Richard Jefferson, Devin Harris, Darrell Arthur, Mike Miller, Jameer Nelson, Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson. Ever since Tim Connelly set foot in the Pepsi Center there’s been a consistent theme with the Denver Nuggets depth: veteran experience. Some of those guys were key parts of the rotation during their time in the Mile High City and some were end of the bench guys that were more coaches than players, but all of them were lauded for their ability to help guide a young but talented and improving core to taking the next step. After this Summer though the front office’s actions made one thing perfectly clear: the time for Denver’s youth to take the next step is now.
The question remains though whether or not the Nuggets, in particular their depth which still has little game experience at the NBA level, are ready to take that next step. There’s little doubt in the abilities or promise of players like Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, but what of Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley? Is Monte Morris ready for significant NBA minutes to start the season? If Denver suffers injuries to their bigs can Tyler Lydon or Thomas Welsh fill in the gaps? Talented players all of them, but combined NBA game experience is incredibly slim. I asked Connelly and Coach Malone about it at media day. To his credit, the Nuggets President of Basketball Operations didn’t avoid the realities saying “Financial dynamics are ones you can’t avoid. Oftentimes to keep good players you have to move good players. We lost some really good guys.” However, Connelly also was quick to point out that the team’s depth is still high quality, that the young guys are ready to step up and he believes 1-15 are capable of rotation minutes. Coach Malone backed that up stating “we have a lot of great young talent...we have so many guys that are young, hungry, hard working and ready for the opportunity.”
Coach also made a point to call out specific guys who he says have already shown they are ready. He mentioned that Torrey Craig (who Connelly also spoke highly of) has already shown the ability to play big minutes as a two-way guard. Coach talked about how Trey Lyles was a guy outside the rotation at the beginning of last season but stepped up when called upon and became an everyday player for the team while Paul Millsap recovered from injury. He also mentioned Juancho Hernangomez, a player who looked ready to break out last year but was slowed by illness. Now healthy, Juancho is another player that will compete for every day minutes.
There’s also another reason to be optimistic this group of young depth will succeed: they may be young, but they have their fair share of experience albeit not NBA experience. At the forefront of the Nuggets reserves fighting for minutes but yet to have them guaranteed are Juancho and Beasley who are both former 1st round picks going into their third year in the NBA. For Juancho and Malik they haven’t got regular rotation minutes but they’ve been with the organization for three seasons, working in the facility and going through the NBA routine. They’ve also both spent time in the G-League honing their skills and Juancho has spent a plethora of time playing at an extremely high level with the Spanish national team. Inexperienced is probably not the best way to describe them at this point. On top of all that, through three games we’ve seen some definite signs that those guys are capable of doing more at the NBA level. It was Hernangomez’s sharp shooting that was the key component to the Nuggets victory over LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in their first preseason game and it was Malik’s super hot fourth quarter that proved to be what put Denver over the top in their next two gamesd against the Lakers and the Perth Wildcats. After three games, Malik is shooting 10-13 from three point range.
The Nuggets also have plenty of reason to think Craig and Morris are ready to go as well. Neither are rookies and both played plenty last season either at the NBA level or at the G-League level. Furthermore, neither of those guys came into the league as bright eyed youngsters either. Morris is actually two years older than Murray despite Jamal entering the NBA one year before Morris. Monte played a full four seasons at Iowa State and while the Cyclones aren’t exactly what you would call a college power house, they do play in the Big 12 with high quality teams, and talent, such as Oklahoma, West Virginia and of course one of the most elite college basketball programs of all time: Kansas. Playing against the best players in the country at his level is nothing new to Monte and if his assist to turnover ratio was any indication, he does just fine controlling the pressure. Through three games his play has been outstanding, including a 9 assist against just two turnover effort against the Wildcats on Friday.
Craig of course came on an entirely different path but he’s already shown to be valuable in key moments of NBA games, none more so than his clutch block against Jrue Holiday in the closing moments of a vital game against the New Orleans Pelicans last Spring. Despite his limited NBA experience there has always been reason to believe Craig would be ready for the NBA level. For one, he’s actually pretty long in the tooth relatively speaking when it comes to the Nuggets roster. At 27 almost 28, Craig is actually the fourth oldest player on the team behind Mason Plumlee, Isaiah Thomas and Paul Millsap and though he has only played one season bouncing between the NBA and the G-league, he’s also been playing professional basketball in the NBL in Australia since 2014. As coach Malone puts it “If Torrey can do that, like he’s shown already, he can step in here and flourish.”
Now, this isn’t to say that Denver doesn’t have inexperienced players, they do. Among their 17 man roster they have four players who have yet to play a single minute in the NBA and another, Tyler Lydon, who has played just two minutes in the NBA. In Lydon’s case he has the benefit of a year in the G-league (or most of a year) but in the case of Michael Porter Jr, Jarred Vanderbilt, Tom Welsh and Devaughn Akoon-Purcell they are full out new to the league (Akoon-Purcell has the benefit of playing in the professional league Basketligean in Denmark). Still, no one is looking at these guys and making an argument about their NBA readiness especially considering that Porter Jr and Vanderbilt, the Nuggets two highest draft picks this Summer, are still recovering from injuries that robbed them of big chunks of their collegiate careers.
The silver lining is Denver doesn’t really need to rely on any of these guys, not this season at least. While the Nuggets certainly could use length on the perimeter and the scoring prowess of MPJ, Juancho and Malik’s early play lends to the idea that the Nuggets will be able to get quality play from the small forward position even if Porter Jr is unable to play. Likewise with Vanderbilt, the Nuggets have Lyles, Lydon and Juancho all capable of playing combo forward minutes. Welsh would appear to be more likely to play minutes in the event of an injury, given that Plumlee and Jokic are the only true centers on the roster, but even then the Nuggets have a number of small ball options they could turn to if one of their two centers was unable to go.
That’s really the overarching theme of all of the Nuggets depth, they have some young and more experienced than they look players ready to crack the rotation or fill in when needed, but at the end of the day the Denver is ready for their young core to step up and lead the team as experienced veterans. In years past it was nice to have that Richard Jefferson or Mike Miller in the locker room because Denver was relying heavily on guys like Jokic, Murray and Harris to play big minutes but those guys were also still very inexperienced. That’s not really the case anymore. Jokic, Harris and Murray have proven their ability to produce on the court and the Nuggets have reaffirmed their belief in that by handing out big contracts to Harris and Jokic (Murray will be eligible for an extension next season). These guys, though still relatively young, really aren’t young guys anymore. They are the veterans. Additionally, Millsap is still a vital part of the team and can serve the role of the consistent rock in the locker room. IT is now on board and can serve the role of vocal veteran in the locker room. Despite Denver’s inexperience they have guys like those two to still be the voice of “been there, done that” that the rest of the team lacks, especially when it comes to the playoffs.
Coach Malone probably put it best in his media day press conference when he said “your veterans, guys like Paul, guys like Isaiah; a lot of young, hungry players around them, that’s what makes this team really special and unique.” The Nuggets are in a very special moment in their rebuild, if we can even call it that anymore. They’ve taken the time to take the chance on youth and let it develop, they’ve put veterans around their key young players and they’ve piled up young players on the back end of their roster to give the team a positive long term trajectory. This year truly marks the moment where compiling all those assets and developing those young players should pay off. Denver’s starters will obviously play a big role in that, but their young depth also will be vital to their success.