It is a difficult proposition to identify breakout players on the Denver Nuggets with so much continuity on the roster.
Last season, the Nuggets won 54 games and made the second round of the playoffs on the strength of Nikola Jokic as an MVP candidate, Jamal Murray as a capable scorer off the dribble, and egalitarian contributions from the rest of the roster. Paul Millsap was the next most important player as a defensive ace in the starting unit with some capability to create offense for himself and others. Gary Harris had a rough year staying healthy, as did Will Barton, but both players added to the team during the regular season, particularly on defense for Harris and spacing/scoring from Barton.
The real strength of the team came from their depth, with a foundational trio of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, and Mason Plumlee off the bench adding their own skill sets to the team construct. Juancho Hernangomez gave the Nuggets a major lift early in the season with his floor spacing and rebounding, while Torrey Craig offered a major lift late in the year with his 1-on-1 defense, hustle, and hot perimeter shooting.
11 players in all contributed to the primary rotation last year, ten of which are back and rearing to play as many minutes as possible. The lone exception was Trey Lyles, who joined the San Antonio Spurs in the offseason. The Nuggets have two capable replacements for him though in former Oklahoma City Thunder starting power forward Jerami Grant and 2018 first round pick Michael Porter Jr., both of which if healthy will factor into the Nuggets rotation this year. That makes 12 players with Jokic and Murray the only pieces guaranteed to average more than 30 minutes a night going forward.
With 12 players vying for time, and Jarred Vanderbilt and Vlatko Cancar nipping at their heels, it’s difficult to predict breakout candidates. Most breakout players experience a role increase, change teams, or age into becoming a better player. The Nuggets have youth on their side which helps on the internal development side, but there’s only so much progress a player can make in a similarly competitive environment. Change will eventually have to happen for players to radically improve.
Despite the skepticism, some players are set up to improve this year, and those improvements could quickly turn into leaps of their own. A quick note: players who have yet to play extended NBA minutes were excluded from this discussion, which included Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt, and Bol Bol. Now, let’s check in on the five players most likely to made a sizable jump in the 2019-20 season:
I’ve touched on the tangible improvements Murray can make throughout the year, but the truth is, he won’t have an extensive role increase like he has the previous two seasons. He jumped from bench player to starter in Year 2 then from cog in the machine to second option in Year 3. He will remain the second option in Year 4 in all likelihood, but he may shoulder slightly more touches and a larger playmaking responsibility.
The big breakout will come from improvements in his individual efficiency, playmaking, and defense. After dropping from a 57.6% True Shooting number in 2017-18 to 53.9% True Shooting in 2018-19, look for that number to bounce back as Murray grows more accustomed to his offensive role. His reliance on the midrange isn’t a death sentence for efficiency, but if he wants to look more like Stephen Curry, James Harden, or Damian Lillard as a guard superstar, he must alter his shot profile and maximize what he can offer at the most efficient spots on the floor.
Murray has the highest density of shots in the midrange among the guard quartet above, as well as the lowest efficiency in the restricted area and on the right wing. As he continues to age and develop as a scorer, these areas should correct a little. Becoming just slightly more efficient in each of these zones will greatly improve his effectiveness over the length of the regular season. In addition, Curry and Harden in particular are talented scorers, but they also use analytics to their advantage in putting themselves in the best position to score points every possession, or at least frequently enough to be a superstar. If Murray prioritizes three-pointers and layups going forward, his efficiency will almost certainly jump and he will be in consideration for All-Star appearances more frequently as he impacts the Nuggets offense in ways only a superstar guard can.
A breakout for Gary Harris probably doesn’t consist of the statistical increases many NBA fans would consider a breakout, but Harris will have plenty of opportunities to establish himself as the third option offensively behind Jokic and Murray, and if he plays well enough, he has an outside chance to jump to second option status.
The most important factors in Harris achieving breakout status are reaching another level of defensive capability and recovering what made him so dangerous offensively during the previous years of his career. Harris showed exactly how pesky and even overwhelming he can be for opposing guards and wings on defense in the playoffs. Both DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White of the San Antonio Spurs can speak to this, and while neither of those guys are elite offensive options in today’s NBA, they proved burdensome for Denver’s other guards and wings outside of Torrey Craig. Making the leap from solid to All-Defense level in the mold of Marcus Smart or Jrue Holiday would elevate Harris’ profile around the NBA.
I spoke at length on Harris and his shot distribution in a previous mailbag, and with Murray/Jokic controlling the majority of the offense going forward, Harris has an opportunity to focus his on what he’s best at and what the team needs from him. Harris will have some natural regression to the mean on his shooting efficiency if he stays healthy, but the real kicker will be where he takes those shots and how often he can focus his game on layups, threes, and frees. Getting back to a 60.0% True Shooting number on moderate volume changes the narrative for Harris as the third scoring option in Denver.
The list of wing players to post a high true shooting percentage with high caliber defense this past season: Klay Thompson, Danny Green, Malcolm Brogdon, Andre Iguodala, James Harden, and Paul George. Gary Harris joining that group with higher capability on offense than players like Green and Iguodala would put him in a unique tier of wing and certainly constitute a breakout.
