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First Quarter Awards: LeBron, Embiid, or Jokic for MVP?

February 3, 2021, 12:00 AM ● Chuck Araneta

With over 20 games in, some players have been performing better than the rest. Who leads the MVP race? Which rookie has impressed so far? Let's take a look.

Photo from NBA.com

Almost two months of the 2020-21 NBA season are already in the books, and teams and players deserve all the credit in the world for persevering despite facing unique challenges this season like postponements due to COVID-19 and injuries.

Since most teams have already played at least 20 games, we can unofficially declare that we’re done with a quarter of the season. With that, let’s take a look at the stars who have stood out.

But before that, a disclaimer. The players mentioned here aren’t necessarily who we are choosing to win the award at the end of the season. It’s still waaaaay too early for that. Instead, these are the guys who have first dibs on the awards because of their performances. The names are not ranked, YET. Perhaps we can do that in the next edition.

Here we go!

Most Improved Player

  • Christian Wood
  • Jerami Grant
  • Julius Randle

For the record, it was TOUGH not to include Jaylen Brown in this list, because he has been arguably the best player on a Celtics squad that also has Jason Tatum. Brown has assumed the playmaking and scoring responsibilities previously held by Gordon Hayward, and now looks like a lock to be an All-Star.

But the MIP in my opinion is reserved for those who have flown under the radar in their career, and by sheer force of their game has caused heads to turn with their play. And this season, it’s been Christian Wood, Jerami Grant and Julius Randle who have done exactly that.

Many will say that Wood has always had this in him, particularly with the way that he played last season for Detroit after the Pistons traded Andre Drummond. But it’s a completely different situation when you sign with a new squad to be “the man.” And despite the chaos that has unfolded because of the James Harden situation, Wood has been constantly awesome, with averages of 23.3 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. He’s a big reason the Rockets are in the playoff race.

You could say the same for Julius Randle, who has flourished with the Knicks under coach Tom Thibodeau. Whether it’s because of his improvement or playing under a different system, Randle has looked like a different player, averaging career-highs across the board. Jerami Grant has also proven that he’s worth the monster contract that the Pistons signed him to, and is definitely a cornerstone for the franchise for the foreseeable future.

Sixth Man of the Year

  • Chris Boucher
  • Jordan Clarkson
  • Patty Mills

This award is perennially given to “microwave” scorers like Lou Williams and Jamal Crawford, players that come off the bench and provide instant offense. The candidates this season are a little bit more diverse, though. However before we get to that, the two candidates who really fit the mold are Jordan Clarkson and Patty Mills. 

Clarkson has settled nicely in his role as a spark plug on one of the hottest teams in the league, leading the Jazzin bench scoring with 17.7 points per game, while making 3.1 triples on 38.4% shooting. Patty Mills, on the other hand, is averaging a career high in scoring in his 12th season in the league with 14.3 points! Those two fit the prototypical mold for the winners of this award.

However we can’t overlook what Chris Boucher of the Toronto Raptors is doing as well. Boucher has been coming off the bench to deliver 13.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and an astounding 2.0 blocks. He also has arguably leapfrogged OG Anunoby in the Raptors’ frontline depth chart and has been one of the biggest surprises this season.

Coach of the Year

  • Quinn Snyder
  • JB Bickerstaff
  • Doc Rivers

The Utah Jazz’s Quinn Snyders has to get credit for guiding the Jazz to the longest winning streak of the season with 11 straight victories. His team has been a well-oiled machine, and their comfort level with Snyder has made them look like a legitimate contender.

Doc Rivers is doing the same thing for the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers. Despite several COVID-related hurdles, Philly has remained on top thanks to Rivers’ guidance and Embiid’s stellar play.

The surprise pick on this list has to be JB Bickerstaff, who has the Cleveland Cavaliers at 9-11. With respect to Indiana’s Nate Bjorkgren and even Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, no one expected the Cavs to be here given their lineup. But Bickerstaff has found a way to make it work, and the Cavs are now in the midst of the playoff battle who can become a sixth seed or higher.

Defensive Player of the Year

  • Rudy Gobert
  • Joel Embiid
  • Myles Turner

While Domantas Sabonis has received the majority of the headlines for the Indiana Pacers this season, Myles Turner has low-key been just as impressive because of what he’s doing on defense. Turner is leading the league with an astounding 4.1 blocks per game, terrorizing opponents who dare to charge into the lane. Questions about his toughness and willingness to defend at a high level have all but disappeared as he’s showing everyone just what he can do as an elite defender.

Gobert and Embiid are the two proven commodities for this award, with respect to Draymond Green and Anthony Davis. The Stifle Tower and The Process continue to be the defensive anchor for their squads, and their respective team’s defensive identity hinges on what these two deliver day in and day out.

Rookie of the Year

  • LaMelo Ball
  • Tyrese Haliburton
  • James Wiseman

This rookie class may not produce a future MVP like the vaunted batch of 2003, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any future All-Stars or championship players on this list. Consider LaMelo Ball has instantly made the Charlotte Hornets a perennial League Pass team because of his incredible passes and occasional putback slams. Ball may not be shooting the ball that well, but his averages of 12.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists off the bench show that he’s one of the most complete rookies to enter the NBA scene in a while.

Ditto for Haliburton, whose play has forced Kings coach Luke Walton to give him more minutes. How can you keep a guy like Haliburton off the court when he averages 11 points and shoots an astounding 41% from 3-point land? He’s been so good he’s tweeting Kermit the Frog-sipping-tea memes for the haters! Give him all the minutes!

James Wiseman is on a completely different spectrum than Ball and Haliburton. The no. 2 overall pick has had growing pains this season, with Draymond Green constantly barking at him and pushing him to be better. But with every passing game, you can see Wiseman getting better and better. Consider his game against the Minnesota Timberwolves and top pick Anthony Edwards, where he erupted for 25 points and two blocks. Wiseman is a project, but he’s only 19 years old and his ceiling is something everyone should be excited to see. 

MVP

  • Joel Embiid
  • LeBron James
  • Nikola Jokic

For those saying that big men have disappeared from the game, can you explain what is happening in Philadelphia and Denver? Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have been absolutely stellar and each have made an iron-clad case for First Quarter MVP honors. 

Embiid’s numbers are staggering: 28.3 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 blocks and the best record in the East. But before you hand him the crown, wait! Here’s what Jokic is doing: 26.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 1.8 steals.

I mean…. SHEESH. Embiid probably gets the nod at this point, because the Sixers have the better record. But skinny Jokic was averaging a triple-double at the CENTER position for the better part of the early season, so he’s right there. It should be a neck-and-neck battle all the way to the end of the regular season.

And also don’t forget about the man lurking right behind ready to snatch the MVP trophy away from them. Tito LeBron, in his 18th season at age 36 completely on cruise control, is averaging 25.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.5 assists. He’s also on pace to record his best shooting season, making 2.8 triples on a 41.3% mark. Oh, and the Lakers are still one of the top seeds in the West. It’s still good to be king.