I was 19 when my ex-wife and I met. We weren't a great match, I knew it in my gut, and still dated her for two years before she called to break up with me because I "wasn't serious about getting serious."
A year later, we were married.
I try very hard to remember my own late-teen brilliance when watching the 19-, 20-, and 21-year old youth movement roaming the court for the Denver Nuggets, and remember just how damned dumb I was at that age, repeatedly. The kids the Nuggets are putting on the court are are far, far smarter and more composed than I ever was. Or still am, actually. And still, as impressive as our rookies and second-year players have been this season, those same youngsters have as many head-scratching moments as enthralling ones. That's the type of behavior that can leave a fan frustrated. Take last night's game as an example...
Of the 15 turnovers committed by the Nuggets in the first half last night against the Boston Celtics, 10 of them came from the young-uns: 19-year old Emmanuel Mudiay had four, 20-year old Nikola Jokic added three, and the 21-year olds, Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, added two and one, respectively. The Celtics had 15 points off of turnovers in the first half, and were up by 10. The kids were giving it all away. But...
Coming back from the break, Mudiay and Jokic closed the 10-point halftime deficit to four in less than 90 seconds. Harris had 15 points on the evening. Nurkic struggled, but was still a deterrent in the paint when he was in. Over their history, each of the four shows flashes of brilliance, and looks to give Nuggets Nation a lot to look forward to over the course of the next decade-plus. If (a big if) everything comes together, here's a look at what could quickly become four of your five starters:
Mudiay came to Denver this year with high expectations attached, and did not fail to excite from his start in Summer League ball. Mudiay has shown a propensity to turn the ball over, and after an exciting first dozen games, had a tepid dozen to follow. An ankle injury followed all of that, and a candid chat with coach Michael Malone as he came back to the court has shown fruit in getting Mudiay on track to grow for the rest of the campaign. When he's clicking, his skills belie his 7,268 days. Here's his rookie debut:
Jokic has surprised the league with his skillset this season, with soft hands, deft positioning, and exceptional passing. Malone says he plays like a 10-year vet, and Jokic sits near the top of several rookie categories no one thought he'd even be competing for. Here's Nikola giving no less than the Spurs fits back in November:
After a quiet first season in which he was regularly yanked from games at the first sign of a mistake, Malone has placed his faith in Harris this season, and Gary has rewarded him well. Malone has referred to Harris as his "best two-way player". Though he still has several areas in which he can grow, Harris' scoring has improved vastly this season, his off-ball play has been one of the best on the team, and his defense is possibly even shinier than when he entered the league last year labeled as "pro-ready" on the defensive side of the ball. He's usually the guy defending the opposition's best wing player. Here's Harris putting up 20 on the Suns this season:
Nurkic has had a slow start to this season, coming back from two injuries at separate points this year. In his rookie season, pre-injury, Nurkic was a terror for many teams he faced, giving back as good as he got with some of the league's best centers. With his combination of deft footwork, competitive fire, and defensive presence, Jusuf has the upside to be dominant down low for several seasons to come. Here's a highlight reel from Nurkic's first season:
Though Jokic and Nurkic both currently slot to play the same position, Jokic's ability to shoot from beyond the arc and play at the elbow could make him attractive as a "stretch four" power forward as well. Harris and Mudiay look to have set the guard rotation for the foreseeable future, as they share starter's minutes with Jokic this early in their careers.
Looking at maturation and cohesion, this young quartet should be rounding into their primes right as several of the Western Conference's powerhouse teams are aging into to the sunset. Though several things have to go right for the Nuggets between here and there, they could be sitting in an enviable spot just as the "West's best" stranglehold finally starts to loosen.
It can be hard to mix your basket and crystal balls this far out, Nuggets Nation, but it looks like we have a few gems coming along for the long haul. What's the long-term upside of each guy, and will we have this core for a while?