Flashes. Relapses. Migraines. Euphoria.
The life of a young Denver Nuggets guard has been tumultuous this season. With the steadiness of Nikola Jokic and veteran contributors like Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, and Jameer Nelson, the variability of contribution the young guards have provided has been easy to spot. For a playoff contender, the most important thing after positive players is consistent contribution.
The most important factor of whether a young player has “made it” in the NBA is not when they show great flashes of being a star, but when they those flashes become consistent enough to be a baseline for evaluation. This is why Nikola Jokic has transformed from a high ceiling prospect to a legitimate star player, and it’s why the Nuggets need a couple of the young guards to join him.
Take for example, Emmanuel Mudiay. There are many areas in which he has to improve, but above all, his field goal percentage hasn’t shifted in the right direction.
The trend line shows a slight increase in Mudiay’s efficiency over time, but it really is fairly slight, and it’s still too far below 40 percent to be considered a great trend. Consistency has always been a big problem with Mudiay. He’s made more than five field goals in a game just a dozen times out of the 44 games played in total this year. Assists are affected as well, as he’s only had more than five assists just a dozen times. He’s only had more than one steal just nine times out of 44 games, a statistic that is imperfect, but generally shows defensive activity.
Both sides of the ball have been inconsistent for the 20-year-old, and for a team that has clear playoff aspirations based on the trade for Mason Plumlee, that inconsistency has been difficult to overcome.
Next, lets take a look at Gary Harris.
Harris has struggled with injury issues throughout the year, as defined by the huge gaps in the graph above. His field goal percentage has been much better than Mudiay overall, and he’s had some stellar games. What isn’t stellar is the variability of those performances. Overall, Harris is shooting over 47 percent from the field and 42 percent from the three point line, which are awesome numbers. Among guards that attempt at least 10 shots a game, Harris is 4th in field goal percentage and 5th in three point percentage. The consistency from game to game isn’t quite where it needs to be, but the top end that Harris provides has been elite efficiency wise.
(For perspective, Mudiay has the 2nd worst field goal percentage and 4th worst three point percentage in that group.)
Also, a telling number about his defensive activity is that in the 32 games he’s played, only once has he accumulated more than two steals in a contest. Last season, he had 11 such occurrences over 76 games.
Next up is Jamal Murray.
I decided to get rid of the four game sample at the beginning of the year in which Murray went 0/17 from the field as it drastically changes the trend lines. In this graph, Murray shows some peaks and valleys, but he’s generally consistent. He comes in at just under 40 percent throughout. What’s more interesting is the next graph.
This is Murray’s game set after Jokic took over as the starter, and the trend is a stark contrast, the most blatant of any Nuggets guard. Murray has been responding to the consistent playing time by providing more consistent (and slightly better) results. Before December 15th, Murray was shooting 38.1 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from beyond the arc. He went through a shooting slump throughout the end of December and the first half of January. Since January 15th though, Murray has played better, especially with Jokic. According to nbawowy!, when Murray has shared the court with Jokic over the past month, he has a true shooting of 58.4 percent.
It looks like things are trending up for Murray as the year has gone along, and I would expect him to continue down that road if his minutes and rotation spot remain consistent.
Finally, let’s look at Will Barton.
With Barton, consistency has been the name of the game. Whether he takes 10 shots or 15 shots, Barton has been the most consistent contributor of the younger players. His trend line stays above the 40 percent threshold, and while he’s been thrust into a larger and weirder role of late, he’s kept his composure. The results haven’t been as strong as Harris overall or on the same trend as Murray, but they have been solid.
Will Barton is just a solid player. He will make some amazing plays and some gaffes, but Barton is clearly a positive and consistent member of the backcourt.
Now, what does all of this mean?
Jameer Nelson has proved to be a clear leader and veteran in the backcourt, so unless the Nuggets end up trading him within the next six days, he’s a guaranteed rotation contributor.
The rest of the guards are not so certain at this point if the Nuggets want to push for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Will Barton and Gary Harris look to be the next best contributors of the group. Harris’ fit with Jokic is unquestionable at this point, and Barton’s ability to create offense for himself and others is key for a playoff push.
The biggest question marks are the next two guards up. Neither Mudiay nor Murray have instilled a ton of confidence in their consistency at this point, though Murray is starting to move toward that, as evidenced by his output in the last 30 games. His ability to defend is questionable at best, but the eye test shows more comfort of late. Murray’s trend line overall provides some confidence that the performances are becoming much easier to live with.
That leaves Mudiay. Unless the Nuggets want to continue developing their young prospects like Mudiay, common sense would say that he’s the odd man out in a four guard rotation. Three guard lineups on the second unit would allow for him to continue making regular appearances in the rotation, but that would eliminate someone like Darrell Arthur, as consistent of a contributor defensively as the Nuggets can provide.
For what it’s worth, Mudiay still has some of the highest potential of any of the guards the Nuggets can put out there. The problem though, is that the Nuggets are in less need of players with high ceilings at this point and more in need of guys with a consistent output. The statements from Michael Malone and Tim Connelly suggest that while they want to continue to build, the eighth seed would be a solid prize for a rebuilding team looking to break out. Mudiay, in a sense, is the embodiment of that fine line between competing and rebuilding. It’s no secret that he wasn’t ready to take the reins as the lead guard of the Nuggets franchise at the beginning of last season. Fast forward to the middle of his second season, and little progress has been made in making the peaks more frequent and the valleys less so.
Based on how the Nuggets handle Mudiay’s minutes after the All-Star break, fans will be able to tell how serious a playoff push is for this team. Rumors have even surfaced that the Nuggets have quietly shopped the young point guard, and whether those rumors are true or not, they wouldn’t exist if the Nuggets were fully confident with him. It wouldn’t surprise me to see his role sizably reduced after the All-Star break. Depending on what happens at the trade deadline, if the Nuggets still have all of the above guards plus Nelson, Mudiay is the player Denver can trust the least. He’s also the player that needs the most minutes to develop his game for future years.
Malone and Connelly have the unenviable decision of trying to make both scenarios work. One way to do so is to make a trade involving one or more of the other guards to bring back an upgrade. Unfortunately, that puts a lot of pressure on Mudiay to be the main guard of the future, which clearly wasn’t the right decision last year.
In the next six days and throughout the end of this season, the vision should (hopefully) become clear.