NBA D-League Regular Season Award Choices
With the NBA D-League regular season coming to a close, the staff at D-League Digest has made their own individual picks for year-end awards. There were a lot of worthy players in each category, and each contributor made their case as to why each player/coach deserved recognition.
This year, D-League Digest has included an Assignment Player of the Year Award to recognize the best player in this role, an award not given out by the NBA D-League itself.
Also, the NBA D-League Awards bonuses for regular season awards. Each award earns a player an additional $1,500, with the exception of the Most Valuable Player award which is an additional $3,000 for the player named.
With that, here are the choices for each category courtesy of our staff here at D-League Digest.
Most Improved Player Of The Year
Ruskin Howard: Keith Benson, Sioux Falls Skyforce
Benson had a huge year for the Skyforce, putting up career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, blocks, field goal, and three-point percentage. Despite the roster changes that Sioux Falls experienced throughout the season, Benson was a source of consistency for the team.
Jake Schwartz: Jordan Crawford, Grand Rapids Drive
Jordan Crawford joined Grand Rapids this season somewhat under the radar. Ray McCallum was the consensus prospect to watch on the Drive. Crawford averaged 17.4 points per game in November, and that average increased to north of 22 points in the next few months, including a 31 point average for the three games he played in March.
His play earned him a call-up to the New Orleans Pelicans, signing for the remainder of the season after one 10-day contract. His steady improvement over the course of the season and his call-up earn Crawford my vote for Most Improved Player of the Year.
Brian Rzeppa: Devondrick Walker, Delaware 87ers
Starting in nearly a third of the 87ers’ games this year after appearing in only 25 games last season for the Westchester Knicks, Devondrick Walker has seen his career come back to life.
Playing in less than 15 minutes each night last year, Walker has had an expanded opportunity this year with his minutes reaching over 26 each game and he’s made good use of them. Scoring 7 more points per game with a field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage that have raised by 6, 8 and 12, respectively, Walker has been one of the vital cogs in Delaware’s scheme this year.
The team is +3.9 with him on the court and -2.3 with him off of it, a true testament to the impact he’s had this year and the growth he’s made as a player.
Adam Johnson: Jameel Warney, Texas Legends
Warney started the season putting up inconsistent numbers as he found his professional groove. It’s incredible to see just how far he came over the course of the season.
The Stony Brook alum averaged 14 points and six rebounds in November, and finished the season averaging 20.8 points and 10.2 rebounds for the month of March. Warney was not phased by MacKinnon’s uptempo style this past season and in fact appeared to acclimate himself to it as the season progressed.
While Warney likely has a lucrative contract awaiting him overseas next season, it would be great to see him give the D-League another shot next season. If his upward trajectory continues as is, it’s highly possible to see him earn a call-up next season.
Impact Player Of The Year
RH: Kendall Marshall, Reno Bighorns
After being traded to, then released by, the Utah Jazz, Marshall went undrafted in the D-League Draft. He then signed with the Reno Bighorns on November 29. Marshall served as a steadying hand and veteran presence for the Bighorns. He put up averages of 15.1 points, 9.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game for Reno. He came on strongly the last month of the season, helping the Bighorns make a furious push for the playoffs, coming up just short.
JS: Tyler Hansbrough, Fort Wayne Mad Ants
“Psycho T” joined the Mad Ants in the last month of the season, and had an immediate effect in their frontcourt. Partnered with Alex Poythress and Ben Bentil, Hansbrough flourished with Fort Wayne in his attempt to return to the NBA, averaging 17.2 points and 12.2 rebounds over the 13 games he appeared in.
The former UNC helped Fort Wayne clinch the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference, and will assuredly play a role in helping them advance to the next round. If he continues to put up a double-double every night, the chances of his return to the NBA will increase.
BR: John Holland, Canton Charge
After playing well with the Cleveland Cavaliers throughout the preseason, John Holland was cut and made his way back to the D-League after around a quarter of the season had already been played.
Canton had struggled to a 5-7 start, but Holland was exactly the kind of jolt that they needed. Since Holland suited up for his first game on December 13th, the Charge have gone 24-12 and proven to be one of the bigger threats in the Eastern Conference.
His 24 points per game over the past two months has been especially crucial with Quinn Cook’s departure to the NBA and the Charge will sink or swim in the postseason based on Holland’s performance.
AJ: James Southerland, Santa Cruz Warriors
This one was really tough, as it was essentially a two-man race between Southerland and John Holland. Santa Cruz went 25-10 in games that Southerland appeared in this season. Holland’s numbers might jump off the page more than Southerland’s, but that’s because he averaged over 10 more minutes per game compared to the Syracuse alum.
