NBL awards: MVP frontrunners, Coach of the Year candidates, and more

We're approaching the home stretch of the NBL season, and the awards races are heating up.

Some of them, at least.

It sure seems like the fight for the Andrew Gaze Trophy -- awarded to the league's Most Valuable Player -- will go down to the wire, while at least two end-of-season awards appear decided already.

Here's where every NBL awards race sits, with right around a month left in the 2022-23 season.

Most Valuable Player

Frontrunner: Xavier Cooks

Cooks is the best, most effective player on the best, most effective team in the league. It can sometimes be that simple. There are arguments to be made for a few players this season, but that's probably where the MVP race is sitting right now. The 27-year-old is the most imposing two-way player in the NBL, legitimately being able to switch one-through-five, while his 62.1 true shooting percentage is a good sign of how unstoppable he is on the other end of the floor. When the Kings need a bucket, Cooks can go and get them one; and, when they're flowing as an offence, the forward can transform into the league's most elite connector. The Kings' depth hurts his numbers -- 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game -- because he only has to play just over 26 minutes a game, but they're still extremely impressive and his impact is vast and undeniable. As of now, he's the MVP.

Mitch Creek

Of course, the MVP race is far from over, and Creek is the main threat for Cooks. Creek is second in the league in scoring, at 23.3 points a game, and there's a good case to be made that he's in the midst of the best season of his career. He's been the one constant for a South East Melbourne Phoenix team that's had its fair share of injury woes, and that's the thing that may unfortunately hurt his MVP case. The Phoenix have fallen out of the top-three, and there's potential for them to drop even more, making it tough for Creek to compete with a player like Cooks, especially if the Kings pull away. Notwithstanding the actual award, Creek's MVP-level player doesn't seem to be slowing down, so it's clear he won't go down without a fight.

Keanu Pinder

Pinder isn't someone we predicted would be in this conversation but he continues to show why he absolutely deserves to be. The Taipans have consistently hovered toward the top portion of the NBL ladder, and Pinder's presence inside the paint is a big reason why. He's sixth in the league in scoring (17.9 points per game) and first in rebounding (9.9 rebounds per game; fifth in rebound percentage, at 18.1%), and is often the barometer for one of the NBL's best-performing teams. His impact on the defensive end - particularly his switchability, which is a staple for these Taipans - turns him from just a really good player, into an MVP-calibre one, and quite rightly puts him just behind Cooks and Creek in this conversation.

Outside looking in: Bryce Cotton

Most Improved Player

Frontrunner: Keanu Pinder

This feels like a no-brainer. Pinder went from ending his previous season as a really solid starting-level player, to legitimately entering the MVP conversation, and he's likely to earn himself a marquee contract. Sure, it feels weird to give this sort of award to a player of that calibre but, Pinder is, quite literally and obviously, the player who has improved the most. He's averaging close to a double-double - 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds, up from 10.9 points and 7.6 rebounds a game - and is a key piece for one of the NBL's best defensive teams.

William McDowell-White

Like Pinder, it's not just about the improved numbers for McDowell-White. Yes, he's averaging career-highs across the board - 9.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists a game; up from 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, and 3.7 assists - but his improvement is mainly demonstrated by his impact. He's the starting point guard for a team that's been in the top-two all season long, controlling the pace with a renewed level of maturity. The Breakers' recent form - three straight losses without McDowell-White - is the perfect example of how important the Australian has become for that team.

Outside looking in: Jack McVeigh, Sam Froling, Izayah Le'Afa

Best Defensive Player

Frontrunner: Dererk Pardon

Over the past 14 seasons, only one big man has won this award: Andrew Bogut in 2018-19, which was also his MVP year. It's an award that's always been weighted toward guards and wings, perhaps because of the elite perimeter players that have come through the league in recent times, but that could very well change this season. Dererk Pardon has been an anchor for the New Zealand Breakers, who've been a top-two defence for practically the entire season. Pardon has ticked every box this season: he guards pick-and-rolls at an elite level, bodies up in the post extremely well, and rebounds effectively. The Breakers have the best half-court defence in the NBL, and a big reason for that is Pardon's presence in the lane.

Justin Simon

The Kings' defence is a team and scheme thing, so picking one player to be in consideration is tough. However, even though Simon is well regarded as the 'defensive specialist' of the group, his contributions still feel slightly under-appreciated. Being the Kings' primary perimeter defensive option is what he's elite at, at face value, but what he provides with his length, deflections, and rim deterrence is why his team is able to be so effective at pushing the ball. The Kings are easily the best transition team in the NBL, and what Simon provides on the defensive side is a big reason why they're so elite at it; it's also why he's right toward the top of the race for the Damian Martin Trophy.

