As opening night for the NBA inches ever closer, the Denver Nuggets prepare for their match up with the New Orleans Pelicans with optimism for a new season. The team is effectively in year three of a rebuild, bottoming out with Brian Shaw, changing the culture and adding young talent in the first year of Michael Malone and now opening the season with talk of trying to reach playoff contention. While there are many questions surrounding the team and whether or not they truly are a contender or merely a pretender, the preseason gave insight that this Nuggets team should look very different from the previous year as their roster is evolving into a more fine tuned machine. Here’s three things from the preseason that showed how this team will be different, and still a little bit of the same in the upcoming year.
Jusuf Nurkic has become a focal point on both offense and defense
Juka has been the second best player on the Nuggets all preseason long which is a striking statement in itself but what’s more striking is Nurkic not only continues to excel at his strengths, but for the first time we are seeing an expansion of his game. There’s no doubt that he is a presence in the paint on defense and a monster on the boards and all that was prevalent in these exhibition games. He finished with a defensive rating of 95.8, third best on the team, and led the team in both rebounds per game (10.7) and rebound percentage (23.4%) which were also good enough for second in the NBA. Those rebounding numbers helped him to be the only Nugget to average a double double.
The other half of that double-double was his scoring, 12.7 points per game, which was good for fourth on the team. That’s where the expansion in the Bosnian Beast’s game has come. The most noticeable change on offense for Juka has been his ability to get to the free throw line. He recorded a 0.91 free throw to field goal attempt ratio this preseason. In comparison, last season that number was 0.41 when he was also attempting fewer field goals per game. He’s not wasting those shots from the charity stripe either, Nurkic shot 73% from the line in the preseason, roughly a 10% improvement to last year. In fact, shooting overall has improved and he showed on more than one occasion that he has the ability to hit an 18 foot jump shot, at least from straight on. Yes, he still rushes around the basket or makes a boneheaded possession but there have been more flashes more often of nifty footwork in the post leading to easy buckets as well as flashes of the aforementioned mid-range game. While his shooting percentages still leave something to be desired, and while his usage is still high, Nurkic’s ability to score coupled with his ever improving defensive and rebounding capabilities point to a big time year for the Bosnian.
Danilo Gallinari is flowing in the offense
Gallo’s numbers are just ridiculous. He’s shooting a eFG% of 73.5 and a true shooting percentage of 82.6%. Obviously it would be very difficult for Gallo to keep those numbers going over the course of an entire season but there’s no doubt that he’s come out of the off season red hot. Once again he is leading the team in scoring and he’s getting many of those points in his familiar way: fouls. Gallo averaged 8.2 free throws per game, which is almost exactly the same rate he averaged last season. However, the number that really jumps out is his free throw to field goal attempt ratio which was 1.21, a remarkably high number. Obviously with Gallo taking the same number of free throws a game the reasons his FT/FGA ratio has skyrocketed is he’s taking fewer shots from the field, which he is...but here’s the kicker, he’s only averaging two points less than last year because his field goal percentages are off the chart.
Gallo’s shooting 58% from the field and 66% from three which are once again some pretty gaudy numbers. The reasons he’s been so effective? He’s taking really good shots. Last season the team relied heavily on Gallinari to score in isolation which got him a fair bit of trips to the foul line, but also left him shooting on low percentage looks. So far this year in the preseason the Nuggets have relied far less on these types of plays. Much of that has to do with Nurkic and Nikola Jokic who generally have been on the court with Gallo, whether it be one of them or both. Nurkic and Jokic’s excellent passing ability allows them to help facilitate the offense more, letting Gallinari operate much more off ball and within the flow of the offense. Gallo was also one of six players to average double figures in scoring which shows he doesn’t have to carry the load every night anymore. The return of Wilson Chandler, the arrival of Jamal Murray and the continued good play of Will Barton have helped Gallinari tremendously. All this adds up to a highly effective Gallo on offense, one who looks like he’s gunning for his first all start berth.
They’re still really young
The Nuggets average age is 25.4 years, which is tied with the Boston Celtics for fifth youngest team in the NBA. However, if you were to remove Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller from that equation the Nuggets would be the youngest. Nelson comes into the season as the back up point guard, but who knows just how long that will last. Meanwhile Miller appears to be settling into the same role as last year, end of the bench guy who’s really more of a player coach than anything. This means that the Nuggets are going to compete for a playoff spot relying almost entirely on under thirty year olds and four of the starters will be 22 years old or younger at the start of the season. plus there’s Murray who is 19 and figures to be a key player off the bench.
As much as Nuggets fans want to get excited about this group it’s still important to temper expectations. Mudiay still struggles with turnovers and poor shot selection at times. Nurkic still rushes his shot. While Murray looked outstanding to start the season, he showed that he can have some difficulty with consistency when he went into a bit of a tailspin toward preseasons’s close. After going toe to toe with the defending champs and following that up with an impressive victory over the Portland Trailblazers, the Nuggets went to Oklahoma City and put up a dud against the Thunder. These are the type of ups and downs that are still going to be prevalent this season, no matter how much culture change and maturity coach Malone has instilled in the team (and it’s fair to say there has been quite a bit). So while Nurkic looks amazing, and Gallo looks like the best he’s ever been and while everyone on the team is talking about making it to the playoffs, there’s still a whole lot of growing to do and a whole lot of lumps to take. Nonetheless, I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to get it started.