Over the next two weeks, the Denver Stiffs staff will preview the 2020-21 Denver Nuggets season in an alternative way. Rather than preview every single player on the roster, Denver Stiffs will ask and answer the 10 most pressing Nuggets questions in the two weeks prior to the season opener on December 23rd.
We hope you enjoy!
The Denver Nuggets added a total of five (five!) rookies to their roster, each with a different path to the NBA. With almost a third of the entire roster comprised of players playing their first year in the NBA one would think the Nuggets will have almost no choice but to play several of their new guys meaningful minutes. Not so fast. The Nuggets effectively built out the deep bench with rookies and while all of them could get called into service, only one is probably slated for minutes right away.
Editor’s note: Bol Bol is technically considered a rookie given that he did not play any NBA minutes last season outside of the bubble. However, this article looks only at the five rookies who were added to the roster in 2020.
Of all five of Denver’s rookies, the one who took the most NBA ready path to the league would be the guy who’s actually been playing top level professional ball almost a decade. Facundo Campazzo is not what you think of when you think of the typical NBA rookie. He’s 29 years old and has a well established international following. He feels like a veteran signing because of his age and experience but this is in fact his first year in the NBA so he is therefore still considered a rookie. Facu did not come to America to ride pine and towel wave. If that was his only option to play in the NBA I’m pretty sure he doesn’t pay a hefty buyout to get out of his multi-million dollar contract with the best team in Europe, Real Madrid. It’s almost certain that Campazzo came to the Nuggets with the understanding that he was going to play. If the rotation of the first preseason game is any indication, fans should expect Facu to run around the twenty minute range as the Nuggets primary backup point guard.
After Campazzo the prospects of a Nuggets rookie getting meaningful playing time becomes a bit more dicey. The guy with the next best shot is probably the player who followed the most traditional path to the NBA. Zeke Nnaji is a one and done prospect out of one of the best basketball schools in America (University of Arizona) and was the Nuggets top selection in the 2020 draft. At pick twenty-two though he’s not expected to make a huge immediate impact, or even get many minutes, as twenty-second overall picks on title contending teams rarely do in their rookie season. Nnaji got some minutes in the end of the first preseason game but appears to be firmly third on the center depth chart behind Nikola Jokic and Isaiah Hartenstein. Barring injury, Nnaji probably isn’t going to get many minutes. That being said, he’s one injury or positive Covid diagnosis to either Nikola or Hartenstein (and perhaps also Denver’s traditional power forwards Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green) away from playing. Zeke looked good in his first NBA action, showing off his shooting stroke and athleticism. If he keeps making the most of his limited opportunities he’ll have a good chance to force Hartenstein out of his rotation spot.
The Nuggets second highest (and only other) draft pick this year was speedy athletic guard R.J. Hampton. Despite being a highly touted prospect in high school, Hampton elected to forgo the college route and instead played one year overseas in the NBL with the New Zealand Breakers. It was a bit of a rocky tour with the Kiwis for RJ and thus his draft stock fell making him available at pick twenty-four where the Nuggets traded up to select him. There’s a lot to like about Hampton in the long term. His athletic and physical tools along with his versatility make his ceiling extremely high as a guard prospect. He is however still quite raw, similar to another former Nuggets pick Emmanuel Mudiay, who likewise spent one year overseas where he played limited games due to injury and therefore entered the NBA as still a fairly raw prospect. Unlike when the Nuggets drafted Mudiay, they are flush with combo guards on the roster and have no reason to rush Hampton into playing time. The Nuggets roster is built around a lot of versatility in the one through three spots. There’s probably six rotation spots to fill those roles available and Denver currently has seven players to fill them ahead of Hampton. So even if, say, Will Barton takes longer to get back from his ailing knee than expected or Gary Harris runs into his traditional ten game injury Hampton still probably isn’t the first guy up off the bench to replace them. With everyone healthy it looks like P.J. Dozier will be the odd wing out of a ten man rotation so Hampton has to get past him before he can even be considered a potential rotation piece on the outside looking in.
The other two rookies the Nuggets have on the roster occupy their two-way contracts. One is the undersized bucket getter who comes out of a solid college program after playing a full four years there. That’s Markus Howard. Howard went undrafted but the Nuggets were quick to sign him after the draft was over. A career 21.6 points per game scorer at Marquette, the twenty-one year old brings deadly outside shooting in a 5’11” frame to the table. Because of his height limitations, Howard is really only able to play as the point guard or next to Jamal Murray so the Nuggets don’t give up too much height on the defensive end and let’s just say I don’t anticipate a ton of shared minutes between the Nuggets max contract guard and their two-way contract guard. Because Howard is also not a traditional point guard there are a number of also non-traditional options in front of him in the event the Nuggets were to have an injury at the one. Barring a COVID outbreak or something crazy like the Magnificent Seven game last season, don’t expect Howard to see the NBA floor.
Lastly there is Greg Whittington. Whittington followed a path to the NBA very similar to Torrey Craig. The former Georgetown Hoya went undrafted in 2015 after leaving Georgetown following an ACL injury and sitting out the entire 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 seasons. He bounced around the G-League for a bit before going to the NBL, then back to the G-League and then eventually making his way over to Europe to play in some of the lower professional leagues there. Last season he was with Galtasaray in Turkey in the BSL. The Nuggets no doubt saw some similarities to Craig in Whittington and elected to bring over the lengthy and energetic forward on a two-way deal to fill out their depth on the roster. Whittington is like Howard in that he is way down on the end of the bench but his versatility to play the four as well as being a big three could potentially afford him some opportunities. After all, Torrey Craig caught on in the NBA because Michael Malone needed someone, anyone, over 6’5” who could defend the perimeter. With Jerami Grant and Craig’s departure Malone finds himself in a similar situation. It’s not likely Whittington gets much minutes, if any this season, but if he shows that defensive prowess there’s always a possibility coach goes to him in certain situations.
All in all Facu is the only rookie I expect to be a consistent part of the Nuggets rotation when everyone is healthy this year. The other guys are either long term projects or emergency depth. However, this year above any other lends itself to emergency depth and long term projects getting meaningful playing time. While the world rushes to vaccinate everyone from COVID-19, the NBA will have to navigate a non-bubble scenario during a pandemic for the first time. It would be foolish to believe the Nuggets won’t at some point deal with some roster availability issues this season. When they do it could very well be the five rookies they end up turning to in the pinch.