Round nine saw the best continue to pull away from the rest on the NBL ladder, as the Kings moved three wins clear in top spot. It's a very different story in our NBL award leaders, though, as there were plenty of tough decisions across the board.
For the second straight week we have a new MVP leader, with team success and individual excellence from the newest King making a compelling case. The Best Sixth Man race continues to be shaken up by the league's coaches, as nominees find themselves in and out of the starting lineups. And while the leaders held firm in the other major awards, there were plenty of strong challenges from their fellow contenders.
MVP: Casper Ware
Vs MEL: 27 PTS, 2 REB, 5 AST, 9-14 FG, 4-7 3PT
Per-game stats: 21.3 PTS, 2.6 REB, 4 AST, 39.5% FG, 28.7% 3PT
It has become impossible to ignore the Sydney Kings, as they now sit three wins clear atop the NBL ladder with just one loss. After a somewhat rocky start with his new club, Ware has emerged as the unquestioned offensive leader for the Kings and has started to return to the form that saw him finish second in last season's MVP voting.
His shooting splits are fairly unbecoming for an MVP candidate, but they're less concerning when you consider his improvement as the year has progressed. Over his first four games, Ware averaged 18.8 points per game while shooting 33.3% from the field and 22.5% from three. In the six games since, that has skyrocketed to 24.5 points per game at 47.4% from the field and 36.7% from deep. That shooting isn't unbelievable, but that also means it's likely sustainable. More importantly, it's much closer to what fans have come to expect from Ware.
He's also getting to the free throw line at a high rate, as he's second in both free throws made (66) and attempted (85). Through his early shooting struggles, that was almost the only thing that kept him effective offensively; now, it's just an added bonus.
Add in the armful of clutch shots that he has already knocked down this year and his trademark hounding defence, and it's a case of new city, same old Casper Ware. After another dominant performance in a win against his former side, he's cemented his spot as the crunch-time leader for the league's runaway favourites. That makes him a deserved MVP frontrunner, and his lead may grow even larger if his shooting continues to trend upward.
MVP honourable mentions
Vs BRI: 19 PTS, 7 REB, 4 AST, 1 STL, 1 BLK, 8-15 FG
Per-game stats: 21.4 PTS, 7.5 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.2 STL, 47.2% FG, 36.1% 3PT
It feels like Creek is becoming the poster child for under-the-radar excellence. Maybe it's because he started the season with such a bang, but his standout play is becoming too easy to miss.
That could also be because he's so willing to defer to others, a sign of the leadership and value that are tough to measure. Against the Bullets, it was Ben Madgen (23 PTS) and Kyle Adnam (16 PTS) that did a lot of the heavy lifting on the scoresheet. The Phoenix's defence was the difference maker, though, and with Dane Pineau in foul trouble it was Creek that set the tone as they overcame a 16-point deficit by holding Brisbane to just 34 points in the second half.
Of course, he still had his usual all-around impact on both ends, and the box score reflects that. Madgen may have grabbed the headlines, but Creek continues to be the heart and soul of a team that is staying right in the thick of the finals hunt.
Vs CAI: 16 PTS, 4 AST, 2 STL, 6-14 FG, 3-8 3PT
Vs SYD: 32 PTS, 2 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 10-19 FG
Per-game stats: 22.3 PTS, 4 REB, 4.8 AST, 1.1 STL, 45% FG, 37.5% 3PT
At the start of the weekend, Melbourne United were knocking on the door of the top two. By the end of it, they were scrapping to even stay inside the top four.
That was hardly Trimble's fault, though, as last week's MVP leader was solid against Cairns and spectacular against Sydney. Perhaps he could have been more aggressive against the Taipans, but he did everything he could to keep his side in the contest against Sydney, pouring in 15 points in the third quarter and fighting tooth and nail at every opportunity. In a game his side trailed from start to finish, it was an impressive display of all-around scoring.
Trimble grabbed the lead in the MVP race last round largely on the back of United's hot form. With two straight losses he slips slightly, but his individual excellence continues. Both he and his teammates will be hoping that starts translating into wins once again.
Vs MEL: 17 PTS, 4 REB, 10 AST, 2 STL, 6-12 FG, 3-7 3PT
Per-game stats: 15 PTS, 3.3 REB, 8.5 AST, 1.5 STL, 44.6% FG, 40.7% 3PT
Another week, another win against an NBL19 grand finalist. The Taipans have now beaten Perth and Melbourne twice each, and Machado has been at the forefront of each and every one of those wins. Friday night saw them break United's six-game winning streak, with Machado notching his second consecutive double-double to lead the way.
