Sports Take: Early season NBA award leaders

Detroit Pistons forward Jerami Grant (9) knocks the ball away from Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer

Just a few weeks into the NBA season, some players have already started separating themselves from the pack. Last year, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo took home both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards. Memphis Grizzlies phenom Ja Morant was named the league’s Rookie of the Year. This season, the league looks to be in for a change up. New favorites have emerged for every award, so let’s get familiar with the new crop of award candidates.

The MVPs:

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, hangs from the rim after dunking the ball for a basket against Oklahoma City Thunder forward Isaiah Roby, center, and guard George Hill in the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Nikola Jokic, Center, Denver Nuggets:

Jokic, already one of the league’s premier bigs, has separated himself from the pack this season. On the year, Jokic is averaging 25 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Should those numbers continue, Jokic will be the only center to ever lead the league in assists per game, and the only player besides Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook to average a triple-double over the course of the season.

The Nuggets put together a legendary playoff run in the Orlando bubble but haven’t looked like quite the same team since the start of the new season. They’ve struggled to win games so far, sitting at 7-7 and 10th in the west. The games they do win run through the Joker. Jokic continues to be a monster in the clutch, hitting 50% of his shots in the final 10 seconds of a game to either tie or take the lead. Denver has been towards the top of the western conference the past couple years, and if they return to that position, expect Jokic to bring the MVP to the Nuggets.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) goes up to shoot as Atlanta Hawks center Clint Capela (15) defunds during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Joel Embiid, Center, Philadelphia 76ers:

Embiid’s case is very similar to that of his Denver contemporary. Where the two dominant big men differ, though, is team success. Philly is currently 10-5, and at least a game ahead of every other eastern conference team. Embiid has certainly led the charge for the Sixers, putting up 26 points, 11 rebounds and two assists, to go along with over a steal and a block a game.

It’s felt like both Philadelphia and Embiid have been on the cusp of a giant leap for a while now, and this season seems to be the one where both the star and the team have done just that. Philly failed to land superstar guard James Harden, and Embiid’s MVP case could suffer for it. His fit alongside the offensively limited Ben Simmons has always been in question, while the hypothetical Embiid-Harden combo appeared to be a sure-fire contender. If Embiid and Simmons, as they have before, get in each other’s way, the Sixers and Embiid could fall behind.

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant (7) goes to the basket past Orlando Magic forward Dwayne Bacon (8) center Nikola Vucevic (9) and center Khem Birch (24) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Kevin Durant, Forward, Brooklyn Nets:

He’s back. The 2013-14 MVP was away from the court last season, but he’s returned at full force. He’s leading a Brooklyn team that has the potential to tear through anybody that gets in their way. Despite the talent around him, Durant is getting the superstar number he’s used to. He’s averaging 31 points, seven rebounds and six assists a contest, as the Nets have gone 9-7 to this point in the year.

The questions for Durant and the Nets at large are durability and sustainability. Durant is coming off a torn Achilles tendon, a notoriously difficult return. If he has to miss games, the MVP becomes tougher to secure. The numbers Durant has now are certainly impressive, but his co-stars, Harden and Kyrie Irving, will no doubt want their share of the limelight. Durant has been known to play nice with others, but it could come at the cost of a second MVP.

The DPOYs:

Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner, right, shoots in front of Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Portland, Ore., Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

Myles Turner, Center, Indiana Pacers:

Turner has claimed to be a DPOY caliber player in the past, and it looks like he was right. He currently averages over four blocks a game, and should that hold up, he’d be the first player since Dikembe Mutombo in 1995-96 to do so. To this point in his career, Turner’s previous best shot-blocking campaign ended in a 2.7 per game average. So far this year, he’s swatting 4.2 shots a night. A paint presence like that definitely deters would-be shooters, as Turner gets his hands on 11.4 percent of shots taken while he’s on the floor.

