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You don’t have to be Red Auerbach’s niece or Don Nelson’s nephew to know what it looks when an NBA player is “feeling it.” You’ve seen the signs before: When a player hits a couple shots in a row and goes to a place where his rhythm can’t be disrupted. When he pulls the trigger with zero hesitation, capitalizing on any mistake the defense makes. When he’s open and calls for the ball so loud you can hear it through the TV screen.
Last week, in the second quarter of the Nuggets’ preseason game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Trey Lyles got to that place. He swished a corner 3, drained a midrange fadeaway, drilled a second 3 from the left wing, dropped in a smooth step-back and capped everything off with a dunk as halftime approached. He scored a dozen points in the second quarter. It was the type of spark the Nuggets are hoping to see more of from the 22-year-old forward in his second season with the team.
In five preseason games, Lyles averaged 12.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists. He was one of the standout performers on a strong Nuggets’ bench unit.
At media day in September, Malone emphasized that Lyles needed to get consistent rotation minutes — even if it meant occasionally throwing him in at small forward. Lyles helped keep Denver afloat when Paul Millsap missed 44 games with a wrist injury last season, but when Millsap returned in late February, Lyles’ playing time dwindled. This year, Malone seems determined to find a way to play Lyles double-digit minutes on a nightly basis.
“I think he’s a guy who we can use in a lot of different ways,” Malone said. “Offensively, he can play almost any position. He has that kind of skill set.”
Offensively, Lyles’ game starts with his ability to hit the 3. He shot 40.6 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s in 2017-18, which was tied with Gary Harris for the second-best mark on the team. When Lyles attacked, he did so in straight lines. He liked pump faking and using one or two dribbles to get to the rim, where he shot 65 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass, a massive improvement from his first two seasons in Utah.
Lyles reached double figures in all five of Denver’s preseason games. His 12-point second quarter against the Clippers was an excellent example of all the ways he can hurt a defense. When the Clippers switched Jerome Robinson onto him, Lyles looked like a seasoned veteran by bumping Robinson backwards, pivoting and stroking a 14-foot fadeaway.
Later in the quarter, Lyles’ power was on display when he rolled to the basket and flushed a Monte Morris feed.
That Lyles showed he could score the ball in a number of ways was not surprising. He proved he could be a consistent scoring threat last year, averaging 13.0 points on 49.8 percent shooting in Millsap’s absence. However, the playmaking ability Lyles flashed in the preseason was new. Lyles handed out 17 assists compared to seven turnovers. He had four games with four assists or more — a feat he accomplished only three times in 2017-18.
“I’ve been capable of that. I just think it showed in spurts last year,” Lyles said. “A lot of defenses are starting to key in on me as a guy who can score. It just gives me an opportunity to get guys open shots.”
The Nuggets relied on Will Barton last year to create offense when their starters went to the bench. Now that Barton’s earned a promotion, Denver could ask Lyles to step into that role. The 6-foot-10 forward has a unique blend of size and skill. He’s a talented scorer who still has so much room to grow.
Lyles will get consistent minutes from the beginning in 2018-19. On Monday, Malone said Lyles, Morris and Mason Plumlee will all be in the rotation against the Clippers on Wednesday. With a defined role in a system he’s comfortable in, Lyles could in line for a big year as heads into restricted free agency next summer.
Lyles stepped up in a big way last season. It’s possible we’ve only seen a glimpse of what he’s capable of.
“I know I can make shots,” Lyles said. Every time I shoot it, I think it’s going in.”