On draft night in 2016 it seemed almost unthinkable that the Denver Nuggets would use and keep all three of their first round picks, but after the dust had settled, the press conferences had been made and the pizza had been cleared out of the media room at the Pepsi Center, the Nuggets had done exactly that. Armed with the seventh (thank you New York Knicks), fifteenth (thank you Houston Rockets) and nineteenth picks (thank you Portland Trail Blazers) Denver selected, and kept, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley respectively. Two season later Murray is the starting point guard, primed for a break out year that hopefully leads to all-star consideration, but his fellow draft mates have yet to make their mark on the NBA. Now in year three, with the competition in front and behind of them growing, Beasley and Hernangomez face a pivotal season, not only for their careers with the Nuggets, but for their careers period.
The comparison to Murray is really illuminating. Now, make no mistake, Murray was the most talented player of the group drafted, but where Hernangomez and Beasley have struggled to find opportunity, Jamal has kicked the door open on his. While circumstance (aka Emmanuel Mudiay being awful) allowed for Murray to find an opportunity in the rotation earlier than Juancho or Malik, it’s not as if Jamal’s spot in the starting lineup wasn’t earned. After an abysmal first month in the NBA Murray’s minutes dipped, unbeknownst to fans he was also battling two sports hernias. He used neither as an excuse though and pushed through a strong second half of his rookie year. Beasley was unable to produce similar results coming off injury during his rookie season and has yet to crack the rotation. Despite the success, Murray hadn’t earned playing time in his sophomore year and won a training camp battle against Mudiay and Jameer Nelson to secure a starting spot whereas Juancho was unable to build on the strong moments in his rookie season and Spanish national team performance because of illness, resulting in a lost sophomore year. While certainly not all of the adversity is Beasley or Hernagomez’s fault, it’s also telling that they have been unable to triumph over it like their 2016 draft counterpart.
And there is certainly circumstances out of their control that have led to opportunities being slim as well, primarily they’ve been consistently stuck in a log jam. This is most prevalent in Juancho’s situation. When he was drafted, the Nuggets had four forwards in their rotation in Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and Danilo Gallinari who fit similar play styles but were veterans on a young team and heading towards the back end of their contracts. The Nuggets had also spent the last half of the previous season playing the likes of Jakarr Sampson and Axel Toupane in their forward spot due to injuries to Gallinari. At the time it seemed like a natural progression that eventually Juancho would take over one of those players shoes. After a solid rookie campaign Gallinari opted out, Arthur looked spent and Faried seemed to be out of the rotation. Everything was lining up for Juancho to have a real role in coach Malone’s rotation, but then the front office did something odd. They traded for a young forward, drafted two forwards and then signed a clear starting power forward in free agency. They also didn’t jettison any of their veterans. Next thing he knew, Juancho was battling a half dozen other players for minutes. Fast forward a year and the front office has dumped the veterans, but also drafted two more forwards along the way as well. If you’re going off their actions, it looks like there’s little belief that Juancho is a forward of the future for Denver.
Beasley’s case is a bit different. The front office has certainly spent some resources on the Nuggets backcourt, but those have consistently been focused at shoring up the point guard position, not the shooting guard spot. In Beasley’s case he’s simply struggled to prove to be a more valuable player on the court than Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton. Now add Isaiah Thomas to the mix and it looks like once again Beasley will be on the outside looking in. When Beasley was drafted it seemed as though he was truly a best player available selection because unlike the Nuggets forward scenario, their shooting guards were and still are long term pieces who appear to be headed for several more years with the team. Even the small minutes in the rotation for wing players that aren’t occupied by Harris, Murray and Barton haven’t gone to Beasley though. In Malik’s case, it would appear that the coaching staff’s potential lack of belief in him is what’s jeopardizing in his long term fit with Denver. Despite Malik being a first round pick it was Torrey Craig, a 25 year old player who spent the previous season in Australia, that coach Malone turned to when he need help at his swing spot on the wing. Craig earned the role with his defensive effort becuase thats what was needed and that was what was asked of him. Beasley’s skills have been geared more towards offense but it’s the defensive end of the floor where it appears he’ll need to earn the trust of the coaching staff..
