This Nuggets season has been bad, borderline laughable with the amount of turmoil this team has undergone this year. From injuries, to six week chants, and the eventual firing of Brian Shaw, the Nuggets are now officially in full on rebuild mode. While the Nuggets will continue to sell that they're going to try to win games, and even though new interim head coach Melvin Hunt is a breath of fresh air, let's not kid ourselves ... this season is over and has been over, for months now. At 22-39, Denver currently holds the seventh worst record in the NBA and are in prime position to get a top ten selection come June.
Unlike a majority of people, I'm actually extremely high on the upcoming 2015 draft class and think it's much better than last year's highly touted group. The Nuggets probably won't be in a position to draft the likes of Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Kentucky's Karl Towns or Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell, but they will have plenty of very good prospects to choose from in the bottom half of the top ten. Let's target and breakdown three draft prospects that I think Denver could target come June, giving you some guys to keep your eyes on leading up to the 2015 NBA Draft. We'll of course be breaking down other prospects as we get closer to the draft and as we know what pick the Nuggets will own. Now, let's get started with Mario Hezonja.
Mario Hezonja: Guard / Forward, FC Barcelona - I know some of you Nuggets fans may roll your eyes at another European prospect potentially being selected by Tim Connelly. However, given the importance placed on overseas scouting by the Nuggets front office, this makes a lot of sense.
Hezonja is a 20 year old, Croatian forward who currently plays for FC Barcelona of the ACB League in Spain. He is averaging 8.6 points per game for the club in their Euroleague games, while shooting 57% from the field and 41% from beyond the arc. Hezonja's two best qualities, in my opinion, are his ability to shoot the ball and his athleticism, both of which would be welcome additions to Denver. The Nuggets are the worst three point shooting team in the league, only making 31% of their three point attempts and Hezonja would massively help improve that.
He's got a smooth stroke with a extremely quick release and is very effective shooting off screens, or just scoring off the ball in general. Hezonja's athleticism is the one thing that stands out for me, he has very good leaping ability and at 6'8", can really finish above the rim. His ability as a dual threat in the pick and roll, also could help Denver immensely and give the Nuggets another playmaker on the perimeter.
He's a capable ball handler and his touch on his passes, reminds me of a young Danilo Gallinari. The one thing I'm not a big fan of, is Hezonja's defensive ability and primarily his awareness. Yes, he gives good effort on the defensive end, but he watches the ball way too much, reaches a lot on drives and is way too over-aggressive. If the Nuggets can get Hezonja to improve his awareness on defense, he can be a really nice two or three at the next level and be a great pick for Denver, come June.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Center, Kentucky - This also probably won't be a very popular opinion among most of you Stiffs, especially given the overwhelming amount of love this city and team have for Jusuf Nurkic. I can't lie though, I love the way Cauley-Stein plays the game and I think a frontcourt duo of himself and Juka would be extremely fun to watch.
Cauley-Stein won't blow you away with his stats (8.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 59% FG), but once you watch him play, you realize he does much more than his stats lead you to believe. Defensively, there is not another prospect in this draft, that compares to Cauley-Stein and his ability on that end. I could make the argument that Cauley-Stein is a better defender, than 90% of the guys playing in the NBA today. I've never seen a seven footer, who can defend every position on the court and stay with point guards on the perimeter, like Cauley-Stein does.
He has extremely quick feet and hands, his awareness defensively is second to none, he's amazing defending against switches and he is phenomenal at defending the pick and roll. I don't expect Cauley-Stein to ever be a superstar in the NBA, but he will get named to a few All-Defense teams and be one of the ten best defenders for the next decade. To put how elite Cauley-Stein is defensively in perspective, according to Sports Reference he currently ranks second in defensive rating and third in defensive win shares, in all of college basketball. For a Nuggets team that ranks 25th in defensive rating and points per shot, Cauley-Stein would be a huge addition defensively and help cure Denver's defensive woes.
Cauley-Stein is rather raw on the offensive end, he doesn't really have much of a post game and can't create own his shot. However, he's arguably the best athlete in this draft and is deadly in the open floor, putting multiple players on posters this season with dunks in transition and he has shown an improved jumper this year, for the Wildcats.
I would love to see Cauley-Stein paired up next to Jusuf Nurkic next season and form one of the most exciting, young and feisty frontcourts in the NBA.
Devin Booker, Guard, Kentucky -
I'm sure many of you readers expected to read about Arizona's Stanley Johnson or Duke's Justise Winslow in this first look at potential draft picks, but I think Devin Booker is every bit as good as both of those players and could even be better. I really feel Booker has been underrated and overlooked by many draft pundits so far this college basketball season. I think he can be one of the true gems in this draft class and be a guy years from now, that people clearly undervauled.
The freshman standout is having a great year under John Calipari in Lexington, averaging 11.0 points per game and shooting 43% from deep. Like I mentioned earlier with Hezonja, Booker would help Denver's perimeter shooting troubles as well and give the Nuggets a sniper on the outside. Booker has a quick release and a beautiful shot, but unlike Hezonja he's not just a three point shooter. He is deadly from mid-range as well and is also solid at shooting off screens or off the dribble.
His quickness is also great and it allows him to stay with defenders, off the dribble and off the first step. I think Booker's defensive ability is massively underrated, he's a smart defender, always contests shots, gives good effort and is rarely not in good position. Booker will need to continue to work on his ability to get to the rim, his handling and passing, but he has the make-up of Klay Thompson and reminds me a lot of the Golden State Warriors All-Star. Hell like Thompson, his dad Melvin Booker also played in the NBA and was a standout at the University of Missouri, even playing five games for the Nuggets in 1996.
Booker might be a reach at number seven for some, but I think he'd be a star in Denver and finally give the Nuggets the two guard they've been looking for, for years.
We'll be digging more into the draft as that time approaches, but for now we have some idea where the Nuggets might pick (7th) and some guys that could pop up on the team's radar.