Second Quarter Awards for the 2023-24 NBA Season
Honoring the best of the last 20ish games
Rookie of the Quarter: Victor Wembanyama, San Antonio Spurs
Last quarter, I gave this to Chet Holmgren. This quarter, though, Wembanyama was undeniable. It’s incredible to see arguably the most hyped NBA prospect of all time come into the league and fulfill or surpass nearly every expectation.
Wemby’s quarterly statline of 20.0/11.0/3.4 is impressive enough. Add in a silly 3.7 blocks per game (a significant increase on his first quarter, as he’s been allowed to play more center) and other tremendous defensive numbers, and Wembanyama is making a legitimate case for All-Star and All-Defensive teams as a rookie.
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He noticeably improved his decision-making and passing, averaging nearly an assist per game more and a turnover per game fewer (although, like most rookie big men, he still loses the ball too often).
Wembanyama’s recent triple-double against Detroit showed his playmaking upside, and he’s already exploiting tiny cracks in the defense from all over the court:
Defensively, Wembanyama could’ve swept last year’s Oscars: he’s everything, everywhere, all at once. Ballhandlers panic when they approach the paint and see him looming. He has absurd flexibility and quick-twitch movements for someone built to give Slenderman nightmares. A weird little quirk: he tries to kick passes a little often for my liking, leaving him vulnerable to pass fakes, but he’s shockingly quick to recover:
The best part? He’s still developing his instincts. There are multiple times every game where it seems through the TV that Wemby had a chance to make a play but didn’t. He’s already getting better at that, too (his basketball IQ and rapidly improving processing speed aren’t talked about enough, given all the other exciting things to discuss).
If you like Holmgren’s ability to drive winning with two-way play as a rookie, go ahead and pick him. I did last quarter, so you’ll hear no arguments from me. It’s incredible to have two rookies playing so well that they’ll garner looks for multiple end-of-season awards meant for veterans. But Wemby is my pick this time around, and if things keep trending the way they are, I suspect he might be next quarter, too.
Shout out to Jaime Jaquez Jr. in Miami, an obsession of mine having an incredible rookie season. He is so far in third place as not to even be in the rear-view mirror.
Interior Defensive Player of the Quarter: Rudy Gobert, Minnesota Timberwolves
(I believe interior defense is foundationally more important than perimeter defense and should virtually always go to a big man. But that doesn’t mean perimeter defenders don’t deserve love, so I’ve split this award into two parts.)
I thought for longer than I expected about Wembanyama here — he’s been that good defensively for San Antonio. Brook Lopez made a strong case, leading the league in total blocks over this period and posting fantastic rim-protection numbers now that he’s again being used in his preferred deep-drop defense. Holmgren and Utah center Walker Kessler had major defensive impacts, and Clippers’ center Ivica Zubac posted a sneaky-good statistical case, too.
But Rudy Gobert is still the correct answer here. The Minnesota big man anchored the league’s best defense in the second quarter. Opponents shot just 50% at the rim against Gobert, a top mark. On the season as a whole, foes get to the rim -6.1% less often with Gobert on the court. No other player in the league combines that degree of rim protection and rim deterrence (although Joel Embiid is close, he’s missed too many games this quarter to qualify).
Something underappreciated about Gobert is that he always tries hard. He’s not perfect, but he has one of the highest motors of any big. His technique is rock-solid: his gigantic arms are always splayed out, his feet are always sliding, he lunges and recovers multiple times in a sequence — and then he’ll sprint down the floor on offense to set screens, roll hard, and grab boards. He never takes a play off; even for defensive-minded big men, that’s exceedingly rare.
Next quarter, I’m sure I’ll try to get cute and find someone else to write about. But Gobert may not make that an option.
Perimeter Defensive Player of the Quarter: Alex Caruso, Chicago Bulls
Last quarter, he won my Sixth Man award; this time, he’s acknowledged for his defense. The Bald Eagle is strong as an ox, despite his 6’5” frame, and he is equally capable of guarding big wings as he is point guards. Advanced metrics love him despite (or possibly because?) of the weaker defensive talent elsewhere in Chicago.