Every game he's becoming more and more aggressive in all facets. His passing is still his most bankable trait, and his 8.5 assists per game lead the league by a wide margin. The biggest development has been his perimeter shooting, as he's willing to pull the trigger from long range even with a defender in the vicinity. That confidence seems to translate to the defensive end, as he's trusting his instincts and judging when to hold his position and when to press for the steal. Machado has quickly become the most complete point guard in the league, and the Taipans are suddenly pushing for a spot in the top four.
Vs ADE: 18 PTS, 5 REB, 3 AST, 7-16 FG
Per-game stats: 20.2 PTS, 3.9 REB, 4.2 AST, 1.5 STL, 41.7% FG, 41.2% 3PT
What to make of Cotton and the Wildcats this season? Both player and team have had some brilliant moments and a few equally frustrating performances, with little in between.
On paper Cotton was solid as always, but eight of his 18 points came in the fourth quarter when the game was essentially over. It's easy to forget, though, that Perth are still clear in second spot and Cotton is one of only four active players averaging over 20 points per game.
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball
Vs NZ: 25 PTS, 12 REB, 7 ORB, 10 AST, 1 STL
Per-game stats: 17 PTS, 7.5 REB, 7 AST, 1.7 STL, 2.4 TO, 37.3% FG, 24.4% 3PT
Round nine was a timely reminder for basketball fans that not all triple-doubles are created equal. They've been a point of contention in the NBA for years, as Russell Westbrook claimed an MVP trophy on the back of consistent stat sheet stuffing. That same debate may be about to surface in the NBL, after Ball tallied his second straight triple double in vastly different fashion to his first.
A week ago, Ball set season highs in field goal percentage (55%) and three-point percentage (57.1%) with just two turnovers. Against the Breakers, he shot just 35.7% from the field and 9.1% from deep and had a season-high five turnovers. It's hard to judge him too harshly when Illawarra's lack of talent forced him take almost as many shots (28 FGA) as the rest of the starting five combined (29 FGA), but his shot selection continues to be a frustration at times. He may have been on fire last week, but 11 three point attempts from a player shooting just 24.4% on the season feels a little unwise.
He also struggled in the big moment, as the spotlight he shone so brightly under last week seemed to engulf him this time around. On one play in the fourth quarter he was emphatically blocked by Sek Henry. Just a few possessions later, as Ball tried to cross him up on the perimeter, Henry stripped the ball cleanly and took it all the way for an uncontested dunk at the other end.
Those negatives aside, Ball continues to break new ground for young players in the NBL. The first player to have back-to-back triple doubles in the 40 minute era, his playmaking was as dazzling as ever and his seven offensive rebounds illustrate his relentless effort on the glass. While his efficiency is a concern, he's still well ahead of the curve relative to preseason expectations, and the Hawks have handed him the keys to their offence - at least, until they find a replacement for Aaron Brooks. That shows a level of confidence and trust most 18 year olds simply wouldn't be afforded.
Rookie of the Year honourable mentions
Vs MEL: 5 PTS, 12 REB, 5 AST, 1 STL
Per-game stats: 11.9 PTS, 7.2 REB, 1.2 AST, 40.3% FG, 32.3% 3PT
After the best scoring stretch of his young career, Noi came back to earth with a thud against Melbourne. Five points marked his lowest scoring game of the season, and it came on 2-11 shooting from the field and just one attempt from deep. Cairns will be hoping that it was an off week and not a regression to the mean for their rising star, as he has become more of a focal point for their offence in recent weeks. They'll also be pleased, however, by his ability to contribute to a winning performance even on an off shooting night-- his rebounding is a known threat by now, but his five assists would be a pleasant surprise.
Vs ILL: 12 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 4-8 FG
Per-game stats: 10 PTS, 4.3 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.2 STL, 44.2% FG, 34.4% 3PT
Once again, the team honours in the battle of the Next Stars went to the Hampton and the New Zealand Breakers. The game represented the issue that would surely be troubling NBA scouts across the US, as it's becoming harder and harder to evaluate Hampton and Ball alongside each other.
Hampton has been the more efficient player in the traditional sense, and his team is generally competing better in games. But how much of that is just a byproduct of the players around him? Even with their injury woes, the Breakers have more talent and depth than the Hawks.
To his credit, Hampton has bought into his role on the team and played it perfectly. Against the Hawks, where he was targeted in the post on defence, he fought hard and gave up no easy buckets. Offensively, he sought out contact more readily when driving to the basket and finished well, something he has struggled with at times. He still lacks one standout skill, but his overall consistency is a big plus.
