“Not a chance.” We all said it, or at least we all thought it right up to the night of June 23rd, 2016. “The Denver Nuggets keep all three first round picks? Not a chance.” Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly was quick to move on from the belief early in his Nuggets career that the 2013 core (Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried) was something he could build a competitive team around. He moved Aron Afflalo at the 2015 trade deadline to the Portland Trail Blazers for a first round pick and a seldom used two guard named Will Barton. Later that summer when things with Lawson became untenable, Connelly traded him to the Houston Rockets for essentially salary filler and a first round pick that was unlikely to convey. The Nuggets started to find a foothold in something new that year with seventh overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay and this surprising second round Euro-stash-turned-NBA-player Nikola Jokic. By season’s end, Denver looked to be a team back on the rise while the unlikely ended up being true. The Rockets struggled but squeaked into the 8th seed and that meant the first-round pick they traded to Denver would in fact convey.
On the night of the 2016 draft though it still seemed so unlikely that the Nuggets would actually use all three first round picks. Who does that? Sure enough - just like the entire season - the draft had unlikely things happen and it was to the benefit of the Nuggets. Everyone knew Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram were going with the top two picks and the draft was billed as a two-player draft; from there it was a matter of fit and preference. Out of Kentucky was this sweet shooting combo guard by the name of Jamal Murray, a perfect fit to bring desperately-needed shooting to a young three guard rotation in Denver, but almost no one had him falling to Denver with seventh pick. Surely, if the Nuggets were going to get Murray they would have to package number seven overall with at least one of their two other first rounders (#15 and #19) to move up and snag him. The draft kicked off just as expected, Simmons went first then Ingram second... but then Jaylen Brown went third. Everyone, I’m talking Bleacher Report, NBA.com, ESPN, I mean everyone had Brown going no higher than number six the day of the draft. That kicked off a fortuitous chain of events that landed the Nuggets the exact player they wanted without giving up any extra assets. It also left them with two first round picks to go in the 2016 NBA draft.
Oh, there was talk of packaging those picks along with a player like Faried to land a star, but Denver was still in full rebuild at this point and coming off of a thirty-three win season. Connelly elected to stack talent instead. First, he relied on his international scouting, the group that had found him NBA players like Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and even Joffrey Lauvergne. That group liked Juancho Hernangomez. He was a sweet shooting forward from Spain, and recently awarded Best Young Player in Liga ACB. He was an unknown to Denver fans but Connelly and team had proven their worth on the international scouting stage enough that no one questioned it. Then Tim continued to mine for value at pick nineteen. He took Malik Beasley, the also sweet shooting and athletic two guard out of Florida State who fell in the draft because he was recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his leg. Murray, Hernangomez, Beasley - it was quite the haul for a team trying to build a new young core.
Despite the fact that the Nuggets were in a rebuild, that rookie year was fairly uneventful for Beasley and Juancho - at least at first. Malik was fully recovered from surgery by the time the season started but was buried on the depth chart behind Murray, Mudiay, Barton, Gary Harris and Jameer Nelson. He racked up some garbage time minutes early on and then spent large chunks of the season playing for the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Beasley ended his rookie year with just twenty-two games played and only averaging seven and a half minutes. Juancho on the other hand spent some time in the G-League as well but also found some early playing time. It was sporadic, but as Gallinari or Wilson Chandler got nicked up Juancho would fill in. It was nothing spectacular; a couple times he’d top double digits but for the most part he was just another guy out there. And then the Warriors game happened.
The Golden State Warriors were coming off a seventy-three win season and added Kevin Durant over the summer. They were without a doubt the best team in the league but that night they ran into a buzz saw in Denver. The day before Valentine’s day, the Nuggets caught fire against Golden State. They scored forty points in the first quarter and thirty-nine in the second, they hit twenty-four threes which tied an NBA record at the time, and Juancho was at the heart of it all. He got the start because Gallo and Chandler were out and had one of those grooves that guys with perfect shooting form can get into. One three after another splashed down from the wing while he threw in a couple nice dunks as well. It was Juancho who hit the twenty-fourth three and it was Juancho who would end up leading the Nuggets in scoring as they pulled off the incredible upset. He’d have a couple of big moments during his Denver career (more than one against the Warriors in fact) but I think every Nuggets fan will remember that game first when it comes to Juancho’s time in a Nuggets uniform.
The sophomore season turned out to be a dud for both Juancho and Beasley. Despite Juancho’s strong Summer playing for the Spanish national team, the Nuggets added three forwards to the roster in free agent Paul Millsap, trade acquisition Trey Lyles and draft pick Tyler Lydon. Juancho would have to compete for playing time but even that was lost when he fell ill with mononucleosis at the very start of the season which kept him out for months. Even when he got back his strength looked completely sapped. He ended up playing just twenty-five games while the 40% three point shooting mark he set as a rookie fell to an abhorrent 28%. Simply put it was a lost year for Juancho. Beasley didn’t have it as bad and in some ways the season was a success. He was still buried on the depth chart like Hernangomez, but the G-League stints were over and he served as long depth. There was a game a month where injuries would get Malik some real playing time. There were no lingering doubts about the surgery now a year and a half removed and Beasley shot decently well when he got the opportunity. He didn’t get a highlight moment like Juancho’s rookie season though. For both guys it was a year that was filled with frustration and hope for a bigger role in the years to come.
