The Denver Nuggets have one of the deepest teams in the NBA. They can throw waves and waves of players at opponents, overwhelming teams in the regular season. The post-season is a different animal, though, where depth is less important than top-flight talent. Having one person who can do several different things at a high level is more important than an excess of talented bodies. In a year when Denver’s key to winning the top seed in the West could be its continuity, the real key to the post-season will be whether Jerami Grant can really do everything for the Nuggets.
Grant set career highs in minutes and points last year, but also showed very significant improvements in outside shooting and willingness to score from all levels. He went from an athletic finisher to an all-around talent on both ends of the floor. Denver traded a first round pick for him and in turn received the right to exceed the salary cap to retain him after this season - and to get what they hope is his best year yet.
To be honest, it’s also a bet that the performance Grant put on last year was not an anomaly. Until last year, Grant was flexible on defense but not necessarily plus-rated. He’s fast enough and long enough to defend multiple positions but his defensive ratings were sub-par. Then last year he proved that his part-time work in the 2017-18 season was not an illusion, spending big minutes putting up very good defensive numbers against a variety of positions, while shooting almost 40% from three on nearly 300 attempts. That mark is far and away his best on anything close to that number of shots. Last year Grant put it together on both ends, as a starter, and showed just how much of an asset he can be.
Denver has been playing him off the bench thus far in the preseason but make no mistake: this is an audition to replace Paul Millsap as the lynchpin of Denver’s defense, from someone who might be a significant upgrade from range. Millsap has never been a great distance shooter - Grant is positioning himself as the modern NBA version of Millsap, who can shoot from deep, play the 4 or the 5, and handle all kinds of defensive assignments. Grant is much less of a rebound threat than Millsap, but the Nuggets have one of the better rebounders in the league already in Nikola Jokic. They’re also stacked with tall young rebounders. Grant’s newly-unleashed ability to play perimeter defense will necessitate him leaving the rebounding area. Grabbing boards is not his duty with the Nuggets.
It’s everything else that will help unlock Denver’s potential. If his abilities beyond the arc are legitimate - and they’ve looked quite tempting in the preseason - then it opens the paint up for cutters and penetration in a way that Millsap and Mason Plumlee cannot. It changes the “clog the paint” potential that teams will try to swarm Jokic and prevent Jamal Murray’s path to the basket in the playoffs.
And if Grant can continue to be a plus defender on the perimeter against wings while also manning the helpside block role, that allows Denver several options to field some shut-down defenses with Gary Harris taking the more dangerous primary ball-handler. Denver was one man short in several defensive rotations last year, and a healthy roster this year that can field Harris, Torrey Craig, Grant and Millsap for several minutes at a time would be a new wrinkle for opponents to deal with. Closing in tight games would also be stronger, and might help the Nuggets maintain their high success rate in close games from last season.
Grant is a high-upside bet for this year, and for the long-term. He is not the guy to run the offense through - he can’t pass like Millsap. He hasn’t shown those quick hands for deflections and steals either. But when it comes to athletic finishes at the rim and in transition he can do things that Paul simply cannot any longer. Grant’s weaknesses are covered by other Nuggets members. Denver has passers; they were second in the NBA in assists last year. They are adding two players over 6’9 in Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt who can hit the boards if Grant is out on the perimeter.
But they do not have anyone who can do all the things that Jerami Grant can do. And when the Nuggets get into the second season, his versatility all over the court will give Denver a weapon in a shortened playoff rotation that they were missing last year - and one that can get them into conference finals and beyond.