While it only felt like yesterday when NBADL fans witnessed Briante Weber flirting with triple-doubles or Wayne Selden throwing down awe-inspiring poster dunks, we’re actually just two weeks away until the end of the regular season. During those final weeks, fans will have an opportunity to witness a handful of D-League squad competing for a chance to get in the playoffs. Although our eyes will be focused on those events, we thought it would be right to get a jump start on the D-League awards season.
Over the few days, Ridiculous Upside will be announcing our top five finalists for each D-League award (MVP, rookie, defensive and most improved). To start things off, we’re going to take a look at our finalists for the NBA D-League MVP.
Darius Morris - Rio Grande Valley Vipers
20.1 pts, 6.6 asts, 4.3 rebs and 1.3 stls on 45% from field & 34% from 3.
No matter what the “geniuses” behind the DLeague.com’s “Prospect Watch” might tell you, Darius Morris has stood as one of the best players in the NBADL for the entire season.Despite being surrounded by a crop of players that Morris never worked with before the season, he’s done enough to help push the RGV Vipers to stand as the best offensive team in the NBA D-League.
Morris has been able to do that by being an incredibly unselfish pass-first guard that’s always wishing to dish it off to the Vipers’ solid core of players. One of the Vipers prospects that Morris has developed a great connection with is Rockets rookie big Chinanu Onuaku, which I wrote about in an early March piece. His ability to develop immediate connections with his teammates has allowed him to average 7.8 assists per game with a solid 1.98 Ast/TO ratio.
Coinciding with his work as a facilitator, Morris has really shined as a reliable scoring threat. For the first time in his pro career, Morris has shown an ability to score in multiple ways, whether it’s as an on-ball cutter or perimeter. That work as a perimeter shooter is evident by how Morris shooting 35% from beyond the arc on 5.9 attempts per game.
Quinn Cook - Canton Charge
26 pts, 6.7 asts, 4.1 rebs on 47% from field & 37% from beyond the arc
Before his call-ups from the Dallas Mavericks, and more recently, the New Orleans Pelicans, Quinn Cook was that one player that any D-League fan thought belonged in the NBA. That unanimous appeal was from how Quinn Cook was able to combine efficient scoring with being one of the finest distributors in the entire NBA D-League. Prior to his call-up from the New Orleans Pelicans, Cook was averaging 26 points and 6.7 assists per game on 47% from the field and 37% from beyond the arc. Coinciding with those solid base stats, Cook shined by maintaining an impressive 60% True Shooting Percentage and 1.83 Ast/TO ratio.
While Cook is currently spending time with the Pelicans, his impact on the Charge is still evident today. As of the time of this piece, the Charge sit with a 28-18 record, which is good enough to put the team 3rd in the Eastern Conference.
Jalen Jones & Abdel Nader - Maine Red Claws
Jones - 21.5 pts, 9 rebs, 2 asts on 45% from field & 36% from 3
Nader - 21.6 pts, 6.2 rebs, 4 asts on 45% from field & 36% from 3
While I tried to have a limit for one MVP candidate per D-League team, it was nearly impossible not to break my own rules when looking at the Red Claws duo of Jalen Jones and Abdel Nader. As you can see from the stats above, both Nader and Jones have put up scoring numbers that are identical to each other in both averages and shooting percentages.
The similarities between Nader and Jones become even more apparent when we take a look at how the Red Claws perform on both ends of the court when the duo is on the sidelines compared to when they’re playing. On the offensive end, the Red Claws are relatively similar when both Jones (105.3 points per 100) and Nader (106 points per 100) are on the court. That same pattern is evident when the pair is working on the defensive end, as opponents average 106 and 104.9 points per 100 possessions when Nader and Jones are on the court, respectively.
Obviously, there’s only one thing that prevents Nader and Jones from being identical basketball twins. That separation is through the fact that Nader clearly stands as a better facilitator while Jones has shined as the superior all-around rebounder. While you can debate if facilitating is more important than rebounding until the cows come home, it’s clear that both Nader and Jones are worthy of being finalists for D-League MVP.
Vander Blue - Los Angeles D-Fenders
24.9 pts, 4.7 rebs, 2.9 asts on 45% from field & 38% from 3
Honestly, it’s an absolute shame that LA D-Fenders guard Vander Blue has remained in the D-League for the better part of three years. Since his arrival in the D-League during the 2014-15 season, Blue has routinely stood as arguably the finest scoring guard in the entire NBADL. During those three seasons, Blue has averaged 24.8 points, 3.95 assists and 1.7 steals per game on 45% from the field and 36% from the field. That consistent offensive play has pushed Blue to be the 3rd highest scorer in the history of the NBA D-League.
Although he’s shined in his prior two seasons with the LA D-Fenders, Blue is probably playing his best basketball during the current season. In 2016-17, Blue is averaging 24.8 points. 4.7 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals on 45% from the field and 37% from beyond the arc. Those averages has allowed him to maintain a career-best 58% True Shooting Percentage.
The combination of Blue’s high scoring averages and overall efficiency has pushed the 32-14 D-Fenders to play much better on the offensive end when he’s on the court (114 points per 100 possessions) compared to when he’s sitting on the sidelines (105.7 points per 100).
Dakari Johnson - Oklahoma City Blue
18.4 pts, 8.1 rebs, 2.3 asts, 1.4 blks on 55% from the field
After taking a look at a handful of guards and forwards, we finish things out by taking a look at OKC Blue center Dakari Johnson. After a forgettable three-year stint with Kentucky, Johnson entered the D-League as a relatively raw prospect during the 2015-16 season. Since then, Johnson has been able to evolve his all-around game to the point where he currently stands as the best center in the NBA D-League.
Johnson’s evolution to D-League royalty has been prevalent during the current season, where he’s led the OKC Blue to a terrific 31-15 record. On the offensive end, Johnson shines as a player that can utilize his strong 255 pound frame to bully his way to get easy points around the rim or collect 3.1 offensive rebounds. Coinciding with that, Johnson is one of the finest passing bigs in the entire D-League, as he averages 2.3 assists per game.
On the other end of the court, Johnson has arguably been the biggest factor behind the OKC Blue being the 2nd best defensive team in the D-League. While him averaging 1.6 blocks per game isn’t too impressive, Johnson’s impact on the defensive end is evident from how opposing teams perform worse when he’s on the court (98.9 points per 100) to when he’s sitting on the sidelines (101.9 points per 100)