With less than 20 games remaining in the regular season, it’s a sprint to what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive postseasons ever. But for a few international superstars, it’s also a sprint to the Kia MVP Award.
Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo have battled each other in a season-long game of: “Anything you can do, I can do better,” with each delivering one jaw-dropping performance after another. As the regular season winds down, none of these guys are taking their foot off the gas, which means the race to the Kia MVP trophy is going to be a photo finish.
Here’s the latest edition of the Around the Globe report:
*All stats through Thursday, March 10
This Edition’s standout
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Serbia)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 26.7 ppg, 14.4 rpg, 9.4 apg
A strong case could be made that there isn’t a player in the league who is more valuable to their team than Jokic. Embiid and Antetokounmpo have put up gaudy numbers all season, but neither of them have to shoulder the type of load Jokic has to on a nightly basis. James Harden’s arrival in Philly has made life a bit easier for Embiid, and Antetokounmpo has had Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday by his side for most of the season. Meanwhile, Jokic has been holding down the fort and then some in Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray’s absence.
The Joker ranks in the top 10 in points, rebounds and assists. He also leads the league in double-doubles (54) and triple-doubles (18) and has tallied four triple-doubles in his last seven games. Most importantly, Jokic’s individual brilliance has led to team success.
With 15 games remaining, the Nuggets are just two games back of the 4th seed, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could host a first-round series when it’s all said and done. Jokic has his team peaking at just the right time, and if Murray and Porter can make it back from their injuries in time for the playoffs, Denver will be an extremely tough out.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Greece)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 31.1 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 5.7 apg
Don’t look now, but Milwaukee is just two games back of the East-leading Miami Heat. With much of the attention being focused on the new-look 76ers and Nets, as well as the Celtics’ recent hot streak, the defending champs have slipped under the radar in the East, and they are quietly hitting their stride during the home stretch of the season.
Milwaukee is 6-1 since the All-Star break, largely on the back of Antetokounmpo, whose strongest claim for Kia MVP honors could be his elite impact on both ends of the floor. Despite being without defensive clog Brook Lopez all season, The “Greek Freak” has anchored the Bucks’ 5th-ranked defense.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Cameroon)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 30.3 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 3.0 apg
The 76ers’ new superstar duo experienced their first true hiccup on Thursday in the form of a 29-point shellacking by Brooklyn, but the honeymoon phase might not be over just yet. Prior to their loss against the Nets, The 76ers were 5-0 with both Embiid and Harden on the court, and they have 17 games left to iron out any kinks before the playoffs.
Embiid’s career-best 29.7 scoring average and ten 40-plus point games (league-high) suggest that he’s primed for a big postseason. And with Harden now in the fold, Philly has as good of a chance as any team in the East to reach the Finals.
Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks (Slovenia)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 31.5 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 6.3 apg
Doncic is well equipped to carry the load for Dallas as he has done throughout his young NBA career, but it never hurts to have some help. The addition of Spencer Dinwiddie’s shot creation abilities unlocks a new layer in the Mavs’ offense and gives Doncic someone he can trust to put the ball on the floor and make a play, especially with Tim Hardaway Jr. being sidelined with a foot injury.
Dallas is 7-2 since acquiring Dinwiddie from the Washington Wizards at the trade deadline, and his contributions will be crucial in the playoffs to help alleviate pressure on Doncic.
RJ Barrett, New York Knicks (Canada)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 27.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.8 apg
The Knicks have plummeted toward the bottom of the East after a promising start to the season. But if there is one silver lining for New York, it’s the growth of RJ Barrett. The 21-year-old scored a career-best 46 against the Heat on Feb. 25, and he’s averaging career-highs in points (19.2), field goal attempts (16.2) and 3-point attempts (5.7). Barrett’s efficiency still has room for improvement, but he finally looks confident and comfortable in the lead role.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder (Canada)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 29.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 8.1 apg
Gilgeous-Alexander has been on a tear since returning from an ankle injury that sidelined him for most of February. The dynamic wing has surpassed the 30-point mark six times since returning to the lineup on Feb. 24, after doing so just 10 times in his first 43 games this season.
Along with Gilgeous-Alexander’s uptick in scoring, he has led OKC in assists in seven of eight games since the All-Star break. Gilgeous-Alexander’s increased production may not be translating to wins just yet, but he has consistently proven that he deserves to be the Thunder’s main building block going forward.
Under the radar
Jonas Valanciunas, New Orleans Pelicans (Lithuania)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 16.7 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 51.6 FG%
Before star forward Brandon Ingram suffered a hamstring injury causing him to miss New Orleans’ past two outings (both losses), the Pelicans had won four of five games coming out of the All-Star break. Despite the recent slide, New Orleans is still in prime position to possibly leapfrog the stumbling Lakers for the 9th seed out West.
Outside of Ingram, Valanciunas has been the Pelicans’ most reliable option up until CJ McCollum arrived just prior to the trade deadline. Valanciunas is averaging a double-double and has tallied 40 of them so far this season, the 4th most in the league. He’ll need to stay the course until Ingram returns to help New Orleans improve its Play-In positioning.
Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic (Germany)
Stats over last 2 weeks: 14.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 3.0 apg
Like most lottery picks, Wagner was forced to immediately take on a lot of responsibility for a Magic team boasting one of the youngest rosters in the league. This can be daunting for most rookies, but Wagner has stepped up to the challenge all season.
Despite being the youngest player on his squad, Wagner has been one of the most consistent. He’s averaging 15.5 points per game on the season, which ranks 2nd on the Magic behind Cole Anthony (17.3) and 3rd among rookies behind Cade Cunningham (16.6) and Jalen Green (15.7) – the top two picks in last year’s draft.
G League notables
Nik Stauskas (Canada)
After scoring 57 points against the Wisconsin Herd on March 1, the Grand Rapids Gold guard followed it up with 43 the next night, becoming the second player in league history to score 100+ points in a two-game stretch and the first to do it on a back-to-back. His play earned him G League Player of the Week honors and an NBA Call-Up with the Boston Celtics.
Leandro Bolmaro (Argentina)
On March 4, Bolmaro became the 2nd player this season to play in both a G League and NBA game on the same day. He dropped 21 points and added career-highs in rebounds (14) and assists (9) for the Iowa Wolves against the OKC Blue in the afternoon, before being recalled to the Minnesota Timberwolves and logging 6 points in four minutes off the bench against the Thunder later that night.
Nathan Knight and Leandro Bolmaro played for the @iawolves this afternoon.
Tonight, they both took the court for the @Timberwolves.
— NBA G League (@nbagleague) March 5, 2022
Mfiondu Kabengele (Canada)
Dikembe Mutombo’s nephew came up big in the final seconds for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, swatting away a game-tying shot attempt in the final seconds to help the Vipers hold on to the top spot in the Western Conference against the 2nd-place South Bay Lakers.
The handles and footwork on this play by Jokic are UNREAL!
— NBA (@NBA) March 10, 2022
BIG BLOCK BY GIANNIS
Bucks/Suns down to the wire on ABC pic.twitter.com/pknOCEXfSj
— NBA (@NBA) March 6, 2022
— NBA (@NBA) March 7, 2022