The 2022 NBL Andrew Gaze MVP Awards Night is upon us, and 16 men have been named finalists for the six awards on offer.
Bryce Cotton will be looking to add another Andrew Gaze NBL MVP to his trophy cabinet, but he’ll have tough opposition with Sydney’s Jaylen Adams and Melbourne’s Jo Lual-Acuil having made good cases themselves.
Scott Roth is the odds-on favourite to be the coach of the year after an outstanding campaign leading the Tasmania JackJumpers to the finals in the club’s first year.
These are The Inner Sanctum’s predictions for who will walk away with the awards.
Andrew Gaze MVP Award
An obvious choice every year for this award, Bryce Cotton was again great in NBL22. Although the Perth Wildcats’ 35-year playoff streak ended in their last game of the year, Cotton displayed his best trying to get the Cats over the line.
The three-time NBL MVP was again at his best despite all the changes that the team experienced during the offseason. Cotton continued to dazzle fans with his offensive prowess, averaging a league-high 22.7 points per game, guiding Perth to the second highest-scoring team in the competition (averaging 89.1 points per game, only behind Illawarra).
He also finished in the top 10 for assists, dishing out 4.3 assists per game, consistently being able to provide teammates with open baskets when he was doubled.
The 29-year-old’s importance to the Wildcats is illustrated in the number of minutes he clocks up. This season, Cotton played the most minutes of any player in the NBL – with 35.3 per game – working tirelessly to ensure the Wildcats won every game possible.
It was an exciting prospect when the former Wisconsin Herd guard followed coach Chase Buford to the Sydney Kings. Fans weren’t able to see Jaylen Adams perform at his best at the start of the season due to injury, but once Adams recovered and started to adjust to the competition we saw some entertaining basketball.
On a team full of stars, Adams was the brightest. Without him initiating the offence the Kings would struggle to score. Adams’ importance to Buford’s offensive system is illustrated by the 25-year-old finishing top five in scoring and first in assists, averaging 20.1 points and 6.1 assists per game.
When Adams was playing, Sydney was often on the right side of the result. Adams played 21 games, and the Kings won 16 when he played. His best was shown in the Kings’ 13-game win streak, where he was one of the team’s best players, averaging 19.3 points on 44 per cent shooting, 6.6 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. This stretch launched Adams into MVP conversations.
Coming into the season, the eyes were on Jo Lual-Acuil as he was given the starting centre position after Jock Landale’s departure to the NBA, and last year’s sixth man of the year skyrocketed and made the role his own, having a career year.
Lual-Acuil was known as Melbourne’s first scoring option of the bench, and the 211cm centre took that same mindset into the starting role, recording career-highs in points and minutes, averaging 16.3 points in 25 minutes per game. He also ended the 2021/22 regular season with nine double-doubles, the equal third-most in the competition.
The 28-year-old was also a massive part of Dean Vickerman’s defence, using his size and length to contest and alter the opposition’s shots.
Often found guarding the opposition’s best big or defending the paint against guards, Lual-Acuil finished the season first in total blocks (54) and equal first in average blocks (two per game).
NBL MVP Prediction: All three candidates would be deserving winners as they have the statistics to back it up, but it would be hard to go past Adams. As aforementioned, Adams filled the box score in the Kings’ offence during their 13-game win streak. He was a scoring machine, capturing plenty of game-winners as well but he was also happy to get his teammates involved, leading the league in assists.
Lindsay Gaze Coach of the Year
Chase Buford’s first year as a head coach got off to a rough start, as the Sydney Kings hovered around .500 for the first half of the season, many pundits were worried that Sydney was going to miss the playoffs which would have been a disappointment, especially with the stars on its roster.
Many questioned Buford’s high paced system and how it would work in the competition but the Kings were able to make it click as they started to get on a roll. Sydney went on a 13-game winning streak and won 12 of its last 14 games to finish the regular season with a spot in the finals.
The Kings had the chance to finish second if they won their last game of the season against the Hawks, but fell short, finishing third on the ladder.
Always been a staple in the finalists for this award over the last couple of seasons, but Dean Vickerman deserves his spot as a finalist again after Melbourne United finished regular-season champions for the second consecutive year.
After the significant change to last year’s championship-winning roster, many thought United would be the team to miss out on the top four, especially going into the season with only the one import (Caleb Agada). But Vickerman made it work, leading his side again to the top of the ladder and proving his side was the team to beat throughout the year.
Vickerman’s use of his roster and the trust of his players has been instrumental, his high basketball IQ can take Melbourne to back-to-back titles.
The former Perth Wildcats’ assistant coach proved his worth in his first year as the head coach of the competition’s newest club, the Tasmania JackJumpers. Roth is considered the clear candidate for the award, bringing the JackJumpers to their maiden finals appearance in the club’s first year.