Caruso teleports through screens as if they aren’t even there, forcing ballhandlers to pick up their dribble 35 feet from the hoop. He’s constantly pushing, grabbing, pulling, and generally making himself a nuisance. Opponents shot -7.4% worse than expected when Caruso guarded them, one of the best marks in the league regardless of position.
And that’s when they could even get the shot off in the first place. Watch as he absolutely destroys three different screens here, forcing the ball out of Terry Rozier’s hands (h/t to Steph Noh of The Sporting News for the convenient video):
Perimeter defense is arguably the part of basketball with the least reliable statistical backing. Once you have a reputation one way or another, it can linger for years before people recognize that narratives are no longer valid — this is how you end up with superstars getting All-Defensive nods years past their prime. While we’re better at recognizing elite perimeter defenders today, the eye test is still essential. To that end, nobody looked more impressive in the season’s second quarter.
Herb Jones, last quarter’s winner OG Anunoby, Jalen Suggs, and Jaden McDaniels all had strong cases (among many others; I can’t list them all), and due to the subjectivity of this particular process, I wouldn’t quibble if you wanted any of them.
Sixth Man of the Quarter: Malik Monk, Sacramento Kings
Monk had a fantastic quarter, averaging 16 points and more than six assists per game. He hit 37% of his threes on very high volume and developed some beautiful chemistry with Domantas Sabonis. Watch as he takes the screen, waits patiently for a re-screen, then hooks a pass to Sabonis in traffic for a layup:
Other players scored more, and others (like Caruso) had a greater defensive impact. But Monk’s combination of shooting and playmaking is rare in Sixth men and a big part of why Sacramento’s bench has survived even when De’Aaron Fox or Domantas Sabonis rests.
The passing has been such a delight. His full-year assist percentage of 30.3% is higher than that of point guards like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Mike Conley, or Russell Westbrook, and while he can be a bit careless with the ball, he brings some much-needed energy to the Kings’ offense.
Watch as he softly threads this dime between three Thunder defenders to a cutting Kevin Huerter:
To my eyes, Monk’s defense has waned a bit from last year’s career-best effort, but his offensive growth outdoes any sliding on that end. It’s wild seeing how much Monk has grown as a distributor throughout his career, and he’s a worthy winner of the quarter’s Sixth Man award.
Most Improved Player of the Quarter: Coby White, Chicago Bulls
Remember that for this award, I’m looking for players who have improved from the first quarter of the season, not from last year. So we won’t be talking about the Haliburtons, Senguns, and Maxeys of the world.
Our winner this quarter may thrust himself into that year-end conversation, though. Coby White has been a revelation (even to me, and I was higher on him than anyone!) since he began turning Chicago’s fortunes around.
In the first quarter of the season, White averaged 15 points, 4.2 assists, and 3.1 rebounds while shooting 43% from the field. In the second quarter, he averaged 22 points and identical 5.6 rebound and assist marks. Pretty good!
Much of this was due to an increase in responsibility following Zach LaVine’s injury, but he played so well that, even with the Bulls at full strength, he’s still been one of their featured players. In six games this quarter with LaVine, White has averaged 23/5.5/5.0. White is here, and he brought a lawn chair and some snacks. He’s not going anywhere.
One blemish: after a good defensive season last year, White’s defense has slipped since shouldering this more prominent role. I’m hopeful that he’ll regain his concentration on that end as he gains more experience as a primary offensive option.
Unlike defense, an area where White has truly improved this quarter is in his foul-drawing. White has been allergic to the free throw line for most of his career, but he’s been a little more effective of late, drawing 4.4 free throw attempts per game this quarter (and sporting an above-average positional mark now for the year). There’s still work to be done, but his handle is much tighter than in previous years, letting him get into the paint more often (31% of his attempts are at the rim, a good mark for a guard). He’s not afraid to attack tiny creases even in crowded traffic, and he’s getting rewarded:
At just 23 years old, White still has plenty of time to develop further, too.
