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Sixth Man: Denver's early standouts so far this season

The Nuggets begin the season a modest 2-2 and some have displayed the improvements they built upon from last year. Here are the three names I noticed so far

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Nikola Jokic

Well I think we can all take a deep breath knowing Nikola Jokic’s injury is onkly a knee contusion. It seemed a lot worse as it could have been but it looks like he will not miss significant time.

As for his play so far this seaon, I know this might come as a complete shock but Nikola Jokic has been the standout. So far, he’s top 10 in the league in points per game at 28 and he also stands second in rebounding at 16.5 a game. He’s shooting 64% from the field which is incredible and 33% from three which is modest but he will increase that number throughout the season. He has been the rock the Nuggets need him to be and although his assists numbers are down, he is clearly being more aggressive in getting his shot.

This is a good example of Jokic being aggressive late in the game when they need him the most. If Denver misses this opportunity, it gives the Suns a chance to dwindle the lead to six and it gets their crowd back into the game. Instead, Jokic does what greats do and quiets the crowd as the intensity increases.

The reason why I say this is an aggressive move is because Jokic is open for three here. It’s not a bad shot if he takes that opportunity but he wants to make sure they get a bucket here so he’s gonna drive inside the three-point line. Jokic has one of the best shot fakes in the game and it works enough here to offer him a driving lane to the right side of the basket. As he drives, he sees Paul help and you may not think Paul under the basket is a big deal but if he gets doubled by Ayton and Paul that’s a problem. Ayton has the size to hinder any shot and Paul has the quickness to reach and get a steal. Jokic recognizes this and fakes towards the free-throw line and once he does this Paul retreats. He knew Paul would retreat so he turns back towards the right side of the line, gives Ayton a little chicken wing elbow to create more space, and hits the shot because he’s got the best touch in the league.

I could analyze Jokic's film all day because he is one of the most cerebral players I’ve ever witnessed. He sees the play before it happens and knows exactly what the defense will do before they even know. He gets better as each season progresses and this year I think he has been an absolute monster on the glass as well. He does not get enough credit for how great of a rebounder he is. People think because he’s a big seven-footer he should automatically average ten boards a game but that's not true. Rebounding takes intellect, strength, and determination. Jokic predicts where the ball will bounce, he positions himself where he needs to be, and fights off defenders with his strong lower half.

He continues to play at an MVP pace but if there is one aspect to his game that needs work, it is the turnovers. He is committing way too many turnovers and it definitely hurt Denver against Cleveland. He turned it over five times in the first quarter and it set the tone for the rest of the team as they turned it over 22 times. He’s averaging five turnovers a game right now and his assist to turnover ratio is 0.8 which means every time he gets an assist he is committing a turnover. He’s far too smart and talented of a passer for these numbers and they should decrease throughout the season but right now, that is keeping him from playing A+ basketball.

Will Barton

Will told us before the season that he feels as healthy as he ever has and by the looks of it, he wasn’t kidding. He noted he hasn't had a full offseason to train due to his injuries and this was the first offseason in years he could really dive into improving his craft. He is filling up the box score this season and is second on the team in assists with four a game. His playmaking skills seemed to have improved and so have his turnovers so far. His assists to turnover ratio is 6/1, which again would mean he has 6 assists for every turnover.

As for scoring, he isn’t putting up incredible numbers but he is exactly where Denver needs him to be. They need him to get about 15 a night and he’s right there with 14.7 a game while shooting 50% from the floor and 44% from three. He’s also pounding the glass with 5 rebounds a game which has not usually been his forte. He’s been a great leader for this group so far setting the example, playing 32 minutes a night and executing throughout those minutes.

This is how you know Barton is on and it is exactly why we call him “Thrill.” The Nuggets are going to get out in transition here after Barton gives a good contest for a Booker missed three. It’s dangerous at times to run down the court before you secure the rebound but that’s what Denver likes to do because of Jokic’s long passes and it is what Barton will do here. Hes’ going to camp in the corner as Monte drives down the center of the lane which is textbook fastbreak 101. What I love is the decision-making from Barton here. He has an open three but Bridges is sprinting to the corner about to give a good contest, so he gives a subtle shot faking leaving Bridges in the dust. At that point, the paint is not open all that much. Crowder who is a physical defender is camped under the basket and Ayton is right there as well. Barton stays aggressive and doesn't panic. He knows Crowder is going to go straight up because he doesn't want a foul called on him so Barton moves the ball to his left side, and then acrobatically circles back to his right hand, why? Because he’s the Thrill.

So far, I’ve absolutely loved Barton’s game this season and I think his play will only get better as long as he stays healthy. He’s a crucial piece for Denver to withstand adversity during the season and in the playoffs. As of now, if Jokic is doubled I trust Barton more than anyone on the floor to hit a clutch shot. We may be seeing the tip of the iceberg in what could be Barton’s best season yet, let’s just hope he stays healthy.

PJ Dozier

This is what I love about the game of basketball. You can look at PJ’s PPG and see 6 points and immediately think he’s playing awful when in fact, I think he’s playing some of the most controlled, confident basketball of his career. His last couple games have not been his best but I still think he is showing early signs of improvment. The reason the numbers aren’t showing it, is because he isn't getting a lot of shot attempts but when he does, he is stepping right into them without hesitation. I think his catch-and-shoot perimeter game has dramatically improved. It seems to me, where I think he has grown the most confidence from last year.

In the past, PJ has played a bit out of control, turning the ball over, and forcing unnecessary shots inside the paint. This year, I do not see that near a much. His assist to turnover ratio is 5/1 which is second-best on the team and he is averaging 0.3 turnovers per game. His defense has always been solid and it is proving to be much of the same this season. He has a great ability to shuffle his feet and keeping his chest in front of the opponent, and Denver will need that every night out of him.

The opportunities will come. I think Malone has and will recognize the strides PJ has made and will draw up more opportunities for him. In terms of 3P%, Dozier has been Denver’s best shooter at 50% which is a dramatic improvement from 32% a year ago. No, he most likely will not continue to shoot 50% but it is evident he worked on his game in the offseason, and he might be Denver’s most integral bench piece.

This is just a fantastic possession from PJ here. He sees the Jokic shot so he positions himself in the paint, but once the rebound doesn't come his way he doesn't give up on the play. He knows MPJ can’t secure a contested rebound to save his life, so he sticks with the play, attacks JaVale McGee since he is not a ball-handler, and comes up with the steal. Old PJ might come up with this steal, hurry to the three-point line and miss this open three but he’s a cool customer this season. He doesn’t panic, steps into the three in a very controlled fashion (right foot then left), and gets effective lift from his bottom half to facilitate the power in that jumper.

I really would love to see him get more opportunities within the offense because I think he’s a hell of a talent. He’s smooth, strong, and has now seemed to develop that jump shot. Whether it’s more back cuts to the rim or catch-and-shoot opportunities, I think he can help carry this bench unit while Jokic is off the floor. Given more opportunities, look for Dozier to have a career year this season.