Many couldn’t have predicted what the JackJumpers have done this season, especially when you look at the names on their roster.
Tasmania’s season looked in dire straits when Tasmania’s record was 2-6, but Roth was able to bring this group together and it would go on to win 15 of its next 20 games.
COTY Prediction: Although Vickerman and Buford had wonderful seasons, and could potentially meet each other in the Grand Final – it’s Roth’s to lose. Such a remarkable tale deserves an award to cap it off.
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Most Improved Player
What a season from Jo Lual-Acuil, rising from the sixth man of the year to starter and MVP candidate in two seasons.
Last season was considered a breakout season for Lual-Acuil, averaging 9.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 16.7 minutes per game, and justifiably in the starting centre role, he has almost doubled his numbers from last year. This year in NBL22, the 211cm big man is averaging career-high numbers, increasing his scoring capacity to 16.6 points per game.
He became a key piece in Dean Vickerman’s defensive system, consistently making an impact defensively, protecting the paint. The 27-year-old finished first in total blocks (54) and equal first in average blocks (two per game).
Last year, Keanu Pinder struggled at his time with the Adelaide 36ers in his first season in the NBL, but it looks like Pinder has found his home up in Cairns in Adam Forde’s system, fitting in seamlessly which allows him to play his natural game.
Forde’s ability to keep Pinder focused and in line meant we saw the best of the 205cm forward. Flying for alley-oop dunks and athletic blocks were a key feature of the 27-year-old’s season and made him a fan favourite.
The Cairns Taipans’ energy and effort fluctuated throughout the season, but Adam Forde knew he could always sub on Pinder and know that the West Australian would spark the intensity and energy his team needed.
Pinder’s numbers are your typical most improved player type of jump, but he isn’t considered here only because of his numbers, it’s the impact he has on his team that has him as a finalist for this award. Pinder played every game this season, he finished the season, averaging 10.9 points (up from 4.8) on 55 per cent efficiency (up from 42 per cent) and 7.6 rebounds (up from 4.3) per game.
Wetzell moved back home in the off-season, signing with the New Zealand Breakers after a fantastic rookie season with the South East Melbourne Phoenix.
The Pretzel became the focal point of the Breakers and shined in the role, becoming one of the most dominant and consistent big men and players in the NBL, finishing in the top six for points and rebounds, averaging 17.7 points and 8.5 rebounds. He also finished with eight double-doubles; there’s no question why he was listed as a finalist for most improved.
Despite the Breakers finishing last in defensive rating and conceding the second-most points in the competition, allowing opposition teams to score on average 88.5 points per game. Wetzell tried his hardest to protect the paint, finishing in the top 10 for steals and blocks, averaging 1.6 steals and one block per game.
His performances this season were so brilliant that they caught the eye of Spanish EuroLeague team Saski Baskonia. The 25-year-old and the New Zealand Breakers came to a mutual agreement to release the 208cm centre from his contract to allow him to join Baskonia.
MIP Prediction: It’s hard to not go with Jo Lual-Acuil – going from role player to one of the main focuses in the starting five and an MVP candidate, especially after Jock Landale’s departure. That fits the criteria for most improved.
Sixth Man of the Year
The Tasmania JackJumpers’ captain played his role to perfection, coming off the bench and providing his side with much-needed scoring power. After experiencing a down year last season, the 33-year-old bounced back, averaging 9.3 points at 40 per cent from the field and 36 per cent from three-point range. A truly inspirational leader for the JackJumpers, Steindl helped lead the JackJumpers to their maiden finals appearance this season.
Shea Ili’s been a stalwart of this Melbourne outfit for the last couple of seasons and has been a key piece on both sides of the court. Typically known for his defensive efforts, Ili stepped up offensively this year and had Dean Vickerman’s trust to make and hit important shots.
This season, in 28 games, the 29-year-old finished the regular season, averaging 8.3 points, 3.9 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. As usual, the point guard was among the best defensive players in the league, averaging 1.4 steals per game and finished sixth for total steals with 40.
Shea Ili could be a starter on any of the other nine teams, but he continues to be one of the first off the bench for Melbourne United and plays his role to perfection.
Brought in specifically to back up fellow import Tyler Harvey, Xavier Rathan-Mayes’ start of the season was paralleled with Illawarra’s slow start to season 2021/22.
But as the season continued and the Hawks’ struggles waned, the 27-year-old’s performance become better and more consistent. He finished the year playing all 28 games, averaging 10.3 points, four assists and four rebounds per game.
The point guard often found himself in Illawarra’s lineup to close games, due to his playmaking ability and basketball smarts. Rathan-Mayes will play a massive role in Illawarra’s road to the Grand Final.
