With the 2019-20 NBA season on the edge of cancellation, it’s time to look forward at what the Denver Nuggets will be next season. While major rotation players are usually the focus for fans, the entire NBA roster is important when it comes to winning a championship, from the star player to the bench warmer.
Every Wednesday, Denver Stiffs will take a look at one bench player that barely played for the Nuggets this season. The Nuggets had a stacked rotation throughout 2019-20, leaving limited opportunities for end-of-bench players to make an impact on the floor. Still, with many Nuggets players on expiring contracts, end-of-bench players could suddenly find themselves with a regular role in the rotation as soon as next season.
The Nuggets have five players on the end of their bench that are 25 years old or younger: PJ Dozier, Keita Bates-Diop, Vlatko Cancar, Noah Vonleh, and Bol Bol. Could any of them be an impactful member of the Nuggets organization going forward?
This week, let’s start with PJ Dozier.
Dozier’s role during the 2019-20 season
PJ Dozier was a late addition to the Nuggets roster before the start of the season. In the middle of August, the Nuggets decided to add Dozier on a training camp deal, an opportunity for Dozier to prove himself worthy of an NBA contract on the Nuggets or with another NBA team going forward. As it turned out, it was the Nuggets who were most impressed with him during training camp and in preseason, and in mid October, the Nuggets and Dozier agreed to a two-way contract for the length of the 2019-20 season.
For the first three months of the season, Dozier spent almost all of his time in the G-League with the Windy City Bulls, and he was impressive. In 18 games, Dozier averaged 21.4 points, 7.7 assists, and 7.7 rebounds per game, showcasing a versatile skillset with the ball in his hands. The Nuggets were impressed with Dozier, but with Jamal Murray and Monte Morris soaking up all of the point guard minutes, that skillset wasn’t needed.
Then, when Dozier was called up to the Nuggets for injury insurance purposes in mid January, Jamal Murray sprained his ankle during the second quarter of a game against the Charlotte Hornets on January 15th. That was the chance Dozier needed to show he belonged at the NBA level, and he looked great.
12 points on 5-of-7 shooting to go along with four rebounds and two assists for the South Carolina product, but it wasn’t just his production that showed me right then and there that he was an NBA player. I was at the game, and to see how comfortable he was in his first game of the year with the Nuggets, coming off the bench in the middle of the third quarter, was extremely impressive. The physical tools were on display on both ends, but the ability to read the court and make the simple play was what stood out most.
After that game, Dozier remained in the rotation for 14 of the next 15 games heading into the All-Star break. Even when Jamal Murray returned, Dozier remained in the rotation because Will Barton went down with his own injury issues. Dozier transitioned from backup point guard to backup shooting guard, sometimes even playing next to both Murray and Monte Morris in a three-guard lineup.
In the 15 games that Dozier played a regular role off the bench before the All-Star break, the Nuggets posted an 11-4 record, primarily due to the excellent work of Murray and Nikola Jokic, but also because several players like Dozier stepped up. During that stretch, the Nuggets had a total plus-minus of +4 with Dozier on the floor. He wasn’t a negative while he was out there, an encouraging number for a player on a two-way contract.
After the All-Star break, Dozier’s role devolved into garbage time minutes with every guard/wing available to play. Dozier played just 12 total minutes across six games and shot poorly during garbage time. His season was basically done when Denver’s roster got back to full strength, but not before he had showcasing an NBA skillset the Nuggets would be wise to cultivate for future seasons.
What to expect from Dozier going forward
Because Dozier was on a two-way contract during 2019-20, he will be a restricted free agent heading into 2020 free agency this summer (hopefully). With the Nuggets currently tied to Jamal Murray on a max contract, Gary Harris and Will Barton on significant deals, and Monte Morris heading into the last year of a cheap contract, I would be surprised if locking up Dozier was a major priority for the Nuggets. He doesn’t ever figure to play a large role for the Nuggets while the above group of four players remains intact.
However, the Nuggets must remain forward thinking, and as other elements of their roster become more expensive, keeping players around that can fill a necessary role for a lower price could be the difference between winning and losing a championship. While Dozier isn’t a better shooter or passer or scorer than any of the players ahead of him, he has the potential to be the best perimeter defender on the roster.
What people don’t remember about the time when Michael Porter Jr. absolutely dropped Khris Middleton to the floor earlier this year: PJ Dozier started the play by stripping Eric Bledsoe cleanly on a drive to the rim. His long arms and defensive awareness allow for Dozier to be in great position to make these kinds of plays. Torrey Craig is the only other player the Nuggets have that can harass a guard with length and strength, as opposed to lightning quickness like Gary Harris.
I mean, look at Dozier helping off Rudy Gobert from the dunker spot in transition to block Emmanuel Mudiay at the rim. That’s a play a power forward or center makes. Dozier is a ball handling guard, but at 6-foot-6 with long arms, he can make those kinds of physical plays necessary for negating passing lanes and playing switching basketball.
It’s a small sample size, but there were only 11 other guards in the NBA who could match Dozier’s steal and block rates this season on his limited minutes. These were players like Josh Richardson, Mikal Bridges, Jrue Holiday, and Matisse Thybulle among the ones to play significant time, and David Nwaba, Edmond Sumner, and Shaquille Harrison among players like Dozier. Those are lengthy perimeter players, some looking to break into NBA circles, and some already there and thriving as perimeter defenders.
Is that potential enough to justify offering Dozier a fully guaranteed contract? I think so.
It’s very possible that what Dozier put on tape during this past year was nothing more than a flash bulb moment. Almost all NBA players have those moments, but what distinguishes rotation players from garbage time players is how consistently those flash bulb moments become. Dozier played reasonably well for 15 games, and that was it. It’s fair to wonder whether he can do the same thing for a full season, whether it makes sense for a team competing for a championship should invest resources in finding out.
I’m of the opinion that Dozier is worth the money though. He has NBA skills that need time and repetition to develop, but if what he does every now and then can become more consistent, that player can help the Nuggets as soon as next season.
I’m reminded of the Toronto Raptors championship run when thinking about filling the end of the bench with young players that could potentially help the team. With Monte Morris and Dozier specifically, I am reminded of Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, two talented point guard prospects who helped Toronto’s bench. The Raptors eventually traded Wright as part of a trade deadline package for Marc Gasol, but because they had invested and cultivated Wright’s talent, they were able to flip him into a piece that helped the Raptors get past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers and win a championship last season.
Could Dozier be Denver’s Delon Wright? A point guard prospect off the bench that adds length, versatility, and athleticism to the backcourt before the Nuggets ultimately decide whether they want to keep their version of VanVleet (Morris) around long term? That feels like a bar Dozier could meet. Wright averaged 18 minutes per game off the bench for the Raptors in 2018-19 as a versatile facilitator and defender before being traded. I could see Dozier hitting those marks if given the opportunity.
In the event that the Nuggets decide to move one of Harris or Barton, they may already have a good candidate for backup shooting guard minutes next to Morris next year. Dozier has a different skill set than Malik Beasley and other traditional shooting guards, but that skill set could make the Nuggets better defensively in future seasons.
Remember, Dozier is only 23 years old. He was a project player when discussing his potential during the 2017 NBA Draft, and in the three years since that draft, he has had the time to develop his skills in the G League and in spot minutes off the bench. This is right around the time where he may start showing his true potential.
The Nuggets would be wise to invest on the ground floor and hope Dozier takes it from there.