After a week in Las Vegas the Denver Nuggets' 2015 Summer League run is officially in the books. The Nuggets kicked off the sporting desert festival on a high note winning each of their first three games, yet lost in the first round of the playoffs and later dropped the final game of the tournament in the consolation round. It was an overall impressive showing for a young Nuggets roster complete with numerous moments that exemplified why fans should be exited for the future, as outlined below...
Emmanuel Mudiay was the story of Summer League. From the first time he stepped on the court in Las Vegas it was clear he was in a different class than everyone else. He was quicker, smarter, more athletic, more talented, more everything. After he had a few games under his belt his passes weren't even being received by his teammates as they were too firm and unexpected -- a signpost he belonged alongside NBA talent, not in Las Vegas with players struggling to find a role at the next level. And though he did struggle on defense and though his shot does need ample work, there's no doubt Mudiay has the tools to become an absolute stud in the NBA.
With Ty Lawson gone and the keys to the franchise firmly implanted in Mudiay's hands, the real question now becomes what exactly is Mudiay's ceiling? Superstars in the NBA start off at a high level yet continue to grow at a rapid pace all the way through their prime until their health inevitably fails them. In other words, they always get better. Given how good Mudiay is already, you can't help but wonder where he'll be in three, five or seven years if the Nuggets are able to retain him.
Though it's difficult to project the arc of Mudiay's career as a 19 year old, what is obvious is that the Nuggets once again have a star for the first time since Carmelo Anthony left town. This sentiment alone is incredibly comforting; however, winning at a high rate in the NBA isn't about obtaining one superstar. Any team with a disastrous season can achieve this through the lottery. The real challenge for the Nuggets moving forward is what they put around Mudiay, how many more stars they can collect, how many more premier role players they can retain. Nevertheless, Tim Connelly and his crew deserve all the credit in the world for targeting and ultimately drafting Mudiay. This really cannot be overstated.
The process to becoming a legitimate threat in the Western Conference has to start somewhere, often with a star player, and for the first time in a really long time it appears that process is underway in Denver.
2. Nikola Jokic has innate talent but is a project nonetheless
Aside from Mudiay, no player on the Nuggets' Summer League roster was more intriguing and at the same time mysterious as Nikola Jokic. After winning the Adriatic League's MVP award at the ripe age of 19, Nuggets fans everywhere lined up in front of their TVs to see what this kid was really made of. And the product he manifested on the floor was pretty much just as you'd expect: blood-dripping raw, lost, a step behind on every rotation, a deer in the headlights; yet at the same time teeming with innate talent, with extraordinary vision (especially for a 20-year-old center), complete a silky-smooth shot to top it all off.
Watching him against some of the more promising rookies in the NBA, against guys who'd already carved out brief careers in the league but who were looking to showcase their skills for a second go-round, it was clear Jokic has what it takes to contribute in the NBA -- especially given his age and experience level playing against NBA-caliber athletes. That said, Jokic is nowhere near that point at the present time. If he's to log serious minutes at the center position next season the Nuggets are in trouble. Because he's just not ready yet. Give him a few years, however, and he could be a valued member of the Nuggets rotation, especially alongside Jusuf Nurkic.
All in all, what we learned most about Jokic is that he's an intelligent basketball player. Some of the passes he made in Vegas should not have been executed by a 7-foot 20 year old -- same applies for his shooting. Jokic also rarely forced anything and seemed cognizant of his overall abilities, never once committing an erroneous mistake out of pure vanity or the need to prove himself. In the NBA, this type of mentality -- a simple intellect -- can carry you a long way. Assuming he masters the art of rotations -- which, there's no reason to believe he won't -- and gains an aggressive edge on offense, I have little doubt Jokic will turn into a fine prospect with the Nuggets... it just might take some time.
3. Erick Green can score the rock
I admit to being a bona fide Erick Green skeptic coming into this year's Summer League festivities in Vegas -- and to some extent I still wonder how he'll manage to secure a spot in an NBA rotation as a 6-3 scoring guard. What I can no longer deny, however, is that regardless of his physical dimensions Erick Green can really shoot the basketball.
Through five games in Vegas on only 24 minutes per contest Green averaged 15 points, four assists and two steals on 54 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. He led the Nuggets in points per game and 3-point shooting while finishing second in steals and assists per game. And though his numbers were impressive it was Green's ability to knock down one jumper after another that really stole the show.
I cannot emphasize enough how solid Green's jumpshot was during all five of the Nuggets' games in Vegas. Often players will get hot one game and cold or mediocre the next two, but Green was scorching every single time he stepped on the floor. As I stated in one of my Summer League recaps, after about the third game I just figured every shot Green hoisted up was going in. That's how accurate he was.
