Round 7 NBL award leaders: Creek leads MVP chase, Ball shows best (and worst) sides

Rivalry round saw the biggest NBL crowd in history watch the Sydney Kings and Illawarra Hawks battle it out. While that was one of many hard-fought games, it felt like the cream of the league began to rise to the top. Melbourne United, the Perth Wildcats along with Sydney, continued their recent hot form to solidify their top three standing, while their nearest challenger in the South East Melbourne Phoenix faltered with an 0-2 weekend.

It's a similar story in most of our award races, as the top few have a fair buffer on the chasing pack. Last week's leaders in every award suffered losses this week, but is that enough to see them fall? Or was it their teammates to blame for the poor results?

MVP: Mitch Creek

Vs MEL: 27 PTS, 7 REB, 3 AST, 9-17 FG, 3-4 3PT

Vs ADE: 22 PTS, 11 REB, 7 ORB, 5 AST, 3 STL, 1 BLK, 7-19 FG

Per-game stats: 21.8 PTS, 7.6 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 46.3% FG, 36.7% 3PT

https://twitter.com/NBL/status/1195605321663705088

The Phoenix went 0-2 across round seven, leaving them teetering on the edge of the finals positions, but it's hard to place too much blame with Creek. He was phenomenal against Melbourne, particularly in the first half as they built a lead, and had another solid double-double in a disappointing team performance against Adelaide.

It may have been a quieter second half against United, but his knack for making big plays in big moments continued to ring true. A huge three with two minutes left gave the Phoenix the lead and could have been the game's defining moment if not for some late, and seemingly controversial, free throws from Melo Trimble.

That was a slightly unlucky loss, but Monday's performance against the 36ers was much more disappointing. In a game where coach Simon Mitchell said the opposition "kicked our butts", Creek top scored for the Phoenix with 22 points but shot below 40% from the field. He certainly wasn't alone as they shot just 42.3% as a team, but his seven offensive rebounds kept plenty of those empty possessions alive. It was a disappointing weekend for the league's newest team, but Creek continues to assert himself as one of the NBL's absolute best.

MVP honourable mentions

Bryce Cotton

Vs ADE: 18 PTS, 3 REB, 2 AST, 4 TO, 5-16 FG

Vs NZ: 34 PTS, 4 AST, 1 STL, 9-19 FG, 6-14 3PT

Per-game stats: 21.3 PTS, 3.8 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.6 STL, 43.4% FG, 44.3% 3PT

https://twitter.com/NBL/status/1195973925554941953

It feels like this season has been much more up-and-down than usual for Cotton, but the Wildcats continue to win and he continues to step up when it matters. He missed his first seven shots against Adelaide, but Perth were able to stay within striking distance by feeding Dario Hunt in the post and letting him go to work. After hitting his first shot with just over a minute left in the first half, Cotton went on to score 16 points in the second and lift his team over the hump for a tough road win.

The Bryce of old was well and truly back against the Breakers, as he was on fire from start to finish against an undermanned opposition. The Wildcats took a one-point lead into quarter time, up 20-19; Cotton had scored 11 of those points. Perth's other starters combined for 28 points, but they also had 22 assists between them as Cotton scored at will but didn't force the action with too many isolation plays. It was the perfect performance from what may be the closest thing the league has to a perfect player.

Melo Trimble

Vs SEM: 22 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL, 7-17 FG

Per-game stats: 21.7 PTS, 4.5 REB, 4.6 AST, 1 STL, 43.9% FG, 36.8% 3PT

Chris Goulding said during the week that Trimble's defence has impressed him so far this season. Well, his offence is starting to catch back up, and it's coincided with United's surge up the NBL ladder.

It's not like Trimble had exactly been bad offensively; he's been among the league's leading scorers for much of the season and is now sitting in second (excluding the two-game career of Glen Rice Jr). But the early rounds felt like a slight dip from last season, maybe because of the high expectations on both him and his new team. Over the past two week's he's averaged 27 points and 2.5 steals per game, and he iced the game against the Phoenix with a clutch free throw and intentional miss at the end.

Andrew Bogut

Vs ILL: 5 PTS, 9 REB, 2 AST

Per-game stats: 7.9 PTS, 10.3 REB, 3.1 AST, 1.2 BLK, 52.3% FG

https://twitter.com/SBSSport/status/1195938645502394368

I know, I know, Bogut's stats are down from last year across the board. His raw stats are, anyway; most of his advanced metrics points to him being more effective in less playing time this year. His defensive rebounding percentage and assist percentages are higher than last season, per Spatial Jam, and his defensive rating has plummeted along with his team's.