Of course, Gary Harris isn’t guaranteed to be the best shooting guard on the roster anymore. After a strong third season from Malik Beasley, there’s no telling what the ceiling for the Florida State product could be. In just his Age 22 season, Beasley made 163 three-pointers while maintaining a 40.2% three-point percentage. Only five players in NBA history matched those achievements in an Age 22 season or prior: Stephen Curry, Ben Gordon, Klay Thompson, Landry Shamet, and Beasley. Lowering the threshold to 150 made threes—a nice round number— adds an additional Curry season, a Kyrie Irving season, and a JR Smith season, all of which are/were considered elite outside shooters for a time.
That version of Malik Beasley could certainly become an elite or borderline elite shooting guard in the NBA today with the addition of some extra skills. For the Nuggets, the most important factor is defensive improvement. Beasley was one of the three worst defenders in the rotation this past year and struggled to maintain focus on his defensive assignments in the playoffs. This should improve with experience, and Beasley possesses the physical tools to become a solid defender; however, if it never does, it’s not a death sentence for his capacity to be a starting shooting guard.
He can also improve by adding some ball skills to his elite off-ball skills. While Beasley ranks in the 93rd percentile scoring on spot ups, the 67th percentile coming off screens, and the 67th percentile on cuts, he sees a substantial drop off in his scoring efficiency on the ball. He ranks in the 45th percentile on hand offs, the 73rd percentile in pick and roll (on just 1.2 possessions per game), and just the 1st percentile in isolation. Very rarely does Beasley create for himself, mostly because that wasn’t his role. If the Nuggets are going to explore his potential and what he can do, they would be wise to figure out just how much ball handling he can learn in his fourth season.
With Beasley becoming a restricted free agent in 2020, the Nuggets must figure out exactly what Beasley can be before giving up on him too soon. If he projects as a high level backup going forward then he probably isn’t a breakout candidate, but if Denver decides to really see what they have in the 22-year-old wing, he may pay them back with a breakout season.
Could the 2019 playoffs be a springboard for a breakout season from Torrey Craig?
It’s not out of the question. Craig performed very well during the playoff run and was a key factor in both playoff series defending the top guards and wings on the Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers rosters. In addition, Craig shot an absurd 17/36 on three-pointers during the postseason, the best percentage on the Nuggets roster and ahead of Beasley, Jokic, Harris, Murray, and Will Barton. It wasn’t perfect, but the jolt of energy Craig offered helped the Nuggets win their first playoff series as a franchise, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Now, heading into the 2019-20 season, the starting small forward job projects to be an open competition, with Barton on the inside track for the starting spot and Porter, Hernangomez, and others nipping at his heels. Perhaps the solution is right in front of Denver’s eyes for the regular season: don’t mess with playoff success. Craig proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered defensively and helped do exactly what the small forward spot needed to do right at that moment. If that carries over, and if Craig continues to develop himself, he might be the best possible option for Denver.
Many forget that Craig played just his second NBA season last year. Though he’s an older player, he’s still getting accustomed to both the NBA and his ultimate role on a team that needs him to be a role player. He has made significant progress as well. His True Shooting rose incrementally from Year 1 to Year 2, as did his defensive stats and metrics. He started 37 games this regular season and 11 playoffs. If he receives a similar opportunity in Year 3, it’s possible that he locks down the starting small forward position by improving again defensively, maybe pushing for an All-Defense team in the process.
I think very highly of Jerami Grant and his possible role on this Nuggets team. With a versatile skill set built to function next to a center like Nikola Jokic who draws a lot of attention, Grant is set up to play next to all three of Jokic, Mason Plumlee, and Paul Millsap at various points in a rotation. All three function as more ball dominant bigs while Grant finds the creases in the defense, and once he finds space, Grant rarely misses. While he doesn’t function as a forward who frequently handles the ball, Grant excelled in a variety of offensive areas in Oklahoma City: transition, post ups, cuts, put backs, and spot ups all ranged from above average to elite in points per possession.
There should be no reason for any of those numbers to regress on a per minute basis in Denver. If anything, he will benefit from a system that allows him to excel in what he’s best at while also developing some skills handling the ball. With Jokic and Plumlee playing at the elbow and top of the key as frequently as they do, Grant will have the freedom to play around the paint, out on the perimeter, and even on the opposite elbow in HORNS sets. His versatility will be a weapon for the Nuggets to use around the floor, and if he can hit outside shots with frequency, look out.
The real key is defense though. If the Nuggets struggle to defend opposing wings with shorter defenders in Torrey Craig and Gary Harris, then Grant is the next man up to combat the small forwards around the Western Conference. From Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to LeBron James to Luka Doncic, Grant projects as one of the best options to slow those players down with his length and agility on the perimeter. He will need some insulation in those matchups, but Denver having an additional option to defend some of the best players on the planet gives them additional championship equity. If Grant proves to be competent in that role and can survive at small forward on occasion, the Nuggets will be in excellent position.
In addition, there’s a very real possibility that Grant plays more minutes than Millsap at power forward this season. If that happens, it likely means Grant took his game to another level or fits with Denver’s core extremely well. Or both.