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Core injuries suck.

Mason Plumlee struggled with a core injury during the 2017-18 season. He had surgery to repair the damage, recovered well, and played his best season in a Denver Nuggets uniform in 2018-19. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton all suffered through core injuries at various times during the past few years.

Now, after a strangely Jekyll and Hyde season from Juancho Hernangomez, it sounds like Nuggets fans may have an answer for a sudden drop-off in performance: another core injury. Hernangomez underwent a successful surgery to repair a core injury, the Nuggets announced in May. While it’s never a good thing to have to undergo a procedure like that, Nuggets fans should take solace in the fact that Hernangomez’s up and down season could be attributed to an injury.

A strong start to the season marred by injury

Going into the 2018-19 season, all of the discussion was about the improvements and impressive play of Trey Lyles. The Nuggets were internally (and externally) expecting a breakout season from the fourth year forward out of Kentucky. That never really happened, but it did for Juancho, at least at first.

On the season, Juancho averaged just 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds, shooting 36.5% from behind the three-point line across 70 games and 25 starts. Pretty underwhelming numbers on the whole for a former first round pick, but they don’t capture the whole story. During the first three months of the season, Juancho was one of the best bench forwards in the NBA, and he spent a large chunk of November and December in the starting lineup.

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It became regular knowledge after the home-and-home against the San Antonio Spurs that Juancho was struggling with an injury. Head coach Michael Malone spoke about reducing his minutes to protect him from further damage at that point, and an end-of-season surgery only further illustrates the severity of the impact. The splits above speak for themselves, as the scoring production dropped right out from under him. He clearly looked uncomfortable and was pretty much unplayable late in the year. Hard to blame a guy for struggling to be effective with an injury.

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Let’s focus on the positive though: Juancho’s elite spacing and role player mentality helped Denver get through an injury-ravaged early segment of the season. With Will Barton going down during the second game, the Nuggets first started games with Torrey Craig before replacing him with Juancho. The result was added floor spacing and opportunities for Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to impact the game from the middle of the floor.

A bizarre statistic though, Juancho wasn’t at his best in the corners though. On the year, he shot 32.1% on corner threes and 38.3% on above-the-break threes. This is abnormal for Juancho as he shot 51.7% and 41.2% from the corners in his first and second years respectively. He’s clearly a great shooter, and it’s good to see that translate to the wings more frequently this season.

How easy is it for the Nuggets to run this variation of the Spain pick and roll above? Jokic turns it into a double pick and pop, and Murray, drawing two defenders into the paint, spots Juancho popping wide open for three as well. The spacing here is a stark contrast to the packed paint the Nuggets saw for most of the playoffs this year, and a healthy Juancho certainly could have changed that.

He wasn’t just a three-point shooter though. His smart cutting off the ball was perfect in combination with Jokic’s transcendent passing. Juancho found an open lane to the basket on many occasions, and Jokic found him consistently, regardless of the angle.

The angle on this pass is ridiculous, but Juancho and Jokic were both on the same page of where it needed to be. Having a smart off ball player is a major advantage, and this aspect of Juancho earned Denver easy points early in the season.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses at the beginning to be sure. Juancho still struggled defensively. He’s not quite quick enough to defend most guards and he’s not quite strong enough to defend power forwards. During the regular season, it wasn’t difficult to hide his weaknesses, as the Nuggets posted a 105.1 Defensive Rating with Hernangomez on the floor between October and December. That was with Juancho starting a number of games too, some with Paul Millsap and Gary Harris insulating him and some without.

As long as Juancho stays fully engaged, he can be a competent defender against the rangy forwards that aren’t as strong as LeBron James. He stuck with Paul George well in some early season matchups against the Oklahoma City Thunder. George shot 8 for 21 from the field in the game with Hernangomez as his primary defender for most of the night, and while he still put up 24 points, that was right before George had a stretch of games in which he averaged 31.4 points per game from December to February.

Now, do I think Juancho is the coveted big wing defensive stopper that the Nuggets need to find at their small forward position? No. He still has too many weaknesses on defense and struggles to keep track of his man off ball at times. But can he serviceable in a rotation against some of the bigger wings that guys like Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Malik Beasley struggle with? Absolutely.

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The injury and where to go from here

After coming off a 27-point performance as one of the only positive contributors in a game against the San Antonio Spurs on the road, word began to go around Nuggets media that Juancho was dealing with an injury. Michael Malone announced that Juancho was hampered by something, but it wasn’t awhile until he sat out a game with a core injury. He came back quickly, but it became clear that the sharpshooter who made just five total three pointers during the rest of the regular season after returning from injury was still hampered by something.

The surgery Juancho underwent in mid May is almost reassuring for this reason. It validates my thoughts during the season that the real Juancho isn’t the one from January onward. His performance during the first three months of the year is potentially what the Nuggets were missing in the playoffs as well, a guy who could match up with Rodney Hood off the bench defensively and space the floor offensively.

The question of course is where to go from here. The Nuggets will likely move forward with the current roster heading into next season barring a major free agent deciding they want to come to Denver. I have been a fan of Danny Green, and his NBA Finals performance thus far seemingly validates that.

However, there’s a case to be made that staying the course and not adding any free agents is the best way to go, especially if the Nuggets have confidence in Juancho moving forward. Paul Millsap is 34, and while I expect him to be back in Denver next season, his days as a starter caliber contributor are likely numbered. Juancho is probably Denver’s best in-house option to take over as the starting power forward. His chemistry with Nikola Jokic is elite, his spacing when healthy is elite, and while the defense probably isn’t good enough to be a permanent starter right now, he has time to change that. He’s still just 23 years old, and he has time to put on a bit of weight to deal with power forwards. In addition, the Nuggets have Michael Porter Jr. waiting in the wings, so depending on the matchups, Juancho could defend small forwards and Porter could defend power forwards.

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Is that the likely scenario? Probably not. I’d expect Juancho to operate more as an Ersan Ilyasova or Jonas Jerebko type throughout his career, two tall European forwards who struggled on the defensive end throughout their careers. The difference with Juancho is whether he can make a true difference with his three-pointer. Davis Bertans, another tall European forward, led the league in three-point percentage for much of the season and helped San Antonio’s bench unit immensely. He’s in a similar situation to Juancho and proved his salt throughout the year. Juancho providing a similar dynamic for Denver’s bench would provide a major boost, at least during the regular season.

Another issue for Juancho could be a push to see the younger guys in his role. The Nuggets are going to want to see what they have with Michael Porter Jr. and Jarred Vanderbilt at some point. Both guys provide different dynamics and have immense potential to be more impactful than Juancho down the line. I think there’s a place for all of them in an eventual rotation next to Jokic, Murray, and Harris, but next season, with (likely) Millsap, Craig, and Plumlee under contract, it’s hard to know who gets the most time and whether Juancho truly fits with the conglomerate of young players.

Whatever the case may be, I hope Juancho is in the rotation next year, if only to see him build on what he offered the Nuggets during the first three months of the year. That version of Juancho changed games for Denver, helped the bench and the starters in various ways with his shooting, smart overall offense, and rebounding. That could come in handy next season too.