Three months into the NBA season, there are still many questions to be answered. Can the Boston Celtics put together a solid year of basketball? Will LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers miss the playoffs for the second straight year?
Sportscasting’s NBA staff offered their take on a few individual accomplishments, with Orlando Magic rookie Paolo Banchero and Memphis Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. getting some serious love.
Sportscasting’s NBA Awards award picks
Adam Fromal: Nikola Jokić
The beauty of Nikola Jokic’s multi-year MVP candidacy is that his dominance in the advanced stats realm is an almost needless justification. Just watch the Denver Nuggets play an unorthodox brand of heliocentric basketball and build everything around the big man’s near-stationary presence, and his value is obvious enough. He’s the league’s best passer, a hyper-efficient goalscorer and – yes, we’ll go there – a grossly underrated defensive presence.
Jack Dougherty: Nikola Jokić
Here we go again. Nikola Jokic is averaging almost a triple-double this season (24.7/10.9/9.8) while also averaging the highest percentage of his career (62.0%). And the extended statistics? Forget it. Jokic currently leads the NBA in PER, Win Shares, Box Plus/Minus and VORP to name a few. This would be the third straight season that the center led the league in all four categories. Oh, and the Denver Nuggets are the best team in the Western Conference at 30-13. The Dreitorf got off to a brilliant start.
Michael Thomas: Jayson Tatum
Tatum continues to lead for the team with the best record in the NBA, as evidenced by his 51-point performance on Monday. As of this writing, the Celtics have gone on to seven straight wins to give them a 33-12 record and a 4.5 game lead over the Brooklyn Nets. Tatum improved his game, getting the ball more into the basket and adding another dimension to his strong all-around game.
Joe KozlowskiNikola Jokic
Now that we’re in the new year, it’s safe to draw some conclusions. One of them is that the Denver Nuggets are going nowhere. And since we feel safe with that statement, let’s applaud the man who makes everything possible in Denver: Nikola Jokic.
While the big man’s score (24.7 points per game) is low by MVP racing standards, his ability to do whatever the Nuggets need to do on any given night can’t be overlooked. Whether it’s getting the ball in the basket efficiently, making assists, or smashing rebounds, Jokic makes it happen in the Mile High City. He also produces the kind of moments that drive an MVP narrative, like:
Adam: Ben Simmons
Forget asking Ben Simmons to be a groundbreaking presence. He’s struggling to even serve as a stabilizing fringe star for the Brooklyn Nets. While he deserves some credit for accepting his limitations and making an effort on defense, his pathetic foul shooting and lack of aggression stemming from his fear of the charity streak hold the offense back significantly.
Jack: Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard, who suffered a cruciate ligament tear, only played 21 of the Los Angeles Clippers’ 45 games to start the season. LA won 13-8 in those games, but frustrating load management strategy kept the team from reaching their full potential all year. The Clippers are clearly playing it safe going into the playoffs, but Leonard has done nothing this season to prove he’ll be a reliable contributor in April.
Mike: Ben Simmons
The Nets have upped the ante and find themselves with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Simmons has shown some lightning this year but he hasn’t been able to step up lately in the absence of the injured Kevin Durant. If he could get a little more aggressive on the offensive side of the ball, he could break away from this list.
Joe: Ben Simmons
I’ve tried not to hit Ben Simmons in previous decisions, but I can’t ignore him anymore. The guard has appeared in 31 Nets games through January 17 and is averaging just 7.5 points per game. His rebound and assist numbers help soften things up, but Simmons quite simply isn’t producing at the level you’d expect, having theoretically replaced James Harden as the Nets’ third gun.
Rookie of the Year
Let’s not waste time here. Salute to Bennedict Mathurin, Walker Kessler and the other first-year players strutting their stuff across the Association, but only Paolo Banchero has looked like an All-Star contender during his inaugural campaign.
The only thing that has changed in the Rookie of the Year race over the past month is that Paolo Banchero is extending his lead. The Duke product was a -440 favorite to win the award in December and is now a -1000 favorite. Only a season-ending injury (knock on wood) would stop Banchero from winning ROY.
There just isn’t a debate about who is the best rookie in the NBA right now. He’s easily the front-runner for Rookie of the Year and should be a star for the foreseeable future.
It’s a consistent choice, but it’s the right one. At this point in the season, there’s no reason to think about it. Paolo Banchero looks like a true pro as a rookie; Expect him to cruise to that title and only improve as he has more professional basketball under his belt.
Defensive Player of the Year
Adam: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Being an offensive black hole is bad. The opposite is true on defense, and few players fit the description better than Jaren Jackson Jr. His area of the court is where possessions die, whether he’s spinning to cut off a fast lane before the game develops, or obliterates inside shots better than anyone else in the league, or switch to smaller players and hold your own. It is a system in itself.
Jack: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr. led the NBA in blocks per game with 2.3 last season. That was an impressive mark in itself, but it has nothing to do with his league-leading 3.3 blocks per game in 2022-23. Jackson was the top rim guard in the NBA all season, and he leads the league in defensive win percentages (.152).
Mike: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Jackson has some competition, but right now he’s the favorite. The best rim protector in the game gets the nod over players like Bam Adebayo and Robert Williams III who have once again made the Celtics one of the best defensive teams in the league. Jackson anticipates well on defense, but his shot blocking skills put him over the top.
Joe: Jaren Jackson Jr.
While there are some concerns about Jaren Jackson Jr. — he only averages about 26 minutes per game and has a knack for conceding cheap fouls — his influence on the pitch cannot be overlooked. He’s an elite rim protector, can stop almost any drive and is the best defender on a strong defensive team.
Most Improved Player
Adam: Lukas Doncic
The Dallas Mavericks do-it-all superstar won’t get much acclaim in the actual Most Improved Player race, but he should.
As hard as it is for a player to go from being a good player to being a great one, it’s even harder to make meaningful progress as an established Superstar. That’s exactly what Luka Doncic did, somehow reducing his turnovers while becoming more involved in the offensive. He’s also increased his scoring average by more than five points per game to a whopping 33.8, and that’s as a result of his true shooting average skyrocketing from 57.1 to 60.8. He jumped into the stratosphere – really beyond – and that deserves more credit than it actually gets.
Jack: Lauri Markkanen
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the slight betting favorite for the Most Improved Player title and he deserves it, but I can’t ignore Lauri Markkanen’s coming out party. The sixth-year forward improved his points per game from 14.8 last year to 24.6 this year, and he’s the main reason the Utah Jazz have far exceeded expectations this season.
Mike: Shai Gilgeous Alexander
Last month I picked Lauri Markkanen who is still a viable candidate. After a quick start, however, the Jazz have come back to reality. Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging nearly 31 points per game, and the Thunder are a game behind the Golden State Warriors for seventh playoff spot in the Western Conference. I believe the Thunder will end up being the better team and that will make the difference between the two players.
Joe: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
As the other guys have mentioned, Lauri Markkanen is a legitimate player in the MIP equation. That said, I still give the nod to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. With 30.7 points per game, the OKC guard ranks fifth overall in the association, ahead of Kevin Durant and LeBron James. That’s not to be overlooked, especially when SGA can sustain it throughout the campaign.