clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Starting Five: The arrival of R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji changes the season

New, comments

Denver’s two rookies have made an impact in recent games, plus other major developments

Los Angeles Lakers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

This week’s edition of Starting Five is a little bit late due to video clips being a little bit delayed, but it’s a good one. From the development of R.J. Hampton and Zeke Nnaji to the winning plays of Jamal Murray, let’s dive in and talk about what happened with the Denver Nuggets this past week.

R.J. Hampton’s tantalizing skill set

It’s difficult not to be excited about R.J. Hampton when he makes plays like the dunk he had against the Cleveland Cavaliers last Wednesday.

It’s rare to find athleticism like that. Despite big hops being a far more common trait than in the past, Hampton being able to rise up like that at full speed in transition is marvelous to behold. I was at that game, and I can’t wait for the building to be packed again, because Hampton reminds me of a loaded spring, just waiting to release all of that potential energy and put on a show.

His athleticism shows up in functional ways too. Even though a mid-range jumper isn’t the most efficient transition shot opportunity in the world, Hampton makes it look easy while pushing the tempo.

Those are free points before the defense can get set. They materialize out of thin air, and for a Nuggets roster full of veterans that like to play at a slower pace (including Nikola Jokić-their superstar and example) a player like Hampton can be a breath of fresh air. Quick and easy points that don’t prompt Denver’s veterans to cross halfcourt. That’s a great option to have every now and then.

He also closes ground well on the defensive end, getting out to Devot Dotson on the below possession and blocking a quick trigger three-pointer.

Functional athleticism is so important in basketball. Running fast and jump high only matters if you understand what to do with those gifts. Hampton is still clearly learning how to adjust to the NBA game, but he’s doing better and better at it. He isn’t the tallest guard out there, but with long arms and a quick spring, he’s going to block a lot of jump shooters in his career.

On the other end, if he can hit this shot consistently, it’s game over.

Denver often plays high-low with their bigs because of their passing versatility, and often, generating a high-low causes the low man on the weak side to cheat in for the pass over the top of the defense. If Hampton can shoot 40% on those threes with a quick, consistent trigger, he’s going to be a weapon the Nuggets struggle to keep off the court.

Zeke Nnaji’s immediate impact

Two of the most reliable ways to earn trust in a smaller role are to make open shots and correctly rotate on the defensive end. For Denver, Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray can take care of the rest offensively, but all they need is for those open shots they generate to go in.

Zeke Nnaji has entered Denver’s rotation the last few games and immediately made an impact by doing those two simple things. It started against the Cavaliers, where Nnaji took a page out of the book of Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green by hitting some pick and pop three-pointers, ones that the offense is designed to generate when operating with a shooting big man.

Against the Lakers, Nnaji’s role updated a little more. When Jokić is on the floor, the power forward doesn’t run pick and pop sets but rather moves around the wings and corners, spacing the floor correctly while the primary action is ran in the middle or on the opposite side of the floor. Nnaji clearly isn’t captivating the attention of LeBron James enough, who is comfortable allowing Nnaji to catch and hit his third three-pointer of the evening.

On the other end, the Nuggets decided to surprise Nnaji with an easy assignment of guarding LeBron. Though the GOAT didn’t go at Nnaji very hard during this stretch, Nnaji held his own when he did, preventing LeBron from getting all the way to the rim and contesting his outside jumper to the best level that he could.

Nnaji’s athleticism and defensive instincts have helped him a lot so far. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, they were vital. The Nuggets have so few options with size that can also reasonably keep up with LeBron on perimeter drives that Nnaji almost defaults to being Denver’s best choice in these situations. At 6’9” and listed at 240 pounds, Nnaji is a fluid athlete with good coordination that can move his hips reasonably well on defense. That not only allows him to stick to wings with size like LeBron, but even smaller guards like Dennis Schroder.

I have no idea what Denver’s rotation will look like when everyone gets back to full health, but I wouldn’t remove Zeke Nnaji from it even when everyone gets back to full strength. The Nuggets are at their best when they have two bigs on the floor, and Nnaji can make things work as a mobile option that can hit outside shots at a high clip. The Nuggets could certainly use that skill set. It reminds me of the since departed Jerami Grant but slightly bigger.

