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LAS VEGAS — Two games and more importantly two wins are in the books for the Denver Nuggets at Las Vegas Summer League. A come-from-behind victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves on opening night, where Denver and mainly Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay realized they were the better team with more talent and came back from a disastrous first quarter for the win – and a 106-62 triumph over the Memphis Grizzlies puts the Nuggets at 2-0 heading into Monday’s tilt with the Miami Heat.
Here’s how I grade Denver’s notable players through two games in Las Vegas:
Emmanuel Mudiay – A
Mudiay only played in one of Denver’s two games and won’t play for the remainder of Summer League, but against Minnesota he had a good enough showing to convince me he’s on an upward trajectory heading into next year. Mudiay’s jumper still looks inconsistent but the form on his free throw looked smoother to me than last year and his handle looks more compact and tighter to his body. Yet, more encouraging than his 23-point, 8-rebound, 6-assist performance against the Timberwolves was his demeanor and presence off the court. Mudiay’s clearly becoming closer with his backcourt mate Gary Harris and the two’s chemistry looks to be on the rise from how they interact on and off the court. Mudiay’s also been more comfortable with the media and around the Nuggets facility than last year, which is expected but encouraging.
Gary Harris – A
Like Mudiay, Harris only played in the opening night game of Summer League and then shut it down partly in preparation for the USA Select Team which begins practices once Summer League ends and to give other guys playing time, but showed why he’s entering next season as Denver’s starting shooting guard. Harris scored 22 points on 8-16 shooting and had a demeanor of someone who knew he was the best player on the floor and who has been at Summer League the past three years. Harris has the organization’s backing as the two-guard of the present and should enjoy another leap next season.
Jamal Murray – C
Murray has played two games in Vegas that left me wanting more. He’s struggled to find open looks within the structure of the offense and looked frustrated at times through two games. It’s still early and playing with guys like Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler, rather than Petr Cornelie and Juancho Hernangomez, will certainly help the rookie get cleaner looks from the perimeter and mature his game faster. Murray’s also been playing primarily off the ball, even when Mudiay was taking the night off and he found himself waiting in the corner for an action to develop rather than initiating the offense himself. In game No. 2, the Nuggets ran a lot of their sets through Jimmer Fredette who came out of the gates on fire and Murray never got in a rhythm, which coach Micah Nori took responsibility for postgame, but I’d expect that to change in game No. 3, Monday.
Juancho Hernangomez – B
Offensively, Hernangomez has shown some of the skills that made him into a projected top-15 pick in many draft expert’s minds prior to the draft: He’s hit from the perimeter, initiated and successfully drawn contact while driving towards the hoop, and displayed an above average basketball IQ. However on defense, he’s struggled. Hernangomez is quick-footed but opposing offenses have immediately taken him to the post and used their interior strength to bury him under the rim. He’s also been an aggressive offensive rebounder but has had a hard time keeping position when boxing out. Could Hernangomez play this upcoming season with the Nuggets? In theory, sure, but I’m not sure how many minutes he’d play, if he’d be a better option then say Joffrey Lauvergne, and if he could defend effectively enough to remain on the floor for a Michael Malone coached team. Overseas, Hernangomez would still be playing against quality competition, could work on his body and the come over to the NBA in 2017-18 or maybe for the last couple months of this season if the situation presents itself.
Petr Cornelie – B+
Like Hernangomez, Cornelie is faced with a lot of the same problems defensively that come with a young European or domestically-born rookie. He gets pushed under the rim and outmuscled for defensive rebounds, but flourished against a smaller Memphis frontline, sans Adreian Payne and got involved within the flow of the offense. After going scoreless against Minnesota, Cornelie scored 19 points, including an assortment of dunks and hit a corner three as well versus Memphis. He seems to have a good feel for the game and it’s starting to show. Cornelie is still a prospect who the Nuggets wouldn’t think about bringing over to the NBA until 2017-18 at the absolute earliest, but Summer League is an exciting environment to watch him play and excel.
Jimmer Fredette – A
Fredette has done what he came to Summer League expecting to do. The 27-year-old has been the Nuggets best player on the floor when he’s played with the bench unit and was the most impactful player period against Memphis where he scored 26 points and could have had upwards of 30 or maybe 40 if the game had been close. Fredette still possesses a killer stroke, and an impressive handle that allows him to get into the teeth of the defense where he’s looked like an able passer when dishing or kicking to the perimeter. Defensively he’s struggled at times but generally held his own. I highly doubt it’s with the Nuggets, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Fredette lands at least a training camp invite next season or a D-League roster spot if he wants one.
Axel Toupane – A-
The 23-year-old played well through two games in Las Vegas, most notably against Minnesota where he scored 10 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in 25 minutes. Toupane is a complimentary player with a ceiling he’s still yet to reach that could fill a 3-and-D void on the Nuggets roster. He’s not a star, but I think Denver may have found a diamond in the rough and a role player for the future.
JaKarr Sampson – B-
Sampson is a great teammate and locker room guy but I’m not convinced that he’s a better prospect than Toupane or could be that impactful on a high-level playoff of a championship team. He produced against the Timberwolves and finished with 16 points on just seven shots, but he wasn’t getting the type of buckets that come against NBA-level competition. He filled in adequately at the small forward spot last season down the stretch, but he still has a long way to go if he’s going to be regarded as a building block for the future.
Josh Adams – A-
I’m all in on Josh Adams as an end of the bench guy at the next level. He’s got a capable jumper that could improve, possesses an NBA-level handle and plus athleticism. It most likely won’t be with Denver, but he should get a training camp invite out of the little on court time he’s had at Summer League and his minutes should grow over the last couple of games in Las Vegas.