Southerland has been a part of the Warriors three-point revival, a trait not often associated with teams coached by Casey Hill. Southerland is averaging nearly 14 points per game but is a big part of their threat from long range.
Southerland is shooting nearly 50% from long-range, and is near-deadly when running in transition and pulling up from deep.
Both Holland and Southerland joined at near the exact same time with their respective clubs. Canton was 5-7 when Holland made his first appearance while Santa Cruz was 4-7 before Southerland joined the team. Both teams would not have playoff berths without either player on their roster respectively.
The other difference? Southerland’s ability to guard multiple positions on the floor puts him over the top. Late in the season the Warriors’ front court has been thin due to injuries to Dennis Clifford and Chris Obekpa. The team has been fortunate enough to have rookie Damian Jones on assignment, but Southerland has been asked to guard both on the perimeter as well as on the low block and has found success in both areas.
It was a very tough call, but Southerland’s versatility put him over the top for me.
Defensive Player Of The Year
RH: Eric Moreland, Canton Charge
Out of players whom played in more than 40 games and averaged more than 30 minutes per game, Moreland had the best individual defensive at 101.4. He came on strong in the second half of the season, finishing with a 20.9 rebounding percentage, which included an unreal 30.1% of defensive boards, good for an average of 9.1 per game. Moreland also recorded 2.7 blocks per game.
JS: Edy Tavares, Raptors 905
Tavares, the 7-foot-2 center for Raptors 905, has been a menacing presence at the rim all season long. He blocked 131 shots this year, the most in the league, and his average of 2.7 a game is one of the top in the league. Out of the 48 games he played in, he failed to record a block in just three of them, and on March 25th, he posted a triple double with 15 points, 11 rebounds, and 12 blocks.
And yes, being a defensive player of the year should take more into account than just blocks. Tavares’ defensive rating is 2nd in the league among players who’ve played more than 40 games, at 97.4. Quite an impressive season for the Raptors’ big man.
BR: Edy Tavares, Raptors 905
Holding steady with my picks during our mid-season awards, Tavares has stayed as the constant presence in the middle for the Raptors 905, who sport the league’s best defense in terms of opponent points per game.
Tavares’ size and ability as a shot blocker has helped the Raptors 905 accomplish much of what they’ve been able to this year, as he leads the league in blocks per game as well as in opponent’s field goal percentage within five feet of the rim at 46.1%, a mark that compares favorably to Eric Moreland’s 56% or the 59% that former NBA’ers Henry Sims and Cory Jefferson are posting.
The best defensive player on the league’s best defensive team seems like a natural fit for the Defensive Player of the Year.
AJ: Edy Tavares, Raptors 905
This one was not an easy award to hand out by any means, but in offense-minded league, it only seems fitting that the Defensive Player of the Year award went to a player with a team with the best defensive rating this past regular season.
That being said, Tavares was a focal point for the 905 and their success this season. Acquired early off waivers, Tavares was brought along this past season with his minutes increasing with each passing week. Tavares averaged a league best 2.7 blocks per game and is a major reason why the team went 39-11 this year.
In an undersized league, a 7-foot-plus center will prove to be a challenge on the court. Kudos to the 905 staff for bringing Tavares along this year as he was also a candidate for Most Improved Player of the Year for myself. He has come along nicely and will be a reason why the 905 make a championship run this season.
Tavares’ numbers don’t jump off the page (10.6 points, 7.7 rebounds in 23 minutes per game) but his impact goes beyond just the numbers.
Coach Of The Year
RH: Jerry Stackhouse, Raptors 905
After finishing 23-27 in 2015-2016, Raptors 905 turned to Stackhouse to lead the team. Stack was an assistant with the 905 last season, under Jesse Mermuys, whom left to become an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers. Under Stackhouse, things in Mississauga turned around pretty drastically, as both of the team’s offensive and defensive rating improved, and they led the league in opponent points per game. Raptors 905 enter the playoffs as the top seed in the East, as well as the top team in the entire league.
JS: Mark Daigneault, OKC Blue
Daignealt is my pick for Coach of the Year after leading a worst-to-first turnaround in Oklahoma City this season. Last season under Daigneault, the Blue finished with one of the worst records in the league, at 19-31, finishing at the bottom of the conference with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
This season has been the complete opposite, finishing at 33-16 and winning the Southwest Division. In addition, OKC Thunder draft-and-stash players Dakari Johnson and Daniel Hamilton developed significantly over this year’s campaign, and Daignealt’s squad heads into the playoffs looking to go on a championship run.
BR: Jerry Stackhouse, Raptors 905
Best team in the league, up from 23 wins last year as an inaugural franchise. ORtg – 13 DRtg – 6 last year, this year are 5 and 2 along with the league’s best defense in terms of points per game. Only team in the D-League with a top five offense and defense in terms of offensive and defensive ratings. 15-4 over the past two months.
