“He looks like he belongs,” said Michael Malone postgame. “I’ve said it since Summer League: Davon Reed is an NBA player.”
That was last night after the Denver Nuggets 103-100 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. With both teams utilizing heavily injured rosters last night, the closing lineups were far from the vision both teams had heading into the season. For the Nuggets, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, and P.J. Dozier were out among others. For the Clippers, it was Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and Marcus Morris to headline the absences.
So, it was both humorous and regretful that the final possession of the evening came down to Clippers rookie second round pick Brandon Boston Jr. versus Nuggets G League call-up via hardship exception Davon Reed. The Clippers needed a three, and Reed knew it, winning the battle without fouling against Boston and forcing a difficult miss. Great defense won out this time around.
It was a great moment capping off a great evening for Denver’s newest addition to their roster. 15 points on 6-of-8 from the field and 3-of-4 from three paced his impressive scoring performance. He was the third leading scorer on the evening and it took him eight shooting possessions to do so while adding in a steal and a block. He played the entire fourth and defended well across the board. It’s going to be interesting to see whether Reed can build upon this performance going forward.
Except, Reed isn’t a permanent addition. Only temporary. His time with Denver is set to end on December 28th against the Golden State Warriors. That will be the end of his second ten-day contract, after which he will return to the Grand Rapids Gold in the G League. What happens after that point remains to be seen, but it’s pretty clear that Reed has proven he deserves an opportunity as an NBA player. If the Nuggets don’t give him that opportunity soon though, they might be facing him while he wears another NBA jersey later this year.
Many Nuggets fans have compared Davon Reed to another rugged wing player the Nuggets added to their roster as a veteran: Torrey Craig. If Reed managed that outcome for his career, then he would definitely be a success story. Craig is now in his fifth year in the NBA since his first two-way contract with the Nuggets, and he’s gone from fringe roster piece to fringe rotation piece to a mainstay in the Indiana Pacers rotation this season. He signed a two-year deal with the Pacers this past offseason and will have earned $15 million in the NBA in six years. That’s a big deal for Craig, who just turned 31 earlier this month.
Reed is similar to Craig, but there’s also a level of offensive versatility to him that Craig never demonstrated throughout his career. He regularly takes and makes shots off the dribble in the mid-range, confidently sprays threes from all over the court, and has a penchant for making the right pass at the right time.
Through eight games so far this season, Reed is averaging 17.0 minutes, 5.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game. He’s shooting 50.0% from the field and 46.7% from three-point range. It can be difficult to quantify those numbers though, so here’s a better indication of his production:
Only nine NBA players can match those particular per 36 minute averages: Paul George, LaMelo Ball, Kelly Olynyk, Dejounte Murray, DeMarcus Cousins, Thaddeus Young, Xavier Tillman, and curiously, JaMychal Green. Only Cousins can match Reed’s average plus-minus per game output as well.
Reed has been very productive in his limited time. It hasn’t been as a point scorer though. When the situations requires him to be a rebounder, he puts up seven rebounds in 16 minutes of action as the fifth starter in a lineup full of scorers. When the bench has it going from distance and it’s Reed’s job to pass the ball to open shooters, he puts up four assists against the New York Knicks, setting up Zeke Nnaji on multiple occasions. When the starters need a perimeter defender to step up and fight through pick and rolls while doing their job in every coverage, Reed is there to be physical and make hustle plays.
And when it’s time to score, it’s clear that Reed can do that too if given the latitude to do so.
It’s difficult to say whether Reed or the Nuggets needed each other more. Reed had not been in the NBA for a couple seasons, and his first opportunity to showcase himself for the Nuggets came with the Summer League team in August. Beyond the strong impressions left by Bones Hyland during those few games, it was quite clear that Davon Reed was the next most likely to be an NBA player from the way he handled that situation. He hustled all over the floor, made his shots, played an unselfish brand of basketball, and clearly connected with Malone and the Nuggets coaching staff due to his rugged but refined playing style. After that, the Nuggets invited him to training camp and then offered him an Exhibit 10 contract, which basically amounts to a signing bonus if Reed stuck around with Denver’s G League team.
