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NBA Draft Mailbag: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jacob Evans, and other Nuggets targets

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Answering your draft related questions every Friday until the NBA Draft on June 21st.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Texas A&M C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Friday everyone!

Today is the start of a weekly mailbag I will be doing every Friday between now and the NBA Draft on June 21st. Here, all questions are welcome, but generally, I will select a theme of the mailbag, send out a tweet from my Twitter account around Wednesday (@NBABlackburn), and await questions from Denver Nuggets fans. If you want to get in on the action, send me a question or ask something in the comment section. I can’t promise your question will be picked, but it should be a fun way to interact with Nuggets fans and start a dialogue.

With that in mind, the first topic for this mailbag was the NBA Draft, and I had a number of great questions come through that I will do my best to answer. If your question wasn’t selected, that’s okay. I may use it for future articles or do some long form articles surrounding that question.

For now, enjoy this first mailbag pertaining to the Nuggets and the NBA Draft.

“Thoughts on Kevin Knox? How would he fit in Denver?”

- @COSportsSZN

Kevin Knox is a 6’9” forward with a 6’11.75” wingspan. He weighed in at 212.6 pounds at the NBA combine, and given a 4.95 body fat percentage (very low), it’s likely he will be the weight of most small forwards with the height/range of most power forwards. This would be encouraging for the Nuggets. They need players who can match up physically with the tall, versatile wings in their conference: Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Tobias Harris, and soon, Brandon Ingram and Josh Jackson, are some of the premiere and potential threats on the wing that Denver struggles to guard with anyone other than Wilson Chandler.

Chandler has a player option to opt out of his contract this offseason, but even if he does, Denver needs another tall, physical forward who can stay on the floor. Knox could certainly be that guy. 15.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.4 assists on 44.5/34.1/77.4 shooting splits certainly don’t leap off the page for a college prospect, but in Knox’s situation, surrounded by non-shooting threats, it’s not very surprising. Knox was forced to take some extremely tough shots at Kentucky, and in Denver, those shots would become far easier.

There’s a lot of potential for a Knox-to-Denver marriage. The models don’t like them, but it’s hard to put a price on physical tools and youth, while hoping your coaching staff can bring out the best in a player. Only Michael Porter Jr. represents a taller small forward in this draft, and as the NBA playoffs have shown, adding multiple skilled players with height should be at the top of Denver’s priority list. At just 18 years old and turning 19 in August, Knox is one of the youngest players in the draft. If Chandler and Barton decided to leave Denver, it wouldn’t surprise me if Knox would be the starting small forward in Denver by the end of the year.

“Is it reasonable to think we can move up in the draft and select a talent like Michael Porter if he slips to 9? Or maybe Mikal Bridges if he gets in that same draft range?”

- @WC_Buckets

It’s completely reasonable, but here’s why I don’t think it will happen:

The Nuggets have a variety of needs going forward. From a big, versatile wing player (like Porter or Bridges), to a backup point guard with length and playmaking instincts, to long term defensive talent in the front court, Denver isn’t going to solve all of their problems with a single trade. As interesting as it would be to see them make a power move for Porter or Bridges, it’s no guarantee that adding one of those guys gets them a playoff spot. Such is like in the Western Conference.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Missouri vs Florida State Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Also, it takes two to tango. Many of the teams ahead of Denver spent their year tanking for lottery position. It would seem counterproductive to spend that time trying to acquire the best players in the draft only to trade down. There are likely only a couple of teams that may be interested in trading down. The Chicago Bulls at seventh overall really wanted a star piece, but they may look at their roster and realize they have multiple needs and don’t want to take a wing with a seemingly limited ceiling in Bridges when they could find one later in the draft. The New York Knicks at ninth overall also have multiple needs, and if the right player doesn’t fall to them, they may be willing to move down as well to acquire extra assets.

Or, both of those teams just take best player available.

Finally, the Nuggets also need to dump salary to make space for Nikola Jokic’s max deal. Some of those young pieces in Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, and others might be used in other deals to trade down in the draft, not up.

“Which players, if any, would you put in the high-risk/high-potential + likely available at #14 category?”

- @PintDiaries

The three biggest high-risk/high-potential guys likely to be available at 14 are, in my opinion, Kevin Knox, Lonnie Walker, and Zhaire Smith.

Knox is that type of player for reasons listed above.

Walker reminds everyone of Donovan Mitchell physically. A shooting guard prospect measuring at 6’4.5” with a 6’10.25” wingspan, Walker is extremely athletic, posting a 40” vertical and showing off his hops all throughout his freshman year.