A rookie head coach taking over a second-year franchise doesn’t seem like the best possible combination for success, but former NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse has made things click all on the way to the best record in the D-League.
Though he doesn’t have any superstar players, Stackhouse has implemented a system that has worked wonders with the talent he does have. Running the best defense in the league in terms of points per game, Stackhouse’s Raptors 905 team is the only group in the league that ranks in the top five in both Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating.
The transformation that the team has been able to make over the last year as well as the identity that they’ve been able to build has been remarkable and much of that rests on the shoulders of Stackhouse.
AJ: Jerry Stackhouse, Raptors 905
Come on, who else am I suppose to pick?
The first-year head coach set a franchise record for most regular season wins, a number that’s also second best in NBA D-League history (39-11).
This is the easiest choice out of all the awards, this one isn’t even close. Stackhouse came into the D-League, to his credit, with nothing to prove on the basketball court, and instead wanted to prove his worth as a head coach and did so.
This is a very disciplined basketball team and is recognized as the best defensive rated team in the league. They are currently my favorite to win the D-League championship given the way they operate and seem to have bought into the D-League style as guys play for one another instead of themselves.
What’s interesting for Stack is that he’s really done a great job dividing minutes upon his team, showcasing its depth as well. Only assignment players averaged more than 30 minutes per game, while the regular roster averaged no more than 28.5 minutes per contest or less.
Stackhouse wants to jump right into an NBA head coaching gig (no NBA team has ever hired a D-League head coach to fill that position on the NBA side directly) and it wouldn’t surprise me to see him do it. It would take a perfect storm, a team that’s looking to clean out its front office, build from the ground up and give Stack the opportunity to implement his own system and his own culture within the organization.
Assignment Player Of The Year
RH: Isaiah Taylor, Rio Grande Valley Vipers
An undrafted rookie, Taylor played in the 2016 NBA Summer League for the Houston Rockets. After signing a deal with Houston, he played in three preseason games for them, then was waived and assigned to the Vipers on October 31. Despite suffering a groin injury that caused him to miss over half of the D-League season, Taylor still put up impressive averages of 21 points, six assists, and three rebounds per game over the course of 25 games.
He also exhibited extremely impressive shooting, recording percentages of 51.5%(shooting) and 45.7(3-point) in those games. He made his NBA debut on April 2 for the Rockets, but has been back with the Vipers for the D-League playoffs.
JS: Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles D-Fenders
While he was only in the D-League for 14 games, Zubac is my pick for Assignment Player of the Year, because he’s the perfect example of how to best use the the D-League assignment. Zubac helped the D-Fenders when he was with them, averaging nearly a double-double with 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. Zubac developed nicely in the D-League, which is one reason why he has stayed with the Lakers for most of the season half of the season. While his averages in the NBA aren’t at the same level, the D-League is supposed to give assignment players an opportunity to develop and earn minutes at the NBA level, and Zubac has done exactly that.
BR: Chinanu Onuaku, Rio Grande Valley Vipers
Despite being drafted in the early part of the second round by the Houston Rockets, Onuaku has spent a majority of season with the Vipers. The Rio Grande Valley staff certainly hasn’t been opposed to that, as his play has stood out throughout the entire year.
Averaging 13.7 points on nearly 63% shooting, Onuaku has been able to pick up easy buckets all year long. Much of that is propelled by his 3.6 offensive rebounds per game, which is helpful given the amount of outside shots that the Vipers take as a team.
His free-throw shooting style has grabbed the headlines, but Onuaku’s play has been exactly what the Rockets had hoped for when they picked him.
AJ: Chinanu Onuaku, Rio Grande Valley Vipers
I think you could really call this the Houston Rockets award at this point. Onuaku is the latest big man product to get his run through the D-League as he assimilates into their NBA rotation.
Two years ago it was Clint Capela, last year it was Montrezl Harrell, and now it’s Onuaku’s turn. He has been fantastic for the Vipers as he appeared in 43 games and averaged a double-double with 13.6 points and 10.6 rebounds while shooting 62.8% from the field including 73.2% from the free-throw line using the old-school, Rick Barry-esque shooting motion (and it’s proven to be effective).
Rio Grande Valley went 28-15 in games Onuaku appeared in this season, and shot over 66% in 20 of those appearances. He was a huge part of that team’s success this year as the team surrounded him with plenty of guards to spread the floor and create driving lanes for him to work on the inside.
