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Denver Nuggets Film Friday: Next step

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not familiar with Film Fridays, each Friday, I’ll be looking at some recent Denver Nuggets’ games, lineups or something else from a film aspect to try and bring you a piece of content that you’re not getting somewhere else. Feel free to give any feedback positive or negative in the comments or find me on Twitter.

The teams that win titles every year have a few things in common. The top two are being healthy when the games matter the most and playing their best basketball at the right time. The other key factor is seeing development from their young stars in key aspects of their game. For the Milwaukee Bucks, Giannis Antetokounmpo became an undeniable force on the offensive end with the ability to score at any time. Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors developed a scheme the rest of the league wasn’t ready for as he shot them to the finals repeatedly. The Nuggets need their own developments to occur to take the next step.

A major aspect of Denver’s success next season is just going to be health. Their last two seasons have been completely derailed by injuries, but we’re not focusing on guys finding the ability to be healthy through the end of a playoff run. Instead, we’re going to look at a few guys on the team and key areas they should be looking to improve upon heading into the 2022-23 season.

One player that gets an exemption today is going to be Nikola Jokic. The argument could be made that he needs to take another step on defense, but, considering he just played the best defensive season of his career while carrying a team without their second and third options nearly the entire season while winning his second straight MVP, I’m not going to sit here and nitpick him on that end of the floor.

Gordon on the Ball

After he arrived in Denver, we saw flashes of Aaron Gordon as a swiss-army knife defender that could help erase the mistakes of his teammates by floating from player to player. However, over the last year, when he’s been forced into more of an on-ball eliminator role, he’s struggled somewhat with his ability to be an elite on-ball defender. In the clip above, he’s guarding Curry. In his defense, guarding Curry 40 minutes a night over the course of a series is going to wear out even the most in-shape defenders. Gordon flips his hips to slide with Curry, but he doesn’t actually stay in front of him. Once Curry gets a step on him, he drives and kicks to the open man after the rest of the defense slides over to help.

The first clip is an example of where Gordon needs to improve, and this is an example of what we know he can do if he gets there. Gordon is not a center that’s going to stand around the rim and block shots. Instead, he’s playing free safety and making plays when the ball comes near him. He’s guarding Andre Iguodala down on the block when Draymond Green gets through the Denver defense and is heading towards the rim for what he thinks is going to be a huge dunk. Instead, Gordon comes over and blocks him off of the backboard. We know that Gordon can guard opponents off of the ball, but Denver needs him to be better on the ball next season.

Bones the Initiator

As the year wore on, Bones Hyland rapidly developed as a ball-handler. He had seven assists in the team’s lone playoff win in Game 4 against the Warriors while tallying just nine assists in the other four playoff games combined. Next season, Bones will likely be running the second unit alongside Monte Morris, and they’ll need him to be able to set up his teammates when he has the ball in his hands.

He can set up his teammates, as evidenced by this play above. Bones gets a bigger defender on him and starts working to get a driving lane. Once he gets that, he drives and kicks to JaMychal Green in the dunker’s spot for the easy basket behind the defense. Hyland will still have plenty of opportunities to score, but he has to remember to keep everyone else involved as well.

On the previous play, Bones drove through the defense and found an open teammate because he kept his head up and was looking for him. On this one however, Bones is never thinking anything but score. However, after catching the pass from Gordon, if he had just looked to his left, he would have seen Gordon wide open on the perimeter. Denver scores when Nikola Jokic gets the putback layup, but little adjustments like this from Bones are what the team needs from him next season.

Zeke the Defender

Zeke Nnaji is a key player to watch for the Nuggets heading into next season. He could very easily be a key rotation player for them next season, and he just needs to turn it up another notch on defense to be a big difference maker for the team in his minutes on the floor. Zeke is a great fit alongside Jokic as an elite sharpshooter from outside, and, thanks to his combination of size and athleticism, he can be a versatile defender for them as well.

On the play above, Zeke does well to stay in front of a driving Stanley Johnson without fouling him. After forcing him to pass, he shades onto the new ball handler before closing out on Johnson as he goes for the shot attempt. While a little late on the closeout, he could afford to be a little delayed with Johnson being a career 31.4 percent 3-point shooter.

This is just another example of strong defense from Nnaji. He’s matched up with Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics, who’s a little more fleet of foot than Zeke, but Zeke stays in front of him and forces him to put up a contested jump shot. If Zeke can come back next season with his jump shot still intact while providing this level of defense off of the bench, he’ll be a lethal weapon for a team with title aspirations.

For those of you that are still here, remember to leave your feedback in the comments or over on my Twitter, and have a fantastic film-filled Friday.