Coach of the Quarter: Ty Lue, Los Angeles Clippers
It’s hard to remember now, but the James Harden trade looked like a John Carter-style bomb at first. The team was out of sync, joyless, and frankly embarrassing.
But Lue never lost faith. He claimed he would need 10 games to understand how to maximize James Harden and the rest of the roster; turns out, that was playing it safe. After an initial six-game losing streak (which happened in the season’s first quarter), the Clippers took off. They are 16-4 in their last 20 games, a run of dominance buoyed by an outrageous scoring explosion: they rank first in the league in offensive rating over that time frame.
And Lue deserves much of the credit. He got Russell Westbrook to buy in — and excel! — in a bench role. He figured out how to get Paul George and Kawhi Leonard moving in ways that make sense around Harden. He even nailed the little things, like keeping the effective Daniel Theis as the backup center even after Mason Plumlee returned from injury and banishing PJ Tucker from the rotation (Tucker may be traded or may make a comeback in the playoffs, but he’s likely at his end as a useful regular-season player).
The team looks like they’re having fun. Westbrook is laughing, Harden is doing snow angels after nailing big shots, and even Leonard has cracked a smile. Winning cures a lot, of course, but chemistry starts from the top — players unhappy with their playing time or role can’t easily contribute to a happy atmosphere.
And there was a lot of potential for discontent here; so far, Lue has navigated the team through dangerous waters with aplomb. Managing big stars with big money and big egos is difficult, and corralling role players expecting more (has anyone heard from Bones Hyland in a while?) can be tricky, too. Marrying that personnel management to clever Xs and Os is even harder. Ty Lue has done all that and more.
Joe Mazzulla has done creative things in Boston for the consensus best team in the East. Will Hardy deserved a long look here and would be a deserving winner for completely turning around a Jazz team that looked dead in the water in Q1. I’ve got more Utah stuff coming soon, so I’ll save my thoughts for now.
Most Valuable Player: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
On a per-game basis, Joel Embiid might have been the winner here. But he’s only played in 12 games since December 5th, the rough demarcation period I’m using for this quarter. That’s not enough to qualify.
Luka Doncic has been arguably more impressive than Shai offensively, and he’s having perhaps his best defensive season ever. If you want to go with Luka, keeping the Mavs afloat as they battle injuries (four wins in the quarter over the hapless Trail Blazers sure helps!), I’m not going to argue.
Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t gotten much MVP buzz, but he would be my very close runner-up. The Bucks found themselves this quarter, and Giannis produced otherworldly box-score statistics.
But my Most Valuable Player of the Quarter is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Thunder were 14-6 this quarter, behind only the Clippers and Celtics in that stretch, and Gilgeous-Alexander was the beating heart of it all.
SGA not only led most advanced metrics (he’s an EPM god), but he averaged 33/6/6 in that time frame (as many points as Doncic on a per-minute basis) while playing excellent defense — full stop. Refreshingly, there is no need to qualify that last part.
Gilgeous-Alexander’s ball-hawking capabilities are no joke, and he’s the only player averaging more than two steals per game. Gilgeous-Alexander can play highway bandit in the passing lanes or rip someone off the dribble. He’s weaponized the poke-away from behind the ballhandler, a move lesser defenders do out of desperation but that SGA does from a position of strength:
The Thunder have even started using him to create havoc as the vanguard of a 1-2-2 zone, as he does here:
Offensively, Gilgeous-Alexander’s passing numbers are a bit muted by playing in an egalitarian offense in which everyone is encouraged to create for others. On other teams, he might average eight or nine assists per game. His dribble-drive game and ability to get into the paint open up easy passing avenues to the perimeter. Watch this filthy hesitation dribble to pump-fake combo that clears out 60% of defending Hawks:
Gilgeous-Alexander is my MVP for the quarter, and if he keeps this up, he may even have a chance to break the recent big-man hegemony on the real award.
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