In the Denver Nuggets win over the Portland Trail Blazers, the story of the game was Nikola Jokić, scoring 41 points, carrying Denver’s offense until it righted itself in the fourth quarter, and adding another game to his MVP case. If it wasn’t Jokić, it was Jamal Murray, who celebrated his 24th birthday with 24 points, including 19 in the fourth quarter and outpacing Damian Lillard and Dame Time with a Murray Flurry of his own. If it wasn’t Murray, it was Michael Porter Jr., who played 40 minutes, starting at power forward and putting together a double-double with a strong defensive performance of his own.
And yet, I can’t stop thinking about Facundo Campazzo and Zeke Nnaji.
The Nuggets used an eight-man rotation on Tuesday night, which included just 10 minutes from Isaiah Hartenstein as the primary backup for Nikola Jokić. Seven players played at least 24 minutes for Denver tonight, including both Campazzo (27) and Nnaji (24) off the bench. The two were instrumental for Denver’s success against Portland and especially essential against Damian Lillard.
Let’s talk about how each player impacted the game:
The 5’10” Argentine point guard continues to be impactful with his passing, defense, and overall energy.
Against the Blazers, Campazzo scored just three points in 27 minutes, but he was impactful offensively as the setup man for Denver’s success. Six assists off the bench and zero turnovers highlighted a strong game as a decision maker, something Denver needed in order to keep the pressure on Portland throughout the game. Facu generated two assists in each of the second, third, and fourth quarters, and the shots were all either three-point shots or dunks/layups right at the rim. There was a certain value to those setups, and they allowed Denver’s other offensive weapons to flourish.
On the season, Campazzo is averaging 15.4 minutes, 5.4 points, and 2.1 assists per game across 28 of the 31 games Denver has played so far. He has seen those minutes (and the residual production) all trend up. becoming a larger part of what the Nuggets have done over the past several games.
In the last six games, ever since a breakout performance against the Los Angeles Lakers, Campazzo is averaging very strong numbers. From his 28.8 minutes per game, to the combination of 12.2 points and 4.0 assists per game, to the 1.5 steals per game he has accumulated, it’s clear that Campazzo is getting more and more comfortable with his role, the NBA, and what Michael Malone and the Nuggets are asking of him.
More than anything else, Campazzo plays hard. He’s a great example for Denver’s young players to emulate, scrappy and feisty at his size while also lightning quick with his decision making and reflexes on both sides of the ball. In one second quarter play against young Blazers guard Anfernee Simons, Campazzo should have been charged with bullying as he took the ball away from the unsuspecting Simons at half court and set up Nnaji for an easy layup in transition.
Campazzo has given the Nuggets a lift while so many players have been out with injury. Though Denver’s record doesn’t fully show it, Facu has been impactful in his minutes, stepping in and making the most of an opportunity he didn’t have at the beginning of the year. It’s hard to play Facu in every situation, and teams will go to great lengths to hunt him defensively due to his size; however, if Facu can do enough on both ends of the floor to counteract that, Denver might be able to make his larger role within the rotation a more permanent measure.
It takes a certain level of mental fortitude and self-confidence as a rookie to be completely schooled by Carmelo Anthony in the first half and to come back stronger and more impactful in the second half. Things weren’t looking great for Zeke Nnaji initially tonight as Melo began to catch fire in the second quarter, but Nnaji stuck to it and gave the Nuggets a major boost in the second half defensively.
According to matchup data on NBA.com, Nnaji matched up with Anthony for more total minutes than anyone he previously had faced outside of John Collins. Anthony shot 4-of-8 from the floor with Zeke as his primary defender, with Anthony tailing off in the second half after Nnaji grew more accustomed to facing the future Hall-of-Famer. 50% is a reasonable percentage to give up, and it’s a far cry from being abused.
In addition to staying in front of Melo, Nnaji was switched onto Damian Lillard on several occasions in the fourth quarter. Rather than panic, Nnaji did exactly what he was supposed to do defensively as a big guy switched out on a dangerous guard: he shaded himself to Lillard’s shooting hand, played up on him, and forced him to drive left into the paint without overcommitting. Lillard had a nice dunk when he blew by Nnaji and surprised the rookie with his quickness and agility, but for the most part, Nnaji did great. He forced a number of pass-outs, even forced a missed shot or two. It was great to see Nnaji excel in that situation, and it should give Nuggets fans a reason to be excited.
Malone: "Carmelo is one of the best 1-on-1 scorers in NBA history. That's a great experience for a guy like Zeke Nnaji. Kind of got baptized tonight by a great player, and that's what young players have to go through. Rights of passage and learning. That's how Zeke gets better."— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) February 24, 2021
In the last six games, Nnaji is averaging 20.6 minutes per game. Though his role as a complementary option doesn’t generally lead him to frequent points and rebounds, he has done the little things well. He stays in front of his man defensively, makes the proper defensive rotations to prevent easy shots, and he has hit 38.1% from three-point range in those last six games as well. Many of Nnaji’s issues thus far have come from inexperience, but that’s eventually solved with time. The great news for Denver: Nnaji feels like a playoff player, someone they can count on to execute proper defensive coverages and hit open shots. He’s athletic, mobile, long, and intelligent at power forward, giving the Nuggets a piece that can switch up and down the lineup defensively while hitting outside shots offensively.
If that doesn’t scream “impactful modern game” I’m not sure what does.
What happens when the Nuggets get healthy?
At some point, though the time it ultimately occurs may feel far away, the Nuggets are going to get back their full complement of rotation players. Every Nugget is dealing with bumps and bruises, though some worse than others. After the All-Star break, it wouldn’t surprise me if Denver had several players return so that Denver can figure out their rotation and chemistry in the month of March. There are still major questions about who starts for Denver when everyone gets healthy, as well as residual questions for how those decisions impact the group as a whole.
When Michael Malone is confronted with those choices, he will likely feel pressure to reduce the minutes Campazzo and Nnaji have earned of late. It’s possible that Malone could bench PJ Dozier, R.J. Hampton, or Isaiah Hartenstein to give Campazzo and Nnaji more opportunities. Would he do the same to Monte Morris? Gary Harris or Will Barton? Paul Millsap or JaMychal Green?
I suspect that when the dust settles, Murray, Porter, and Jokić will remain in the starting lineup. I think Harris will return to that group as well. Whether Barton or Millsap returns to that group remains to be seen. Whether the Nuggets instead decide to insert Green at starting power forward or go small with Monte Morris in the backcourt is also a question.
There’s also the question of the NBA trade deadline on March 25th. For the first time in the Tim Connelly era, the Nuggets can and should be considered “buyers” at the deadline. They will assess their options and likely try to find an upgrade to a rotation that has been underwhelming as a whole. Whether they actually find a match remains to be seen, but that could affect Denver’s rotation in ways that aren’t currently foreseeable.
Whatever happens, the Nuggets are in better position than they were two weeks ago. Despite not having the greatest record during that stretch, the Nuggets learned they could count on Campazzo and Nnaji to be contributors in the near future and down the line. Both players have their flaws, but they also offer various strengths that make the team better while they’re out there.
And that matters for a Nuggets team still searching for who they are.