Bul Kuol

Right now, it's not unreasonable to think Kuol may be the most effective point-of-attack defender in the NBL. He's elite at sitting down and staying in front of his man, and does an incredible job seeking gaps to break up any and all dribble-hand-off action by an opposing team. The Taipans have been a top-three defence for most of the season, and Kuol's ability to be effective both on individual matchups and as someone who can switch one-through-four, has been a big part of that success.

Outside looking in: Izayah Le'Afa, Xavier Cooks

Rookie of the Year

Frontrunner: Sam Waardenburg

This one is effectively locked away already. There's just no-one else in consideration for this award, other than Waardenburg, who's been a consistent starter for the Taipans all season. And, that's not to discredit the Kiwi big-man's season - he's averaging 9.5 points and 3.9 rebounds a game, shooting above 50% from the field - but this is a rookie class that doesn't have many high-output guys, so it's a one-man race. Things could have been different if Rayan Rupert didn't break his wrist after just nine games, and there's technically a chance he can return and blow us away, but, at this point, it doesn't look like anyone's going to catch Waardenburg.

Outside looking in: Rayan Rupert, Jaylin Galloway, David Okwera, Junior Madut

Coach of the Year

Frontrunner: Mody Maor

What Maor has been able to achieve as a first-year head coach, thus far, has been nothing short of remarkable. The Breakers were largely predicted to be a team outside the playoff picture, but Maor has led them to become a defensive juggernaut, as well as having them play some of the most efficient offence in the NBL. There's also the case of the culture within that franchise; not that it was necessarily broken, but it needed a revamp after the last few COVID-interrupted seasons put the team in a fragile state. Maor seemingly stepped into the role knowing that he'd have to input a sustainable culture after those years of volatility, and the consensus from within that playing group is that he's been resoundingly successful in doing so.

Chase Buford

The formula for any Coach of the Year award is usually an outcome vs expectations debate; in essence, how much did your team exceed what was widely expected of them going into a season. The problem is that means it's easy to overlook the team that was expected to do quite well, and is. Chase Buford could be a victim of that for the second straight season, but here's hoping he won't be, because this is a legitimate two-man race at this point in time. The Sydney Kings are the best team in the league and, yes, having the probable MVP helps in that regard, but how Buford has his team operating has been wildly impressive. He's been able to introduce three new imports, with his team seemingly not missing a beat, while guiding the best defence in the NBL. This race is close, and the potential for the Kings to pull away even more as the No. 1 seed may end up being the difference.

Outside looking in: Adam Forde, Scott Roth

Best Sixth Man

Frontrunner: Barry Brown Jr.

As long as Brown Jr. remains eligible for this award - which, as of now, he easily is - then this is another one of those no-brainers. He's averaging 20.6 points per game, which is good for third in the NBL, on relatively good splits, and helping the New Zealand Breakers stun everyone as one of the best teams in the league. The way he operates is also like a traditional sixth man, in that he's the Breakers' no-questions-asked gunner when he checks in. He leads the league in isolation possessions - 81, which is more than 20 more than the next most prolific iso player - and is effective in those situations, so he keeps things ticking for Maor in the rare moments when the Breakers offence gets stagnant.

Tyler Johnson

Like Brown Jr., Johnson is a starter level player who just happens to come off the bench, for whatever strategic reasons the head coach has determined. The difference is Johnson approaches his minutes more like a starter-type player, as opposed to a Sixth Man that comes in and launches right away. The former NBA veteran is averaging 14 points per game for the Brisbane Bullets, bringing a settling, pace-setting presence off Greg Vanderjagt's bench, but that's unfortunately rarely translated to wins.

Rashard Kelly

The efficiency hasn't quite been there this season, but there's no doubting how much of an impact Kelly has off the JackJumpers bench. For a team that has a tendency to experience offensive lulls, Kelly has shown to be the type of player you can throw the ball into and trust that he'll generate some sort of creation, averaging 11.8 points per game off the pine.. He's been relatively effective at being that scoring punch off the bench for Scott Roth's team but, given that Brown Jr. does the same thing but at a much, much higher level, Kelly is more of an honorary selection in a race that already feels over.

Outside looking in: Anthony Drmic, Jordan Hunter, Kouat Noi