Michael Porter Jr. isn’t the only player that Denver was pleasantly surprised to find on the board when they made their picks on Thursday night. The Nuggets were also thrilled to find they had a shot at Jarred Vanderbilt early in the second round, so much so that they traded up to guarantee his selection. Later in the second round, on their third selection of the night, they found another gift under the tree in Thomas Welsh, the big man out of UCLA.
“You certainly don’t enter the night expecting to make two picks in the second round.” President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly told the local media in his presser on Thursday night, “We were kind of on the hunt for guys with awkward skill sets. And I think Thomas fits that mold.”
It’s not uncommon for a team to sell their second of the final 30 picks in the draft, especially when it comes all the way down at pick 58. But the Nuggets had worked Welsh out just a week prior and he left positive impressions on the team. When I asked a front office member if they always planned on taking him, he explained that he was definitely their board and they were surprised to find him so late. He was a guy they liked, and at No. 58 he’s the type of long term project that excites a basketball junkie like Tim Connelly.
Welsh is a skilled big man who makes defenses pay for their mental lapses by knocking down open jumpers with ease. Welsh had the benefit of playing with some big time scorers and point guards at UCLA, and he did well to take advantage of any ball watching. If you forget about Welsh, he’s capable of making you pay from the paint all the way out to the arc.
In the first three seasons of his career the display of his feathery touch was limited to mid-range opportunities. But as he acknowledged at his introductory press conference on Friday afternoon, Welsh recognized the importance of stepping back a few feet and expanding his range. After taking just one three point attempt in the first three seasons of his career, Welsh jacked up a surprising 3.4 attempts per game as a senior and he hit on 40 percent of them.
Standing at 7 feet tall and 255 pounds, Welsh possess an NBA body, though the obvious knock here is his strength and athleticism. He isn’t too light for his size, but he’s gangly, and outside of his height he’s not the most imposing center you’ll come across. Welsh will face an uphill battle as he prepares himself for the physicality of playing center in the NBA. According to his comments at Friday’s presser, he’s circled rebounding as a skill he must continue to develop to make the leap.
You’ll notice that Welsh saw a steady increase in rebounds per game over the course of his four year career in college. In his final season with the Bruins, Welsh averaged a double-double, and posted 18 such games on the season—the most by any UCLA player since Kevin Love. Welsh is known for his shooting, but he’s actually the third leading rebounder in team history. The two players ahead of him? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. Strong company.
Welsh is a project and teams rarely expect to find true talent this late in the draft—even Denver. That said, he is a player you might see in those new Nuggets uniforms as early as this season. Nikola Jokic sprained his ankle and missed six games last campaign, that’s where Mason Plumlee came in, but he was the only other true center on the roster. Welsh can be viewed as a potential two-way guy who can plug those leaks when needed.
The team is stacked with bigs, but a lot of their forwards are either scheduled to, or the team has the option to, come off their contracts after the 2018-19 season—which will also be the second of Plumlee’s absurd three year deal. The truth is the Nuggets have virtually zero bigs for the future outside of Jokic. Welsh won’t be a star in this league, but Denver took the first step towards finding a potential back up for Jokic looking down the line. Plumlee is a perfectly adequate back up center, but it’s easier to fill such roles through the draft than free agency, especially if it requires 3 years, $40+MM to get it done.
Like all late second rounders, there’s a real chance that in several years we’ll have forgotten all about Thomas Welsh. But there’s a reason Denver used their pick on him instead of selling it. They believe there’s something there.
We’ll get our first look at Welsh in a professional environment when he suits up for Denver’s Summer League team next month.