Round 8 NBL award leaders: A tale of two Melos

Recency bias is a real phenomena, but this still doesn't feel outrageous to say: round eight was one of the best weekend's of NBL basketball in recent memory. Four games were decided by single figure margins, and there were some remarkable finishes among them. Lamar Patterson's putback game winner, another clutch Casper Ware jumper, an 18-0 game-sealing run from the Taipans and a LaMelo Ball triple-double in an overtime win are all memories that will last for a long time.

The round has also produced the most turbulent week yet in our NBL 2019/20 award rankings, as last week's leaders almost all struggled in one way or another. MVP frontrunner Mitch Creek was as good as ever, but his team slumped to their third straight loss, and Bryce Cotton disappeared in an upset loss. Best Sixth Man contender Jason Cadee was inserted into the Bullets starting lineup to great effect, while many teams chopped and changed their rotations.

All of that has seen a dark horse MVP contender emerge from the league's hottest team, as well as plenty of strong cases from our honourable mentions.

MVP: Melo Trimble

Vs BRI: 25 PTS, 6 REB, 6 AST, 6-12 FG, 3-6 3PT

Per-game stats: 22 PTS, 4.6 REB, 4.7 AST, 0.9 STL, 44.3% FG, 38.1% 3PT

It can be hard to pick who Melbourne's leader is on a week-by-week basis, but the last few weeks have belonged to Trimble. Over United's last three contests, he has averaged 26.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Even more impressive has been the way he has compiled those numbers, taking what the opposition have given him with much more nuance and control than earlier in the season.

Take their round eight win over the Bullets. In the first quarter, Trimble took two shots and missed them both to head into the first break scoreless. He did have four assists, though, and United stayed close despite Shawn Long's struggles. Stuck in a mini-drought to start the second, United didn't score for more than three minutes to open the term, before Trimble broke through with eight straight Melbourne points.

That sparked his scoring for the rest of the game, and he capped off a strong showing with a step-back dagger to bury the Bullets with less than two minutes left in the game. Add in an improved defensive reputation that has drawn praise from coaches and teammates, and Trimble is proving to be a much more complete player than in his debut season a year ago. United's one of the hottest teams in the league, and their star point guard is at the centre of the inferno.

MVP honourable mentions

Mitch Creek

Vs SYD: 20 PTS, 7 REB, 1 STL, 7-14 FG

Per-game stats: 21.6 PTS, 7.5 REB, 4 AST, 1.2 STL, 46.6% FG, 35.3% 3PT

It was another rock-solid outing for Creek, but the Phoenix dropped their third straight game and is now threatening to fall out of the finals picture. He's done a phenomenal job even keeping them afloat in the absence of Tai Wesley, but it's hard to keep him atop the leaderboard when his team continues to struggle.

They put in a valiant effort against the Kings on Saturday, coming back from 20 points down in the third quarter and pushing the ladder leaders right up until the final buzzer. John Roberson was the spark during the comeback, but Creek was a steadying presence through good and bad, as he has been for the entire season. This change isn't because of his late-game decision to pass the potential game-winner to Dane Pineau, either; it may have been the wrong decision, but if Pineau gets a handle on it and scores Creek is hailed as a genius and a leader. Sometimes, it just doesn't quite come off.

Casper Ware

Vs SEM: 25 PTS, 4 AST, 7-14 FG, 3-8 3PT

Per-game stats: 20.7 PTS, 2.6 REB, 3.9 AST, 37.6% FG, 26.7% 3PT

Ware has struggled shooting the ball early in the season, but he's found other ways to be effective during Sydney's 10-1 start. The Kings would be hoping that his round eight performance is a sign of things to come, as he hit 50% of his shots from the field for the first time this year.

It was fitting that the shot to bump him over that mark was yet another clutch bucket on his resume, as he put the Kings ahead for good with a long step-back that never looked like missing. Those big-time shots, and a league-leading 79 free throw attempts, have seen Ware remain a dangerous weapon for the league's best team despite his shooting struggles.

Bryce Cotton

Vs CAI: 10 PTS, 4 REB, 3 AST, 3 STL, 3-15 FG, 2-9 3PT

Per-game stats: 20.3 PTS, 3.8 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.7 STL, 41.6% FG, 42% 3PT

Well, what to make of this effort? Cotton has had quiet games this season, but most have come when his teammates have picked up the slack and the Wildcats have scrounged a win. That certainly wasn't the case against Cairns, as Cotton went missing and his team coughed up a 12 point lead in the fourth quarter.

Cotton and the 'Cats have still enjoyed a good start to the season, but the marquee man has been patchier than we have grown to expect. It's harsh, but he's now held to a higher standard after a near-flawless NBL career thus far. Games like this aren't moving him behind the league's other stars, but they are evening the playing field.