6MOTY Prediction: Shea Ili sneaks in ahead of Xavier Rathan-Mayes. Both trusted to finish games, Ili’s two-way ability influences a little more, and that’s why he takes home the award.
Damian Martin Trophy (Defensive Player of the Year)
With Antonius Cleveland signing, it meant Justin Simon was unable to return and we all know how big of a defensive impact Simon had on Illawarra, so Cleveland had big expectations to live up to.
The Hawks struggled defensively throughout this season. At a point, this season they found themselves ranked eighth for defensive rating, something we wouldn’t have expected from a Brian Goorjian led team, but Cleveland was always one trying his heart out on the defensive side of the ball.
The 28-year-old’s versatility allowed Goorjian to place him on the opposition’s best player, and it didn’t matter if they were guards or wings, and almost every time he did a good job.
Once Illawarra turned its defensive woes around, fans were able to see Cleveland’s flashy side, getting in passing lanes and running the floor for wide-open dunks.
Cleveland along with Yanni Wetzell were the only players to average at least one block and steal per game.
If you ask any player in the NBL ‘who’s the toughest defender’, Shea Ili will be mentioned. When opposition guards see the New Zealander check into the game, they know they’ll be in for a tough night.
Not only does the 29-year-old defend the opposition’s best guard, but he also gets into passing lanes, looking to disrupt poor passes. While also willing to take a charge to limit the other team from scoring.
Melbourne United finished the season with the second-best defence, conceding 80.1 points per game and Ili played a key part, averaging 1.4 steals per game.
Xavier Cooks excelled in Chase Buford’s high tempo system. Buford was able to use Cooks’ size and strength to kick start the Kings’ offence on the defensive end side of the court.
The 203cm forward was unstoppable on the boards, using his length and athleticism to grab defensive rebounds, limiting the opposition to one-shot or grabbing rebounds on the offensive end to give Sydney extra possessions. Cooks finished the season as the leading rebounder in the competition, averaging 9.8 total rebounds (2.7 offensive and 7.2 defensive rebounds per game).
With the lack of a genuine centre, the Kings relied on Cooks’ shot-blocking ability to protect the paint, which created easy transition buckets on fast break opportunities. Cooks finished equal first alongside Will Magnay and Jo Lual-Acuil in average blocks (two blocks per game).
DPOY Prediction: This was one of the hardest awards to decide a winner, all three have great cases. Shea Ili’s case is dampened due to the fact Melbourne has so many other good defenders with him. Cooks and Cleveland are both the defensive engines that run their respective teams. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story but as mentioned earlier, Cleveland is only one of two players (Yanni Wetzell) to average at least one block and steal, so Antonius Cleveland is the pick for Defensive Player of the Year.
Rookie of the Year
In his first year, Bul Kuol certainly made a name for himself, ending the season as one of the most exciting rookies to watch.
Kuol was one of the Taipans’ last signings during the offseason and with injuries to several key players during the season, it meant he was given an opportunity to shine.
Throughout season 2021/22, the 25-year-old showed he belonged at the elite level, defending the opposition’s best offensive player and showing his ability to knock down shots beyond the arc.
The forward had a career night in Cairns’ clash against Brisbane in Round 10, where he dropped 26 points, shooting eight from 10 from behind the arc.
Kuol ended the season breaking the record of the most threes made by an Australian rookie, making 64 three-pointers. The 201cm forward played every game this season and averaged 10.4 points per game.
After a breakout year last season, Luke Travers came into the season as the favourite for this award, as this season was his first on a professional contract, and had his eyes set on the NBA Draft.
Although it didn’t go quite to plan, the 20-year-old still had a solid season, despite not recording high numbers. At the start of the season, opposition teams forced the West Australian to shoot the ball, but he continued to put shots up and they eventually started to drop.
The 200cm versatile forward finished the regular season, averaging 7.8 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists. After the Perth Wildcats regular-season game, Travers announced he was entering the 2022 NBA Draft.
Next Star Ousmane Dieng’s NBL career got off to a slow start, finding it difficult to adjust to the physicality of the league – that was illustrated in the Frenchman’s stats. In the first 11 games, the 18-year-old averaged four points on 24.7 per cent shooting, 15 per cent from three.
Once the 208cm forward finally felt comfortable and adjusted to how the league is played, we saw Dieng’s talent and potential.
In the second half of the season, Dieng averaged 13.3 points on 48 per cent shooting and 35 per cent from beyond the arc. He also scored double digits in nine of his last 12 games.
The youngster still has areas he will need to improve, such as his strength but Dieng can consider his year in the NBL a success. Ousmane Dieng declared for the NBA Draft days after New Zealand’s clash against Sydney on April 12.
ROTY Prediction: Bul Kuol was the most consistent of the final three candidates. Despite the Taipans’ tough season, Kuol was the shining light with his defence and long-range shooting. It was an impressive debut season.
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