The inaugural In-Season Tournament has launched with new jerseys, courts and stakes. The event culminates in a race for both the first-ever NBA Cup and the competition’s Most Valuable Player award.
The MVP selection “will be based on the players’ performance in both Group Play and the Knockout Rounds.” With relatively few games and only eight total teams advancing out of Group Play, that means winning matters even more in the sprint for this award.
Here’s a look at which players are claiming the early inside track toward tournament MVP honors.
1. Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
Tournament stats: 25.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 14.0 apg, 2.0 spg, 50.0 FG%
Haliburton wasted no time proving last year’s All-Star debut and his standout work with Team USA was just the beginning. The 23-year-old is the playmaking engine powering Indiana’s promising start, including a 2-0 mark in East Group A.
The 6-foot-5 point guard conducted a passing masterclass in quality tournament wins over Cleveland and Philadelphia. His 15 assists on Tuesday created a team-wide balance the top-heavy Sixers could not match.
Capturing the sheer volume of Haliburton’s production is delightfully difficult. Here’s an attempt: the former 12th overall pick is on (an early) pace to join Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Kevin Johnson as the only players in NBA history to average at least 20 points and 12 assists per game in a single season.
2. Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings
Tournament stats: 22.0 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 10.0 apg, 1.5 bpg, 57.1 FG%
De’Aaron Fox missed five games early in the season, including the tournament opener. Sabonis made sure that didn’t matter, facilitating the offense (13 assists) and anchoring the defense (13 rebounds, 2 blocks) in the Kings’ win over Oklahoma City.
Fox was back Friday, but even his 43-point night would not have been enough without Sabonis’ all-around brilliance. The three-time All-Star amassed 27 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists in the Kings’ 129-120 victory over San Antonio.
Sacramento sits tied with Minnesota atop West Group C. Those two teams clash on Nov. 24 (8 ET, NBA League Pass), with a firm lead for a Knockout Round berth at stake.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
Tournament stats: 27.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 7.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 60.0 FG%
The Lakers have struck on solid balance in tournament play, and James serves as its focal point. The 38-year-old is lifting up his younger teammates while stepping up during relatively subpar play from Anthony Davis.
James’ work against Portland on Friday — 35 points, nine assists, five 3-pointers — was a reminder of his ageless excellence. At one point he shared the court with Blazers forward Jabari Walker, whose father, Samaki, played against James from 2004-06.
Nearly 20 years later, James has the Lakers (3-0) sitting alone and undefeated atop West Group A. Winning their remaining game against second-place Utah on Tuesday (10 ET, TNT) would clinch L.A. a berth in the Knockout Rounds.
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Tournament stats: 31.0 ppg, 11.5 rpg, 2.0 apg, 1.0 spg, 48.9 FG%
Anthony Edwards is drawing all eyes with his leap to superstardom, but Towns’ recent hot streak is reminding many why he is already a three-time All-Star. The former No. 1 overall pick is lighting up tournament games with his nearly unstoppable offensive skill set.
Towns leads the Timberwolves in points, minutes, rebounds and made 3-pointers during tournament play. The majority of that production comes without dominating the ball; nearly 70% of Towns’ made shots during the tournament have been assisted by teammates.
Minnesota has a spotless 2-0 record in West Group C. Next week’s Group Play matchup against 2-0 Sacramento — and a clash between Towns and All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis — looms large.
5. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Tournament stats: 30.3 ppg, 15.3 rpg, 12.0 apg, 54.2 FG%, 91.7 FT%
Jokic’s tournament numbers are as large as the defining “5,280” crowning the center of Denver’s In-Season Tournament court. That production was enough to open the tournament with a win over scalding-hot Dallas.
Like Sabonis, Jokic was forced to play a tournament game without his injured starting point guard (Jamal Murray). Unlike Sabonis, Jokic and the Nuggets could not rally to win without Murray, losing to New Orleans 115-110 on Friday. That’s not a knock on Jokic; Denver’s defeat could cost it a berth in the Knockout Rounds, which are part of choosing the In-Season Tournament MVP.
The Nuggets still have a shot, though it’s an uphill climb. The loss to New Orleans gives the Pelicans the head-to-head tiebreaker. Denver will need to win its remaining game at Houston for a shot at advancing.
Damian Lillard, Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks lead East Group B by virtue of point differential. Lillard has been Milwaukee’s go-to scorer in tournament play.
Jalen Brunson, New York Knicks: The tournament’s second-leading scorer, but the Knicks trail undefeated Milwaukee and Miami in East Group B.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: The raw numbers are there, but poor outside shooting and a loss to Indiana leave Embiid here for now.
Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat: Not as individually dominant as others, but Butler is the main reason the Heat are 2-0.
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics: Like Butler, Brown is the leading man for a well-balanced and undefeated squad.
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Matt Petersen is an interactive producer for NBA.com.
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