When the Denver Nuggets traded Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez at the deadline this year it was largely a “what’s going out” deal instead of a “what’s coming in” deal. The Nuggets were facing the prospect of losing both Beasley and Juancho in free agency and the clock had run out on making a decision. Instead of risk losing them for nothing with a chance to re-sign, Denver opted to guarantee what return they could for their two former first round picks. The highlight of the package the Nuggets received in return was a late 1st round pick from the Houston Rockets as most everything else was expiring contracts. Everything, that is, except Keita Bates-Diop.
KBD has another year left on his deal, though it is not guaranteed. Given the fact that he’s shown the ability to contribute in regular minutes while at Minnesota and his contract is dirt cheap, I’d say the likelihood of KBD still being a Nugget next season is high. From a contract/cap standpoint, he essentially takes the place of Jarred Vanderbilt, who also went to Minnesota in the Juancho/Malik trade and also had one, non-guaranteed year remaining on his contract. It’s fairly easy to see what the Nuggets thought process might have been in acquiring Bates-Diop. KBD is a three/four vs Vanderbilt who is a 4/5. With the Nuggets lack of depth and size on the wings while also having a bevy of players to play power forward or small ball center, swapping Vanderbilt for Bates-Diop made a lot of sense from a roster construction standpoint as well.
The biggest question remains though, will he play? Minutes for wings was hard to come by this season, even for guys like Beasley and Juancho, and there’s not a ton to make one believe that the 2020-2021 season will be much different. Though Denver risks losing guys like Paul Millsap and Torrey Craig to free agency, Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr appear primed to be the next set of starting forwards on the team with Will Barton still around to fill in a lot of small forward minutes as well. In theory Denver could run with a three forward rotation with just those guys, or perhaps re-sign a guy like Craig and have him play some small forward while keeping MPJ and Grant mostly in the PF position. Point being, Denver’s not so thin at the forwards that losing Millsap or Craig instantly means minutes for KBD.
On the other hand it shouldn’t mean Bates-Diop won’t have his chance. He’s got a fair amount of minutes in Minnesota and isn’t as raw as a guy like Vando. In a lot of ways he fills the Craig role but with more size. KBD’s ridiculous wingspan (7’ 3.25” at the combine) and athleticism at his height give him all the tools to be a perimeter stopper. He’s also shown to be an effective help rim-protector as well. Shutting down the opposition’s top wing while also helping out on defense where he can is what kept Craig in the lineup these past two seasons, if KBD can provide the same with more size there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll find his way into coach Michael Malone’s rotation. Like Craig as well though, whether Bates-Diop stays in the rotation will likely depend on his continued growth on the offensive end, particularly as a shooter.
As a player who didn’t shoot a ton from distance in college, whether or not KBD can evolve into a true “3 and D” player remains the biggest question regarding his long term NBA future. He shot just 25% from three his rookie season, albeit on only 52 attempts. His sophomore stint with the Timberwolves yielded better results, particularly early on when KBD caught fire from outside and was shooting near a 50% clip. He came back down to reality as one might expect but still showed improvement, hitting 33% of ninety-four attempts this season before being traded (he has yet to attempt a three with the Nuggets). Whether or not he can push that to 36%, which is generally right around league average, and stay at that clip will be the biggest factor in him finding minutes. As we have seen, sub-par outside shooting from a wing in particular in the Nikola Jokic offense tends to negate a lot of the gains you might be getting from that player on the other end.
Outside of the, well, outside, KBD has a lot to like on offense from a Nuggets standpoint. He’s a solid off ball player and cuts well which of course works great with Jokic. He’s got a quick first step that allows him to beat slower forwards off the dribble and saw solid growth as a corner threat this season. In many ways he reminds me of a poor man’s Danilo Gallinari which isn’t a bad thing at all. KBD probably isn’t going to reach Gallo levels in terms of offensive efficiency but Denver doesn’t need him to. If he can be the guy who knocks down corner threes, is the benefactor of Jokic’s passing gravity, occasionally takes his man off the dribble and provides lock down defense on the other end then he’ll be in Denver a long time and make a lot of money a long the way.
When training camp starts (whenever that might be) KBD is going to be one of the guys who everyone should be watching. Right now he sits in that no-man’s land of 11th guy in the rotation. Offseason moves could bump him up to somewhere around 9th but he’ll have competition for that spot in the form of Craig (if Denver re-signs him), Vlatko Cancar, P.J. Dozier and potentially a first round pick (plus any other signings the Nuggets might do with their various exceptions). Training camp will be of vital importance to establish himself in the rotation early on, otherwise he’ll have to wait for injury to provide an opportunity. From what we’ve seen from guys like Beasley and Juancho, the latter path doesn’t generally lend to a lot of long term success in a Nuggets uniform.
Ultimately, what we can expect from KBD is another year of figuring out whether or not he’s part of the long term plan. He appears to have a higher floor than Vanderbilt does, but perhaps not as high of a ceiling. That could play well into his future with the Nuggets as they only have the 2020-2021 season to make a bet on whether or not KBD is going to reach that ceiling. If he can continue to develop his outside shot then the likelihood he makes it is much greater. Still, as an unproven player on a team with NBA Finals aspirations, we can expect coach Malone won’t wait long for KBD to “figure it out.” It’ll be up to Bates-Diop in the coming months to make his statement through his play on what we, and the Nuggets, can expect from his future with the team.