TORONTO - Approximately one year ago, our Denver Nuggets were a forgotten franchise in the National Basketball Association. Not only had they lost 13 of 15 games heading into the NBA's "mid-season" All-Star Break, but for the second year in a row the Nuggets had no participants in any of All-Star Weekend's festivities (except maybe Super mascot Rocky, but I wasn't in New York last year so I cannot confirm or deny whether or not he was there).
After spending this weekend in Toronto for the NBA's 65th All-Star Game, the Nuggets lack of relevance in the recent past appears to be quickly dissipating. Thanks to rookies Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic's participation in Friday night's Rising Stars Game combined with Mudiay's appearance in Saturday night's Skills Challenge and Will Barton's inclusion in the Slam Dunk Contest, the Nuggets are back on the NBA map.
Even though Barton couldn't hang with dunk aficionados Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon (and, frankly, I'm not sure who could hang with those two other than Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan and Vince Carter), he threw down a very respectable first dunk in the Slam Dunk Contest and reminded many why he should merit serious Sixth Man of the Year Award consideration at season's end. When asked during NBA All-Star media day if Barton should get the prestigious award at season's end, he didn't hesitate and said: "Most definitely."
Mudiay, meanwhile, had his national - and international - coming out party on Friday night when he posted a terrific 30 points / 10 assists / 3 rebounds / 3 steals / 1 block / 5 three-pointers made game for Team World in a close three-point loss to Team USA. ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton gave Mudiay an "A" for this performance and rightly pointed out that had Team World won the game, Mudiay may very well have been MVP. But as someone sitting inside the Air Canada Centre who watched Mudiay on the court with his young NBA peers, he appeared to be as comfortable and confident as we've seen him all season and this should bode well for Mudiay's final 28 games. Don't be surprised if you see a better Mudiay the remainder of the way as the Nuggets close out their 2015-16 season.
After the Rising Stars game, it was clear to me that Mudiay will be ranked among the top of his draft class for many years to come. As I've said before - and it was reiterated watching Mudiay perform on Friday night - when the 2015 NBA Draft gets "re-drafted" years from now, don't be surprised if the order goes Karl-Anthony Towns (1), Kristaps Porzingis (2) and Mudiay (3). And while it's somewhat of a long shot, it's conceivable that Jokic - who also performed well in the Rising Stars game - could be ranked as high as fifth or sixth in the draft class of 2015. Yes, my fellow Stiffs, Jokic is that good!
Looking beyond the national TV appearances for Mudiay, Jokic and Barton, being on the ground in Toronto it has been evident to me that our beloved Mile High franchise is gaining renewed respect around the league. All three players participated in the various NBA All-Star Weekend charitable events and it was particularly great to see Mudiay attend the second annual NBA Africa luncheon on Saturday before his appearance in the Skills Challenge. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but raised in the Dallas area after coming to the US as a child, Mudiay joins an ever-growing list of prominent active African-born NBA talent (like Serge Ibaka, Luol Deng, Gorgui Dieng and Bismack Biyombo) and hopefully we'll see Mudiay back on his home continent participating in the league's Basketball Without Borders camps soon. Not only are those camps great for the teenagers fortunate enough to attend them, but they're great for young NBA players like Mudiay to connect with other NBA players and coaches and gain unique perspectives on the game to bring back to their own franchise.
Given that it's zero degrees in Toronto - literally, zero - I've been wearing my powder blue Nuggets beanie for most of my time here. And whether it has been respected members of the NBA media and punditry world, or former players, opposing team personnel and so forth who are present for the big weekend, whenever someone sees that Nuggets' hat they go out of their way to tell me how happy they are with the direction of the team, with the culture created by head coach Michael Malone (and how stupid the Sacramento Kings were to fire Malone last season) and with the "young talent" being accumulated in Denver. When bumping into Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey on Thursday night, he remarked to me how happy he was that his second-best Eastern Conference squad doesn't have to play our Nuggets again (the Nuggets are a surprising 2-0 against the mighty Raptors this season).
Another universal comment heard here regarding our Nuggets is that they need to be patient with both Mudiay and their process in general - i.e. don't fall for the temptation to become a mediocre eighth-seed in the NBA Playoffs when you could build for a bigger future down the road, despite how painful the interim might be in the loss column (added to the additional pain of skinny attendance numbers at Pepsi Center). When speaking to Altitude TV's Vic Lombardi during NBA All-Star media day on Saturday, Nuggets legend - and future Hall of Famer - Chauncey Billups said that despite all of the team's upside the Nuggets "are still two or three years away" from meaningful playoff contention. Adding that to two straight years of playoff absences and a five-ish year playoff drought is a lot to ask of Nuggets fans.
But if we can see more of the Mudiay and Jokic on display on Friday night combined with Barton, Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris (who arguably should have been in the Rising Stars game), Kenneth Faried, Jusuf Nurkic and another quality lottery selection, that five-year playoff drought could easily be reduced to three.