The first two Nuggets games in the Las Vegas Summer League are in the books and both have resulted in fairly impressive wins. The "veteran" Nuggets on the roster look like they are prepared to make another leap and the rookies all have shown some promising flashes. For may of us here in the U.S. this week was the first we got a chance to look at guys like Juancho Hernangomez and Petr Cornelie. There are still at least two more games to be played but with two games in the books, let's hand out some grades and look at first impressions.
Emmanuel Mudiay - B+
As expected, Mudiay only played in one of the two games but boy was it a fun one. In the Nuggets summer league opener, Mudiay went head-to-head with Minnesota's Kris Dunn in what turned out to be one of the best one-on-one match-ups of the weekend. Dunn, who is almost exactly two years older than Mudiay, provided a nice test since he has length, athleticism, and a ton of swagger.
Mudiay looked shaky for parts of the first half in that game and some of his old weaknesses looked to be unimproved including a shaky handle, sloppy turnovers and decision making. He also missed shots at the rim which was one of the biggest knocks on him last season. In the second half Mudiay found his rhythm and made a lot of impressive plays down the stretch. His control with the ball in pick and rolls looked a little cleaner than last year and his confidence was a lot higher. Dunn picked a fight with Mudiay and Mudiay didn't back down. It was only one game so there isn't a whole lot to be learned from it but Mudiay earns the B+ for showing his own swagger and for imposing his will when the game mattered most.
Gary Harris - B+
Like Mudiay, Garris also only played in the first game and he also looked too good for Summer League. Garris didn't have too many spectacular plays but he did do all of the things that he does really well - shoot, cut, defend - and did them better than anyone else on the court. The Nuggets used Harris as the ball handler for stretches which was a bit of a surprise. He came close to having one of the highlight plays of the weekend when his crossover caught the defender off balance and he was able to create several feet of separation. He missed the shot so the highlight was ruined but let's all hope that he has added a bit more quickness and ball control to his game.
Jamal Murray - C-
Murray has had a rough couple of games. In the first game, he seemed to have a hard time finding touches in the three guard lineup alongside Mudiay and Harris. He spent a lot of time standing in the corner as a floor spacer or completely out of the play. In the second half he found opportunities to get points, mainly by crashing the boards. He finished with 12 points but rarely looked comfortable in the offense.
In the second game, Murray was given a lot more touches but wasn't able to shake free from his defender in isolation or pick and rolls and didn't find many open shots as a spot up shooter. He finished with just six points on 2-11 shooting and added five turnovers. The turnovers and poor shooting aren't too alarming since it is just a one game sample size and summer league stats are the least important stats in basketball. But the fact that for two games he wasn't able to get many clean looks from behind the arc or shake free of defenders with the ball in his hands is a bit concerning.
After Saturday's game, head coach Micah Nori said that at least some of the blame for Murray's lack of open shots should be placed on the coaching staff.
"All the ATO's we were running stuff for Jimmer and running stuff for other guys and let Jamal just kind of initiate the offense so that's on me as far as his shots. A lot of them were forced if you look at this and he goes 2-11, a lot of them were up against the clock, a lot of them he had to take. And that's my fault as a coach for not helping him get good looks. And hopefully these next three days I'll help him do that. But that's not on him at all, that's on me. I gotta help him get open."
It'll be interesting to see how Jamal bounces back in the remaining games here in Vegas. I fully expect coach Nori to tailor the offense to Murray on Monday night when the Nuggets play the Heat. Hopefully he can get more of a rhythm and put some points on the board. The one silver lining is that Murray's defense has been fairly impressive. He wasn't a dominant defensive player but coming into the draft he was billed as a potential liability on that end. Through two games, that hasn't been the case at all.
Juancho Hernangomez - B+
On first look, Juancho is a lot scrawnier than he appeared in his scouting videos on YouTube. He has some length (which is augmented a bit by how hilariously high he wears his shorts) but he is really skinny. Defensively, he gets pushed around when he is faced with guarding larger players. In both games he defended drives to the basket but looked like more of a speed bump than a road block. His lack of strength is also noticeable on the defensive glass where he has been pushed under the basket quite a bit or moved off of his spot.
But on the offensive end, Juancho plays like the biggest guy on the court. He seeks out contact on drives and has a knack for getting to the free throw line. He shot 10 free throws in the first game and added another pair of free throw attempts in game two. And as much as he struggled on the defensive glass, he is really crafty at attacking the offensive boards. Defensive rebounding is a different skill than offensive rebounding, especially for perimeter players like Juancho. On offense, rebounding is often about finding cracks in the defense and diving in to open space. Juancho does that really well, sneaking in to steal rebounds and keep the play alive.
Juancho is a really interesting prospect. He's done more than enough through two games to make me intrigued about his future. At the moment, both he and general manager Tim Connelly have said that they are unsure of whether or not Juancho will play in the NBA next season or stay another year in Europe. He's probably not ready to contribute on an NBA team right now but he has shown that he has a unique skill set and a toughness to him that makes it at least plausible that he should join the team now.
Petr Conrelie - B
Like Juancho, Petr is a mixed bag who has showed flashes of a really unique skill set. He has a nice looking set shot that he is very confident in taking when he isn't under pressure or sped up. He had an excellent corner three off of a kickout from Murray in the first half of the Memphis game. He also had a couple of nice looks off of 1-5 pick and pops. It looked like he was in a whirlwind in game one, playing nervous and a step behind on a most possessions. He was much more active in the second game, especially on the glass, and his confidence grew as the game went on.
Defensively, Petr has a lot of upside. He is pretty mobile and has decent instincts as a help-side rim protector. Against the Grizzlies there was one block in particular that got the entire crowd to stand up. But his super thin frame and overall lack of strength makes him a big time liability in individual post defense. He gets pinned under the hoops or backed down with ease when he is left to guard the post on his own.
His future in the league will be dependent on his ability to hold his position on defense against bigger guys. Summer league is filled with guys who are big and strong but the actual NBA is loaded with guys who are even bigger and stronger. Surprisingly, Petr said the physicality wasn't the hardest adjustment from the type of basketball he is used to in France, but rather, the speed.
"The game is faster here than in France. That's the big difference I would say. Shots are going up like really quickly."
Overall, Petr has been a pleasant surprise but he'll likely need to add a lot to his game before he is ready to come over to the NBA. If he does add strength and continues to adjust to the speed of play, he has the tools and rare skills to be an impactful player.
Jordi Fernandez, the new assistant coach who joined the team earlier this week, was fun to watch this weekend. From afar, he sort of reminds me of Steve Hess in that he is very high energy and constantly talking, coaching, and cheering. It's always fun to see the assistants get to take center stage. Michael Malone is here but he sits in the stands so the assistants are pretty much on their own. Both Nori and Jordi have been fun to watch in that role.
Jakkar Sampson and Axel Toupane have both done some things to impress. Axel is 7-11 through two games and has had a few nice defensive plays as well. With the Nuggets roster full, if Denver has to cut one of the two, I'd strongly prefer they keep Axel.
Earlier this week at training camp, Mudiay said that he has become more social and outgoing just by virtue of being more comfortable in his role on the team. That has been so incredibly crystal clear watching him interact with guys on the team and even coaches, staff, and fans.