Summer League doesn’t mean anything. Remember that during the mess and the brilliance, the agony and the ecstasy of the next few days. On the other hand: basketball is back! It might be brief, but it’s here, and in Denver’s first game they ran out to a huge lead, and in true Denver Nuggets’ fashion gave almost all of it back before pulling out a 70-69 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in what was one of the more energetic games of the day in Las Vegas.

Michael Porter Jr. was in the house but obviously didn’t suit up. That left the on-court spotlight to players from prior drafts, and Monte Morris delivered with a team-high 15 points to lead the way.

Morris started off with a drive from past the 3 point line to finish at the rack, followed by a strong and athletic finish by Malik Beasley. Beasley hit a long two to make it 6-0 before Minnesota scored. Emil Jefferson took the ball the length of the court and a couple of turnovers made the game a bit closer, but Beasley’s explosiveness and Morris’s court awareness stood out early, while Kenrich Williams did the dirty work with 4 boards in the first 6 game minutes.

Morris pushed the pace for Denver while a couple of nice blocks by Beasley and Thomas Welsh made life tougher for the Timberwolves, and then this jam from Emmanuel Terry made it a 14-7 game for Denver early.

Morris then sat down and the offense looked a little stilted, but a nice transition dunk from Vlatko Cancar off a steal kept Denver’s pace up. A few missed shots from Denver let Minnesota close it to within 2, but a nice putback by Williams despite taking a blow to the face kept Denver up by that 2 after one quarter, 18-16. 

Cancar hit a three to open Denver’s scoring in the second, then ran out in transition to get fouled (and congratulated by his teammates for his hustle). Morris came back in and immediately hit a layup after directing some action, and then a Welsh-to-Lydon layup put Denver up 28-23 despite a three from Bates-Diop. Morris buried a 3 to put Denver up 10, then burned Minnesota’s defense on his way to the rack. Denver’s bigs, including Lydon and Welsh, did a good job surveying the floor as well and keeping the ball moving. 

Coach Jordi Fernandez had his guys ready early to play Mile High Basketball, which helps when any of these players get into camp with Denver later in the year. Two Nuggets got on the floor for a loose ball on the same possession, and a steal went Beasley-to-Cancar for a 14-point lead. The Summer League Nuggets pulled a regular season Nuggets however and let the lead slip to 8 at half-time, 40-32.

Beasley opened the second half scoring with an oop to Terry, then Welsh followed with a nice three-ball. Lydon-to-Welsh this time from above the arc made it an early 7-0 run by Denver. The Wolves and Nuggets traded buckets, with Lydon hitting a buzzer three. The game devolved into some iso mixed with weird transition play but Denver maintained its lead at 16 with a couple minutes to go, and Cancar’s step back bucket paired with DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell’s steal and layup put the Nuggets up 62-41 after 3.

The fourth quarter started off with a stilted pace. Denver started to look tired from their grueling pace for the first three quarter wwhile the Timberwolves tried to set up a few plays to close the distance in the fourth. They got it down to 13 before Monte Morris slashed back to the rack, but a few fouls and turnovers from the Nuggets let the Timberwolves hang around and cut the lead to 66-59 with just over three minutes remaining. 

Josh Okogie’s three pointer made it a six point game after a 9-0 run, but a designed Morris-to-Terry dunk and a slapdash but explosive dunk from Beasley kept the lead at 8 briefly. A three ball and a Denver goaltend cut the Denver lead to just 3 with under a minute to go, then just one point with 3.9 seconds left. The final half court heave by the Timberwolves went awry though, and Denver escaped with a 70-69 win.

Final Thoughts

Denver’s “real” players came to play for three quarters, starting with Monte Morris. Morris did everything, from running the offense to setting screens to leading the team in scoring. The fourth quarter was brutal for Denver as Morris ran out of gas along with the rest of his teammates, but Monte threw his hat in the ring for his expected role with panache in an essentially meaningless Summer League scrimmage. He looked like the one guaranteed NBA player on the court for much of the game, determined to show he could finish every transition bucket for those first three quarters and still control the game completely as a point guard. “Tim (Connelly) just told me I’m the best lead guard in Vegas (when) he texted me before the game,” Morris said after the game, and that’s exactly what Denver needs him to be to give him the 15-man spot they’re holding for him.

Beasley’s game remains much the same: explosions of delight interrupted by long stretches of uncoordinated play. He started hot, struggled with some silly turnovers in the middle, and tried to force some things late. He still struggles with staying under control – his athleticism is so amped up that it gets ahead of his game. If he ever harnesses all that energy and can play under control he’ll have a really nice NBA career, but he still isn’t there yet. He was definitely one of the best athletes on the floor, but as a returning Summer League player I’d like to see him show out a bit more. Those tools remain tantalizing, though.

Vlatko Cancar had a nice showing, surprisingly, as Denver’s second round darkhorse from the 2017 draft had 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in 21 minutes. Tyler Lydon was efficient (7 points on 3 shots from the field, with 7 rebounds and 3 assists in the same 21 minutes) but willingly made himself into wallpaper for stretches of the game. Welsh hit a 3 and airballed a 3, while Kenrich Williams led the team in rebounds despite some iffy offensive play early.

The players Denver would want to show up did, especially their point guard. Summer League might not mean anything, but with only a couple of holes to fill on the 15-man roster Denver is just looking for reassuring performances, and they got some. They’re also looking for promising signs from young players and got those too.

For the first game, that’s more than enough.