It seems like we were handing out trophies for first-quarter awards just yesterday, but it’s that time again! We’re at the halfway point for most squads, so it’s time to dole out some more shine.
Reminder: these awards are for the second quarter only. They are not predictions of the actual year-end awards. Also, for Most Improved, I’m looking for players who have shown better play since the first quarter of this season, not since last season, so there may be different names on here than you’ll see at other halfway-point awards lists.
Let’s get to it!
Defensive Player of the Quarter (DPOQ): Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
The elastic Memphian returned to the court in the middle of November, too late to qualify for Q1 awards, but loudly announced his presence with sixteen blocks in his first four games. He hasn’t slowed down since, leading the league with 3.3 blocks per game despite playing just 26 minutes each night. I am quite certain, too, that Jackson leads the league in blocking guys from behind:
Jackson is not as graceful on the court as, say, Anthony Davis. He’s not as fluid as you might expect. Still, his instincts have sharpened significantly over time: he’s averaging more blocks than fouls per game, a rare accomplishment, and he’s noticeably better at not biting on pump fakes. He used to clobber shooters with his off-arm and then act bewildered when the refs called a foul on him; he’s cut down on that significantly.
He’s blocking more shots, fouling less, and rebounding more, a fantastic combination. Teams are shooting a hilariously low 41.5% against JJJ at the rim, by far the best mark in the league, and the number has been lower than that in the second quarter.
It’s not just the gaudy rim protection numbers, although that is a significant part of Jackson’s case. Jaren is a menace on the perimeter, using his praying mantis limbs to full effect. He’s averaging a steal per game and does a shockingly effective job of jumping passing lanes like a smaller player. When he spreads wide, ballhandlers have to take an extra dribble just to get around his condor wings, and that length allows him to chase down the few drivers who are able to squirt by. He’s quick enough to hedge hard on the pick-and-roll and still recover back to the big man, and he’s long enough to play in drop coverage effectively.
Memphis has the best defense in the league, and their overall defensive rating is 109.4. Somehow, though, the Grizzlies give up 8.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with JJJ on the floor, one of the best marks in the league.
As I said last time, DPOY is going to be a bloodbath. But JJJ made my decision for the quarter easy.
Honorable Mention: Draymond Green (picking it up, particularly in Steph’s absence), Bam Adebayo (still the best switching big, and no slouch at the other things), OG Anunoby, Brook Lopez, Dillon Brooks, Jarrett Allen
Rookie of the Quarter (ROQ): Paolo Banchero, Orlando Magic
It’s still Paolo. But you know what? We talked about him last time, and I don’t have anything novel to say. He’s still awesome. So let’s talk about my second-place rookie, Jalen Williams.
Almost Rookie of the Quarter (aROQ): Jalen Williams, Oklahoma City Thunder
Jalen averaged nearly 13/5/3 in the second quarter on 52/29/68 percent shooting splits. Of course, the 29% from deep is concerning, but Jalen has been an incredible performer whose impact doesn’t fully pop from the box score stats.
Williams has an amorphous game that lets him flow between roles with ease. He functions primarily as a secondary ballhandler, comfortable both attacking closeouts off the catch or running a standard pick-and-roll, but he’s also a canny cutter and a bull in transition.
He’s not a particularly explosive athlete but leverages good size (6’6” with an absurd 7’2” wingspan) and strength (particularly for a 19-year-old) to shoot a strong 70% at the rim and 48% from floater range.
Williams keeps the ball moving (nearly 2:1 assist:turnover ratio) and has a little bit of teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s game to him: like SGA, he starts and stops with alacrity, taking peculiar angles to the rim and finishing in unusual ways. Jalen has an artist’s instincts in the paint:
I don’t even know what this is! A one-footed, one-handed, fading push shot? Filthy.
Williams’ defensive playmaking instincts are solid (1.7 stocks per game for the quarter), but like nearly all rookies, he’s not reliable yet on that end; Jalen struggles guarding ballhandlers in the pick-and-roll. But he’s intelligent, and his physical tools are solid enough that I think he’ll eventually be an above-average defender on the wing (although he’ll need a little more lateral quickness to be a true point-of-attack bulldog).
Honorable Mention: Bennedict Mathurin (still playing an essential role for a playoff team, but he’s struggled with his shot recently), Dyson Daniels, Jabari Smith, Andrew Nembhard, Walker Kessler, AJ Griffin.
Coach of the Quarter (COQ): Jacque Vaughn, Brooklyn Nets
It’s tough to argue against a coach whose team is 18-2 in their last 20 games.
Vaughn has done an incredible job with the Nets since replacing Steve Nash early in the season, highlighted by the Nets’ recent 12-game winning streak. We covered some of that ground on Friday, but the gist is that the Nets have been the third-best defense and the second-best offense this quarter. Not bad!
Any team with Kyrie and KD should be a great offense. Still, the Nets’ tweaked defensive schemes have unlocked the roster’s strengths: the Nets do more switching, play larger lineups (helped, to be fair, by the return or emergence of bigger wings like TJ Warren, Joe Harris, and Yuta Watanabe at the expense of smaller players like Patty Mills and Seth Curry), and demonstrate better buy-in from the stars.
Vaughn is a positive guy renowned for his touch in the locker room, but he has no problem holding even his best players accountable. It’s really tough to recover from the ****show that the Nets were at the beginning of the season: Kyrie’s suspension due to anti-semitic comments, Kevin Durant’s trade request, the firing of Steve Nash, injuries up and down the roster. Somehow, though, Vaughn managed to get everyone rowing in the same direction, and the Q2 Nets looked like the fearsome squad many thought they could be.
