Clutch Player Ladder

Clutch Player Ladder: De'Aaron Fox keeps adding to his case for No. 1

Breaking down the Top 5 contenders for the Jerry West Clutch Player of the Year Award.

De’Aaron Fox delivered more last-second clutch thrills in a key win vs. Chicago this month.

Perhaps not many folks knew it at the time it happened, but the Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls game last week was the equivalent of a Joel Embiid-Nikola Jokic showdown. You know, a late-season clash between the top-rated players in’s Kia MVP Ladder.

This time, it was Kings star De’Aaron Fox against Bulls stalwart DeMar DeRozan in a tight fourth-quarter finish, and what better scenario could there be in assessing the homestretch for the Jerry West Award?

For much of the season, Fox and DeRozan have led the pack for the inaugural award named after West, which determines the player who is money with the game on the line. Not only did their teams meet in March, but it was a close game — imagine that — and the ball understandably found its way into the hands of the league’s most clutch players.

Here’s how that turned out: DeRozan hit a 3-pointer (!) and was fouled by Harrison Barnes, resulting in a four-point play that tied the game with 11 seconds left. Wow.

And then, everyone in the building knew Fox would get the ball on the final possession. Right on cue, Fox hit a 3-pointer with 0.7 seconds left for the win, taking the shot before the double-team could arrive. Could anyone ask for more thrills or more from DeRozan and Fox?

At any rate, here are the latest rankings as the month of March charges into April, when we’ll make our pick for the favorite to capture the award.

(Editor’s note: For Clutch Stats, qualifying players appeared in at least 15 games.)

1. De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

Last month’s ranking: No. 1
Clutch stats: 5.1 ppg, 53.9% FGs, 33.3% 3PT

His heroics are not only keeping him elevated for the award, but also putting him in contention for All-NBA membership. That’s how much of a transitional season it has been for Fox. As Kings coach Mike Brown said: “You know Fox is the most clutch player out there.” Who could argue? He’s leading the league in clutch-situation points and total fourth-quarter points (505). Additionally, he’s dependable and accurate in those situations as a shooter and has an effective field goal percentage of 56.6%. Really, this is starting to be a runaway in his favor. The award is his to lose, and at this point, he’d have to assemble a string of fourth-quarter flubs to get folks to rethink their ballots. Is there enough time left in the season for that unlikely scenario? Doubt it.

De'Aaron Fox slams the door on Chicago's rally by drilling a game-winner from deep.

2. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls

Last month’s ranking: No. 3
Clutch stats: 4.7 ppg, 47.1% FGs, 27.3% 3pt

Any other season and DeRozan probably sits on top of the heap. Even this season, he’s got all the makings of a respectable clutch player, a guy who gets the ball with the game on the line (highly appointed for this honor by his coaches and teammates) and usually does something with it. DeRozan ranks second to Fox in total clutch points, leads in clutch free throw attempts (65), shoots 89.2% on those shots, and also looks for teammates when the double team comes his way. His only so-called blemish is 3-point shooting — true to his nature, DeRozan isn’t much of a threat to take or make many from that distance. But go figure: his 3-pointer against Fox (and subsequent four-point play) was probably the biggest non-game-winning shot of the season for him.

DeMar DeRozan finished with 33 points in a thrilling game vs. Sacramento.

3. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

Last month’s ranking: No. 6
Clutch stats: 3.6 ppg, 49.5% FGs, 22.2% 3pt

“Jimmy Buckets” was in his element recently against the Orlando Magic, drilling a contested 3-point shot at the buzzer in regulation to force overtime. Miami lost that game in OT, but again, what a flourishing finish by Butler, who had 38 points in 39 minutes. What is crazy is Butler is having perhaps the finest season of his career and yet Miami, for some reason, continues to chug along. He remains strong in every aspect of the clutch by getting points, rebounds and assists to put his team in a position to win. At least the Heat, with Butler bringing the goods in tight games, are bringing an advantage as the season and the chase for playoff spots start to get interesting.

Jimmy Butler did all he could to try and lift Miami to a win in Orlando.

4. Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks

Last month’s ranking: No. 2
Clutch stats: 4.1 ppg, 51.6% FGs, 37.5% 3pt

A foot injury kept him sidelined for three games on a recent West coast trip and caused him to stumble in the clutch rankings, but Brunson built up so much clutch goodwill this season that there was no way he’d fall out of the top five. He returned and helped the Knicks beat the West-leading Nuggets, continuing a remarkable season of improvement by him. And Brunson has shown to be better in the clutch this season than a lot of other more-decorated point guards, many of whom, unlike him, have All-Star experience. That must be satisfying for Brunson, who missed the All-Star cut last month and who’s the main reason the Knicks are in fifth place in the East.

Jalen Brunson was named the Kia NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Month in February.

5. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

Last month’s ranking: No. 9
Clutch stats: 3.8 ppg, 49.3% FGs, 33.3% 3pt

Well, well. Not only is Embiid perhaps shifting MVP voters’ eyes his way in the stretch run, he’s doing so by showing clutch-ability. Therefore, why not put him in the running for not one, but two major awards? Proof of this happened March 10 against the Portland Trail Blazers when Embiid sank a fallaway jumper with 1.1 seconds remaining in a one-point win for Philly. That demonstrated how Embiid is not only dominating games for three quarters, but can be called upon to seal the deal if things get rough down the stretch. Embiid is top-10 among clutch scorers but also brings a big presence at the other rim, with nine clutch blocks and five clutch steals.

Joel Embiid hits a turnaround fadeaway with 1.1 seconds left to lift Philly past Portland.

The Next Five:

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

  • (Last month’s ranking: No. 4)

Lauri Markkanen, Utah Jazz

  • (Last month’s ranking: Not ranked)

Kyrie Irving, Dallas Mavericks

  • (Last month’s ranking: Not ranked)

Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • (Last month’s ranking: No. 8)

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

  • (Last month’s ranking: Not ranked)

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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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