Data from Andrew Price shows that he's also fourth in the league in box plus-minus, despite having a negative offensive box plus-minus. Statistics can and often do lie, but when the Kings are also holding a 9-1 record and have the best defence in the league, it's hard to argue with what they suggest about Bogut's impact.

Scott Machado

Vs BRI: 12 PTS, 9 AST, 3 STL, 1 TO

Per-game stats: 13.8 PTS, 3.3 REB, 7.7 AST, 1.6 STL, 43.3% FG, 45.3% 3PT

The Taipans may be near the foot of the ladder with a 3-6 record, but they're clearly a much improved outfit from their six-win effort in NBL19. That largely comes down to the work of Machado, who has quickly established himself as one of the competition's premier players.

Despite playing on one of the youngest teams in the league, Scott Machado leads the league in assists by a wide margin. Less of a scorer and more of a playmaker, he needs his teammates to hit shots at a reasonable level to be most effective. If he were playing in one of the NBL's marquee destinations with a little more talent around him, he may be giving some assist records a nudge-- as it is, he's already having a remarkable season and leading a resurgence in Cairns.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Vs SYD: 16 PTS, 8 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL, 1 TO, 7-19 FG, 1-5 3PT

Per-game stats: 14.7 PTS, 6.7 REB, 6.1 AST, 1.8 STL, 2.1 TO, 35.3% FG, 23.4% 3PT

https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/1196074019088408576

Last round's win against Cairns felt like a watershed moment for Ball, but his strengths and, more notably, his weaknesses were more glaring than ever a week later against the Kings. He continues to look the part of an NBA prospect when driving to the basket, as he can easily finish with both hands and around defenders, and his passing instincts were once again on full display.

One of the most common praises he receives is that he's an excellent "decision maker". That's true in the context of his passing, but his decisions in other aspects of the game are often perplexing. His shot selection has been a constant issue, and a week after his best shooting effort of the season he fell back to earth with a thud, hitting just one three-pointer while taking far too many early in the game. For a player with such burst and touch in the lane, he settles far too often for off-balance looks from deep.

When he did start to find his rhythm in the third quarter, leading a mini-fightback from the Hawks, he found himself in foul trouble after being called for flopping on a three-point attempt. The flop isn't all that noteworthy in and of itself, but it came at a crucial time in the game when the Hawks couldn't afford to lose their primary playmaker.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

Kouat Noi

Vs BRI: 20 PTS, 10 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 7-11 FG, 5-9 3PT

Per-game stats: 11.3 PTS, 6.9 REB, 1.7 ORB, 41.1% FG, 34% 3PT

https://twitter.com/NBL/status/1195663690848063488

It finally happened-- the complete package from Kouat Noi, all on display in one game. He's been teasing it all season, and when it finally came together it was brilliant to watch. Knocking down threes, crashing the glass, hustling on defence and driving with intent, Noi had his fingerprints on everything as the Taipans pulled off a big rivalry round win.

Even in such a complete performance, he found a way to play in spurts. He had nine points in the first quarter, but only another two in the second. Just as it looked like he may be in for another quiet night, he opened the third quarter with back-to-back triples and grabbed the momentum for the Taipans.

Now comes the hard part. If he can produce something close to that effort every week, he can challenge LaMelo Ball for this award and slide his name into a few NBA mock drafts. Consistency will be the key from hereon in, both for him and for his team.

RJ Hampton

Vs SYD: 4 PTS, 4 REB, 5 AST, 1 BLK, 0 TO, 2-10 FG

Per-game stats: 9.2 PTS, 4.3 REB, 2.4 AST, 2.3 STL, 1.4 TO, 44% FG, 35.7% 3PT

It was a down scoring game for Hampton, but he found other ways to contribute as the Breakers fought hard against Perth. With Glen Rice out and Scotty Hopson still injured, they needed a scoring punch to come from somewhere, and unfortunately Hampton couldn't quite deliver. He didn't hit the scoreboard until early in the third quarter, although that first basket did come on the end of a spectacular alley-oop.

Five assists marked a season-high, though, and his zero turnovers highlight his ability to control the play and stay within himself. That's a good trait for a young player with such high praise entering the league to have.

Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau

Vs MEL: 6 PTS, 6 REB, 1 STL, 3-4 FG

Vs ADE: 8 PTS, 4 REB, 2 AST, 3 BLK, 2 STL

Per-game stats: 7.9 PTS, 6.9 REB, 3.4 ORB, 1.6 BLK, 69.6% FG

It's tougher to evaluate Pineau in losses for the Phoenix, as so much of his value is in the little things that have been helping them win. Saturday's Throwdown loss felt like a down game for him, but he was still able to hold Shawn Long to just nine points on 4-11 shooting. His minutes were down slightly, though, as Keith Benson's breakout game saw him take precedence at times.

