The Denver Nuggets played the final scrimmage on their schedule this past Monday, losing to the Orlando Magic 114-110. It wasn’t about the score, and there were several important takeaways from the game that should leave Nuggets fans excited.
As a whole, the scrimmages were underwhelming. Bol Bol’s NBA debut was nice to see (more on him later) but without so many rotation players and the entire guard position group for multiple games, it was difficult to grasp onto important data points heading into the games that matter. The Nuggets debuted “Tall Ball” by starting Nikola Jokic at point guard in multiple games, but there will be no Tall Ball in the bubble if Michael Malone can help it.
The third game really pieced some things together though, so, heading into the seeding games, here’s what I learned about the Nuggets over the past week:
Michael Porter Jr. should have a role to play going forward
Independent of some iffy comments made about coronavirus, vaccines, and other topics yesterday, the basketball that Michael Porter Jr. played against the Orlando Magic was some of his best on the season. He appeared physically dominant on the court, dunking several times, out-leaping Magic players, and moving very well and instinctually on the offensive side of the floor. He accumulated 19 points and 7 rebounds in just 20 minutes, and it’s clear that he should be playing big minutes in almost every situation.
Defensively, Porter was a minus. His rotations were late, and he struggled to stay connected to plays that developed deep into the possession. Him maintaining focus on that end of the floor could be the difference between him playing 20+ minutes a night during the postseason or not playing at all.
But if he puts it all together, he gives the Nuggets a new dimension to their team that has eluded them for so long. The Nuggets aren’t a physically dominant team by any stretch of the word, but Porter can be a physically dominant player. His height at 6’10 and a rare combination of athleticism and mobility is something teams salivate over in NBA Draft war rooms. Combine that with his shooting touch and execution from all over the floor, and he has a high ceiling for impact in a playoff series.
He has to earn his minutes to get to that point though, and it won’t be easy.
Bol Bol has an NBA future, maybe a star future
I wasn’t expecting to write a lot about Bol Bol this season, but the last week has changed my perception of what he can be in a Nuggets uniform going forward. Sure, he started at small forward in two if the games and played backup power forward in the other, but his ability to generate perimeter shots for himself was very impressive.
We knew he was a shooter though. The question was how impactful he would be on the defensive end. He blocked nine shots in three games, stayed reasonably mobile on the floor, and completed altered how the Washington Wizards played offense in his first NBA game. He still has a long ways to go in that end, but the skills and instincts he flashed on both ends were very impressive.
Will he play in Denver’s seeding games and the playoffs? Probably not. As Denver’s rotation returns to full strength, that probably doesn’t leave a lot of time for Bol. Despite that, he proved that given more time in the offseason to build up his body, get familiar with the offensive and defensive concepts, and for the Nuggets to figure out how best to utilize him, Bol has an NBA future. I hope it’s with the Nuggets. He’s very fun to root for, and his skill set at 7’2 is extremely unique.
Jerami Grant at small forward CAN work
It isn’t a natural fit, but Jerami Grant made playing small forward work for him against the Orlando Magic. He had 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, 2 rebounds, and 1 assist in 23 minutes on Monday. He did have two turnovers but also added two blocks to his tally. Most important though: the Nuggets were +7 with Grant on the court exclusively at small forward.
Offensively, Grant was certainly a role player, but he found offense and was efficient in his opportunities. He posted up Evan Fournier for an easy basket early in the game, and he made a corner three off a cross-court pass from Nikola Jokic. Defensively, he rotated over for help side blocks against Nikola Vucevic and DJ Augustin, but his overall defensive impact was negated by his primary matchup. He spent most of his time on James Ennis and Gary Clark, and neither of those guys was a creator off the dribble. As a result, Grant’s best skill of on-ball defense was lost in the shuffle.
If the Nuggets are going to deploy lineups that include Grant at the 3, Grant should be defending the opposing team’s primary ball handler (or at least secondary ball handler). His mobility and length allows him to cover so much ground, and stationing him in the corner against a stretch four lowers the value of that skill. There are many playmaking forwards the Nuggets will play during their seeding games (Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Pascal Siakam) and Grant’s value at the 3 may peak in those games due to that unique skill set.
The game is evolving, but the Nuggets still need guards
Small ball took the league by storm over the past several years, but what really happened was teams trying to come to grips with the most talented team of all time. The Golden State Warriors that featured Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala were the most skilled, versatile, and explosive team to ever come together. Some teams were close to defeating them like the Houston Rockets with Chris Paul and James Harden. The Toronto Raptors beat them in the Finals last year, but Kevin Durant was out for the majority of the series and Klay Thompson tore his ACL to seal the deal.
The Nuggets rolled out their tall ball lineup last week with Nikola Jokic at point guard, Bol Bol playing small forward, Mason Plumlee at center, and Jerami Grant and Paul Millsap on the court too. It had some potential, and with Porter out there in place of Plumlee to add additional spacing, it looks more like a true NBA lineup, just taller. Still, the Nuggets racked up 67 turnovers in three games during this preseason, and without a true ball handler on the floor, those turnovers accumulate in bunches.
Jamal Murray’s presence on the floor helped against Orlando, as did Will Barton’s 18 minutes. Without a backup point guard though, the Nuggets had no idea what to do offensively when Denver’s starters left the floor. Monte Morris’ presence was sorely missed as the facilitator and low-mistake player the Nuggets needed. Gary Harris’ perimeter defense was also missed as the Nuggets shot nearly 50% from three against the Nuggets, a common theme in Denver’s last two scrimmage games.
The Nuggets are getting closer and closer to rolling out some really fun, really big lineups going forward. With Porter and Bol showcasing their perimeter talents, it’s possible that lineups featuring those two next to Jokic in the front court could happen as soon as next season. As long as Murray or Morris are out there to get the Nuggets into the sets they need, there’s potential for the Nuggets to get crazy. Jerami Grant as the 6’9 shooting guard isn’t impossible either. Not with that much dynamic size, shooting, and athleticism on the floor at once.
Jamal Murray could be ready for a special performance in Orlando
It’s tough not to overreact to impressive scrimmage plays, but Jamal Murray had one of his best performances of the year in his first scrimmage on Monday night. His 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting were very impressive, as was the 3-of-6 from three point range. Most important though was the way he looked and moved on the floor. It’s clear he’s put on some muscle during quarantine, and for the first time in a long time, Murray appears legitimately quick and agile for his position.
He was slashing to the lane in transition, cutting off drives on defense, moving the ball with quickness, and moving decisively himself. The threat of him getting to the basket opened up his three-pointer, and his willingness to take that shot with confidence changed his entire shot profile. Had he played 36 minutes out there, I wouldn’t be surprised if the 23 points he had turned to 40 real quick.
NIkola Jokic is going to be dominant because he’s that level of player. The other Nuggets starters and important reserves are going to be solid as well. What elevates the Nuggets over the top is if Murray’s play moves from solid to special. He’s flirted with that level on several occasions, and when he hits it, he’s one of the most fun players to watch. Hitting that level with consistency will be Murray’s biggest test, and if he raises the bar, Denver’s entire bar as a team raises as well.
The Nuggets need the All-Star leap from Murray right now. If they get it, look out. This team is going to be special.