Scott Machado

Vs PER: 17 PTS, 4 REB, 9 AST, 1 STL, 1 TO, 6-13 FG, 3-6 3PT

Vs ILL: 22 PTS, 4 REB, 13 AST, 1 STL

Per-game stats: 14.8 PTS, 3.4 REB, 8.4 AST, 1.5 STL, 44.1% FG, 40.4% 3PT

He's among the league's best guards full stop, but Machado has confirmed his status as the best playmaker in the NBL. A pair of virtuoso performances would have netted Cairns a 2-0 weekend if not for some sloppy defence and some LaMelo Ball magic.

While his passing is his biggest strength, it's his perimeter shooting that has unlocked the rest of his game. Playing for the G League's South Bay Lakers last season, he shot just 28.4% from deep; in fact, across all seasons documented by Basketball Reference, he has just one previous year shooting above 40% from three.

The pair of late threes against the Hawks showed the dilemma that teams now have, as he was given plenty of room to fire for fear of the defender being beaten off the dribble. If he can continue to fire from behind the arc, the gaudy assist numbers and all-around excellence should continue.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

Vs CAI: 32 PTS, 11 REB, 13 AST, 1 STL, 11-20 FG, 4-7 3PT

Per-game stats: 16.3 PTS, 7.1 REB, 6.7 AST, 1.7 STL, 2.1 TO, 37.6% FG, 26.8% 3PT

Alright, it's time; throw in the towel, wave the white flag, and send the trophy to the engravers. No matter what happens from here, it's hard to imagine anyone other than LaMelo Ball winning the Rookie of the Year. His performance against Cairns wasn't just great for a rookie, or great for a young player. It was an all-time great performance that will long be remembered by all that saw it.

It wasn't just the triple-double, it was the way that he got his numbers that was breathtakingly impressive. That all started with the three ball, as he shot a season-high 57.1% (4-7) from behind the arc. With the defence wary of the pull-up threat, he used his handles to snake past defenders and finish from all three levels of the court. He feasted in the pick-and-roll, setting up teammates with his usual mix of precision and flair. And of course, the icing on top of the cake, his deep three to send the game to overtime.

It was a phenomenal game on its own, but Ball's last month has been trending towards this kind of performance. In his past three games, he is averaging 24 points, 8.3 rebounds and 9 assists while shooting 45% from the field and 43.5% from three. The improvement that teammates, coaches, fans and NBA scouts alike hoped for is materialising much more quickly than anyone could have expected.

Rookie of the Year honourable mentions

Kouat Noi

Vs PER: 19 PTS, 6 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 7-12 FG, 3-8 3PT

Vs ILL: 17 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL

Per-game stats: 12.6 PTS, 6.6 REB, 1.9 ORB, 42.4% FG, 32.8% 3PT

If not for LaMelo Ball's recent explosion, there would likely be a lot more buzz about Kouat Noi. The 22-year-old forward has put together the most consistent stretch of his young career, with five consecutive double-figure scoring games and improving efficiency.

In the upset win against Perth he poured in 19 points, including back-to-back threes during their frenetic comeback in the fourth quarter. His shot was a little more erratic against the Hawks, but he was still able to contribute in his usual manner across the board.

Over his last three games, Noi has shot 10-26 (38.5%) from three. It's not perfect, but it's something closer to the perimeter threat many expected him to be.

RJ Hampton

Vs ADE: 15 PTS, 3 REB, 6 AST, 1 STL

Per-game stats: 9.8 PTS, 4.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.3 STL, 1.5 TO, 43.7% FG, 35.5% 3PT

Despite his team's struggles against the 36ers, Hampton showed off his full offensive repertoire in one of his most complete games to date. His first field goal came from a post-up on the undersized Jerome Randle, his second from a spot-up three in the corner, and his third from a tough and-one finish over the bigger Obi Kyei.

It wasn't just his scoring that impressed, as he added a career-high six assists with just two turnovers. Rather than forcing drive-and-kick passes as he was early in the season, Hampton is getting better every game at reading the defence and either passing or driving hard to the basket. Add in his steady defence (1.3 SPG) and perimeter shooting (35.5 3PT%), and the young point guard is giving NBA scouts plenty to consider.

Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau

Vs SYD: 9 PTS, 12 REB, 5 ORB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 4-8 FG

Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 7.3 REB, 1.2 AST, 0.9 STL, 1.4 BLK, 66.7% FG

Up against his former team and matched up against old friend Andrew Bogut, Pineau was his usual robust self in the close loss. 12 rebounds in 27 minutes is an impressive achievement against anyone, let alone against an NBA-caliber big and the reigning league MVP. That marked a career-high, and his five offensive rebounds continued his trend of giving the Phoenix plenty of extra possessions. He is now fourth in the league in offensive rebounding percentage (min. 100 minutes played), per Spatial Jam, ahead of more accomplished players like Shawn Long, Brandon Ashley and Nick Kay.

There's not much more to say about Pineau's performance; it's almost identical every week, and that's the biggest praise he could be given. The Phoenix know that they have a great rebounder and rim protector, as well as an entertaining teammate, who will produce for them week in, week out.