Rookie Of The Year
RH: Jalen Jones, Maine Red Claws
Jones averaged 36.0 MPG in 46 games with the Red Claws this season, compiling averages of 21.0 PTS, 9.0 REB, and 2.2 AST per game, good for a PIE of 12.2. Jones’ versatility is what stood out, as he had the size to guard 4’s, but the agility to protect the perimeter as well. He also was able to hit 3’s at a healthy clip of 34.5%. I fully expect to see Jones in the NBA next season.
JS: Abdel Nader, Maine Red Claws
Nader was assigned to Maine by the Boston Celtics with the intention of spending the entire season with the Red Claws, and has developed tremendously in that time. Combined with fellow rookie Jalen Jones, Nader helped lead Maine to the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference, averaging a team-leading 21.5 points per game.
The crafty playmaker’s season is a shining example of success as a domestic draft-and-stash, which has the Celtics excited about his future and further development.
BR: Jalen Jones,Maine Red Claws
This year’s rookie of the year race has been closely contested by a pair of teammates on the Maine Red Claws: Jalen Jones and Abdel Nader. Both have averaged around the same scoring numbers throughout the year, but Jones has set himself apart on the glass and defensively.
Averaging nearly a double-double with 21 points and nearly 9 rebounds per game, Jones has been a focal point for the Red Claws all season long. On the defensive end, Jones has held opposing players to just 33.3% on their three-point attempts.
The Red Claws are .6 better with Jones on the court compared to Nader, but you certainly couldn’t go wrong with either.
AJ: Alex Poythress, Fort Wayne Mad Ants
Poythress went mostly unnoticed this season, and it’s a shame given the numbers he put up this season. He finally earned a call-up near the end of the regular season as the Mad Ants prepare to play the Maine Red Claws in the first-round of the D-League playoffs.
He was their focal point on offense for a majority of the season after the sudden, and early, departure of Ben Bentil, who headed overseas to play for two months in China.
Poythress appeared in 46 games this season for the Mad Ants, and started in 45 of them. He averaged 18.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and was a big reason for the team’s turnaround after a disappointing season last year.
Most Valuable Player Of The Year
RH: Brianté Weber, Sioux Falls Skyforce
After putting up averages of 16.5 PTS, 7.4 ASTS, and 7.5 REBS per game, Weber earned a call-up from Golden State, then Charlotte, where he eventually signed a two-year deal with the Hornets. Sioux Falls has struggled during his absence, showing just how truly valuable the versatile guard was to the franchise. Weber finished this season with a 14.8 PIE, good for fifth-best in the D-League.
JS: Brianté Weber, Sioux Falls Skyforce
Weber is my pick for MVP because he was simply the best all-around player in the D-League this season. The now Charlotte Hornets guard has an extremely impressive stat line, with averages 16.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game.
He also led the league in steals, with an average of 3.3 per game. He was absolutely scorching in the month of January, with five double-doubles and two triple doubles, and very nearly had a quadruple double on January 31st. All of this resulted in a well-earned call-up to the Golden State Warriors, and later on, a multi-year contract with the Hornets.
BR: Vander Blue, Los Angeles D-Fenders
Another year, another season of Vander Blue dominating the NBA D-League. After putting up staggering numbers last season, Blue has managed to perform just as well this year for the Los Angeles D-Fenders and it’s paying off in the win column. Currently the top team in the Western Conference, the D-Fenders have had success thanks in no small part to the efforts of their shooting guard.
Scoring nearly 25 points per game, a mark that stands nearly 9 points higher than the second best scoring average on the team, Blue has been able to improve his three-point shooting by three percent this season while still maintaining his ability to get to the rim and draw fouls at an unconscionable rate.
With no clear cut MVP candidate on the Raptors 905, the best team in D-League, Blue stands as the most obvious candidate for the most prized individual award.
AJ: Dakari Johnson, Oklahoma City Blue
He’s gone virtually under the radar for most of the season, but Dakari Johnson is a major reason why the Blue have had success this season and Thunder fans should be excited about their future with him in the lineup as well.
A second-year draft-and-stash prospect, Johnson has emerged on the scene as an elite power forward who has improved tremendously since his rookie campaign last season.
Johnson shot over 55% from the floor this season and averaged over 18 points and seven rebounds per game. His 2.3 assists, though a number that doesn’t jump off the page, showcases his passing ability as a big man.
Johnson is versatile on the block. He’s not afraid to work with his back to the basket, but he can also face up and work his way to the bucket off the dribble as well. He’s been given plenty of opportunities in crunch time as well to close out victories for the team.
D-League Digest contributor Brian Rzeppa wrote about Johnson’s ascension earlier this season, and that hasn’t changed whatsoever. What has been great to see from Johnson is his confidence has increased over last year as well. No more second-guessing himself, his soft touch around the basket has improved as he’s grown accustomed to the professional game.