The Runner Sports

The Denver Nuggets Are Depending On The Rookies

Denver Nuggets' Randy Foye (4) talks with teammates Will Barton (5), Jameer Nelson (1) and Kostas Papanikolaou, of Greece, following a timeout during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Phoenix. The Suns defeated the Nuggets 105-81. AP Photo/Ralph Freso)

The Nuggets are young, they should get some more consistency and ideally will improve as the season goes along. A big key will be the team’s two rookies.

The Denver Nuggets have been up and down all season. At times, (victories over playoff teams from last year the Houston Rockets and the New Orleans Pelicans) they have looked like they may have an outside chance of sneaking into the 8th spot in the West. They are currently 6-6, actually tied for the final playoff spot with the Memphis Grizzlies, and are only a half game from the 6th spot. There are still 70 games to go, so the standing are fairly meaningless. Especially since other times, they have appeared to be a team with a good shot of scoring the top spot in the lottery (the loss to the Phoenix Suns).

The real Nuggets are probably somewhere in between. The loss to the Spurs in San Antonio is perhaps a good example of where this team really stands. They were clearly outclassed, but played well enough to stay in the game behind a stellar performance from rookie Nikola Jokic (23 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks). While an 11 point loss is hardly anything to get excited about, after seeing their previous performances against the league’s elite, at least they went into halftime with an outside chance of winning the game.

The Nuggets handed the team to Emmanuel Mudiay as soon as he arrived, and the results have been largely positive. He struggled some this week, superstar in the making Eric Bledsoe (30 points) and veteran Tony Parker (25 points 9 assists ) both dominated him. On defense, he has looked like a kid playing with grown men at times, but at 19 years old, he is still a kid. Effort is a big part of being a good defender and while the result have not always been there, Mudiay appears to be trying.

Shooting was considered a weakness in his game coming into the draft, and the scouting report has been right. He has hit only .305 from the field and .273 from three. His decision-making has been questionable, and at times when teams press him he appears rattled, leading to turnovers, but, like defense this should improve as he gains experience.  Many of his turnovers come from being aggressive, and the Nuggets are better when the young point guard plays that way.  He as averages 5.2 turnovers a game when the team wins, compared to 3.3 in when they lose.

On the plus side, his passing has at times been sublime (team high 6.4 assists per game) with some spectacular lob passes for dunks. His shot looks fundamentally sound, and while during some of his recent struggles (2-12 shooting vs. the Spurs) he has looked hesitant, the team still has shown confidence in him. Coach Malone has let him play through his struggles and given his talent, this should pay off down the road. Mudiay has shown the ability to get into the lane and finish around the rim, or find cutters and shooters spotting up from three-point range. He has been a big part in the team’s victories (9 assists per game in the wins). Though his shot is not quite there, he has made some key baskets in the fourth quarter of close games. He is already proven he deserves to start in this league, and has a chance to be a star.

While Mudiay came into the season with heavy fanfare, fellow rookie Nikola Jokic has also made an impression. A second-round pick out of Serbia in 2014 who played last year in the Adriatic league, he has been getting increased minutes with Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne injured. Jokic has taken advantage of the playing time, showing good basketball instincts, great hands, and a soft shot. His playing time, even with the injuries to the other centers,  has been spotty (a DNP against the Lakers, only a single minute against the Pelicans), but he has performed when he has gotten a chance, averaging 7 points on .564 shooting and 4.6 rebounds in 15 minutes a game. He has even shown some three-point range, knocking one down during his 23 point performance against the Spurs, making the possibility the seven footer could be the stretch four (or even 5) type player the Nuggets have lacked. Jokic needs to put on some weight and, like Nurkic last year, may struggle a bit when the scouting report on him gets around, but, so far, he has been a pleasant surprise. If he can keep playing the way he did against the Spurs he should keep getting more playing time even when the other centers return.

This week’s Good, Bad, and Ugly awards:

Good – Kenneth Faried keeps putting up numbers, he even buried a couple of jump shots against the Spurs. The combination of a sore back and the Phoenix Suns had him putting up subpar stats on Saturday ( 2 points 7 rebounds) but otherwise, he had a solid week, scoring 40 points and grabbing 25 boards over the other three games. He is still the bellwether for the Nuggets, averaging 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in the 6 wins and 8.5 points and 8.7 rebounds in the losses. Runner- up – Gary Harris has stepped up and started to look like a legit NBA starting two guard. He scored 16 and 15 in the last two games, hitting some jumps shots (4-7 from three over two games) while showing the ability to finish at the rim.

Bad- Will Barton continues to bring it off the bench. His 26 against the Rockets was key to getting the Nuggets a ‘W’ and he was the only Nugget to play well against Phoenix, scoring 19 and grabbing 12 boards. He followed that up with a 17 point 7 rebound performance in New Orleans. Even against the Spurs where he only scored 9, he managed 4 rebounds and 5 assists, helping the second unit put on one of their best performances of the young season. Runner- Up – Like Faried, when Danilo Gallinari plays well, the Nuggets win. He had the best game of any Nugget this season scoring 32, grabbing 8 rebounds, and dishing out 8 assists in the win against New Orleans. He also dropped 27 in the victory over the Rockets. In the losses, however he scored only 17 points total.   Gallinari has had trouble on the second night of back-to-back games this season, though having reigning defensive player of the year Kawhi Leonard match up with him did not help his numbers in the loss to the Spurs.

Ugly – Gallinari is not the only Nugget who has some difficulty on the second night of back-to-back games on the road. They are certainly not alone in having issues with fatigue after playing a game and then hopping on a plane, but often times they are not even competitive. Teams like to pack it in and dare the Nuggets to shoot jump shots. When playing tired, the Nuggets have a bad habit of taking the dare. They don’t always have a lot shooters on the floor (four of the five starters, Hickson, Faried, Mudiay, and Harris scare no one with their jump shooting) but when they are tired, they tend to jack up the three-point shots with limited success (they were 2-20 in the first half against the Suns). Mudiay can get into the paint and both Hickson and Faried are plus finishers around the rim, but they can’t do that if everyone is firing from behind the three-point line. Bricking long shots leads to long rebounds and running opportunities for their opponents. It would be nice to blame the youngsters, but the veterans have been just as quick to gun from distance. Runner up – Randy Foye continues to shoot poorly, which considering this is by far the strongest part of his game, means he is giving the team little to nothing when he is on the floor. He is only hitting .295 of his shots, and the three-point specialist is making less than 20%  from downtown (.191).

The Count – Since they are still technically in the playoff mix, it is 44 more wins to get to 50.

Up Next – A chance for some payback for the tremendous beat down the Suns put on them Friday in Denver, then a couple of really tough matchups as Golden State and the L.A. Clippers come to town.