Compounding the issue for both Beasley and Hernangomez is the fact that not only are players like Craig and Trey Lyles ahead of them at the edges of the rotation, but they’re in danger of being caught from behind as well. This is especially true in Juancho’s case. After Lyles, it’s likely fair to say that Hernangomez is next in the rotation at the four, but just like the Nuggets front office stacked forwards in front of Juancho, they stacked them behind him as well. First, there’s last year’s first round pick Tyler Lydon. Lydon had a disappointing rookie campaign that ultimately ended with a knee injury and he wasn’t overly impressive at summer league, but he brings a virtually identical size and skill set to the table making keeping both players redundant. More importantly, it’s the other three forwards lining up behind Juancho that truly will push the situation though. First and foremost, Michael Porter Jr has the highest ceiling of any player on the Nuggets, bar none. Bar. None. Porter’s health is likely the determining factor in whether or not he supplants Juancho, but his lack of health might be what ends up getting Juancho replaced by default. With such a high ceiling, the Nuggets brass could end up being willing to wait on MPJ’s health longer than they have to wait on Juancho’s contract. Even if MPJ doesn’t work out, the exact same scenario exacts with fellow rookie Jared Vanderbilt and on top of that, Vlatko Cancar awaits overseas after a stellar summer league and the physique of a cage fighter.
It would seem as though Beasley doesn’t have the same issue, but Denver’s versatility among their guards, Murray in particular, could provide opportunity for other young guards on coach Malone’s bench. Monte Morris is also coming off a stellar summer league performance and he was able to parlay his into a guaranteed NBA contract. Morris is primarily a point guard but because of Murray’s ability to play both guard positions and Barton’s ability to swing from a three to a two, the Nuggets could very easily overcome an injury to one of their shooting guards by promoting Morris rather than Beasley. For example, if Gary Harris were to get injured (something that has happened frequently in the past) Malone may elect to slide Murray to the two guard spot if Isaiah Thomas is playing well, and bring in Morris as the backup point guard. Michael Porter Jr also could pose a threat to Malik’s chances if he’s healthy because Barton likely will take more minutes at shooting guard and less at small forward.
To top it all off, there’s not a whole lot of time to wait, in fact, there’s less than two months. The Nuggets will have until October 31st to make a decision on both Juancho and Malik’s 4th year team options. If Denver declines one or both of them, Malik and/or Juancho would become free agents after this season. It’s fairly rare for a team to decline an option year on a rookie contract, though it does happen with a higher frequency on 4th year options in comparison to 3rd year. Rookie contracts are easily traded and rarely have negative value in the trade market though. One should expect both Beasley and Hernangomez’s options to be picked up but if either of them had a terrible camp and preseason, or suffered a long term injury before the deadline, it’s not entirely out of the question to think the Nuggets might elect to decline their option. Even in the likely event the Nuggets pick up their options it shouldn’t downplay the importance of the upcoming months.
While its true that Malik and Juancho are on the outside looking in when it comes to the rotation, it’s not like they are slotted behind superstars. Neither Craig, nor Lyles is guaranteed a spot in the rotation if last season is any indication. Both saw their minutes fluctuate throughout the season. On Craig’s part that was somewhat to do with the two-way contract rules but his guaranteed NBA contract shouldn’t be perceived as anything more than a guaranteed opportunity at playing time. Both Craig and Lyles could lose their potential rotation spots on camp and preseason performance alone and one has to believe that given Juancho and Malik are the healthiest and most seasoned of the players trying to dethrone Lyles and Craig, they’ll get the first crack at it. Make no mistake, those last two rotation spots are very much up for grabs.
Even if Lyles and Craig hold onto their rotation spots, an injury to pretty much anyone is going to result in the Nuggets leaning on one of Beasley or Hernangomez if they have a strong camp. The Nuggets front office fully shifted out of the Masai Ujiri era this offseason with the trades of Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried. They likewise traded Darrell Arthur and allowed Devin Harris to walk. There’s no more veterans to lean on for coach Malone in the event of an injury. Beasley and Hernangomez are now the de facto veterans on coach’s bench. Unless they let someone pass them from behind, or unless the Nuggets have a ridiculous amount of good luck when it comes to health, Juancho and Malik are going to get their chance.
It’ll be up to them to make the most of it when it comes. While it’s unlikely that either player will hit free agency after this season, it seems almost guaranteed that both of them will after next season which means the clock is still ticking for both the players and the team. If the Nuggets decide that it’s best to move on there’s a good chance they’ll do it at the trade deadline just like last season with Emanuel Mudiay, a third year player at the time. Now, Emmanuel will have to have an outstanding comeback season to save his NBA career. Likewise, the next six months are critical for Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, not only for their time with the Nuggets, but also for their careers as well.