Nuggets fans woke up on Sunday morning to important news: Nikola Jokic is on his way back to Denver.
Jokic’s arrival back in the Mile High City at the end of every offseason confirms that Nuggets basketball is just around the corner. Monday is Media Day at Ball Arena and Denver’s first training camp practice is scheduled for Tuesday at UC San Diego.
The two-time MVP and now NBA champion looked like he enjoyed his summer.
After drinking Bruce Brown under the table during the Nuggets’ championship celebration in Las Vegas, Jokic returned to his first love: horses. In July, he was spotted at the Naples horse track in Italy. In August, Jokic and Aaron Gordon watched the pride of Jokic’s Dream Catcher stable, Brenno Laumar, win a big race at his home track in Sombor. In September, Jokic returned to Italy for a horse auction.
But now, his focus is back on the Nuggets and the chance to win another Larry O’Brien trophy.
The Nuggets know what they’ll get from Jokic this season. He’s arguably the most consistent superstar in the league. ‘Consistent’ is a good word to apply to Denver’s starting five too, which remained intact after last season’s championship run. But after that, there’s some uncertainty.
It’s why there’s no shortage of storylines as the Nuggets enter the preseason.
Current Depth Chart
Here’s how I’d slot the Nuggets’ depth chart right now.
PG: Jamal Murray | Reggie Jackson | Jalen Pickett | Collin Gillespie*
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope | Christian Braun | Julian Strawther
SF: Michael Porter Jr. | Peyton Watson | Justin Holiday
PF: Aaron Gordon | Hunter Tyson | Braxton Key* | Vlatko Cancar⁺
C: Nikola Jokic | Zeke Nnaji | DeAndre Jordan | Jay Huff*
- *Two-way contract
- ⁺Torn ACL — likely out for the season (Cancar suffered the injury playing for Slovenia this summer)
- Training camp invites, who will wind up on the Nuggets’ G League team: Souley Bourn (point guard), Andrew Funk (shooting guard), Armaan Franklin (shooting guard)
Backup Small Forward
The Nuggets want this to be Peyton Watson’s job, and I think it will be. But I’m also expecting Michael Malone to make Watson earn it. That’s how this thing typically goes. Early last season, Davon Reed was playing over Christian Braun, who didn’t lock down a full-time spot in the Nuggets’ rotation until later in the year.
There’s some concern that Justin Holiday, or even two-way player Braxton Key who’s drawn positive reviews throughout summer workouts, could be this year’s version of Reed. The sooner Watson secures this job the better. He’s pivotal to the Nuggets’ success.
Backup Power Forward/Center
This is a huge season for Zeke Nnaji and I could see him filling in at both backup power forward and center with Vlatko Cancar (ACL) likely lost for the season. Denver is that thin up front.
The truth about Nnaji is that he’s been solid whenever he’s gotten a chance to play. Nnaji is a really good defender. He showed that again last year when the Nuggets briefly pivoted to a defense-first, switch-everything bench unit midway through the season.
The biggest swing factor for Nnaji will be his 3-point shot, which has been absent ever since his rookie year. If he finds his shooting stroke again and stays healthy, the ingredients are there for a breakout campaign.
Then again, we’ve said all of this about Nnaji before. How he plays over the first couple of months could determine if he’s on the roster post-trade deadline.
Backup Point Guard
Reggie Jackson will take on this role to start the season. If he plays well, there won’t be a ton of discussion about the two rookies behind him on the Nuggets’ depth chart. If Jackson struggles as he did last year, Jalen Pickett and Collin Gillespie will both get their chance to run the bench unit.
Of the two, Pickett is the reserve point guard to watch. Rumblings out of the Nuggets’ practice gym all offseason have been that Pickett is impressing in workouts.
The year of Jamal Murray
He’s 2 1/2 years removed from the torn ACL. He just completed his first healthy offseason in two years. He’s as rested as he can be after not playing for Canada at the World Cup. He’s coming off a historic playoff run. Everything is in place for Murray to have the best season of his career.
I get the sense that a championship hasn’t zapped any of the hunger to prove his doubters wrong either. Look out, the year of Jamal Murray is coming.
Christian Braun’s ascension
Bruce Brown’s departure this summer leaves a huge hole on the Nuggets’ second unit, and Braun is the only realistic candidate off Denver’s bench who can fill that void.
Braun is a better defender than the Nuggets’ former sixth man but isn’t as big of an offensive threat. Braun doesn’t have the natural point guard abilities that his predecessor possessed, but he is taller, stronger, more athletic and I think has more juice in his offensive bag than most think.
He’ll have every opportunity to flourish as the first player off Denver’s bench.
Peyton Watson’s breakout
Watson can be Denver’s next star. That’s what some in the Nuggets’ front office think of his potential.
At 6-foot-9 with a wingspan that stretches from Denver to Boulder, Watson has the size to be a difference maker on the wing. With elite defensive skills and hunger to prove his standing among his NBA peers, the path to Watson establishing himself as a real player this season seems obvious.
If Watson proves himself as a reliable option, it clears up some of the consternation around the Nuggets’ bench.
Nikola Jokic’s mindset
We know what’s in store from Jokic this season. Anything other than a top-3 finish in MVP voting would be surprising. He’ll be dominant again in between the lines. But I’m curious to see how he continues to develop as the leader of this franchise.
This year, the Nuggets are going to be relying on their youth more than they ever have in the Jokic era. Braun and Watson are both second-year players. The Nuggets selected three rookies in this year’s draft — Julian Strawther, Jalen Pickett, and Hunter Tyson — and one of them could wind up emerging as a factor off the bench (Tyson’s road to rotation minutes after popping at Summer League and Cancar’s injury looks the clearest.)
They’ll all need guidance from Jokic.
Michael Porter Jr.’s potential leap
Some of Porter’s athleticism returned over the second half of last season and it led to him emerging as a more aggressive scorer who looked to get to the rim and finish there more often. That can be where Porter’s offensive game takes another leap.
Porter clearly has more to give as an offensive player, but there’s only so much usage he can take on in a Jokic-Murray led offense. Still, there’s a chance he looks to take on a higher profile role after a healthy offseason.
There’s always more room for him to grow defensively too. Porter was a much-improved defender last season and was fine defensively in the playoffs. You rarely thought about his once-debilitating defensive lapses throughout the postseason. He can level up in that department again this year.