In the Something To Prove series, we’ll be taking a look at a few players from each team with — you guessed it — something to prove during the 2017-18 season. Some may be at a career crossroads, while others may need to prove an added part of their game is sustainable.
The Denver Nuggets didn’t end their playoff drought last season, but they’re trending upward. Denver finished with 40 wins, battling for the eighth seed for a large chunk of the season before faltering late (and Portland going on a run). Denver was led by Serbian star Nikola Jokic, the anchor of a surprisingly elite offense. But a lack of competent defenders ultimately doomed the Nuggets.
The Nuggets attempted to address their defense by adding All-Star forward Paul Millsap. He is the type of veteran star that can lead younger players and produce enough to put Denver over the hump. Even in the deep Western Conference, Denver should be a playoff team this year with reasonable health. Beyond that goal, here are the players with the most to prove this season.
The ball is in your court: Emmanuel Mudiay
The hype surrounding Mudiay when he entered the league is comparable to hype Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz received this year. At 6 feet 5 with blinding speed, the Mudiay-John Wall comparisons came faster than he did in transition. He projected as a two-way terror; in theory, he could get to the rim at will, carve up defenses in pick-and-roll and hound smaller guards on defense. He was supposed to be the Next Big Thing.
Through two seasons, Mudiay has been nothing short of a bust. So far, he has been a moderate-volume, low-efficiency guard who can’t shoot and turns the ball over too often. Instead of compensating defensively, he has largely looked like a fish out of water. He eventually lost his starting spot to the corpse of Jameer Nelson last season; to say that’s concerning for Nuggets fans would be an understatement.
To be fair, Mudiay has dealt with multiple coaches and scheme changes. Young prospects, and especially young point guards, need stability and room to grow. Mudiay hasn’t exactly had the support system that young Tony Parker did when he was a wet-behind-the-ears 19-year-old.
Mudiay showed some flashes in the second half of last season. Specifically, he really grew as a passer in pick-and-roll (70th percentile, per Synergy). The game slowed down for him some, and he did a better job of reading defenses. Below, watch how he flings wrap-arounds as he turns the corner. The last one to Danilo Gallinari was with his left hand:
Jamal Murray projects to be the opening-night starter for Denver. Mudiay should still see plenty of floor time as long as he continues growing. He’ll need to improve his jumper a great deal; as of now, teams still cheat way under on screens when he’s involved in pick-and-roll. He’ll also need to get a lot better defensively. Another year under coach Mike Malone should help his familiarity and awareness. He certainly has the tools to be a multi-positional defender, but it’s up to him to put it all together.
Mudiay might not ever become a star. If he can build on his second half, he’ll at least become a competent backup with the potential to groom into a solid starter. That’s a lot better than becoming West Coast Michael Carter-Williams.
We need answers, Sway: Nikola Jokic
It’s going to take another season or so before casual fans catch up to the uniqueness of Nikola Jokic. For those who need it, here’s a brief, three-stat introduction.
- In 27.9 minutes a game, Jokic averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists with a 58/32/83 shooting split. The list of players to match the per-game part is 16 players deep; only Wilt Chamberlain eclipsed Jokic’s field goal percentage, and none of them accomplished the feat in under 30 minutes a night.
- Jokic became the full-time starter on Dec. 15. From that date onward, not only did his numbers shoot up (19-11-6; 59/34/83), the Nuggets became the NBA’s best offense (113.3 offensive rating). Yes, better than the Warriors (112.9).
- Jokic had six triple-doubles, first among big men and fourth in the league. He outclassed Draymond Green (five) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (three) in that category.
Offensively, there isn’t much Jokic can’t do. He was an elite post scorer, was insanely efficient from inside 20 feet, and could toss the ball around the lot. The intangible impact is worth discussing as well. His presence and ability created gravity, but guys loved playing with him because of his unselfishness. Players are willing to cut hard when they know they can (and will) be rewarded for it. The Jokic-Gary Harris connection became a staple of the offense because of it:
The challenge for Jokic is to keep up this level of production. He won’t sneak up on teams like he did in his first two seasons. He’ll likely see a larger minute load, so it’ll be interesting to see how his efficiency is affected.
He’ll also need to step up defensively. He doesn’t have the lateral quickness to hedge-and-recover in high pick-and-roll, nor can he contain quicker players on switches. He’s not an explosive athlete either, and has been a poor rim protector.
One thing working for Jokic is that he’s an intelligent player. The best case scenario is becoming an under-the-rim savant like Marc Gasol, another high IQ big with less-than-ideal athleticism. Of course, Gasol is an outlier so it’d be unfair to expect that type of leap. If Jokic can improve his positioning and contest shots, he can tread water defensively. That’d be a win for Denver.
- Jamal Murray: Murray had a decent rookie campaign, putting up 9.9 points with a 40/33/88 shooting split. He started coming into his own after the All-Star break (12-3-3; 42/34/90) and, like virtually everyone else, played well alongside Jokic. He’s more scorer than playmaker, which is fine with the offense running through Jokic. He feasted on the move, ranking in the 74th percentile on dribble-handoffs, 70th percentile as a cutter, and 58th percentile coming off screens. In Year 2, his defense should improve. He’ll never be quick enough to handle the elite point guards of the West, but funneling guys into help and not getting lost as much off ball would go a long way. The starting job is practically his to lose.
- Kenneth Faried: This is a big season for Faried. He hasn’t proven to be much outside of an energy guy. That has value of course; his activity on the glass and his eagerness to run the floor in transition creates (extra) opportunities for himself and others. However, he offers no shooting range, and despite his constant activity, he isn’t a good defender. With the addition of Millsap, Faried will see a dip in playing time. He’ll need to diversify his game or at least improve defensively to earn a consistent rotation spot. If not, don’t be surprised if a now-healthy Darrell Arthur or newcomer Trey Lyles takes his minutes.
More NBA Coverage
- Grading Denver’s offseason
- Paul Millsap addition puts Denver in unique place
- 2017-18 NBA Power Rankings | Offseason edition