Find a Nuggets fan, just about any Nuggets fan, and ask them, "Remember Nikoloz Tskitishvili?" Watch as their face recoils in anger and fear as they mutter something about, "Biggest draft bust in Nuggets history." The Nuggets have dipped their toes in foreign waters a few times, with mixed results. The scars left by Skita have been hard to overcome. Even the most successful "foreign" born player, Maybyner Rodney Hilário aka Nenê, in Nuggets history, can't make up for the damage Skita's drafting caused.
The Nuggets have had recent success with European players in Evan Fournier from France (now playing in Orlando), Danilo Gallinari from Italy, and Timofey Mozgov from Russia (Eurasia?). Without going too deep into Nuggets history, I'd be willing to bet most casual fans remember the bad of Skita versus the good of Gallo and Mozgov.
But the perception in Denver of "Euros" could be changing. On draft night this past summer, the Nuggets gambled on two Europeans in Jusuf Nurkic (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Nikola Jokic (Serbia). The two countries share a border, and the two could soon be sharing playing time for the Nuggets. Add to that a 2013 Nuggets draft pick in Joffrey Lauvergne (France), and Denver's front-court could be set for years to come. The other youngster that looks to be a lock for a starting gig with the team in the coming seasons is the 2014 19th pick Gary Harris. Let's take a look at what these guys bring.
Jusuf Nurkic: 16th pick, 2014 draft
From what I could tell, fans were hot-and-cold on Nurkic's selection as the 16th pick in the 2014 draft. After the Bosnian Beast stepped onto the floor though, the cold seems to be getting warmer as Nurkic has shown flashes of being more NBA ready than anyone could have imagined. On the season, Nurkic has appeared in 13 games and is averaging 4.5 points and 4.3 rebounds in just 10.4 minutes per game. His 38.9% shooting and 3.0 fouls per game have been his weakest areas, but he has time to grow at just 20 years-old.
From what I've seen from Nurkic, he does rush shots - as his coach Brian Shaw recently said - and he's still trying to figure out positioning on both ends of the floor. However, he has shown some brilliant passing ability, advanced post moves for such a young NBA big man, and is a relentless rebounder who uses his body well in the paint to protect and gobble up boards.
(Adam Mares and I were on the same page with these passes, I cut them up too, but his video quality is superior!)
It didn't even look like that alley-oop to Kenneth Faried was made with much effort, yet it was absolutely perfect, somewhere Andre Miller is smiling. And how about that angle on the bounce pass? Nurkic feeds the ball to Darrell Arthur between two defenders without much room for error and it's, again, perfect.
I asked Nurkic about his passing ability after the Rockets game on Dec. 17th.
"You have that or not," said Jusuf Nurkic. "You can't teach that."
Now, that answer might sound a little smug, but that wasn't intended. Nurkic understands that to be a good passer, sometimes it's just in you. And he has it.
Check out the video below of the replay at the :30 second mark, just incredible.
We've been gushing about Nurkic around here all season, and it looks like's he's beginning to cement his role as the team's backup center, as JaVale McGee is recovering from yet another injury to his surgically repaired leg (this time it's the muscles around McGee's tibia). Many would argue that Nurkic has shown enough promise that he should take McGee's minutes anyway, and I'm on board with that.
What can a team do with a big man that's a talented passer, rebounder, and scorer? I'm of the mind (sane or not), that Nurkic could be a lot more like Marc Gasol than any other big man playing in the NBA today. Gasol is the best center in the NBA and should be a serious contender for league MVP. Those are incredibly big shoes to fill, but check out this passing reel of Gasol and see how many easy looks he creates for teammates (and all the attention he commands).
We don't know how together Nurkic's game will grow, but hearing stories of him crying after preseason games because he felt he let his teammates down, bodes well for the rookie. You want players that care about the game and their team to an insane degree and Nurkic may fit that mold.
Joffrey Lauvergne: 55th pick, 2013 draft
Lauvergne's best shot to join the Nuggets will be next season, when he turns 24 years-old. Like Faried, King Joffrey had a successful run in the FIBA World Cup this summer and has been playing well for Khimki BC. This season, thorugh 18 games, he's averaging 10.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game. His playing time, and starts, are down from last season - where he played for Partizan Belgrade.
Lauvergne has been described by some as a Nick Collison type: hard worker, fundamentally sound, but somewhat limited. Watching him play, very limited action for me, he's a bit of a junkyard dog. He can do dirty work inside, and is more athletic than you might expect.
As you can see in the above video, Joffrey enjoys playing in the post with both his back to the basket and facing up. One thing I notice is that his post moves look a little deliberate and thinking too long about what you want to do can lead to trouble at the NBA level. His frame also makes you wonder how he'd handle the power players in the League. A willingness to play in the post is a big part of the battle though. With a contract buyout in place after this season, we could see and should see Joffrey in a Nuggets uniform next season ... stay tuned.
Joffrey's professional stats:
Nikola Jokic: 41st pick, 2014 draft
There is a level of excitement of Jokic with the Nuggets. They spent a fairly high second-round pick on him, where more NBA ready players may have been available. This is a good sign as Tim Connelly and Co. went boom-or-bust with this pick.
Jokic is big at 6'10" and 250 pounds, a creative passer, long range shooter, inside scorer, but again - we have to see how he translates to NBA game.
At just 19 years-old, the Nuggets can afford to be patient with Jokic and leave him overseas until they feel he's ready to come over. With three centers already on the team, patience will be key. If Denver loses either Timofey Mozgov or JaVale McGee, we could see Jokic come state-side sooner rather than later. He's still producing eye popping stats through just 10 games with 15.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.3 steals in 29.7 minutes per game. Oh, and he's shooting 37.8% from three point land on 4.5 attempts per game.
Imagine a twin tower lineup of Nurkic and Jokic for the Nuggets ... can Jokic be a power forward? It's fun to get ahead of ourselves, but the footage thus far shows a guy who has similar skills to guys like Danilo Gallinari or in a total dream world Dirk Nowitzki. But Jokic is shooting free throws more like a true big man at just 69.4% on 3.6 attempts per game.
Gary Harris: 19th pick, 2014 draft
The lone youngster from the good old US of A. I've been delighted by Harris' defensive energy and his willingness to put the ball up on the offensive end. Shooting guard of the future? He has that potential. There are those who want to see him play a bit more point guard, but he has natural scoring instincts of a shooting guard, and the team should let him do what he does best.
Arron Afflalo calls Harris his protege, but he might be a much better defender than Afflalo. What if Harris is the next Jimmy Butler? I think that highly of Harris and believe his offensive game will round into form - again, he's a willing shooter and looks to score, and that's good.
That gives the Nuggets a pretty good nucleus at shooting guard, power forward, and center. I'd expect to see Harris take the starting two guard gig, Joffrey to have a shot to be either the starting power forward or a key backup off the bench, and for Nurkic and Jokic to battle for the center spot.
So, how do the Nuggets plan for the future with these four guys? Can you pair them with an aging Ty Lawson (he will be aging by the time these four are really ready to compete)? Does Kenneth Faried stick around as a core piece with these guys?
Of the four above, I think that it's Nurkic that has the highest ceiling, but it's hard to know as we haven't seen much of any of them. And we haven't seen a single minute of Joffrey or Jokic against NBA competition at the NBA level. Could the Nuggets strike gold with the two second round picks? How high is Harris' ceiling? It's exciting and terrifying to think about Denver's future, especially with the season still playing out and so many questions with the team.
The Nuggets future looks like it has some bright spots. But if one can shine above the rest, the future of the team will be in great hands.