Round 5 NBL awards: Upsets see leaders falter

Just when it looked like the NBL award races were starting to become a little clearer, round five threw them into turmoil once more. Mitch Creek’s South East Melbourne Phoenix suffered their second loss in three games, while Bryce Cotton was passive in a Wildcats loss and inefficient in a win. LaMelo Ball had his highest scoring game of the season, but it came in a 24-point drubbing at the hands of the Bullets. Sixth man standout Sek Henry moved into the Breakers starting lineup, and Most Improved Player leader Dane Pineau was torched by Melbourne star Shawn Long.

With the form guide thrown out the window, round five showed that the league and the award races are more wide open than ever. The leaders have left the door open, but have any of the challengers snuck through yet?

MVP: Mitch Creek

Vs MEL: 23 PTS, 7 REB, 7 AST, 8-15 FG

Per-game stats: 21 PTS, 6.5 REB, 4.5 AST, 1.3 STL, 45% FG, 30% 3PT

It feels slightly wrong to crown an MVP leader in a week that they lost their only game, but Creek was the lone shining light in South East Melbourne’s Throwdown loss on Saturday. It was a typically gritty performance from the Phoenix’s marquee man, as he scored 14 points in the second half and tried to keep his side in a contest that quickly got away from them.

His playmaking continues to blossom, as his seven assists saw him move into seventh in the league for assists and first among non-guards. In a game where the Phoenix committed 14 turnovers and John Roberson was often blitzed by the defence, Creek was still able to control the tempo while shooting a high percentage and turning the ball over just twice himself. In a week where last round’s leader struggled mightily and every player’s case has some holes, Creek remains the most well-rounded player on one of the league’s best teams, despite their most recent loss.

MVP honourable mentions

Bryce Cotton

Vs BRI: 15 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 6-12 FG, 3-5 3PT

Vs NZ: 4 PTS, 7 AST, 2 STL, 2-13 FG, 0-5 3PT

Per-game stats: 18.3 PTS, 4.1 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.9 STL, 42% FG, 45% 3PT

It was a bizarre round for Cotton, as he was strangely unassertive in a Wildcats loss and downright bad in a bounce-back win. Fans have come to expect Cotton to take over in close games, but he was held to 15 points despite shooting 50% in the surprising loss to Brisbane. Against the Breakers in Invercargill, he took close to his season average for shots attempted but hit just two field goals and failed to get to the free throw line.

In both matchups, fellow American Terrico White took on the bulk of the scoring load in crunch time. That and a breakout double-double from Dario Hunt were enough to eke out a win against the Breakers, but the Wildcats would probably be disappointed with a 1-1 split from two very winnable games. It’s rare for Cotton to play two disappointing games in a row; it seems near impossible that he’ll make it three next week.

Shawn Long

Vs SEM: 31 PTS, 11 REB, 1 BLK, 10-14 FG, 2-3 3PT

Vs SYD: 20 PTS, 14 REB, 3 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL, 9-16 FG

Per-game stats: 22.7 PTS, 11.7 REB, 1.4 AST, 1.3 BLK, 56.4% FG, 42.9% 3PT

Individually, Long has been playing like an MVP candidate all season. The problem is, it’s hard to take a player’s candidacy seriously when his team is sitting near the foot of the ladder with a 1-4 record. One round can change everything, though, and a pair of wins on the back of more dominance from Long has Melbourne just barely outside of the playoff picture.

A pair of monster double-doubles made it four straight, the first time that’s been done since 2004. His first quarter in the Throwdown was a masterpiece, as he poured in 16 points and gave United the perfect start in what was almost a must-win game. Against Sydney, he dominated the glass against reigning MVP Andrew Bogut to finish with 14 rebounds and five offensive rebounds, including a huge putback to put Melbourne ahead in the final minute. Add in an improved defensive effort, and Long is looming as a key player in the closely contested finals race.