With the departure of Ty Lawson and the arrival of two more fringe roster players it's difficult to project Green's future with the Nuggets. After his performance in Summer League there's no question he belongs on an NBA roster, yet whether that roster plays home games on 1,000 Chopper Circle is anyone's guess at this point.
4. Gary Harris might not be that good of a shooter -- but he's a really good basketball player
Somewhere along the line in Gary Harris' young career he's been unwittingly dubbed a deadly 3-point shooter. At Michigan State he had a solid jumper behind the arc, and though he can certainly knock down buckets from the NBA 3-point line, the idea that parking behind the arc for open threes is what he should be doing on a nightly basis is completely erroneous.
Harris' best attribute is defense. It has been since Day 1. His second best attribute is he's a smart basketball player who can dish the rock in impressive fashion and make the right basketball play nearly every time he has the ball. Third, he can score while driving the lane. And finally, when he's open, he can knock down long-range jumpers. This is the order in which Harris can and often does affect the game most potently. We saw this at Michigan State, we saw in last year in the NBA and we saw it this year at Summer League. This is just who Gary Harris is as a basketball player.
Moving forward it's absolutely paramount Harris plays within himself. Michael Malone will be a great influence for him, nudging Harris toward focusing on defense rather than offense. And this will in turn help the Nuggets win more games than if he simply tries to become a knock-down outside shooter -- which he isn't.
Harris' upcoming sophomore season will not be bereft of struggle. Chances are he'll still mess up quite a bit as he continues to adjust to the speed of the NBA game. But it's important to remember that at 20 years old Harris is still the third youngest player on the Nuggets' roster -- younger than even Jusuf Nurkic. Where he can help the Nuggets tremendously next year is on defense. If he does that, his offense will come easy and in due time.
5. Emmanuel Mudiay and the Nuggets' impressive young core isn't enough to compete out West
There's plenty of reasons to be excited if you're a Denver Nuggets fan. Emmanuel Mudiay has the makings of a star. Jusuf Nurkic might very well challenge for an All-Star team in a few years. The Nuggets have an array of young, talented role players and a nice sprinkling of veterans to do the tutoring. But as promising as this squad is heading into the future it's still not even remotely close to what the Nuggets need to actually compete in the Western Conference.
Take Oklahoma City this past season for example. They still had a superstar in Russell Westbrook and a nice core group of young talent to surround him. Yet without Kevin Durant where exactly did it get them? At home, watching the playoffs from their living room. And all because of the simple absence of one player.
The fact is, in the NBA, if you want to truly compete for a title you need at the very minimum two perennial All-Stars as the main course and tons of depth a la carte. Perhaps the Nuggets have some of that even as we speak, but Mudiay alone isn't gonna get the Nuggets very far come playoff time. What the Nuggets need, crazy at is sounds, is not just another Mudiay -- but an ever better one.
How they'll go about attaining this type of talent is the real dilemma. Tim Connelly and co. haven't exactly been dominating the free agency market over the last few years; in fact, they've probably been one of the worst teams in the NBA at attracting top-tier talent (likely due to their salary cap situation and longterm plans more than anything). Perhaps the attractiveness of Mudiay can change this, but in all likelihood the Nuggets' best opportunity to obtain another star player is through the draft, just as was the case this summer.
The Nuggets are gonna be good enough next season under Malone to win at least the same number of games they did this past year. And maybe they can figure out some sort of deal to move up in next year's draft. But the real chance the Nuggets have of landing another Mudiay-caliber talent is through the New York Knicks, whom the Nuggets have the rights to swap picks with in the 2016 NBA Draft.
The Knicks were awful this year and totally whiffed in free agency despite a few pleasant acquisitions in Arron Afflalo and Robin Lopez. But if the Knicks think those two guys are gonna turn things around they're in for quite the surprise. Of course this greatly benefits the Nuggets in increasing their chances of landing yet another high draft pick two years in a row.
Long story short (or long at this point): The No. 1 team Nuggets fans should be paying attention to this upcoming season isn't really the Nuggets, but the New York Knicks. If the Knicks season even partially resembles what it did last year the Nuggets might finally have the pieces to make a legitimate run at the Conference Finals thanks to yet another high lottery selection.
As of now that remains a long ways away. And there's still lots of time for the Nuggets to maneuver their roster to find a sidekick or perhaps even an alpha dog to pair alongside Mudiay through trades. Either way, if the Nuggets are serious about contending, they absolutely cannot be satisfied with Mudiay alone. Instead, they should be just getting started.
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