Rebuilding can be a painful process, but it’s a lot more interesting for a Denver Nuggets team that has proven it can do well in the NBA Draft.
The Nuggets have yet to return to the playoffs since the organization parted ways with head coach George Karl in 2013. Many of the key contributors from that 57-win 2012-13 team — including Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee — are also gone via free agency or trades. In the three seasons since Karl got fired and the core of that fun, superstar-less team slowly began to disintegrate, the Nuggets have won 36, 30 and 33 regular seasons games in front of sparser and sparser crowds.
But there is hope. Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly, who took over for Masai Ujiri in June 2013, has quietly stocked the team with plenty of young talent through the NBA Draft. Jusuf Nurkic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris all look like solid NBA players. And in a couple weeks’ time, Denver will look to add more pieces. The Nuggets hold three first-round selections in the June 23 NBA Draft: the No. 7, 15 and 19 selections. That’s good news for an organization that’s hit it out of the park when it comes to evaluating young talent the last two seasons.
Listed below are five players I think Denver could target with the No. 7 pick, along with arguments why the selection makes sense and why it doesn’t. (Potential selections at 15 and 19 will come later.) There are also two additional scenarios highlighted toward the bottom that could play out given the number of picks Denver controls. Let’s get to it.
Jamal Murray, SG, Kentucky, 6’4’’, 207 lbs.
Why he makes sense: Murray is a tremendous shooter. In his lone season at Kentucky, the 19-year-old Canadian took and made 3-pointers in bunches. He converted 40.8 percent of the 7.7 deep balls he attempted per game. Murray can make them in a variety of ways — from deep, coming off screens or spotting up — which would be great for a Nuggets team that was a bottom-five 3-point shooting team last season at 33.8 percent. He’d fit great next to the constantly probing Mudiay.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Envisioning Murray falling all the way to No. 7 on draft night is a bit of a stretch. Many mock drafts have him going as high as No. 3 to the Celtics. From a basketball standpoint, Murray is not a terribly athletic player. He could struggle to get his shot off against bigger, stronger NBA players. Is it possible he pans out as a slightly better version of Randy Foye?
Also: Murray likes to meditate, particularly before and after workouts and games.
Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma, 6’5’’, 212 lbs.
Why he makes sense: Hield was unquestionably the best outside shooter in college basketball last season, and the Nuggets need shooting. The reigning college hoops player of the year attempted 8.7 threes per game and drilled an astonishing 45.7 percent of them as a senior at Oklahoma. He made the second-most 3-pointers in a single college season ever with 147. (Want to take a wild guess who’s first on that list? Stephen Curry.) Hield has a quick release, can shoot it as soon as he steps off the bus and excels in getting out in transition and knocking down long balls. He, like Murray, would look great in the backcourt alongside Mudiay. A Mudiay-Jokic/Nurkic pick and roll with Hield spotting up on the weakside is what dreams are made of.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Hield could struggle to defend athletic shooting guards. He doesn’t move quickly going side-to-side. Also, there’s a next-to-nothing chance he develops into a star. If everything goes well, he’s probably J.J. Redick: a sniper who runs around screens and spots up all the time. There’s certainly no shame in that; Redick is a good NBA player on a good NBA team. Hield is a good choice if the Nuggets are looking for a quality role player. He is not a good choice if the team wants a star at seven.
Also: His real name is Chavano.
Jaylen Brown, SF, California, 6’7, 223 lbs.
Why he makes sense: Brown looks the part of an NBA small forward who might also be capable of sliding over to power forward when necessary. He’s strong and long — his wingspan stretches 7 feet. He can get to the basket. He has all the physical tools to be a good defender in the modern NBA. The Warriors, and more recently Thunder, have proven how valuable long, versatile players are on defense. Size and quickness across the board allow those teams to switch everything. Brown looks like he could be one of those guys. He is only 19 years old. He could sit and learn from Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler before becoming a starter, which might just be the best thing for him.
Why he doesn’t make sense: Brown is not a good shooter (29.4 percent on 3s) nor passer. He can get to the rim and draw fouls, but his handle isn’t great. Brown will need time to develop. Are the Nuggets willing to take a chance on him if Hield, a much safer pick, is still available?
Also: Brown likes playing chess and doesn’t care for video games. His mother called him an “old man.”
Marqueese Chriss, PF, Washington, 6’10’’, 233 lbs.