Honorable Mention: Taylor Jenkins, Michael Malone
Sixth Man Of The Quarter (6MOQ): Tyus Jones, Memphis Grizzlies
This one was challenging. There aren’t any runaway candidates like there have been in the past. It’s always been easy to circle in on two or three guys, but many previous Sixth Man contenders are either starting (Tyler Herro, Jordan Clarkson) or have fallen off a bit (Kevin Love).
Larry Nance from the Pelicans may have been my choice at full strength, but he missed nearly a third of the quarter, so instead, I gave the nod to Tyus Jones.
Tyus averaged 11.6 points, 5.2 assists, and 2.8 rebounds for the quarter while shooting 42% from deep. Jones has long been one of the steadiest backups in the league, but he’s taken his game to new heights since a strong playoff performance in Ja Morant’s stead in last year’s playoffs. He’s gained new confidence in his offensive abilities, and he’s become a little more aggressive with launching off-the-dribble and pull-up jumpers — he’s shooting more than four triples per game, up from 2.8 last season.
His on/off numbers aren’t impressive, but that’s a natural byproduct of backing up one of the best players in the league, and the Grizzlies still outscore opponents by 3.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor without Morant.
Jones is famously Scroogian with the basketball (a nearly 5:1 assist:turnover ratio), and he averaged more steals than turnovers per game during the quarter.
Honorable Mention: Alec Burks (the Pistons are one of the worst teams in basketball and yet somehow outscore opponents when Burks is on the floor), Larry Nance Jr., Malcolm Brogdon, Bennedict Mathurin.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter (MIPOQ): Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls
The most challenging category by far. I consider who has improved the most between the first and second quarters. I don’t want to reward players who have improved strictly due to availability, either: Thomas Bryant has been a revelation for the Lakers but only played four games during the first quarter, so it’s hard to say he’s improved.
After much hemming and hawing, I landed on Zach LaVine. I came thisclose to going with Tyler Herro, who, like LaVine, had a massive jump in scoring and efficiency while being Miami’s closer.
LaVine has played in 37 games this season but started slowly due to some combination of rust and regaining trust in his knee after offseason surgery.
But he started looking like the Zach of old in December and notched three 40-point games in the quarter (including banging home 11 of 13 from deep against Philadelphia on Sunday). Behold:
While his other stats have remained mostly the same, it’s tough to ignore a player scoring significantly more while also posting insane efficiency numbers.
It’s not just the outside shooting that’s fueled Zach’s improvement. Zach struggled horrendously around the rim at the start of the year, but he’s regained his attacking form. He shot just 41% on drives to the basket in Q1, but he upped that to 58% in Q2— a key source of his improvement. Despite his incredible athleticism, LaVine’s always been a jump shooter at heart — but the threat of the drive can give him a little more room to operate on the perimeter.
More importantly, the Bulls appear to have found their footing a little bit, and they’ve been playing well against some of the best teams in the Eastern Conference — the Bulls are 9-3 against the Celtics, Bucks, 76ers, Nets, and Heat (just don’t ask about their record against the Cavs).
All this said, there has been a lot of drama behind the scenes. Teammates have grown tired of LaVine’s shot selection and inconsistent defensive efforts, and rumors are swirling that Zach is unhappy with his role and with coach Billy Donovan. DeMar DeRozan’s quad injury last night will give LaVine all the shots he wants in the short term, however, and he’s acknowledged (for the umpteenth time) his defensive deficiencies. Given the rapidly approaching trade deadline, we are at a make-or-break stretch for the Bulls; it’s LaVine’s ship to steer now, for better or worse.
Honorable Mention: Tyler Herro, Aaron Nesmith (more to come on him shortly), Julius Randle, Jonathan Kuminga (emerging defensively), Anthony Edwards, Norm Powell, Draymond Green, and a whole bunch of others.
Most Valuable Player of the Quarter (MVPOQ): Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic leads the league in on/off point differential by so much it looks like a glitch in the Matrix. The Nuggets’ offense is unstoppable when he plays, no matter what teams throw at him. Jokic averaged a ho-hum triple-double of 27/12/11 for the quarter, but unlike most triple-doublers, he’s done it with historic efficiency: he shot >60% from the field, >40% from deep, and nearly 80% from the line in Q2. Jokic has the third-highest true shooting percentage in the league, trailing only two guys whose primary job is to dunk the ball. It should go without saying that every advanced metric agrees he’s the best player in the league, and that’s despite a relatively slow start in the first quarter.
It is no exaggeration to say that we’ve never seen a guy do anywhere near this much on offense with this sort of efficiency in the history of the NBA. It’s hard to overstate how unstoppable he’s become.
And that’s before we get to the passing. Oh lordy, the passing. This pass features a no-look so good it hits the shooter’s hands across the court before the defender even notices:
This pass is just a casual between-the-legs no-look for an easy dunk:
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Defensively, Jokic is solid. Advanced stats will tell you he is one of the best defenders in the league; nobody with eyeballs would quite go there. But he knows where to be at all times and is a defensive black hole — the ball always seems to end up in his hands, sucked in by his inexorable gravity.
I’m not sure Jokic can pull off the year-end award; voters have decided that a player can’t win three MVPs without winning a championship, because of reasons. But if he keeps his second-quarter pace up for the whole year and the Nuggets maintain their grip on the West, it will be awfully hard to make a case for anyone else.
Honorable Mention: Luka Doncic (putting up historical numbers of his own), Kevin Durant (metronomic dominance for the quarter’s best team)