Ever since the 2021-22 season began though, it seems that the Nuggets have needed a player like Reed more than ever. With the initial absence of Jamal Murray and the surprise injury to Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets knew they had to rely upon veteran wing P.J. Dozier early and often. Only, Dozier tore his ACL in November at the very initial stages of what would have been an extensive role, an incredibly sad turn of events.
Since then, the Nuggets struggled to find contributors among the rest of the roster. Markus Howard is too small to match up defensively. Zeke Nnaji and Vlatko Cancar might be too big, depending on the assignment. Bol Bol isn’t solving anything, nor is Petr Cornelie. That’s the entire back end of the Nuggets roster, almost completely incapable of handling most defensive assignments the Nuggets have needed to solve on the wing this past month.
Now, Reed has played and played well. He has a positive plus-minus in six of the eight games he’s played, and the Nuggets are 4-0 in games in which he’s played greater than 15 minutes. Are some of those wins potentially due to spotty competition? Perhaps. Was Reed the biggest reason for Denver’s positive performance in their wins? Probably not.
But the key factor here is his ability to fit in. Reed hasn’t tried to do anything magnificent during his time in Denver, but his willingness to do the important things have helped him contribute to an already established pecking order. Nikola Jokić doesn’t need a lot of help with creative decision making on the part of the offense, but he could certainly use assistance when it comes to finishing cuts, grabbing rebounds, defending the perimeter, and hitting outside shots when the opportunity comes to Reed every now and then. A good role player establishes a baseline of doing the little things, doing them over and over and over again until NBA teams can’t imagine functioning without that player doing it every day. It’s how Monte Morris earned his contract in Denver, how Torrey Craig earned his contract in Indiana. It’s why Jeff Green is still in the NBA at 35 years old. Where would the Denver Nuggets be without Jeff Green?
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Nuggets bench (and overall rotation) cannot survive without whatever it is Reed provides. His defense, his effort, his versatility, his outside shooting, what ever it may be, the Nuggets need it. The problem: it might disappear after December 28th. When that happens, expect multiple teams to call him while offering a hardship exception of their own. Some of those teams might even have an empty roster spot that might interest him more than the next time Denver picks up the phone.
It’s up to Denver to capitalize on what they’ve seen so far, to take care of the player that committed to them as early as this offseason with the intention of earning an NBA contract. Reed is going to play his way into the NBA full-time sooner or later. It just seems like a “when?” rather than a “how?” at this point. How many teams could utilize a wing that’s currently shooting over 40% from three, defends multiple positions well, and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to have an impact on the game? Basically all of them. He’s currently second on the team in steals per game for crying out loud, averaging the 10th highest minutes.
The Nuggets don’t have an open roster spot for Reed, but they certainly have enough players that don’t play or average fewer minutes than Reed already. Bol Bol has struggled to get off the bench for Denver, let alone contribute in a positive way, and is on the final deal of a two-year contract. Vlatko Cancar is on an expiring deal and in his third season on the Nuggets roster without a tangible role. Even Austin Rivers is on a one-year minimum deal with minutes that could entirely disappear once Jamal Murray returns to health. It’s unlikely that any of those players are long for Denver, given the Nuggets financial constraints and the need to find players that can fill suitable roles going forward.
However the Nuggets decide to do it though, it’s on them to make the call to bolster the roster, finding players that can actually contribute to winning. After slow playing the entire rebuild, avoiding skipping steps, avoiding paying the luxury tax, the Nuggets owe Nikola Jokić and the rest of the team the possibility of competing for a championship. If Davon Reed isn’t on the Nuggets by the end of the year because it pushed the Nuggets into the luxury tax, then that’s a pretty disappointing decision for a team that has never been to the NBA Finals in it’s nearly 50-year history. Having the best player in the world should change the calculus, and surrounding him with players that play his brand of basketball should also be a key factor.
For now though, let’s enjoy what may be Reed’s last game in a Nuggets uniform on Tuesday against the Warriors. He will probably have the unenviable task of chasing around Stephen Curry for longer than anyone should.