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Clutch Player Ladder: De'Aaron Fox, Luka Doncic lead debut Top 5 ranking

Breaking down the early leaders for the new Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year Award.

Kings guard De’Aaron Fox claims the No. 1 spot in the debut Clutch Player Ladder ranking.

Plenty of folks who play this game for a living insist they want to be involved in the heat of the moment, to confront the urgency, feel the pressure, get the ball … to be The Man. Yes, that’s easy to say in the NBA, but much harder to do, and quite honestly, not everyone wants all the smoke or is equipped to deal with it.

That’s why the Clutch Player of the Year Award is necessary, to uncover the truth, identify the hero of Hero Ball, and reveal who is truly dependable with the game on the line.

This is the first season for the award, appropriately named after Jerry West, the Hall of Famer and Los Angeles Lakers legend who had a habit of taking over tight games. It’s really one of the highest honors for a player, to essentially be classified as a winner, and be recognized for his refusal to sweat when the temperature rises.

So … what exactly is clutch? Well, of course, making game-winning shots rates extremely high. So does game-tying baskets. But that’s not the entire scope. There’s plenty more: What else does a player do that tilts the game in favor of his team? Is he efficient in these moments? Grab important rebounds? Make necessary defensive stops? A key blocked shot? Limit mistakes? Find teammates for buckets?

How about all of the above?

Certain players are born for these moments. They gravitate to them because they don’t worry about being the goat (the other definition of the word). All that matters is making plays in the minutes where the scoring margin between opponents is five points or less, with five minutes or less left in the fourth quarter.

Here’s the first Clutch Ladder and the top five players so far, as determined by their production and steadiness in the … well, you know.

1. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

De'Aaron Fox hit 1 of the best game-winners of the season against Orlando.

Here in what can be safely described as a breakout season both for the player and the team he represents, Fox is building quite the case for this award. Yes, there’s still a half-season to go, and a Kia MVP candidate is lurking in the distance. But at this stage, everyone’s chasing the 25-year-old point guard. The Kings trust him with the game on the line and more often than not, he’s justifying that honor. He leads the league in total clutch baskets (40) while shooting an astonishing 61.5% in the process, by far the most efficient in the league among the heavy-lifters in the clutch. His most clutch moments so far were on Nov. 5 when he hit a nearly half-court game-winner to stun Orlando, and then on Jan. 3 against the Jazz when he scored the game-winning bucket with :00.4 seconds left (and had 22 of his 37 points in the fourth quarter). His speed with and control of the ball, confidence and willingness to be the hero are what fuel Fox in these red-alert moments.

2. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

Luka Doncic had 1 of the most clutch games of the season against New York.

There’s a safe prediction you can make for any Mavericks fourth quarter — the ball belongs to Doncic. His high usage and determination often place him in clutch situations, and Doncic lives for these moments, as evident by the way he gravitates to them. Who could forget his amazing finish in a win against the Knicks last month, which wrapped a bow around a 60-point masterpiece, when Doncic intentionally bounced a free throw off the rim in the closing seconds, grabbed the loose ball and sank the bucket that forced overtime? Because of his heavy role on the Mavericks and in fourth quarters, Doncic will likely be a candidate for this award all season. He’s sixth among all “clutch” players in total field goals made (30), but just as important, Doncic leads everyone in clutch assists (23) and is No. 5 in clutch rebounds (30) as well. Remember: Clutch isn’t always about scoring.

3. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

If the award was around last season, DeRozan would’ve lapped the field and easily won it. If you remember, he had buzzer-beaters in back-to-back games during 2021-22 and was the Fourth Quarter King in terms of production. This season represents an understandable decrease, though not by much. The Bulls still seek his wisdom and guts in clutch moments, which means the ball will eventually find its way to DeRozan. He leads all players in total clutch points (109), trails only Fox in total clutch baskets and ranks in the top 20 in clutch rebounds and assists. Most impressive is how DeRozan gets to the free throw line in these moments — he leads the NBA in clutch free throw attempts (43) and is shooting 93% from the line in the clutch. Both are a testament to his ability to create his own opportunities and draw contact. The mid-range maestro will attempt to score by any means necessary.

4. Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

Donovan Mitchell came up clutch for Cleveland during his 71-point performance.

Much like Luka’s 60-point performance, Mitchell showed how clutch he was in his own massive game, the 71-pointer where he made multiple big plays in the closing seconds of regulation and overtime. It was somewhat typical of the role Mitchell assumed once he joined the Cavs this season. The ball seems natural in his hands in those moments, and he makes the defense shiver. Mitchell is shooting 88.2% from the free throw line in the clutch and giving the Cavs a primary option once the game gets tight and a steady hand is required.

5. Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks

He’s been exactly what the Knicks have needed: a steady player who makes sharp decisions and takes control in fourth quarters. Brunson is tied with Fox for No. 2 in clutch points (99) while also separating himself from the bunch with his command of the ball. He has only three turnovers in these situations, a very impressive mark when you consider his usage. Mostly, Brunson trusts himself in the clutch. He doesn’t pass the ball often, which can be considered a flaw, until you realize he does shoot 52.4% overall and 50% from deep in the clutch. The Knicks will take that success rate all the time.

The Next Five:

  • Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
  • Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
  • Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
  • Tyler Herro, Miami Heat

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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