Emerging options in a crowded rotation

Hampton and Nnaji playing extended minutes wouldn’t have been possible without the injuries to Gary Harris, PJ Dozier, Facundo Campazzo, Paul Millsap, Vlatko Čančar, the personal absence for Will Barton, the struggles of Isaiah Hartenstein and Bol Bol, the foul trouble for JaMychal Green, and the bumps and bruises for Jamal Murray. It’s taken a long time and a lot of steps before Michael Malone took a leap of faith with Denver’s two first round draft picks.

After circling the wagons though, it appears that the Nuggets at least have options for now, perhaps too many options with a fully healthy roster. Harris and Barton will return to prominent—if not starting—roles in the short term. Dozier more than earned a reserve spot as a versatile wing option for Denver, and his size allows him to slide to small forward and for Denver not to lose anything defensively in important moments. Campazzo continues to show a penchant for winning plays, and though he has weaknesses, the strengths have outweighed them since his return from a minor knee injury. Millsap provides a veteran presence and deft three-point stroke. Čančar guarded LeBron freaking James yesterday and did fine. Barton is one of 18 NBA players to average 11 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists while shooting 40% from three...

The list goes on and on. Denver has a lot of options, perhaps too many options, and Michael Malone will have several tough choices in the second half of the season to form the best possible playoff rotation. For now, the Nuggets are about to finish up their first half schedule with 10 games in a 17 day span, including two separate four game road trips. It’s about survival for now.

Jamal Murray is pushing through defensively

Jamal Murray turned his ankle trying to decelerate on this turnover against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

He fought through the pain, as he often does, and though he struggled to be impactful on the offensive end, he found little ways to make a difference on defense. Denver gave up just 16 points in the fourth quarter, and it had a lot to do with a gutsy effort from Murray.

Here he is defending de facto Thunder point guard Hamidou Diallo and causing a turnover by forcing Diallo’s pass too close to Jokić’s outstretched fingers, who pokes the pass free for a steal.

Jokić rightfully gets credit for a good defensive play there, but give the assist to Murray for good ball pressure and walling off the easy passing lane, making Diallo’s job 10% harder late in the fourth quarter.

Here he is taking a charge from Diallo in the last minute, sealing the win for Denver by playing smart positional defense.

In all honesty, that play was almost too easy for Murray to read and see before it happened. He had his feet planted right where Diallo hoped to drive in plenty of time, making a charge call the only possible option for the nearest official.

Murray’s defensive development has been years in the making. From a small, rookie shooting guard just hoping defenses look the other way, Murray has taken the necessary steps toward becoming a complete player that many had hoped he would become. The biggest step came after Derrick White and Rodney Hood went at him in the 2018-19 playoffs. Since that point, Murray has worked toward becoming a complete player, defense and all.

On the four-game home stand, Murray shot just 38.6% from the field and 28.6% from three. The shot clearly hasn’t come around (despite a good performance against the Lakers) to the level that Murray would like. He’s probably going to miss out on being an All-Star this year because the numbers aren’t where they need to be and because Denver hasn’t won enough games to warrant two selections.

And yet, I feel more comfortable than ever saying that Murray has improved in different facets of his game. Things haven’t come together fully in the way that Nuggets fans would hope, but different facets of Murray’s game are often on display and helping the Nuggets win. Murray posted the highest plus-minus in the NBA over the last week at plus-64, which doesn’t just happen as an innocent bystander. Murray made several winning plays.

The shot will come back at some point. Probably some time soon, and definitely by the playoffs.

Facundo Campazzo keeps doing incredible things

Enjoy this magical no-look pass from Facundo Campazzo to Zeke Nnaji that went right past Kyle Kuzma’s unsuspecting face. It was incredible.

This pass is a work of art, as is the video above. I doubt Campazzo really knew how close to Kuzma’s head he was passing the ball, but the fact that it went so close to Kuzma who had zero reason to suspect a pass his direction makes it all better. Campazzo hasn’t had a ton of time to show off the incredible array of passing in his bag, but on national TV, he made his best pass of the season. Great stuff.