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Key position battles to watch in Nuggets training camp

DENVER NUGGETS VS NEW ORLEANS PELICANS, NBA Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
  • Starting point guard: Monte Morris vs Facundo Campazzo
  • Backup shooting guard: Austin Rivers vs Bones Hyland
  • Reserve center: Zeke Nnaji vs Bol Bol vs Petr Cornelie

The Denver Nuggets are preparing for the 2021-22 regular season in San Diego this year. Tuesday was their first day of official training camp, which will run through Sunday, October 3rd. The following day, Monday, October 4th, will see the Nuggets travel to Staples Center for their first preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers. A little over two weeks after that, the regular season will begin around the NBA.

For Denver, training camp this year looks a lot different than in years past. Jamal Murray is still recovering from knee surgery. Nikola Jokić is awaiting the birth of his first child back in Denver. Head coach Michael Malone is facing a drastically different challenge of getting his group up to speed without the anchoring of Denver’s two biggest stars. In their stead, Michael Porter Jr. — fresh off a big contract extension — is looking to take the reins of leadership both on and off the floor.

Beyond the stars though, the Nuggets have several questions that need answering heading into the season, headlined by several position battles that will take place in training camp and preseason. The rotation has yet to be set in stone, and some players are on the bubble of increased playing time and perhaps a starting position. Whoever prevails could have a significant impact on Denver’s style of play, so, it’s important to pay attention to the races at this point.

Starting Point Guard - Monte Morris vs Facundo Campazzo

The most glaring hole to be filled in Denver’s rotation is the starting point guard position. With Murray out, the Nuggets will have a big decision to make on how to approach replacing him. On one hand, Murray’s scoring and dynamic playmaking is a big loss, one that the Nuggets will certainly feel on some nights. On the other hand, the Nuggets have two veteran point guards on the roster that are capable of steadying the ship.

Monte Morris is the longer tenured Nugget, drafted in 2017 and having flourished as a backup point guard for a number of seasons. The Nuggets extended Morris last offseason, and he begins a three-year, $27 million contract this season. Having averaged 10.2 points and 3.2 assists in 25.4 minutes per game last season, Morris is capable of playing starter minutes and performing at a reasonable level.

Facundo Campazzo was brought on last season on a two-year contract to bolster Denver’s point guard rotation. Initially, Campazzo didn’t play a ton, but he ultimately played 21.9 minutes per game in 65 games last season. He posted averages of 6.1 points, 3.6 assists, and 1.2 steals per game in what was technically his rookie year, and he appeared far more comfortable at the end of the season than he did in the beginning.

Whichever guard the Nuggets pick will have one primary goal: setting the table for Nikola Jokić and Michael Porter Jr. to lead the scoring charge. In addition, playing solid defense will be important at the guard positions, because if Denver can’t recreate Murray’s scoring prowess, they can instead try to be a better defensive unit. Perhaps Campazzo is better suited for that role than Morris from a play style perspective.

Still, Morris is the more dynamic guard at this stage. With his ability to comfortably drive into the lane and shoot off the dribble, teams will have to respect Morris as a scorer more so than Campazzo. Whether that means more in the starting unit or off the bench remains to be seen, but the outcome of this decision will have a significant impact on how the Nuggets operate their entire rotation.

Backup shooting guard - Austin Rivers vs Bones Hyland

This is a classic “veteran vs young player” battle in every sense of the word. The fan base will be clamoring for the young player because of his exciting play style, freewheeling scoring, and the radiant charm. The coaching staff will be clamoring for the veteran due to the stability and reliability of having several years in the league and the willingness to execute a plan every single game.

Austin Rivers was brought in to bolster the backcourt during the middle of last season. He played just 15 games, averaging 8.7 points, 2.6 assists, and 1.2 steals in 26.7 minutes per game during the regular season. In the playoffs, the points and efficiency as a scorer went up, while the assists and steals went down. Ultimately, Rivers was good enough to help the Nuggets get through the first round but appeared slightly overmatched against the Phoenix Suns.

Bones Hyland was drafted with the 26th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, and his status as a rookie may prevent him from seeing legitimate playing time this year. Still, it doesn’t change how dynamic Hyland was in college and in summer league as a scorer and dynamic playmaker. He clearly has the talent and ability to replicate some of Murray’s offensive game, but him realizing that potential early in his rookie season is unlikely at best.

Denver’s bench lineup will likely feature whichever of Morris or Campazzo doesn’t start, along with P.J. Dozier, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green. There isn’t a lot of scoring in either quartet, meaning the bench could certainly use someone of Bones’ dynamic skillset. Rivers can certainly score though, and if the Nuggets would prefer to be a lockdown defensive unit off the bench, Rivers gives Denver a better chance of achieving that goal.

The decision between Morris and Campazzo with the starters might have an effect on this as well. If Campazzo comes off the bench, Denver’s need for scoring at the other guard spot will be greater than if Morris comes off the bench. Perhaps Hyland is more likely to play if Campazzo is his running mate, meaning Rivers is the more likely candidate if it’s Morris.

Either way, Nuggets fans will have a hard time rooting for anyone but Bones, who has made a strong impression on the fan base ever since his arrival.

Reserve center: Zeke Nnaji vs Bol Bol vs Petr Cornelie

The Nuggets also have a major decision to make at the backup center position. After his comments at media day, it appears that Tim Connelly and the Nuggets made a conscious decision to go small on their bench unit. Rather than utilize a true backup center like JaVale McGee, the Nuggets added Jeff Green, a versatile 6’8” forward from the Brooklyn Nets last season, to add some versatility to Denver’s second unit. The Nuggets had some success with Paul Millsap and JaMychal Green in the regular season and the playoffs last year. Now, they have replaced Millsap with Green, going even smaller and more athletic in the process.

Still, there will be situations when the Nuggets must play bigger on the second unit if they are facing a true center. Denver has three options on their bench that they could go to in these scenarios: Zeke Nnaji, Bol Bol, and Petr Cornelie.

Nnaji is in his second season, having come off a strong rookie season showcasing his abilities as a 3-and-D forward. He’s a little undersized for the center spot as well, but his lateral quickness and outside jumper have made him a strong option as a role player off the bench. He earned Malone’s trust last season briefly and was rewarded for it with more playing time than almost any of the other young players.

Bol showcased his talent in the bubble before the Nuggets made a two-year commitment to him prior to the 2020-21 season. That year was a bust for Bol, but he appears interested in improving his consistency and professionalism, both of which are important things for any young person to learn, particularly an NBA player that’s 7’2 with the shooting touch and handle of a small guard. If he can lock in on the rebounding, screening, and defensive front, it will allow for the rest of his skills to show through.

Then, there’s Cornelie, the newcomer to the Nuggets roster. He was added on a two-way contract just a couple of weeks ago, but there’s potential optimism that at his size (6’11”. 250 pounds) that he makes sense as a more permanent solution than the other two. He proved in France last year that he could hit outside jumpers, roll hard to the rim, and rebound well. Now, the Nuggets are hoping he can show something similar here, though his two-way contract status could limit his permanence in a backup center role.

Whatever the Nuggets decide, they should probably give multiple players opportunities to prove themselves. As the team becomes more and more expensive, the Nuggets must find creative, cheap solutions to their problems. The aforementioned three players would certainly qualify.