5 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 7-11 FG, 5-9 3PT

Vs MEL: 16 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST

Per-game stats: 12.8 PTS, 2.8 REB, 2.5 AST, 1 STL, 43.9% FG, 37.5% 3PT

Any time an import starts games on the bench, it feels like there’s a little extra pressure on them to perform when they do hit the court. That left Henry looking vulnerable after a disappointing debut in round three where the Breakers lost twice to the Kings and he shot a combined 6-18 from the field. Maybe he was still suffering some jetlag from their whirlwind tour of the states, because the veteran guard exploded against the Hawks to lead his team to an impressive win.

He came in during a fast start for the Breakers and had an immediate impact, hitting back-to-back threes moments after hitting the court. That hot shooting continued as he knocked down five threes for the game and provided ample support for big names RJ Hampton and Scotty Hopson on the perimeter, stretching the defence and making plays for himself and others when the ball came his way. He was a little more wayward from deep against Melbourne, shooting just 2-7 from behind the arc, but he was still able to contribute as the Breakers almost claimed the upset.

In a field with few consistent performers, Henry seems like as safe a bet as any to contend for this award come the end of the season. Having shaken off the rust in round three, round four showed exactly the kind of impact he could have for a Breakers team hoping to make a push into the finals.

Best Sixth Man honourable mentions

Harry Froling

Vs CAI: 6 PTS, 1 REB, 1 AST

Vs SEM: 11 PTS, 3 REB, 4-5 FG, 2-3 3PT

Per-game stats: 10 PTS, 3.2 REB, 53.3% FG, 50% 3PT

Playing behind fringe MVP candidate Daniel Johnson, Froling’s play off the bench gives the 36ers one of the better one-two centre combos in the NBL. He’s a handy foil on offence for Jerome Randle, as he has the ideal frame for bone-crushing screens and can stretch the floor with his shooting ability. He remains a clunky defensive fit alongside Johnson, meaning there is a cap on his potential minutes, but he’s the ideal backup and excelling in that role.

Jason Cadee

Vs SYD: 2 REB, 1 AST, 1 STL, 0-5 FG

Per-game stats: 7.2 PTS, 1.4 REB, 2.8 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.2 TO, 36.7% FG, 42.1% 3PT

Last round’s leader, Cadee served up a rare stinker in Brisbane’s loss to the Kings. The usually reliable guard was held scoreless through 20 minutes of play and had just one assist, but he was far from the only Bullet to struggle against the defensive juggernaut of Sydney. The Bullets will be hoping for a bounce-back performance from him in a tough matchup against Perth next week.