Most Improved Player: Dane Pineau
Vs BRI: 8 PTS, 9 REB, 7 ORB, 1 STL, 4-6 FG
Per-game stats: 8 PTS, 7.4 REB, 3.8 ORB, 1.1 AST, 1.3 BLK, 66.7% FG
He was hamstrung by foul trouble, but Pineau still found a way to contribute to a vital win for the Phoenix. His 15 minutes on the court were a season low, but it seemed like he channelled his usual abundant energy into that time with even more vigour.
His seven offensive rebounds were a season high, and that tally trails only Shawn Long (10 ORB vs Cairns) and Daniel Johnson (8 ORB vs South East Melbourne) for a single game this season. The biggest difference? Long and Johnson both played just a hair under 30 minutes in those games.
Even more incredible is Pineau's overall impact on the Phoenix. Despite his reputation as a defensive specialist, he has the best net rating in the NBL among players that have logged at least 100 minutes, per Spatial Jam. His rating of 28.1 dwarfs his nearest eligible teammate, with John Roberson posting a net rating of 9.1.
It's easy to see why when you watch him play-- even in his limited minutes against the Bullets, he made a handful of big impact plays. He entered the game in the third quarter with the Phoenix down by 12. Four minutes, two offenive rebounds and two tough finishes later, he returned to the bench with his side within six. Even when hampered by fouls, Pineau's contributions are greater than many could have expected heading into the season.
Most Improved Player honourable mentions
Vs SEM: 8 PTS, 7 REB, 2 AST, 1 STL, 3-6 FG
Per-game stats: 7.6 PTS, 5.2 REB, 2.1 ORB, 1.1 AST, 1.2 BLK, 46.6% FG
On paper, this was an easier matchup for Magnay. With Tai Wesley still missing through injury, the Phoenix big man rotation was built around defensive-minded players Pineau, Jaye Crockett and Keith Benson. Crockett and Pineau were among the most influential for their side, though, which has to be counted as something of a loss for Magnay.
Still, his raw numbers were around his season averages, and he made his matchup work at all times. Even when Magnay has a quieter game, he brings an energy that forces the opposition to adjust to his presence. That may not have translated into a positive result in round nine, but he continues to be a bright spot in wins and losses for the up-and-down Bullets.
Vs NZ: 11 PTS, 6 REB, 2 AST, 4 STL
Per-game stats: 6.5 PTS, 3 REB, 1.3 AST, 0.9 STL, 41.3% FG, 38.5% 3PT
As LaMelo Ball's defence continues to fluctuate, Sunday Dech becomes more and more important for the Hawks. His four steals on Saturday were a career high, but he was left with too much work to do against the red-hot Sek Henry.
Still, his progress over the last month is phenomenal, and he continues to improve with every game. If that trajectory can continue, he may find his calling away from the NBL in the near future.
Best Sixth Man: Eric Griffin
Vs PER: 10 PTS, 5 REB, 1 BLK, 4-7 FG
Per-game stats: 14.1 PTS, 5.5 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.4 BLK, 52.3% FG
For the second straight week, both of our nominations for Best Sixth Man were moved into their respective starting lineups the next week. That makes it a hasty coronation for Griffin, who has been shuffled in and out of the starting five for the 36ers in recent weeks.
He has thrived with the reserves, though, and Adelaide's big win over the Wildcats means they will likely stick with that formula for at least another week. Griffin was solid, if unspectacular, in that game, with his ten points coming in just 18 minutes before he fouled out of the contest.
The whistle is his biggest enemy; in his last game off the bench, a win over the Breakers, he again played just 18 minutes due to foul trouble but poured in 24 points. That's part of the reason why he is suited to a reserve role, as his forced stints on the pine cause less disruption to the overall rotations. He also brings a ton of energy every time he steps onto the floor, and his flexibility to play alongside or in place of Daniel Johnson gives Joey Wright plenty of options.
Best Sixth Man honourable mentions
Will Magnay (as above)
Vs PER: 12 PTS, 3 REB, 4 AST
Per-game stats: 11.1 PTS, 3.5 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 45% FG, 25% 3PT
Much like his teammate Griffin, Moore has moved in and out of the 36ers starting lineup this season. It's hard to predict where he will stick as they continue to tinker, but he will be one of the most talented reserves in the league for as long as he comes off the bench. After back-to-back solid outings against Perth and the Breakers, it seems that he will be in contention for this award for as long as he is eligible.