Turner is also an advanced stats darling, as he has a defensive plus/minus of +2.8, the best of his career. The Pacers have been surprisingly good this season, but wins don’t matter as much for the DPOY. Turner has dealt with injuries in the past, but if he’s on the floor all season, he could bring home a trophy.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) lays the ball up as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, left, and others defend during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Rudy Gobert, Center, Utah Jazz:

Gobert has gone home with two of the last three DPOY awards, and voter fatigue could prevent him from getting his third in four years. Gobert is second in the league in blocks per game, trailing only Turner, but leading all other players by at least .3 blocks a night. Gobert is also third in the NBA in average rebounds, at 13.6.

Where Gobert gets ahead of other candidates is defensive rating, which estimates the number of points a player allows per 100 possessions. Gobert is second in the league in that stat, giving up just 98.8 per 100, one of only two players allowing less than a point per possession. He also is one of the league’s most consistent defenders, and that consistency could garner another DPOY for the Utah star.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis (3) deflects a shot by New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson (1) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Anthony Davis, Forward, Los Angeles Lakers:

Anthony Davis might be the best player ever without an individual award. He got beaten out by Damian Lillard for ROY back in 2012-13, and he’s sniffed at MVPs and DPOYs since but to no avail. Davis doesn’t have the stats that Gobert or Turner do, but he has the narrative on his side. Voters will no doubt want to reward Davis at some point, whether or not he sees an uptick in production. This season, Davis’ numbers are way down, perhaps due to the fatigue of the short 71-day offseason. He does have defensive plus/minus behind him, posting a +2.3 in 2020-21. He’s got time to turn it on, and he’d likely be rewarded for it.

The ROYs:

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball (2) puts up a shot in front of Toronto Raptors forward Chris Boucher (25) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

LaMelo Ball, Guard, Charlotte Hornets:

LaMelo Ball came into the league with immense hype, and it seems to have been justified. Ball is averaging 11 points, six rebounds and six assists. He’s also in the perfect spot to have a ROY campaign. He gets big minutes on a bad Charlotte Hornets team, and is allowed free reign to do essentially whatever he wants. He’s already recorded a triple double, becoming the youngest player to do so. Should Devonte’ Graham continue to struggle, Ball will see even more minutes. His much-maligned defense seems to have stepped up, as he’s 10th in the league in steals. Ball has all the confidence in the world, and all the means to win ROY.

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) has his shot blocked by Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton, middle, during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Tyrese Haliburton, Guard, Sacramento Kings:

The 12th pick in the draft, Haliburton had significantly less hype than someone like Ball. That hasn’t kept the Iowa State product from having a strong season. Haliburton is averaging 11 points, a pair of rebounds and five assists. Where Haliburton really shines, though, is in close games. He’s come up big multiple times for the Kings, and his efficient shooting has made him reliable in the fourth quarter. His efficiency is remarkable and not just for rookies. Haliburton is in the top 20 in three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage and offensive rating. If Haliburton keeps showing up late in games, he could be the Kings pick that finally brings in a ROY.

Golden State Warriors center James Wiseman (33) drives with the ball in front of Los Angeles Clippers forward Nicolas Batum (33) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in San Francisco, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

James Wiseman, Center, Golden State Warriors:

Wiseman only played a handful of college minutes, but he looks like the real deal. Putting up 11 points, six boards and more than a block a game, Wiseman has locked down the starting center spot for the Warriors. While his blocks per game numbers aren’t crazy, he does rank fifth in the NBA in block percentage, swatting over six percent of the shots attempted while he’s on the floor. He also checks into the top 20 in total blocks and blocks per game. The major hang-up on Wiseman is his subpar rebounding, but if that picks up he could help jump start the flailing Warriors dynasty with an addition to the trophy case.

While these players have stood out, there’s still a lot of time left in the NBA season. Voters often love new faces, but it’s tough to count out familiar names like Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. As weird as this season has already been, nothing would be a surprise.