Who would have ever thought that something as seemingly innocuous as ping-pong balls, would become as seminally important to the fate of every NBA franchise? Yet these tiny, celluloid spheres have become the backbone for every rebuilding team, arguably the most valuable commodity that exists in the marketplace of the NBA.
With that sentiment serving as a backdrop, the Denver Nuggets enter this offseason poised to land their highest draft pick since 2003, when they selected their last franchise-changing player in Carmelo Anthony with the third overall pick. They, more than almost any other team in the league, are starved for an elite-level player to take them to the next level.
Enter Justise Winslow.
Winslow’s performance in the NCAA tournament sent him skyrocketing up the draft boards of most experts, and he now projects to be a top-five pick. He has an NBA-ready body, superior athleticism and a surprising amount of polish on his offensive game for a 19-year-old. He is versatile enough to play three positions, although he appears to be best suited for the small forward.
Most importantly, he stepped up his game when it mattered most. Over six NCAA tournament games he averaged 14.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game and was an integral part of Duke’s national championship run. In addition to being supremely, physically gifted, he appears to have the “it” factor.
On the court, Winslow excels at many things. While not yet a prolific scorer, he is extremely efficient, which bodes well for his ability to translate that efficiency into higher volume scoring at the next level. But where he really shines offensively, is in transition, which should fit perfectly with the Nuggets’ desire to return to a faster brand of basketball. He understands how to use his large frame to get to the rim, and finish with either power or finesse.
He is also a good three-point shooter, finishing at 41 percent from behind the arc as a freshman. Pairing him with Danilo Gallinari on the wing could create one of the more deadly and versatile combinations in the league, as both can drive, distribute and knock down open shots.
Defensively, Winslow has the potential to be an elite-level defender at the next level. If slotted in at shooting guard, as he would often be on a Nuggets team with both Gallo and Wilson Chandler, he would have a distinct size advantage over most players he would face while still maintaining the quickness needed to stay in front of his assignment. His 6’10” wingspan would absolutely blanket most shooting guards on a nightly basis.
In short, he is exactly what the Nuggets need, and they should do anything in their power to ensure he is donning the powder blue and gold next season.
As a result of their loss on the final night of the season, the Nuggets finished with the seventh worst record in the league. This means they will get 43 out of 1,000 combinations for a shot at a top-three draft pick. If they don’t land a top selection, they will end up with a pick somewhere between seven and 11, depending on how gets slotted into the first three picks.
Assuming for a minute that they fall outside of the top three, which is invariably how the basketball gods will have it, they then slide into dangerous territory in which it becomes a nearly insurmountable task to uncover a franchise-altering player.
Sure, this is territory in which players like Steph Curry (2009), Paul George (2010), Andre Drummond (2012), and Klay Thompson (2013) have been selected, but it has also netted duds like Terrence Williams (2009), Jimmer Fredette (2011) and Austin Rivers (2012). Typically, this is where players like Brandon Jennings (2009), Al-Farouq Aminu (2010), Terrence Ross (2012) and Trey Burke (2012) emerge as serviceable, but not spectacular, building blocks.
In case you haven’t paid much attention to the NBA the last two seasons, serviceably unspectacular pretty much sums up the Nuggets in every aspect. From the unremarkable, and at times controversial tenure of former coach Brian Shaw, to the questioning of the competence of the front office by respected media outlets, the Nuggets haven’t had much go in their favor lately, and now is the time to change that.
As the trade deadline approached this past February, the Nuggets were seemingly involved in every trade rumor that surfaced. They made no qualms about their desire to begin dismantling this core and made some strides towards that end by offloading JaVale McGee’s albatross of a contract, moving Timofey Mozgov to the Cleveland Cavaliers for two first-round picks and by moving Arron Afflalo, who would have undoubtedly changed teams this offseason anyway.
But, in the process, they also left several of their major chips on the table. Numerous teams expressed interest in Ty Lawson to no avail. Wilson Chandler was coveted by several contenders, including the Portland Trail Blazers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Nuggets also balked at all offers for him.
It was confusing at the time, but as the season wraps up, and the eyes of many teams turn towards the draft, the Nuggets appear to be set up for a major move on draft day that would better position them to select a top-tier, franchise-altering type of player, like many believe Winslow could be.
They have the assets to make such a deal happen. In addition to their own, they have three first round picks they received in other deals over the next two seasons. They also have Lawson, who most still consider a top-10 point guard, and would certainly be desired by at least several of the teams that could sit ahead of the Nuggets on draft day. New Sacramento Kings’ coach George Karl has already been rumored to have interest in trading for his former point guard. The The New York Knicks certainly make sense as a trade partner, as they are desperate for point guard help. I could also see the Utah Jazz taking a flyer on Lawson if they wind up with a top-three pick.
Kenneth Faried, despite being owed what has been widely viewed as an exorbitant amount of money, has also been involved in trade speculation, although that has subsided a bit since the departure of Shaw, whose relationship with Faried was famously strained. His absence in the final game of the season has refueled some of the speculation, as it was perceived as the Nuggets resting a valuable trade asset.
The Nuggets should really be willing to part with anyone on their team not named Jusuf Nurkic to move up in the draft to land Winslow. Nobody else on their roster should be considered untouchable.
The Nuggets desperately need a superstar, and Winslow being available with a fifth overall pick–as he is in most of the new mock drafts behind Karl Anthony-Towns, Jahlil Okafor, Emmanuel Mudiay and D’Angelo Russell–could be the dangling carrot the Nuggets need to alter the fate of their damaged franchise.
As is often the case in life, the Nuggets must be willing to take a significant risk, by unloading core elements of their current roster, in order to turn their franchise around. Winslow could very well be the elixir that cures what ails them.