Here are Walker and Mitchell in a side-by-side per-40 minute comparison of their freshman seasons:

Player Points/40 Rebounds/40 Assists/40 Steals/40 2P% 3P% FT%
Donovan Mitchell (15-16) 15.5 7.0 3.5 1.7 55.9 25.0 75.4
Lonnie Walker (17-18) 16.6 3.7 2.7 1.4 48.7 34.6 73.8

Interestingly, Mitchell and Walker posted the same True Shooting percentage of 52.7% in these seasons. It’s easy to see why the comparison is being made. I happen to believe that the player closest to Mitchell in this draft isn’t Walker (it’s actually Josh Okogie of Georgia Tech), but the Miami guard still clearly has the athleticism and instincts to be a dynamic threat. He doesn’t quite have the passing instincts, but everything else is moldable.

Finally, Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith put up an incredibly efficient season as the rover in the Motion Offense run by head coach Chris Beard. That worked for the Red Raiders, as Smith posted 11.3 points on a 61.8 TS% in his 28.4 minutes per game. He also filled up the boxscore with rebounds, steals, and blocks, good indicators that solid defense at the college level will carry over to an NBA setting. His biggest question is whether the shot is real, and whether he can handle the basketball. He averaged just 1.8 assists this year, and most of the time, his ball handling responsibility was extremely limited. If he can develop those skills, Smith could very well be the best player in this draft class.

“Why is Robert Williams to Denver at 14 being mentioned? Who is your favorite between Melvin Frazier, Jacob Evans, Keita Bates-Diop, and Caleb Martin and why?”

- @BurnerJuanchos

Robert Williams is an interesting prospect who, as a big man, might be being overlooked by a lot of people. The success that the Houston Rockets are seeing with Clint Capela should lead teams to be interested in Williams. He could be a cheap option as a backup center with the potential to develop into a high impact lob threat and defensive ace. The Nuggets need defense, and he’s one of the better defenders in this class. If he can play with Nikola Jokic and improve the defense without harming the offense in those lineups, he has an avenue to 25 minutes per game for the Nuggets as a replacement for Mason Plumlee.

As for the aforementioned wings/forwards, I would rank them:

  1. Jacob Evans
  2. Melvin Frazier
  3. Keita Bates-Diop
  4. Caleb Martin
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Cincinnati Bearcats vs Nevada Wolf Pack Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Evans is my favorite as a quality two-way wing. He may be a little smaller, but I trust his shooting mechanics to space the floor for Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris. Frazier is an interesting prospect who would improve Denver’s defensive potential drastically. You can take that to the bank.

Bates-Diop used to be one of my favorite prospects, and he still has a lot of room to grow, even as a senior. I think his defensive impact will be solid, but his offensive game will move him to power forward almost permanently, which isn’t great for Denver. Caleb Martin intrigues me. He has great shot making potential. I don’t think Denver can afford to take him in the first round though. He’d be a great second round target.

“Which Canadian, 6’6” PG, from Kentucky should the Nuggets draft at 14?”

- @blaireinfeldt

I received a few questions on the point guard Blair is talking about, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and I will likely use a separate article to go into more detail on why he may be a great fit for Denver.

But lots of Nuggets fans will surely be upset about Denver drafting five guards in the first round in the past five years (Gary Harris, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Gilgeous-Alexander). This isn’t conducive of modern day team building. The Golden State Warriors have multiple guys 6’6 or taller that routinely hurt Denver and the rest of the NBA: Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green. The Boston Celtics are trying to match them with Gordon Hayward (before he went down), Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye, and even Marcus Smart, who plays like he’s 9’2”.

SGA came to the combine at just 3% body fat, meaning it’s unlikely he will put on significantly more weight than the 180 pounds he weighed at the time. That means, like Murray and Harris, he will struggle against bigger wings. That doesn’t mean he can’t be successful, but the Nuggets must recognize that by drafting him, they are either assuming one of Murray or Harris will be gone at some point or that SGA will be a permanent reserve.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Buffalo vs Kentucky Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Now, good teams have good reserves. Look at the Celtics: Hayward and Kyrie Irving are out, so they turned to a bunch of young guys, which turned out to be an excellent idea. The same could happen in Denver, and one of Murray or Harris could sustain an injury. If Murray was injured, I have a hard time seeing Devin Harris or Will Barton next to Harris as a starting backcourt.

I see SGA filling that role though. He would be excellent insurance, as well as have the instincts and versatility to play next to either Murray or Harris, strengthening Denver’s overall roster.

So, would Shai Gilgeous-Alexander be the best player Denver could get at 14? While he certainly could be, the smart money is no. There will be players with a higher ceiling, players that fit better, players that Michael Malone would feel comfortable playing during a playoff race.

If Denver were to draft SGA though, I would assume that he would handle backup PG duties, a position Denver may need filled. That’s big, especially given Denver’s struggles with Jokic on the bench. If SGA could improve the defense at the point of attack, as well as create for others, he would be an excellent pickup for the team. It’s hard to see him being ready immediately though.


That wraps it up for this week’s mailbag. Let me know what you think of this article style, and if you would like to continue seeing it every Friday. Again, it could be solely draft related, or the topics could vary. Whatever the case may be, I hope you enjoyed it!

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