Always great to answer mailbag questions after a big win! The Denver Nuggets broke their losing streak with an all-around thrashing of the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday night, and the young guys were the story. Let’s talk about them:
Is this a turning point in the season or just a win against the Cavs?— Vernon Melton (@OliverMelton8) February 11, 2021
I won’t pretend that a win against the Cavs is going to fix all of Denver’s problems. They have short and long term concerns matching up with high quality offenses with elite forwards. Nothing about tonight going against the Cavs forward rotation of Isaac Okoro, Taurean Prince, Cedi Osman, and some Jarrett Allen playing power forward next to Andre Drummond is going to really change that.
However, there were noticeable differences in Denver’s energy, attentiveness, and poise throughout the game. I noted pregame that the Nuggets had changed their pregame shooting drills, focusing more on team layup lines and less on individual free-for-all shootarounds. In the first quarter and second quarter, every player that stepped on the floor made a positive contribution and contributed the right way. To begin the third quarter, Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić inbounded the ball and sprinted up the floor together. There was a level of focus on the details and ramifications that hadn’t been there during the losing streak. Hell, it hasn’t been there all season.
So, will this game turn things around? I don’t know. It’s a good start though, and a good reminder of the caliber of team the Nuggets can be when they’re functioning at a high level.
How in the hell is Michael Malone going to put Zeke Nnaji back on the bench after tonight?— tyler (@tylerrrnorton) February 11, 2021
Outside of the starters looking cohesive throughout the entire game and Denver exercising some third quarter demons, the big story of the game tonight was Zeke Nnaji. The 20-year-old rookie big man out of Arizona received his first significant minutes tonight and didn’t waste the opportunity. He scored all 14 of his points in the fourth quarter, 12 of which came on three-point jumpers either out of pick and pop sets or spot up opportunities. He even ran off a baseline screen to get a three that missed. He also had a runout poster dunk on a fast break for which he received a technical for celebrating, but it was all good vibes despite the violation. He played incredibly well in his extended minutes.
Beyond Jokić, Paul Millsap, and JaMychal Green, the Nuggets have struggled to figure out that fourth big man spot all season. Isaiah Hartenstein has received most of the opportunities, while Bol Bol and Vlatko Čančar have each had spot opportunities of their own. With Michael Porter Jr. in the starting lineup and playing the majority of his minutes at small forward, it appears that the Nuggets may be looking for another bench big to fill the void in their rotation.
Why couldn’t it be Zeke Nnaji? Denver has tried and had little success with their other options. Nnaji may have benefitted from facing a weak Cavs opponent, but I’d bet money that he stays in the rotation at least for next game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.
Who is your player comparison for Zeke Nnaji? I know we’ve only seen a small sample size but I’m curious. And do you think Denver would have any interest in bringing in someone like Oladipo or do you think that takes too many touches away from Murray and Porter?— David St. Clair (@DavidSt24) February 11, 2021
Second question first: frankly, Victor Oladipo isn’t a better basketball player than Will Barton right now. Gary Harris was also bouncing back before dealing with another core injury. In trading for Oladipo, Denver wouldn’t be getting significantly better, healthier, bigger, or really anything of note that they might get with Harris and Barton in tow right now. If the goal of the team is to get Michael Porter Jr. more shot attempts and more involved with the offense, adding Oladipo to the mix is incredibly counterproductive.
Now, back to Zeke. In the Denver Stiffs group chat, we’ve thrown some comparisons out there to former and current Nuggets: Nnaji has elements in his game from all three of Paul Millsap, JaMychal Green, and Darrell Arthur. A jump shooting big man that can rebound, slide his feet defensively, and fit into whatever the team has going on at that point. That feels like a player type that Nnaji could become over the next year or two. Denver has had plenty of success surrounding Jokić with power forwards that can space the floor and rebound. Nnaji has a bright future for the Nuggets if he can do both of those things while being solid defensively.
Murray-Harris-Porter-Milsap-Jokic— Jay Will (@Royaltooreal) February 11, 2021
Is this the 10 man rotation against the elite teams?
For my money, this is probably Denver’s best group going against good teams due to the versatility of PJ Dozier, Zeke Nnaji, and JaMychal Green. All know how to play solid positional defense while affording Denver the ability to switch defensively due to a solid mix of athleticism. That will aid Denver when trying to survive against athletic teams that execute offense well.
The real question is whether that starting lineup can hold up well enough. We’ve only seen that group in five total games, but it’s still Denver’s second most utilized lineup and wasn’t very good in the minutes it played together. Could that be due to early season woes? Possibly. Is it possible that the lineup isn’t great? Also possible. The only way to find out is to play it more.