That chance came to Beasley in his third season. Mudiay, Nelson, Gallinari and Chandler were all gone by the time the season had started. Yes, the Nuggets had signed Isaiah Thomas and yes Monte Morris and Torrey Craig showed they were NBA level talent but Beasley offered a scoring punch off the bench that was decidedly missing after Barton moved into the starting lineup. The rotation was a bit sporadic as Michael Malone juggled his depth, but Beasley was consistently getting double digit minutes and some nights pushing up into the thirty minute range. Malik had become a major part of the rotation thanks to that shooting (40% from three that season) and athleticism and he finally got his signature game. As good as the Nuggets were at upsetting the Warriors, they were the constant punching bags of the Houston Rockets. James Harden and Clint Capela destroyed Denver with pick and roll after pick and roll. On February 1st, 2019 however, Capela was out and Beasley was on. In a national TV game Malik got the start with Murray and Harris both out. He spent the night destroying the Rockets from three, going five of nine from deep. When he wasn’t burying threes he dunked all over them and finished off his career high thirty-five points with a dunk that spawned the most disrespectful (in a good way) poster in NBA history.
For Juancho, his third season was a solid return from the lost sophomore year. He still struggled to find consistent minutes due to the Nuggets still having a ton of power forwards, but the promise Lyles had shown the season prior seemed to evaporate while Faried and Darrell Arthur were traded in the offseason. The Nuggets had drafted another forward in Michael Porter Jr. but he was on the shelf for the season. From November until about mid January Juancho was a regular part of the rotation, but after struggling to begin 2019 he found his playing time become much more infrequent. By season’s end it seemed as though Hernangomez was out of the rotation entirely and he ended up seeing only garbage time minutes in the playoffs. Somehow he still managed an iconic Nuggets moment with his infamous Juancho-Shimmy in the middle of a blowout in the second round. Despite the ups and downs, the season was progress given how horribly his sophomore season went. Yes it was a disappointing end to the season, but Juancho recovered with another strong showing on the international stage and helped lead Spain to a gold medal in the World Cup. Both he and Beasley looked primed to finally take their place among the permanent rotation in what was coincidentally their contract years.
Hope was high for both at media day with Beasley looking like the backup two guard and Juancho the backup small forward. It didn’t happen that way though. For Juancho he had a hard time overcoming new addition Jerami Grant and with Porter Jr. now healthy the fanbase was salivating at the chance to see what he could do. Craig and Beasley also were competing for minutes on the wing too. All in all it left Juancho getting squeezed. He opened this year with four straight DNP-CDs and he’s spent most of the season trying to find his shot. Malik found a similar story. As Porter Jr. continued to show he was the real deal and as Craig continued to be a viable defensive option to deploy against the leagues best wings, minutes for Beasley became more and more scarce. He started the year in the rotation, then fell out of it. In and out of playing time has been the story for him this year. However the recent injuries to Murray and Harris opened up some time for Malik and he’s scored in double digits in seven of the past ten games. While he hasn’t shot it as well as his breakout season last year, unlike Juancho he’s been able to maintain a level around league average.
The story of Juancho and Malik’s career in Denver is summed up as a tragedy of too much depth. There’s a real chance the Timberwolves are getting a steal here, and if they choose to retain both in the offseason they very well could have found two starters for their future. Throughout their time in Denver though there was always that guy in front of them. Whether it was the combination of Murray, Harris and Barton stopping Malik from getting minutes or the progression of Gallinari/Chandler to Lyles to MPJ holding back Juancho, there just wasn’t enough opportunity for those guys to truly grab hold. I’ll always wonder how different things would be if Juancho didn’t get mono, or if Craig didn’t turn out to be a G-League gem. What happens if MPJ or Murray don’t slide in the draft? So many events could have gone just a little differently and either Juancho or Malik could have ended up as sixth men types for the Nuggets if not starters. Time to figure out if that was a possibility was quickly coming to an end though. Both guys reportedly turned down extension offers prior to the October 21 deadline while Beasley jumped aboard Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports train preparing for restricted free agency.
Ultimately, the play of Porter Jr. more than anyone made both Beasley and Hernangomez expendable, but I do wonder if this is another Nurkic situation. Both these guys have an immense amount of talent and it simply could be a matter of consistent opportunity and room to make mistakes and learn from them to make each blossom. I wish it hadn’t been a team in the division like the Minnesota Timberwolves but on the other hand that somewhat makes me happy. We’ll get to see Malik and Juancho’s careers continue from a pretty close viewing point. Here’s hoping they don’t drop a monster revenge game on us. It didn’t work out for these guys as Nuggets but I’m pulling for them and excited to see them take the next step in Minnesota or wherever they land after the offseason. Thanks for everything Malik and Juancho, you’ll be missed.