Why he makes sense: Chriss has All-Star potential as a stretch four in today’s NBA. He’s quick, long, athletic and can shoot from outside. His Draft Express “strengths” video is basketball porn. Chriss has pogo sticks for legs that allow him to jump high off the ground for blocks or dunks in a hurry. He moves his feet well on defense. He has the ability to switch then recover on pick and rolls, and he gets his “Inspector Gadget” arms in passing lanes. He can even shoot! Chriss knocked down 35 percent of the 3s he took last season. His stroke looks smooth and consistent. For a guy who didn’t start playing basketball until his freshman year of high school, the 18-year-old Chriss is remarkably skilled. A frontcourt that featured him alongside Nurkic or Jokic would be frightening.
Why he doesn’t make sense: The biggest knocks on Chriss are that he’s a poor rebounder and that he’s foul-prone. Both of these make sense when you consider Chriss’ skill set and his lack of experience playing the game. He tends to rely on his athleticism instead of blocking people out. He also makes mistakes on defense like falling for pump fakes that led to him averaging 4.1 fouls in just under 25 minutes per game last season. Both of these problems are fixable the longer Chriss plays the game. Chriss’ stock keeps rising the closer we get to the draft. Two weeks ago, it seemed like a no-brainer that he’d be available at No. 7. Now? Not so much.
Also: Chriss only started playing basketball because his mother, Shawntae Wright, thought football was too dangerous. Chriss broke his collarbone playing football in eighth grade. Wright forced him to quit the sport after the injury and signed him up for basketball.
Dragan Bender, PF/C, Croatia, 7’1’’, 225 lbs.
Why he makes sense: Bender is another stretch four prospect who could pair well with either Nurkic of Jokic. He’s not as mobile as Chriss, but he still moves well for a guy his size. He can run the floor and has decent lateral quickness. He’s got a pretty outside shot, although he doesn’t shoot a ton of threes with his Israeli team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. He’s skilled for a giant who turned 18 in November.
Why he doesn’t make sense: He’s too much of an unknown, and his game overlaps with Nurkic’s and Jokic’s. Bender, the youngest player in the draft, doesn’t receive a ton of playing time for Maccabi Tel Aviv. He’s a reserve. He has a pretty shooting motion, but apart from that, there’s not a whole lot to his offensive game. He doesn’t have much of a post game and can’t put the ball on the floor. I’m not sold he can survive defensively as a power forward in the NBA either.
Also: Bender grew up idolizing fellow Croatian Toni Kukoc, who was a key contributor on Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams in the late ‘90s.
The Nuggets package players and/or picks to move up in the draft.
Two players stand head and shoulders above every other prospect in this year’s draft: LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram. Both are one-and-done college players who will go No. 1 and No. 2 in some order on June 23, barring unforeseen circumstances. The Philadelphia 76ers hold the No. 1 pick, and the Los Angeles Lakers have the No. 2 pick. It’s doubtful the Nuggets could put together a package enticing enough to get one of these picks, but it’d be crazy not to think about it. Ingram, a sweet-shooting small forward, would fit beautifully on this roster.
Denver could also try to package its picks to move up to three or four if it falls in love with a player who might not be around at seven — like Chriss.
The Nuggets deal for an established superstar.
You need a superstar to do damage in the NBA Playoffs. This old basketball adage gets proved over and over when the calendar flips to May. The last NBA team to win a championship without one was the 2004 Detroit Pistons, and that was only because the Kobe-Shaq Lakers finally imploded.
It’s possible the Nuggets have the resources at their disposal to finally land the superstar who’s been missing since Carmelo Anthony forced his way out. Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins is likely the superstar Denver has the best chance of acquiring. The Kings are in a constant state of dysfunction. This trade would also reunite Cousins with Nuggets coach Mike Malone, who seemed to be the only NBA coach Cousins ever showed respect. Might Denver’s three-first round picks, one of its young centers (Nurkic or Jokic) and one of its proven veterans (Faried or Gallinari) be enough to get a deal done?
Denver should also monitor the situations in Chicago and Cleveland. Jimmy Butler clashed at times with first-year coach Fred Hoiberg, and the Bulls seem to be in a weird place. And depending on how the Finals shake out, Cleveland’s Kevin Love could become available. The Cavaliers have massive resources devoted to their frontcourt.
It’s unclear what the Nuggets’ roster will look like in a month’s time. There could be as many as three first-round picks who populate next year’s roster. There even could be an established star. Denver has plenty of options to improve its team leading up the draft. Those options, added onto the nice pieces already in place, should give fans of the franchise hope, which as a wise man once reminded us, is a good thing, maybe the best of things.