The home stretch of the 2022-23 season is upon us … and speaking of home stretch, that’s when a select group of players starts to shine.
That’s the home stretch, as in games, as in clutch time, as defined by the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. This brings us to the second installment of the Clutch Ladder and the leading candidates to grab the inaugural Jerry West Award.
There’s been no change at the top, though. Sacramento Kings guard De’Aaron Fox is once again your leader and the player who raises his level most when the game’s on the line. He has thrived in this role for much of the season and has become the player everyone else is chasing for this award.
The Jerry West Award is designed to uncover the truth, identify the hero of “hero ball,” and reveal what player(s) are truly dependable with the game on the line.
Clutch is all about rescuing your team from the throes of defeat, or keeping your team from blowing a lead. It’s making buzzer-beating shots and game-tying baskets. It’s about being efficient in these moments with the 3-point or mid-range or free throws, about grabbing important rebounds and blocking shots and coming up with steals. It’s not about turnovers, missed shots and other assorted mistakes.
Here’s the next installment of the Clutch Ladder and the top five players so far. (And here’s last month’s edition, for reference.)
(Editor’s note: For Clutch Stats, qualifying players appeared in at least 15 games.)
1. De’Aaron Fox, Kings
Returning to the top spot is the player who is threatening to stay here for good. On Feb. 11, Kings big man Domantas Sabonis fouled out against the Dallas Mavericks with less than two minutes to play in overtime in a three-point game and then said: “Fox got this.” Meaning, Fox did what Fox does in these situations. He engaged in a bucket battle with Kyrie Irving and came out ahead. Fox made all six free throws after Sabonis left, scored 12 in the fourth quarter and 14 in overtime, finishing with a season-high 36.
He barely missed a game-winner in regulation. The 25-year-old is holding firm on the Clutch Ladder, still with the league’s most points in clutch situations and doing it very efficiently.
2. Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks
If Fox does falter between now and the end of the season, Brunson should be a very strong candidate to take his place. Only Fox has scored more points in the clutch, and Brunson is shooting 50% overall, 40% on 3-pointers and 82.2% on free throws in those situations. That’s amazing efficiency for the young point guard, and here’s what is even more impressive: at the All-Star break, Brunson has only four turnovers in 133 minutes of clutch playing time. He wasn’t an All-Star, but unless he slips badly in the final third of the season, Brunson should be a finalist for this award.
Largely because of Brunson and his pick-and-roll chemistry with All-Star forward Julius Randle, the Knicks are in a decent position to avoid the Play-In Tournament and make the playoffs. Brunson has been better than the Knicks expected, both from an overall shooting perspective, and especially from a clutch perspective. Remember, Luka Doncic handled the clutch situations in Dallas where Brunson spent his first few years in the league.
3. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
He suffered a hamstring injury as All-Star weekend approached and that tricky injury could hamper him moving forward. But still, even with the Bulls struggling as underachievers, DeRozan has been solid for them much of the season in clutch situations. His only blemish in the clutch is 3-point shooting, but DeRozan gets around that by shooting mid-range shots and drawing contact to get to the foul line (he leads all players in clutch free throw attempts and is shooting 91.5%). Even though Zach LaVine is riding shotgun, the Bulls lean a bit more on DeRozan, who is made for it. The mid-range maestro will attempt to score and win games by any means necessary.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
It’ll be interesting to see how Doncic shares clutch responsibilities with Kyrie Irving, especially since their first clutch experience together didn’t go so smoothly. They took turns passing each other the ball during the final seconds against the Minnesota Timberwolves in a Feb. 13 loss before Irving turned it over and the Mavericks fell by three. It’s telling that Doncic has great respect for Irving, who made one of the most clutch shots in NBA Finals history in 2016. Yet for the first time in his career, Doncic is yielding — at least a bit — to a teammate. It’s understandably a weird position for him and the two will need to work out the kinks and develop chemistry in these situations. All that aside, only Randle has more clutch rebounds than Doncic had at the All-Star break and nobody has more assists at the break, either. Plus, Doncic trails only four players in clutch scoring. Let’s just say he’s more than holding steady on the Clutch Ladder.
5. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
He’s been rising on these charts and cemented his place in the Top 5 with his performance just before the break, when he took control late in a tight win vs. the Indiana Pacers on Feb. 13. In that win, Clarkson hit a 3-pointer and then nailed a mid-range jumper to snatch the game for good. In these situations, the Jazz are leaning on Clarkson perhaps even more than their All-Star forward, Lauri Markkanen. That’s a rather high honor for Clarkson, a former Kia Sixth Man of the Year winner who’s tricky off the dribble and dangerous from deep. He ranks fourth in clutch scoring and his clutch shooting splits (46.3/37.5/81.5) are plenty respectable. His biggest issue is that he tends to get a bit reckless (11 clutch turnovers). But that’s somewhat understandable, given that he’s fifth in the league in clutch minutes.
— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) December 23, 2022
The Next Five:
- Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
(Last month’s ranking: No. 7)
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
(Last month’s ranking: No. 6)
- Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
(Last month’s ranking: No. 4)
- Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
(Last month’s ranking: Not ranked)
- LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
(Last month’s ranking: Not ranked)
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