Andrew Bogut

Vs ADE: 18 PTS, 12 REB, 2 BLK, 8-13 FG

Vs MEL: 4 PTS, 8 REB, 4 AST

Per-game stats: 10 PTS, 11.3 REB, 3.3 AST, 1.1 BLK, 58.8% FG

It looked like business as usual for Bogut and the Kings early in the round, as they outlasted the 36ers in overtime and the reigning MVP recorded yet another double-double. Both team and individual came crashing back to earth on Monday night, though, as Sydney suffered their first loss of the season and Bogut was dominated by Melbourne big man Shawn Long.

While Long changed the game with five offensive rebounds, Bogut had just eight rebounds, his lowest tally excluding an injury-effected effort in round two. After looking more assertive on the offensive end this season he was stifled by the defensively oft-maligned Long and held to just four shot attempts. It’s a promising sign for the Kings that they almost stole a win despite Bogut’s struggles, but they’ll be hoping for a better showing next time they face United and Long, a potential playoff opponent down the road.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Vs BRI: 19 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 2 TO, 6-18 FG, 2-9 3PT

Per-game stats: 13.4 PTS, 6.8 REB, 5.6 AST, 1.9 STL, 2.1 TO, 34% FG, 19% 3PT

Ball’s first game without the injured Aaron Brooks went exactly as should have been expected. He had twice as many shots as his next most prolific teammate and led the Hawks in scoring, but was inefficient shooting the ball as they crashed to a blowout loss. It was an exaggerated version of the LaMelo experience this season, and he should continue down a similar road until Illawarra settle on a new import to replace Brooks.

Watching Ball continues to be equal parts exhilarating and frustrating. His best plays come when he is driving to the basket and either attacking the rim or dishing to his teammates, but he still settles for far too many jump shots instead. It was already hard to judge Ball for his efficiency playing for one of the league’s weaker teams, but with Brooks gone that task becomes even harder as he must shoulder an unfair load for such a young player. For that reason, and for all of his strengths in the peripheral areas of the game, he still deserves the lead in the Rookie of the Year race.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

RJ Hampton

Vs CAI: 18 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL, 6-9 FG, 4-6 3PT

Vs PER: 9 PTS, 8 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 4-7 FG, 1-2 3PT

Per-game stats: 10.5 PTS, 4.7 REB, 2.3 AST, 2 STL, 49% FG, 43% 3PT

When did Hampton become a lights-out shooter? The young point guard has looked more and more comfortable with every game, but his excellent three-point shooting has still seemingly come out of the blue. It would surely be encouraging for NBA scouts to see, as he went 5-8 from deep across round five and is now 9-21 on the season.

Whether or not that is totally sustainable might not matter, as Hampton is impacting games in enough other ways to remain effective. He set a season-high in scoring against the Taipans, before taking more of a back seat but snagging a season-high eight rebounds against the Wildcats. The consistent factor is his defence, as he leads the league in steals per game and constantly hounds opposition guards with an intensity and intelligence that belies his age.

Kouat Noi

Vs NZ: 16 PTS, 6 REB, 2 STL, 6-8 FG, 1-1 3PT

Per-game stats: 10.3 PTS, 7 REB, 37% FG, 31% 3PT

It continues to be a season of runs for Noi, as he poured in 13 of his 16 points against the Breakers in just the second quarter. That saw him finish with one of his more efficient scoring games of the year, but that improved shooting was slightly offset by a game-high five turnovers. If Noi could put all of the promising signs he has shown together on the same day, he would be in for a huge performance. Unfortunately for he and for Cairns that hasn’t happened yet, but he continues to be a positive player with his efforts defensively and on the boards.

Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau

Vs MEL: 7 PTS, 5 REB, 3-5 FG

Per-game stats: 6.5 PTS, 7.3 REB, 3.7 ORB, 1.3 BLK, 65% FG

It’s likely that Pineau will be in a hurry to forget round five, as he was forced to guard the league’s best offensive big man in Shawn Long. While Long was held to a relatively quiet 15 points in the final three quarters after a fast start, Pineau still wasn’t able to have his usual impact on the defensive end or on the glass. It was just his second game this season without a blocked shot, and his five rebounds and two offensive rebounds were both season lows.

