With Juancho Hernangomez and Jamal Murray performing well in Summer League, the question has to be asked: just how young and inexperienced do the Denver Nuggets intend to go this year? The answer may be, "as young as they've ever been in their history."
If Hernangomez stays with the Nuggets this year instead of going back to Europe for another season, Denver looks to have six players age 22 and under who will be on the team getting minutes. Those players will all be in their first three seasons in the league. This does not count Malik Beasley, who might get only garbage minutes if he gets any, or Petr Cornelie who should be headed back overseas for more seasoning, or Joffrey Lauvergne who lacks the experience but is too old for the age cutoff.
Six players in those categories is an immense amount, and only a couple of previous Denver teams can come close. For historical purposes we'll leave the ABA teams out of it. We'll leave age aside for now as well. The only team in Denver history that fielded more than three players in that age-range who earned even 600 minutes was the 2002-03 team. That squad was built to fail in order to get a chance at the LeBron / Melo draft. Denver is definitely in uncharted waters age-wise.
But how about experience-wise? How many squads in team history have run out there with this many players entering their third season at most?
Young teams in Nuggets history
Using that same 600 minute minimum, there was a 1997-98 blip that fielded the immortal Tony Battie and Danny Fortson, and that 2002-03 squad again, the one designed for failure. If we're looking at multiple years in the right youth range, though, only one era emerges: the early 90s Nuggets squad that peaked with their dethroning of the Sonics in the 1994 playoffs.
1990-91: 6 players, headed up by rookie Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (nee Chris Jackson). Average age: 23.
1991-92: 5 players, as Dikembe Mutombo made his appearance as a 25 year old rookie (See, there's hope for Thon Maker yet).
1992-93: 8 players, in Mt. Mutombo's second year and LaPhonso Ellis's rookie season. One of them was 30-year-old Gary Plummer, though, who came back from playing overseas to play his second (and last) year in the NBA. So let's say 7 for our purposes.
1993-94: 6 players, with Bison Dele and Rodney Rogers joining the effort.
That is the only comparable era in Denver history to the youth movement we're seeing now. I am not a Nuggets historian, and the King of Thornton Jeff Morton or Andrew Feinstein can better speak to the nuances of that era. What I will say is that the team peaked with that defeat of the Sonics. The win totals went from 20 and 24 in the first two years of the 90s under Paul Westhead to 36 and 42 under Dan Issel, who then quit part-way through the following year, leading to the Bickerstaff Disaster of 1996, as details by Jeff Morton here.
That era fell apart through poor luck (Rauf's honest public relations disaster) cheap ownership (not willing to pay Dikembe's next contract) and terrible team management (not trading Mutombo either, throwing away draftpicks in deep drafts and taking players no one had ever seen in person). This team is looking for a re-do on building a young, hungry squad almost entirely through the draft. If Shaw was this team's Westhead, then at least he didn't get long to mess with the development of the raw players. Malone doesn't seem the type to quit in a fit of pique like Issel did. The pieces are in place to take the best advantage possible of all this young talent.
Youth didn't work then, can it work now?
Yes, sometimes these things work out. The Oklahoma City Thunder ventured into this territory in Durant's third season. Durant, Westbrook, Harden, Ibaka, Jeff Green and Eric Maynor were their Young Six. We can only dream that our guys turn out to be as talented as that collection. If you have the right six (heck, four or five from that example) it's absolutely possible to built a decade of a challenger on the back of a collection like that.
What the Nuggets are attempting to do - reinvent a team with young, drafted talent, all of which they plan to keep - has been successfully done very few times in NBA history, and not once that I can think of did it work out with guys who topped out at "making a couple of All-Star teams."
It takes superstars to pull that mix off. If Denver has the updated versions of Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol, Chauncey Billups, Michael Redd and Brandon Roy then Denver will be contenders for a while. That's not likely, but it is possible. With the league going small it would be great to see Denver embrace a big front court (and backcourt for that matter) but with the shooting that Memphis has never had.
However, if these Nuggets are more like the Nuggets from 25 years ago, with Mutombo as the only superstar as the rest fell off due to injury, self-inflicted issues or simply moderate talent reaching its capacity, this journey will have trouble serving as more than the same brief resurfacing that Denver had in the 90s before they slid back into basketball anonymity for the rest of the decade.
If the Nuggets plan to ride out this rebuild with all these kids (and more coming soon) then Connelly had better be sure of what he has in-hand.