I don’t think Facundo Campazzo and Isaiah Hartenstein are part of Denver’s best groups due to lack of positional versatility. I also wouldn’t mind seeing R.J. Hampton get another crack at things with that second unit given his ability to close ground defensively and put some energy into the offense with his athleticism and burst. But for now, I do think you’re right. The two groups above make the most sense at this stage.
Do Hampton and Nnaji see minutes when Harris and Dozier return?— Alan Williams (@StoneBoneJr) February 11, 2021
It’s all to do with how the Nuggets handle their starting lineup. I suspect that Michael Porter Jr. will stay in the starting group if he can find his rhythm over the next few games, which means one of Harris or Barton would slide to the bench unit (most likely Barton). If that’s the case, then I believe Nnaji has the better chance to stay in the rotation over Hampton.
If things go the other way around and Porter moves to the bench in favor of keeping the starting unit static, Denver would likely use Porter as the bench power forward while surrounding him and Green with three guards. At that point, Hampton is more likely to stay in the lineup than Nnaji, but it would mean picking Hampton to play over one of Campazzo or Dozier.
Both Hampton and Nnaji have proven they can handle at least an addition look at rotation minutes, Hampton with his play over the last few games and Nnaji with his performance Wednesday night. Both will be situational options, and I doubt either would see significant time in a playoff environment; however, now is the time to give them an opportunity to develop, especially when other options are only better situationally. Denver invested heavily in both players in the first round of the NBA Draft this past offseason, and both are well on their way to earning Michael Malone’s trust.
Malone seemed to be turning a corner with MPJ tonight. Are we finally turning a corner with these two and in turn do we see increased minutes for MPJ? Would love to see the “YEAH MIKE!” momentum keep moving in the right direction— Charlie Craigle (@CharlieCraigle) February 11, 2021
It was quite refreshing to see Michael Porter Jr. take open shots tonight. He operated within the flow of the offense for the entirety of his time on the floor and still managed to score 19 points on 6-of-10 from the field. Those 10 shot attempts tied for the team lead, despite Porter only having three shots going into halftime. The Nuggets made a concerted effort to get him involved in the third quarter, and he responded well.
The dynamic between Porter and Malone has always be a fascinating one. Both want the same thing, for the Nuggets to win games and for Porter to develop into a star in the process; however, they have had different methods of operation and belief on how Porter can best do that. Wednesday night looked like a concerted effort from Porter to do it Malone’s way by assimilating into the offense, limiting the wild shot attempts, and committing to the defensive end for the time being. This will serve Porter well long term if his goal is to be the most impactful player he can be, because it’s clear that he can do all of the crazy scoring stuff. What isn’t clear is whether he can defend enough to be part of Denver’s best playoff lineups.
So, is Porter going to average more minutes per game going forward? I think so, though only moderately. He averages close to 30 minutes per game when he starts, and I think it’s fair to pencil him in for about that amount for the rest of the season. The minutes haven’t been the problem for Porter though. The process has. If all parties commit to a better process, then he will play and succeed more frequently along with the rest of the team.
Wednesday night was a good start down that path.
What's your favorite part of RJ's skillset? I personally love his ability to recover and get to the shooter. Blocked another jumpshot tonight that he had no business getting near— Tyson Ruch (@TysonRuch) February 11, 2021
I’m a big fan of the speed at which R.J. Hampton plays the game. At 4.53 miles per hour, Hampton plays at a higher average speed than most NBA players, and given his role as a bench reserve meant to inject energy into the game, this is a great trait to have.
Hampton loves to fly up and down the court, across the court on defense, and get going in transition. As you noted, he blocked another jump shot tonight, and he also had a major poster dunk on Cedi Osman that the Cavaliers player may never recover from. Hampton’s speed and athleticism can take many forms, but using them in an impactful way often sets the best athletes apart from the others. I hope Hampton continues to add some strength and ball handling to his frame, because he could be an absolute terror slashing to the rim in the halfcourt, transition, basically any situation. He already uses that burst well on defense, and refining his technique will turn him into a solid defender almost overnight. Who better to study from than Gary Harris in that regard?
Hampton might be a big part of Denver’s future going forward. Depending on how they continue to build the team around Nikola Jokić, I think Hampton’s speed and athleticism could be a major weapon for Joker to utilize over the next several years. The jumper is already coming along, meaning that some of those runways Hampton could be taking off from may get a little bigger as his career progresses.
I mean, who doesn’t love big dunks?