Malik Beasley was still struggling to get consistent minutes with the quarter mark of his second NBA season approaching. The 21-year-old, who Denver used the 19h overall pick on in 2016, spent most of his rookie season watching from the bench, providing support with his his dance moves and gobbling up garbage-time minutes.
Beasley's sophomore year looked a lot like the first — at least until he got into the game Dec. 6 against the Pelicans.
With his team struggling to get stops, Nuggets coach Michael Malone turned to Beasley in the hopes that he'd provide a boost defensively. Beasley played 17 minutes that night. Ever since, he's been a fixture in Denver's rotation because of his ability on the defensive end.
"Usually when I go out there I’ll have Will Barton or Gary Harris out there with me. I know they can score the ball. And I know I can score the ball every now and again. But my main focus is to defend," Beasley said. "I’ve been taking the challenge to defend really well and watch film a lot."
Beasley has received double-digit minutes in the Nuggets' last six games. He played a season-high 29 minutes against the Orlando Magic on Dec. 8 then logged 24 minutes against the Detroit Pistons four nights later. Against the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 10, Beasley was responsible for one of the highlights of the game when he sprinted back on defense and swatted Victor Oladipo's shot.
Denver is a markedly better defensive team with Beasley on the floor. When he plays, the Nuggets are allowing 104.5 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, they allow 108.1 points per 100 possessions.
"What I like about Malik is that one he’s going to guard," Malone said after Denver's Nov. 8 win over the Magic. "And two, offensively, he’s not afraid. I think we saw that tonight even in the second half. I’m happy that not only is he getting an opportunity, but that he’s taking advantage of that opportunity and showing that he belongs to be out there. So I’m really happy for him as well."
Beasley's shown flashes on the offensive end, though he still has a way to go. He's averaging 6.0 points on 38.1 percent shooting in December.
Defensively, Beasley credits his improvement to increased film study. Effort is a large part of the equation on that end. But so is knowing your opponent's tendencies, he said.
"You’ve got to know personnel, Beasley said. "If there’s a non-shooter in the corner, you can’t just go running to him and let him drive by, you know. It takes effort and knowing personnel and studying the game."
He's finally carved out a spot in the rotation after waiting his turn as a rookie. His energy and defense will be needed as Denver closes 2017 out on a challenging seven-game stretch starting tonight against the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
"We’re finally getting to that stretch where teams are starting to get tired, fatigued," Beasley said. "It’s the holiday season. It happens. I think instead of dying down, we turned it up a little bit more. That’s going to be huge for us down the road because we have some heat coming."
Malone: Let Westbrook be Westbrook
The Thunder have gotten off to a disappointing start after acquiring Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this summer. They've already lost games to the Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Charlotte Hornets and New York Knicks. As of Monday morning, they sat eighth in the Western Conference with a 14-15 record.
The Westbrook-George-Anthony trio has struggled to gel. The way Malone sees it, Westbrook needs to get back to playing the maniacal brand of basketball he did a season ago.
“I think they’re still trying to find themselves to be honest," Malone said Sunday. "I do think they’re improved. I think they’re starting to come together a little bit. I think at some point Russell Westbrook has to get back to being Russell Westbrook. When you add a Paul George, when you add a Carmelo Anthony, you can see Westbrook trying to play his game and also trying to get everybody else involved, whereas last year he just played. He was obviously the MVP. But yeah, they look a little more improved. I think they’re getting closer to figuring it out."
Westbrook is averaging 22.8 points on 38.8 percent shooting this season — down from the 31.6 he averaged in 2016-17 on 42.5 percent shooting. Asking him to be more aggressive when he's playing alongside George and Anthony is an interesting take on Oklahoma City's early-season struggles.