Most Improved Player honourable mentions

Anthony Drmic

Vs BRI: 25 PTS, 5 REB, 6 AST, 9-13 FG, 3-6 3PT

Vs NZ: 15 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL, 6-8 FG, 3-3 3PT

Per-game stats: 12.6 PTS, 5.7 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.5 STL, 54.3% FG, 37.5% 3PT

After teasing NBL fans last season with glimpses of star potential, Drmic has finally begun to blossom into the ideal complementary player for the 36ers. He's doing a little bit of everything for an Adelaide team that desperately needs his production in just about every area.

As pointed out by Liam Santamaria, he's one of two players in the league averaging 10 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists and a steal with less than a turnover per game. His one weak point prior to this week was his outside shooting, but a 6-9 week from deep has seen him return to his usual hot-shooting self.

Drmic hasn't made a huge leap in any one area. However, per 36 minutes, he's upped his points, rebounds, assists and steals, while shooting a higher percentage from the field and from three, per Spatial Jam. Any way you look at it, that's a fair improvement.

Will Magnay

Vs ADE: 11 PTS, 5 REB, 1 BLK

Vs MEL: 3 PTS, 4 REB, 1 BLK

Per-game stats: 7.5 PTS, 4.9 REB, 1.3 BLK, 46.2% FG

It wasn't his biggest statistical weekend, but Magnay had a profound impact in both of Brisbane's games in round eight. In the win against Adelaide, he was the lone Bullets reserve in double figures despite fouling out in less than 20 minutes. He and Matt Hodgson once again split their playing time almost identically, and it feels like Magnay could overtake the starter if he can stay out of foul trouble.

His numbers looked even more modest against Melbourne, but he and Hodgson were superb in frustrating United star Shawn Long into one of the worst games of his NBL career. Magnay's length and defensive acumen kept Long to just five points and three rebounds. Unfortunately, he was unable to similarly curb the influence of reserve bigs Jo-Lual Acuil (11 PTS, 13 REB) and Tohi Smith-Milner (18 PTS). Still, slowing Long gave the Bullets a chance, even if they couldn't grasp it.

Sunday Dech

Vs CAI: 15 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 6-11 FG

Per-game stats: 6 PTS, 2.7 REB, 1.2 AST, 41.5% FG, 38.1% 3PT

Is it ridiculous to say that, based on current form, Dech is Illawarra's second best player? He was huge in the overtime win against Cairns, hitting some clutch shots that would have been unimaginable just a few short weeks ago.

Since his breakout effort against Cairns in round six, he's scored at least 14 points each game and grabbed a place in the starting lineup that he shouldn't relinquish for the rest of the season. He and Ball have become one of the league's best young pairings, and they look likely to lead the Hawks to a few more wins before the season is over.

Best Sixth Man: Majok Deng

Vs PER: 13 PTS, 2 REB, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 6-9 3PT

Vs ILL: 19 PTS, 6 REB, 1 STL, 2 BLK, 4-6 3PT

Per-game stats: 13.9 PTS, 4.4 REB, 1.7 AST, 51.5% FG, 44.7% 3PT

After establishing himself as a solid starter for the Taipans early in the season, it was somewhat surprising to see Deng moved into the second unit. It's unclear how long he'll stay there, but with the contenders for this award dropping like flies or being promoted as starters he's emerged as a surprise leader.

In his three games off the bench he's averaged 15 points and 1.3 blocks per game, and he continues to be lights-out from the perimeter. As Nate Jawai continues to struggle in the post, Deng has been the perfect foil for imports Cam Oliver and Scott Machado, spacing the floor while still providing ample rebounding and rim protection.

It's hard to imagine him being kept out of the starting lineup if he continues to play at such a high level. That's what makes this award so hard to predict; every time a reserve starts to stand out, they're yanked out of contention by a sudden lineup change. If he stays on the bench, though, Deng will be among the favourites come the end of the season.

Best Sixth Man honourable mentions

Sek Henry

Vs ADE: 18 PTS, 3 REB, 3 AST, 1 STL

Per-game stats: 11.5 PTS, 2.6 REB, 3.3 AST, 1 STL, 35.7% FG, 26.7% 3PT

New Zealand's injuries and inconsistencies have seen Henry bounce in and out of the starting lineup. After starting in round seven against the Wildcats, he moved back to the second unit in round eight and subsequently top scored for the Breakers with 18 points. After Webster went down with an ankle injury, Henry was left to carry a much bigger offensive load, and he responded with one one of his better shooting games (6-14 FG) and contributions across the board.

Webster's injury meant that Henry still played more than 30 minutes on the night, and the severity of that ailment could influence his role moving forward. Between the potential absence of Webster, the imminent return of Scotty Hopson, the abrupt end of Glen Rice and all the incidents in between, it's impossible to predict whether Henry will start or sit. He'll need to improve his shooting fast if the Breakers want to stay afloat, but he's proven capable of doing so when at his best.