Hypotheticals and the NBA Draft go hand-in-hand. So in the spirit of the “what-if,” let me propose one scenario the Denver Nuggets could face Thursday.
Let’s say that one of the two great 3-point shooting prospects — Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield and Kentucky’s Jamal Murray — are on the board when the Nuggets pick at No. 7. And let’s also say that Washington forward Marquese Chriss is available.
There’s probably not a great chance of this happening; some mock drafts have Chriss going as high as No. 3 to Boston. But it’s not a pipe dream either. So for the sake of this column, let’s say that scenario plays out.
Should the Nuggets, the fifth-worst 3-point shooting team last year, do the safe thing and draft the sniper? Or should they roll the dice and gamble on Chriss, an 18-year-old kid who didn’t start hooping until high school?
If I were Nuggets General Manager Tim Connelly, I’d gamble on Chriss for two reasons. The first is that Chriss’ NBA potential is just too great to pass up. The second is that the Nuggets have the players and picks already in place to mitigate the damage of drafting a boom-or-bust player at seven and having him turn out to be a dud.
Let’s start by examining Chriss’ game.
The first thing that stands out about him is his athleticism. At times, it seems like Chriss has pogo sticks for legs. He gets high off the ground in a hurry. His highlight reel is full of filthy dunks and blocks that make the backboard shake. This weak-side rejection against Colorado might have caused a minor earthquake.
There’s also a fluidity to Chriss’ game that’s uncommon for a player with his size (6 feet, 10 inches, 233 pounds) and lack of experience (he didn’t start playing organized basketball until high school). He knocked down 35 percent of his 3’s last year as a freshman at Washington, and his shooting stroke looks smooth and repeatable. He can put the ball on the floor and is particularly adept at using spin moves to get his shot off.
All of these skills were on display in Chriss’ final college game against San Diego State. He scored 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting, recorded two steals and blocked two shots. It’s easy to see why NBA talent evaluators are slobbering over his potential when you watch these highlights.
Watch that whole game, though, and you’ll see the warts. Chriss is an abysmal defensive rebounder — the indispensable Draft Express calls him “among the least prolific power forwards in NBA Draft history according to our database” — who consistently fails to block out. He can’t use his left hand. And he can’t play without fouling. He averaged 4.1 fouls in 25 minutes per game last year.
There’s no question: Taking Chriss with a top-7 pick is risky. The team that drafts him is doing so based on what he could do, not what he will do. But few teams in the lottery are as well positioned as the Nuggets to take on that risk. They’ve nailed the draft the last two years, and they’ve got picks and trade pieces going forward to bounce back if they miss at seven this season.
Their haul in 2014 netted them Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic, who, after staying in Europe for a year, finished third in Rookie of the Year voting last season. Then last year, they got point guard of the future Emmanuel Mudiay at seven. Two drafts, four members of a promising young core.
They’ve also got plenty more bullets in the chamber. Thanks to various trades, the Nuggets have the right to five — five! — first-round picks in the next two drafts. They hold Nos. 15 and 19 selections Thursday, and in the 2017, they have the rights to their own first-round pick plus a first-rounder from Memphis.
Few lottery teams are better positioned to turn their fortunes around than the Nuggets — even if they screw up the seventh pick Thursday. They have a young core that exceeded expectations last year. They have a boat-load of picks. And they have guys on tradable contracts, like Danilo Gallinari or Kenneth Faried.
So why not gamble on Chriss if he’s there?