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The 2015 Denver Nuggets Summer League roster is set to take the stage in less than 24 hours, and for hardcore hoops fans this marks the beginning of one of the more telling series of games throughout the calendar year. Sure, Summer League often centers more on individual performances, rim-rattling dunks and “mixtape” basketball than actual NBA play, but it also opens a window to view the talent of esteemed rookies, nascent sophomores and mysterious foreigners making the jump to the NBA — just as is the case with the Nuggets this year.
In preparation for this annual basketball jamboree I’ve outlined the five most intriguing Nuggets youngsters to keep an eye on as play unfolds starting this Friday night…
5. Erick Green
It’s been three summers now since Erick Green first heard his name called on the evening of the 2013 NBA Draft, and he’s played in every Summer League since — not exactly ideal. Green had some nice games near the end of the 2014-15 campaign as the Nuggets battled injuries but there’s no doubt his weaknesses have made painful cameos throughout this time. Green remains an undersized shooting guard with limited athleticism and a streaky offensive foundation — again, not exactly ideal. Though Green is signed through next season there’s no doubt it’s now or never in terms of making an impression at the professional level. If Green underwhelms during Summer League this year, at age 24, his career as a Denver Nuggets might veer towards closure before it ever really begins.
The below three players will receive most of the attention from Nuggets fans and writers across the Internet, but Joffrey Lauvergne could quietly steal the show in Vegas this year. Why? Because Lauvergne embodies everything Summer League isn’t. He thrives on grit, hustle, heart, defense and intelligence — all characteristics that are often left outside the doors of the gyms in Las Vegas, Orlando and this year in Salt Lake City as well. Lauvergne also has an advantage in that he’s played professionally for years overseas. Don’t expect him to put up monster numbers across the board, but don’t be surprised either if Lauvergne finishes as the heart and soul of the Nuggets’ Summer League team by week’s end.
3. Gary Harris
While the duo of Jusuf Nurkic and Emmanuel Mudiay may be the cornerstone of the Nuggets roster for years to come, Gary Harris could very well be the third pillar in that equation if his career pans out the way most predicted prior to the 2014 NBA Draft. Harris was considered a steal at pick 19 and despite an underwhelming rookie campaign (mostly due to a lack of playing time) he still carries quite high regard in and around Nuggets Nation.
Harris is generally seen as a well-rounded, two-way athlete with strong defense fundamentals and a high basketball IQ, yet it’s his shooting stroke that will likely carry him throughout his career. Still, Harris shot only 32 percent from the field in his Summer League stint last year despite finishing top 10 in scoring. So while it’d be nice to see him repeat this prolific offensive outburst in 2015, the next step in Harris’ development should undoubtedly be an overall increase in his shooting percentage.
2. Nikola Jokic
There is no player on the Nuggets Summer League roster I’m more intrigued by than Nikola Jokic. While the Nuggets 2015 first-round lottery selection Emmanuel Mudiay holds a similar spot in my heart, I also have a fairly decent-sized hunch that he’ll be really really good. But Jokic? You might as well call him Austin Powers, because as of now he’s nothing more than an international man of mystery.
Chances are Jokic will struggle. Though he had quite a remarkable year in Serbia winning Adriatic League MVP, he still just turned 20 only a few months ago and has yet to play consistently against the world-class athletes he’ll see in the NBA on a nightly basis. What Nuggets fans should look for rather than utter dominance from the opening whistle is progress, intelligence, decision making and defense. As games progress Jokic will likely settle into some form of a comfort zone and exhibit several impressive attributes, but that really won’t matter. What matters is how he adapts. Because on Friday he’ll be thrown into open water for the first time in his life. Whether he sinks, swims, struggles or cries will say everything about the type of player Jokic will become as his NBA career ensues.
1. Emmanuel Mudiay
Emmanuel Mudiay is why we watch the game. Simple as that. While the above players may elicit some form of interest on the part of the average fan, Mudiay demands the attention of not only the average Nuggets fan, not only your die-hard basketball fan, but of sports fans in general. He is the one player on the Nuggets roster who has the power to dictate the team’s future almost single-handedly — something no Nugget has possessed since Carmelo Anthony.
Unlike Jokic, Mudiay is almost guaranteed to succeed, perhaps even with style and flair. Chances are not that he plays well, but that he dominates certain aspects of the game. The real question then becomes, “How much?” How often does he dominate? How well does he overpower his counterpart? Does he completely carry the Nuggets through certain critical stretches of games? And if so, does he make it look easy?
These are the questions Mudiay will answer and the outcomes for each will likely give us a fair understanding of what to expect as he assumes the role of starting point guard for the Nuggets heading into next season. If he plays as well as many believe he can, Nuggets fans could be in for quite the treat over the next week — and over the next handful of years (at least!) with Mudiay running the show in Denver.