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Xavier Cooks finishes NBA season with an exclamation point
Despite the late entry, reigning NBL MVP Xavier Cooks made the most of his opportunities with the Washington Wizards.
Few would argue that Xavier Cooks is the NBL’s most accomplished player over the past two seasons. His resume includes two NBL titles (2022, 2023) with the Sydney Kings, as well as an NBL MVP trophy (2023) and NBL Grand Final MVP honours (2022). Cooks helped the Kings break a 17-year championship drought, and was the driving force behind a repeat title, while imports like Jaylen Adams and Derrick Walton came and went.
For a player who achieved everything possible on home soil, the next logical step was always going to be the NBA. Cooks played four years of college basketball at Winthrop, so America isn’t exactly foreign territory for him, but he finally fulfilled a long-held dream after going undrafted in 2018. The 27 year old joined the Washington Wizards on a four year deal worth $6.1 million, with the deal guaranteed through to the end of the 2023-24 season. Beyond that he has a non-guaranteed deal for 2024-25, and the Wizards hold a team option for 2025-26.
Given that the contract is guaranteed for 2023-24, Cooks will have some breathing room as he establishes himself in the NBA. It’s a cutthroat business, as evidenced by Danté Exum’s final NBA offseason with the Houston Rockets. Houston decided to cut the athletic point guard before a ball was even bounced, as he was on a non-guaranteed contract. Moreover, since the NBL season was wrapped up in March, Cooks had a chance to impress his new employers in the closing stages of the 2022-23 season.
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Cooks entered a low pressure environment as the Wizards were sitting on a 32-38 record when he arrived, and faced long odds of making the play-in tournament. One could question whether the organisation even cared about postseason basketball, as more losses usually equated to a higher draft pick in theory. The Kings icon backed up from game five of the NBL finals, which finished on the evening of March 15, to play in an NBA game just 3.5 days later. He only logged six minutes in Washington’s 132-118 loss to Sacramento, but it was an impressive feat regardless given the short turnaround.
Cooks had to settle for garbage time minutes in his first six NBA appearances. He averaged 3.8 minutes during that period, and unsurprisingly logged only two field gold attempts, as well as seven rebounds in total. Franchise big man Kristaps Porziņģis was still playing at that point, and Daniel Gafford commanded a big chunk of the centre minutes. Cooks was essentially fighting for scraps, as Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert were next in line if injury were to strike the Washington front court. The presence of veteran power forwards like Taj Gibson and Anthony Gill didn’t help either.
As Cooks adjusted to his new surroundings over his first two weeks, opportunities started to open up. One major turning point was Washington’s 128-140 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, where Cooks suddenly logged a then-season high 26 minutes, out of nowhere. Porziņģis was out of action due to a non-COVID illness, and eventually he ended up being shut down, as Washington presumably committed to the chase for a higher pick in the 2023 NBA draft. Deni Avdija also missed the Wizards’ last four games, due to left elbow bursitis, opening the door a little wider for Cooks.
The NBA rookie faced a tough opponent in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, but more than held his own. Cooks scored eight points on four-of-five shooting, doing his work in the paint as expected, but flashed two impressive hook shots - including one with his left hand. He also had his moments on the defensive end, swiping the ball from Antetokounmpo for a steal in the first quarter, before coming up with one on one stops against Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis. Overall, Cooks finished the game with an impressive +/- of +5, which would have provided a confidence boost after finally seeing extended minutes.
Cooks didn’t quite get as much playing time in his next two games. He logged six points and six rebounds in 17 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks, before recording a near double-double (ten points, nine rebounds) in 22 minutes against the Miami Heat. The 6’8 forward had to settle for garbage time minutes against the Hawks, but still flashed a combination of tenacity and skill, with three assists, two offensive rebounds and one left handed layup. Cooks was plagued by missed free throws in his next game against Miami (2/6 from the line), but it nonetheless wound up being his best NBA game to date.
En route to a then-career high nine rebounds, Cooks pulled down four offensive boards, of which two were also easy tip in buckets. He also made an impact on the defensive end, coming away with three steals, in an all-round performance which helped Washington win by a 114-108 scoreline. This game was really where Cooks made the leap from NBL standout to NBA double-double threat, but his next performance would cap off a whirlwind NBA stint in the most ideal fashion.
Washington rolled out a heavily depleted lineup for their final regular season game against the Houston Rockets. Porziņģis, Gafford, Avdija and Kyle Kuzma were all out of action, while Kispert only played 12 minutes before taking a rest. One could be forgiven for questioning whether the Wizards were blatantly tanking, but in any case, Cooks was the big winner. The NBL MVP logged a whopping 38 minutes, which was 17 more than frontcourt rival Anthony Gill, and that laid the groundwork for a stellar performance.
Cooks set new career highs for both total rebounds (14) and offensive rebounds (7), while adding ten points to boot. He also came away with two steals and two blocks, as well as a +/- of +3, although Washington ultimately lost by a 114-109 scoreline. Cooks appeared to be playing the five position for much of the game, which suited his rebounding tenacity and propensity to score in the paint. Two of his buckets were nifty left hand hooks, capping off a memorable double-double in the final game of the regular season. The Wizards presumably weren’t too concerned about the outcome of the game, but their front office got a good look at Cooks in a scenario where he was truly showcased.
As one of Australia’s eleven active NBA players, Cooks is a short priced favourite to earn a Boomers call up ahead of the 2023 FIBA World Cup. Owing to his well-built frame and paint prowess, the 27 year old will likely fill a key big man role, alongside the likes of Jock Landale. That World Cup will precede a seminal NBA preseason for Cooks, where his development will have a major say in his NBA future. If the NBL MVP can develop the perimeter skills to match his hulking frame, including a reliable jump shot, he may well be looking at a strong future in the NBA. Cooks has already made strides as a playmaker, recently averaging 4.2 assists for Sydney in the 2022-23 NBL regular season. Only time will tell whether this translates to the NBA, but Cooks has already shown flashes of passing ability, by occasionally finding a running cutter or an open shooter.