It’s tough to judge him too harshly, though, given the fact that Long came out and torched Andrew Bogut just two days later. Relative to expectations heading into the season, Pineau did at least as well as would have been expected against Long. He’s been exceeding those same expectations all season; one off night can probably be excused. Both he and the Phoenix would be hoping to get back on track next week, though, as they face the hot-and-cold New Zealand Breakers.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Jack McVeigh

Vs SYD: 6 PTS, 3 REB, 2-2 3PT

Per-game stats: 9.2 PTS, 2.2 REB, 57% FG, 53% 3PT

It was a relatively quiet game for McVeigh against the Kings, but he continues to do exactly what is asked of him on any given night. His only two shots for the game were made threes, he committed zero turnovers, and he played almost 24 minutes in a close game against the unbeaten ladder leaders. There’s not too much to say about his performance, but it’s also hard to be critical of what was essentially a mistake-free night for the young wing.

Majok Deng

Vs NZ: 18 PTS, 7 REB, 1 BLK

Per-game stats: 14 PTS, 5 REB, 1.9 AST, 48.5% FG, 41.7% 3PT

The most obvious contenders for this award are the players going from nothing to something, players who barely hit the court one season and then are serious contributors the next. It can be easy to overlook just how difficult the jump from bench player to valuable starter generally is. That’s the improvement that Deng has made this season, as he’s more than doubled his minutes and become the ideal complimentary player for Cairns’ imports.

After scoring just four points in their season-opener, he’s hit double figures in every game since. As well as bringing the energy and athleticism that he always has, he’s also become a knock-down threat from deep, shooting 10-24 on the season. Deng was a valuable contributor for the 36ers a year ago, but in his first season in Far North Queensland he has made an undeniable jump.

Will Magnay

Vs PER: 2 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL

Vs ILL: 8 PTS, 7 REB, 2 BLK

Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 4.5 REB, 1.5 BLK, 55.9% FG

Another week, another pair of rock-solid performances from the pre-season MIP favourite. If he was playing his usual 20-odd minutes Magnay may have pushed close to a first double-double against the Hawks, but his playing time continues to hinge largely on the performance of Matt Hodgson. Hodgson scored 15 points in that game and was a handful for the Hawks bigs, and he may have taken even more of Magnay’s minutes if he hadn’t found himself in foul trouble in both games. Regardless, Magnay continues to play a role as a rebounder and rim protector for a Bullets team that should still have finals aspirations.

Best Sixth Man: Jason Cadee

Vs PER: 17 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 5-10 3PT

Vs ILL: 16 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 6-11 FG, 4-9 3PT

Per-game stats: 9.9 PTS, 2 REB, 3.1 AST, 1 STL, 42% FG, 45% 3PT

It was the perfect bounce-back weekend for Cadee and the Bullets, as they won two from two and he was one of the best performers across the round. Brisbane coach Andrej Lemanis swung the magnets and moved Mika Vukona into the starting lineup to much praise and effect, but it was Cadee’s hot shooting off the bench that proved the big difference in both wins.

Against Perth, he scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half as the Bullets pulled away late for an upset win. Against Illawarra, he had 13 of his 16 points in a first half where they completely blew away the Hawks and put the contest to bed early. Most of that damage was done from behind the arc, where he shot 9-19 across the weekend and moved into sixth in the league for made threes.

It’s not just the shooting that has been impressive, though; Cadee has 22 assists and only a single turnover this season, leaving him trailing only teammate Taylor Braun (23-1) in assist-to-turnover ratio (minimum 10 assists). Add in the veteran smarts and rugged defence that he has long been known for, and Cadee has solidified himself as one of the premier reserves in the NBL.

Best Sixth Man honourable mentions

Harry Froling

Vs SYD: 10 PTS, 2 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 2-4 3PT

Per-game stats: 10 PTS, 3 REB, 51% FG, 50% 3PT

Froling essentially matched his season averages against Sydney, but the way that he got those numbers made his performance stand out more than usual. A pair of huge threes, one late in the third quarter and one early in fourth, looked set to swing the momentum in Adelaide’s favour. While they went on to lose in overtime, another good performance from deep would have 36ers fans hoping that his hot shooting early in the season (7-14 3PT) is more than just a small sample size fluke. If it’s anything close to sustainable, his minutes should only increase as Adelaide look to stretch the floor for Jerome Randle.