The Denver Nuggets tip off Summer League play from Las Vegas tonight versus the Houston Rockets (8 p.m. MT, NBATV), their first of at least five guaranteed games in Sin City.
Highlighting Denver’s roster this summer are second-year players Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez, along with 24th overall pick Tyler Lydon. Some other names to watch are Nuggets’ draft-and-stash prospects Nikola Radicevic and Petr Cornelie, 2017 second-round pick Monte Morris and ex-Maryland big man Robert Carter.
It’s difficult to draw conclusions from a few exhibition games in Vegas. Last summer, point guard Kris Dunn looked like the best player in his rookie class for two games when he tallied 21 and then 27 points on over 50 percent shooting, but struggled in his rookie season shooting just 37.7 percent from the field and averaging 3.8 points in a paltry 17.7 minutes per game. Sacramento’s Willie Cauley-Stein struggled in Vegas last year and only shot 25.7 percent from the field over four games before upping his field goal percentage to 53.0 percent during his sophomore season with the Kings.
With that in mind, here’s what to watch for in Denver’s Summer League opener:
Friday night marks the first time that Lydon will slip on Denver’s blue and gray Las Vegas threads in a game setting.
The 24th overall pick in June’s draft, who signed his rookie contract on Thursday before Denver held their final Summer League practice, will get his first chance to impress a Nuggets fan base that has high expectations for the 21-year-old.
Don’t know much about Lydon? He’s a 6-foot-10 stretch four who shot 39.2 percent from three in his sophomore season at Syracuse and was regarded as one of the better shooters in this year’s draft. Prepare for Lydon to roam the perimeter from wing to wing and corner to corner looking to pop at a moment’s notice. Shooting is Lydon’s strong suit so that’s his best chance to make a substantial impact early on.
Defensively, Lydon could struggle. He’s picked up man-to-man concepts well in the early going, according to Summer League head coach Micah Nori, but the fact that he played exclusively zone in college means he’s got to learn on the fly. Lydon has good instincts and is regarded as a high-IQ player that’s willing to learn, so look for how he progresses on defense from game to game.
The good news for Lydon is he won’t be relied on to contribute meaningful minutes during his rookie season. He’ll enter training camp behind a slew of power forwards already on the Nuggets’ roster.
Beasley, Hernangomez should shine
Beasley and Hernangomez will be Denver’s two featured players on offense in the games they do play in Vegas and Nori will look to get them in a flow early and often.
Nori’s said on multiple occasions at practice this week that the Nuggets have specific sets designed to get the two second-year players looks on offense. Both Beasley and Hernangomez, who played small roles with the Nuggets last season, are looking forward to that opportunity.
“They’re running plays for us and they’re on us more than they’re on the other guys if we mess up,” Beasley told BSN Denver on Wednesday. “It’s always good to be the No. 1 option, but I’m just going to play my game and keep doing what I do.”
The two should have their way with the opposition this weekend.
Point of attack
Denver’s Summer League roster boasts a strong crop of point guards, some of which could fight for a roster spot come training camp.
Radicevic, 23, was Denver’s second-round pick in 2015 and played abroad in Spain for Real Betis over the last two seasons. After a hip injury nixed most of his 2016 campaign, Radicevic rebounded this past year and averaged 9.3 points and 2.7 assists in nearly 25 minutes per game. Radicevic isn’t the most prolific shooter but at 6-foot-5 is a heady lead guard who knows the game and is more than capable of running an offense.
Morris, 22, was the 51st overall pick in June and is a coach’s dream at the point. At 6-foot-3, Morris has good size and led the country in assist to turnover ratio in all of his four seasons at Iowa State. Morris doesn’t make mistakes, which is the best way to make it on the floor as a rookie so don’t be surprised if his bandwagon gets a little crowded over the next week. He’s set to log a ton of minutes in Vegas.
Nuggets’ guard and second-team All-Rookie selection Jamal Murray practiced with the team this week in Denver but is not expected to play in Las Vegas. Murray underwent offseason surgery to repair core muscle-related injuries but will be back to 100 percent once Denver opens training camp in September.
Houston’s roster is highlighted by second-round pick Isaiah Hartenstein, a 7-footer from Germany who could have his way with Denver’s undersized front line. 2016 second-round pick Zhou Qi, a 7-2, 21-year-old who just signed a multi-year contract with Houston, will make his Rockets debut as well.