Sitting at 13th overall in this month’s draft with an already stacked rotation that needs to be thinned out before next season, the Nuggets have a bevy of options when it comes to their first round selection.
Consolidating assets while moving up near the top-5 to draft a player like Jonathan Isaac, someone who would fit well next to Nikola Jokic is the gold medal move but something that doesn’t seem too likely or possible at this juncture. Drafting a fringe lottery talent at 13, who would likely sit behind Malik Beasley and Darrell Arthur at the end of Denver’s bench while bouncing back-and-forth between another organization’s D-League affiliate is another option, albeit a less appealing and more likely one.
But if Denver finds themselves at 13, with the likes of Indiana’s OG Anunoby off the board — the last prospect likely available in that range that would provide enough value to Denver to warrant a selection — the Nuggets should entertain a scenario in which they trade back in the first round, pick up or unload an additional asset and still get a player they like.
It seems like the Nuggets could be aligning themselves to that strategy more and more as this week they hosted two prospects likely to be selected in the 20’s; Terrance Ferguson, a Dallas native who played last season in Australia and T.J. Leaf, a stretch-four out of UCLA.
Ferguson, who we profiled earlier this week, is a long-term play and a rangy, athletic wing who could develop into a prototypical 3-and-D rotation player in due time. But Leaf, who’s slated to go 21st in DraftExpress’ latest mock could be a target as well.
At nearly 6-10 in shoes with a 6-11 wingspan, Leaf has the size to play the stretch-four position at the next level. He’s not the quickest prospect in the draft, can’t jump the highest (he did log a healthy 34.5″ max vertical at the draft combine), but does possess the basketball IQ and awareness necessary on offense to flourish at the next level.
Leaf’s an unselfish player in the halfcourt, someone who looks to make the extra pass and always tries to find a way to get others involved.
“At UCLA we liked to move the ball. We like to cut, we like to run and that’s what the Nuggets do,” Leaf said after his workout in Denver Friday. “They give you the freedom to make the pass and that’s what I do well. I like making that pass and you see Jokic, who’s kind of the catalyst for it, a great passer and he’d be just a ton of fun to play with.”
As a team, the Nuggets averaged 25.2 assists per game last season. That was the fifth-best mark in the league and a number that’s likely to increase next season with Jokic at the helm for a full year.
But don’t sell Leaf short as just a distributor on offense. He averaged 16.3 points per game on a loaded Bruins squad and shot 46.6 percent (27-58) from beyond the arc last season. Leaf projects as a role player who can stretch the defense out to the three-point line, and could add some more firepower off the bench to an already potent Nuggets’ offense.
Leaf won’t wow you on the defensive end, won’t be counted on to buckle down and get stops at least in his rookie season, but Denver can address their needs on defense in free agency where they could have upwards of $35 million to spend just to get to the salary cap floor. The 20-year-old, who was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, would fill defined role in Denver from day one.
“I think when my game develops I’ll be able to play a little bit more positions, but I think coming in I’ll be a stretch-four,” Leaf said.
Juancho Hernangomez, who Denver selected at 15th overall last season has a higher ceiling than Leaf and more tools in his toolbox in terms of two-way ability, but you can never have enough versatile threes and fours who can threaten a defense from distance.
“I play basketball the right way and I try to make the right plays. That’s a big part of my game,” Leaf said. “I think a lot of people are starting to see that I make the right plays. I’m a good facilitator and scorer so I’m not just a one-dimensional player. I can do a lot of things.”
A high basketball IQ is the most important skill-set in today’s NBA. Offenses and defenses are running at lightning-quick speeds for 48 minutes and players need to know how to read-and-react in certain situations on both ends of the floor in a split-second’s time. Leaf won’t come into the league as a good defender and would likely be an enormous minus on that end of the floor in his rookie season. But he’s surprisingly quick with decent length.
He’d be a smart and logical target for Denver if they do decide to trade down in the first round come June 22.