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The scoring growth of the Denver Nuggets young core

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How have Denver’s young players grown individually as scorers this season?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Play Type scoring statistics have been released for the 2018-19 NBA season. From Jamal Murray’s growth as a scorer, to Nikola Jokic’s drop off as a spot up shooter, to the emergence of Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, it’s time to check in on the performance of the Denver Nuggets young core.

In this piece, play type statistics for all 10 classifiable play types have been accumulated for Denver’s current young core pieces: Jokic, Murray, Morris, Beasley, Gary Harris, Trey Lyles, and Juancho Hernangomez. Players omitted from here: Torrey Craig for his age (28), and Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, Tyler Lydon, and Thomas Welsh for a lack of playing time.

Let’s see who stands out:

Nikola Jokic

  • Jokic’s versatility is on full display here. Though he doesn’t receive enough handoffs to qualify as a scorer, Jokic averages at least 0.9 possessions per game in all of the other categories. Most notable is his focus as a post scorer with 5.3 possessions per game, but Jokic even operates as a ball handler in the pick and roll, putting himself in the 71st percentile for efficiency.
  • Jokic’s efficiency has taken a major hit on isolations and in spot up situations. It’s unclear if his isolation game was more of a fluke than a major asset, but in the playoffs, scoring on an island is extremely important. In addition, the jump shooting has been a concern. Among 137 players to attempt more than 250 shots outside of 15 feet, Jokic’s effective field goal percentage of 44.7% ranks 14th to last, in the range of some really inefficient shooters. That has to improve.
  • Among all players with 150 post up possessions or more, Jokic ranks 3rd in scoring efficiency, just behind Joel Embiid and DeAndre Ayton (hello there) and ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis. On top of being an excellent playmaker for others in the post, having the ability to score has made Jokic extremely dangerous on the block. This, of course, is essential in a playoff series, as Jokic will be asked to be a fulcrum for Denver when the going gets rough. If Jokic ever finds a matchup where it makes sense to post up, he must continue to do so with authority.

Jamal Murray

  • If Murray’s play type chart looks a bit underwhelming, that’s because it is. I expected a step forward from Murray as a ball handler in the pick and roll and as an isolation scorer, but that hasn’t happened this year. Murray’s only increases this year have come in the form of a jump of 0.82 points per possession in isolation in 2017-18 to 0.83 points per possession in 2018-19, as well as the jump as a PnR roll man.
  • In his 24 possessions as a roll man in the pick and roll, Murray has shot 16/20. This of course has just as much to do with Jokic being a playmaker as it does with Murray being a great finisher, but both have combined to make Denver that much more dangerous with Murray as an off ball threat.
  • Murray has improved as a passer this season, and they will need that in the playoffs, but if Murray cannot score efficiently with the ball in his hands, then the pressure falls almost entirely on Will Barton to make thing happen. Denver needs Murray to show up in a big way, more so than he has thus far.

Gary Harris

  • Throw this season out for Gary Harris. He was nearly green across the board last season, and just hasn’t been healthy or in rhythm for much of the year. It has clearly impacted his burst/lift in transition and as a jump shooter.
  • Surprisingly, Harris’ best trait has been his pick and roll scoring, averaging 1.10 points per possession out of the pick and roll. Among all NBA players to match or exceed his 88 possessions, Harris ranks 4th in the NBA behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bojan Bogdanovic, and JJ Redick, an interesting group. (Monte Morris ranks 6th)
  • Since 2016-17 when Harris averaged 1.6 possessions on cuts per game, his cut possessions have trended down. This could be a combination of the wear and tear of cutting so frequently or defenses simply catching on, but Harris has always been a great cutter. Getting back to simple principles should free up Harris for more dunks and layups as he and Jokic get back onto the same page.

Malik Beasley

  • The fact that Beasley has been so efficient is insane. Fully elite marks scoring in transition, as a pick and roll ball handler, on spot ups, and on cuts. Beasley’s primary role serves as a 3 and D wing, but he has shown the tools necessary to develop into something more than that. Still, even if he only ever does what he has done this season for the rest of his career, he has become a productive player.
  • Denver must continue to involve Beasley in their entire offense though. His game has grown slowly, as he handles the ball in handoff situations and the pick and roll rarely. Still, he has shown a propensity to score in nearly every situation. Let him run with it.

Monte Morris

  • When your only weakness as basically a rookie is that you struggle on isolations, you’re doing pretty well. Monte Morris has excelled in his role in Denver this year, especially as the primary ball handler in the pick and roll. As I mentioned above, Morris is the most efficient pick and roll scorer in the NBA among the players with as many possessions as him.
Monte Morris, immediately awesome.
  • Isaiah Thomas taking pick and roll possessions away from Morris is unfortunate, and something that I think will stop soon. Still, Morris is good enough as a floor spacer and in various other situations to make things work.
  • Between Beasley’s growth and Morris’ emergence, the Nuggets have the best backup backcourt in the NBA. While Murray, Harris, and Barton serve as starters, no team in the NBA has the depth the Nuggets currently utilize. Among all guards to play enough minutes that have started less than 20 games, Morris and Beasley are 1 and 2 in Win Shares, as well as 1 and 3 in Win Shares/48, per Basketball Reference. That’s pretty impressive.

Trey Lyles

  • A lot more red for Trey Lyles this year than last year, and that has surely impacted his standing with Nuggets fans. Being below the 25th percentile in the pick and roll and in spot up situations has changed the collective outlook on him. Lyles’ importance offensively in 2017-18 stemmed from versatility as a threat in the pick and roll, pick and pop, post up, and spot up situations.
  • Among all players to exceed 80 pick and rolls as the roll man this year, Lyles is by far the worst, averaging 0.67 points per possession in the 4th percentile. The next worst is Joel Embiid, averaging 0.89 PPP and in the 20th percentile. On the other end of the spectrum, Mason Plumlee averages 1.45 PPP, best in the NBA.

Juancho Hernangomez

  • As such a low usage player as Juancho is, it’s important to not just be efficient, but extremely efficient. Due to his early season performance, Juancho has masked his issues late this season. Still, it’s imperative to note that Juancho goes as his outside shot goes. He averages nearly as many possessions on spots (2.4 per game) as he does everywhere else (3.3 per game).
  • If Juancho wants to have a place on the Nuggets roster, he needs to become more consistent and expand his game, especially given the porous nature of his defense. Denver will eventually have enough shooters at every position to make things work without his outside shot, but if he adds a post up game or some ball handling skills, they may not have to move on without him.

As the Nuggets continue to age and get better, they rest of the NBA ages too. Some for better (Chicago Bulls, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks) and some for worse (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Toronto Raptors). The Nuggets have struck the proper balance of a young core that is learning on the fly and developing key skills just before they hit their prime together. Between the listed players above (mostly) and the introduction of Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt to the fold next year, the Nuggets have youth for days, and a ceiling that continues to rise.

Currently sitting in second place in the Western Conference, Denver’s young core will determine whether or not the team will be a Finals Contender in the near future. With Jokic as the conductor and Murray, Harris, Beasley, Morris, Porter, and Vanderbilt as the instruments, the Nuggets have the staying power to be a force in the Western Conference for many years.

Will that actually come to pass? Time will tell, and the Nuggets have all of the time in the world.