When the Denver Nuggets traded Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez to the Minnesota Timberwolves at the 2020 trade deadline nearly six months ago, confusion permeated through the national media regarding Denver’s decision. A young team looking to make the leap to legitimate title contender trading multiple young players? And all they recouped in value was a low 2020 first round pick and some bench players from Minnesota? While that’s insulting to Keita Bates-Diop and Noah Vonleh, both of whom could be rotation players for the Nuggets as soon as next season, the concerns were valid. The Nuggets had a real shot at making some noise in the playoffs, and sending away a talented wing shooter in Beasley seemed counterproductive for Denver’s title odds.
Initially, the thought was that Michael Porter Jr. would fill the void after returning to full health. Though he had an ankle sprain at the time, Porter was coming off a significant stretch of quality play in January, showcasing scoring, shooting, and rebounding talent at 6’10 that made him unique at the forward position. That didn’t play out the way Nuggets fans hoped though, as Porter struggled to regain his footing after the All-Star break and even received a DNP against the Charlotte Hornets in March.
Since the coronavirus pandemic affected everything, I’ve had some time to sit back and think about the Nuggets and the direction they are trending. It’s hard to imagine Denver breaking into the group of elite teams without development from Jamal Murray, who will begin his five year max contract extension in the 2020-21 season. The Nuggets could make another trade, but they sent two of their young players to Minnesota for what projects to be around the 22nd pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, a class that is not projected to have either the top early talent or the extreme depth of the classes around it. Where the Nuggets pick they will likely be looking at role players that have limited upside, though with Denver’s skill at picking later in the draft one should never count them out.
Without a star leap from Porter, there are few ways the Nuggets project to get significantly better than they already are. Whether you are the biggest Porter fan or the biggest Porter skeptic, it’s generally acknowledged that Porter’s future is uncertain. His medical record with multiple back surgeries throws caution to the wind, and his play on the floor is erratic with moments of confusion and total domination mixed together.
As good as Nikola Jokic is, and as good as I think Jamal Murray can be, certain factors must be acknowledged. The majority of Denver’s core rotation has maxed out their expected contribution level, and it’s unlikely that Will Barton, Jerami Grant, Monte Morris, and other members of the roster will reach new heights of contribution. Gary Harris could return to a higher level he previously reached, but beyond him?
Enter Bol Bol.
Bol’s performance during Thursday’s scrimmage (which is basically a preseason game) was something I had not seriously anticipated until earlier this week. We knew he was practicing with the team and getting some good reps in while other players were either sidelined or outside of the Orlando bubble. We did not know how he would fare in 5-on-5 competition. The Nuggets may not have even known, since the bodies in practice were so limited that the Nuggets were forced to play 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 when simulating game situations.
So, imagine my surprise when not only Bol played significant minutes in his first ever NBA action, but also started at small forward with Nikola Jokic at point guard. It was mind-melting. 16 points, 10 rebounds, and six blocks in 32 minutes of play while spending time in a lineup that would put the MonStars to shame.
The gameplay itself? Excellent. The Nuggets played a 2-3 zone and attempted to simplify things for Bol so he could maximize his 7’2 height and 7’9 wingspan. He even put together sequences like this one that showcase why he’s such a tantalizing prospect:
Bol accumulated several blocks in this setting and altered a whole host of shot attempts against the Washington Wizards, utilizing his length, quick jumping ability, and impressive athleticism to cover a surprising amount of ground. He was rarely fooled or faked by pump fakes or up-and-under moves, and as a result, the Nuggets held the Wizards to 36.5% from the field. While Bol was on the floor, the Nuggets had a +18 plus-minus in a seven point victory, which should say a lot about the rookie’s defensive impact.
Were there mistakes? Of course. Missed communications? Many of them. Was Bol impacted by his slender frame at times? Definitely. For his first game action it just doesn’t matter though. He looked every bit the NBA rotation player, and despite this being a short-handed preseason scrimmage, those were NBA players he was facing, not Summer League journeymen. Very few players in the NBA have the capability to do what Bol did in the middle of the floor yesterday, and it speaks to what may yet still come for the 20-year-old.
This doesn’t even acknowledge that some of the best plays of the day for Bol were on the offensive end of the floor, including this defense-to-offense sequence that blew the minds of every viewer collectively.
Not only does Bol have immense physical tools, he also has the shooting touch and handle of a much smaller player. He showcased the capability to do several things in his first minutes on an NBA court ever, and that’s all that matters. Whether he reaches the ceiling some will choose to attach to him remains to be seen, but based purely on skill set alone, he’s extremely unique. The term “unicorn” is consistently thrown around to describe bigs that can shoot the ball offensively and block shots defensively. If Kristaps Porzingis is a unicorn, then a Bol Bol who gets anywhere near his ceiling is a quadricorn. It’s getting him to that ceiling that requires time and effort.
Because while we are getting too far ahead of ourselves with the Bol Bol hype, here’s the most important factor: the Nuggets have yet to find their final form as a team. President of basketball operations Tim Connelly and the Nuggets front office have done a great job of assembling both current and future talent around Nikola Jokic at every juncture. When Jokic became a starter, it was Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, and Wilson Chandler who were the highest profile players around Jokic. Now, it’s Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Paul Millsap who make up Denver’s most important form. As Jokic has evolved into a superstar, the Nuggets have evolved with him, putting together a mix of offensive and defensive talent that will earn a (likely) top 4 seed in the playoffs for two years in a row.
Throughout that period, the Nuggets have continuously taken big swings at prospects with star potential in the draft. In 2016, it was Murray, a sharpshooting wing who the Nuggets converted to point guard to take advantage of Jokic’s primary playmaking skills. In 2017, the Nuggets attempted various trades before efforting (and failing) to get OG Anunoby, who has turned into perhaps the best 1-on-1 defender in the NBA. In 2018, the Nuggets took Porter, an ironclad NBA prospect with a red flag on his health. If Porter works out, he will offer the inside-outside scoring burst the Nuggets need in between Jokic and Murray. Last year, the Nuggets took Bol, a talented but maligned prospect also red flagged for injury. If Bol works out, the Nuggets may have their dream back line defender, a role Paul Millsap has filled admirably for several years with Jokic playing aggressively at the point of attack. With several of Denver’s bigs at the ends of their contracts, correctly picking the next form of Denver as a contender is crucial, and Denver’s latest draft picks will play a huge role.
The ceiling of the Denver Nuggets is certainly not capped at what Jokic and Murray can be anymore. Even though they have moved on from other young players and pieces over the years, they have identified several gems with the chance of being special. Taking big swings on talent has always been a Nuggets special, and it’s what keeps Denver’s potential ceiling as high as any team in the NBA.
Could the Nuggets fall on their faces if things don’t work out with Porter and Bol? You better believe it. The Nuggets have other veteran pieces on the roster right now that will keep the Nuggets in the mix, but getting an impact player out of those rookies would be key on their march to a title. Ultimately though, what matters is the level the star players can reach. Jokic is already there. Murray can join him on All-Star rosters in the next couple of seasons if he progresses well. Porter and Bol are the wildcards. It didn’t take long for Porter to make a national impression, and Bol showcased what he can do in his first NBA action. Those flashes of talent from both men allow Denver options as it builds to hanging a banner in the Pepsi Center. Tim Connelly may be a fan of not skipping steps, but the long legs of Bol Bol and MPJ might make those steps easier.
At the beginning of the season, it would have sounded ridiculous to put so much stock in Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol being great for a Nuggets title contender in the near future. Now? The possibilities are limitless.