Monday's upset defeat to the 36ers was one marred by defensive errors that coach Simon Mitchell saw as "self-inflicted wounds". In a game where defence cost them in the key moments, it seems about right that Pineau was the only starter with a positive plus-minus. That doesn't mean that he was free from blame, but he remains the glue that holds the Phoenix together on that end of the floor.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Will Magnay

Vs CAI: 9 PTS, 6 REB, 2-5 FG

Per-game stats: 7.6 PTS, 5 REB, 2 ORB, 1.4 BLK, 52.4% FG

For someone playing less than 20 minutes per game, Will Magnay's impact this season has been quite remarkable. His raw numbers are impressive enough, as he is third in the league in blocks per game and outpacing the likes of Shawn Long, Cam Oliver and Andrew Bogut, as well as the man ahead of him in the rotation Matt Hodgson.

The metrics tell an even more impressive story, as he is inside the top ten in the league for defensive box plus-minus (eighth) and block percentage (sixth) despite his bench role. Outside of the numbers his value is clear, as he continues to bring a bucketload of energy around the rim on both ends of the floor.

Sunday Dech

Vs SYD: 14 PTS, 6 REB, 2 AST, 3 STL, 5-15 FG, 2-6 3PT

Per-game stats: 5 PTS, 2.4 REB, 1 AST, 38% FG, 35% 3PT

Ignore Dech's per-game stats-- they're tarnished by a seven-game stretch to start the year where he played just over eight minutes per game when he did hit the court, and had one DNP to his name. Instead look at his last two outings, where he's won a starting role, played huge minutes and been close to Illawarra's most effective player.

His performance against Cairns in round six was a phenomenal breakout in a vital win for the Hawks, as he had 21 points, five rebounds and five assists off the bench. LaMelo Ball stole the headlines, but Dech was just as impressive as his higher profile teammate and effected the game on both ends of the floor. He struggled shooting the ball against the Kings in round seven, but he was still a disruptive presence defensively when tasked with guarding Sydney superstar Casper Ware. The fact that he started and played almost 35 minutes tells the story-- he is suddenly one of Illawarra's most important players.

Best Sixth Man: Jason Cadee

Vs CAI: 13 PTS, 4 REB, 1 STL, 4-7 3PT

Per-game stats: 10.3 PTS, 2.2 REB, 2,7 AST, 0.4 TO, 42.6% FG, 46.3% 3PT

Another week, another typically steady performance from Cadee as his teammates floundered. The Bullets were a mess in the loss to Cairns, but Cadee played 30 minutes of almost mistake-free basketball, knocking down four threes and going without a single turnover despite often handling the ball.

Brisbane's glut of perimeter talent has been a talking point this season, but you could argue that Cadee has been their best guard behind star signing Nathan Sobey. He's certainly been one of their more consistent players, as he now has four consecutive double figure scoring games and is among the league leaders in three point makes (seventh) and percentage (seventh, min. 20 attempts).

It's tough to know what coach Andrej Lemanis' best rotation might look like, but it's hard to argue against Cadee featuring in crunch time. He's the perfect combination of steady on-ball presence and knock-down off-ball threat, able to compliment whichever combination of players Lemanis settles with

Best Sixth Man honourable mentions

Shea Ili

Vs SEM: 16 PTS, 2 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 4-6 3PT

Per-game stats: 6.1 PTS, 2.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 42.9% FG, 35% 3PT

It was a joint effort along with Trimble, but Shea Ili's defence was instrumental in keeping Phoenix star John Roberson quiet. His effort and intensity on the defensive end made him a joy to watch and continued what has been a strong start to the season in that area.

What was less expected was his offensive effort, as he exploded with a career-high 16 points and four made threes. That made it three out of the last four games in double figures for the Tall Blacks guard, and while his shooting from deep was likely a bit of an outlier, he is still settling in nicely alongside United's star-studded roster.

Josh Boone

Vs SYD: 12 PTS, 6 REB, 2 BLK, 6-8 FG

Per-game stats: 6.6 PTS, 4.9 REB, 0.9 BLK, 52.1% FG

After struggling for form and suffering a broken nose early in the season, Boone has now been moved out of the starting lineup as the Hawks favour the shooting of David Andersen. Three games in, that move looks to have benefited Boone; despite playing less than 21 minutes per game, he's averaging 12 points, 6.7 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in that span.

It helps that he looks to finally be close to 100% healthy and shaking off the rust after a stop-start season to date. Ogilvy has struggled somewhat recently, scoring in double figures just once in the team's last seven games, but if he holds onto the starting spot then Boone will certainly figure in the voting for this award at the end of the season.