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Nuggets Roundtable: Can Zeke Nnaji fix Denver's bench?

Harrison Wind Avatar
March 21, 2023

The Nuggets got a much-needed road win in Brooklyn on Sunday and all of a sudden can finish their five-game road trip with a 3-2. That would be a huge success. With Zeke Nnaji back from injury, can he be a fix for Denver’s bench, and what’s been the most encouraging part of Michael Porter Jr.’s ascension this season? DNVR Nuggets discusses.

Is it possible that Zeke Nnaji fixes the Nuggets’ bench?

Adam Mares: It’s possible that Michael Malone and the Nuggets arrive at a successful bench rotation but Zeke Nnaji will only be a part of that solution. As great as he played in Sunday’s win over the Nets, the Nuggets were still outscored by 7 points in his 11 minutes while holding a 131.8 DRTG with him on the court. Little if any of that was Zeke’s fault, but he also wasn’t the solution. I think the final form of the bench will either feature Michael Porter Jr. or an improved and more effective Jamal Murray.

Harrison Wind: I don’t think Nnaji fully fixes the bench, but he’s another step in the right direction. So was Christian Braun. Getting both of them locked into the second unit every night would be a great adjustment from Michael Malone. Nnaji is going to help the bench defend better. He allows the Nuggets to switch 1-5 defensively when he’s on the floor. Nnaji is a good athlete too, can run the court, and always plays with great energy. He had a great spirit to him Sunday in Brooklyn.

The final move that needs to be made is Vlatko Cancar in for Jeff Green. Pair Braun, Nnaji and Cancar with Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (I think Denver should try and save Jamal Murray’s legs by not playing him with the bench the rest of the regular season), and you’ve got a second unit whose identity is a defensive-first group that’s going to play scrappy, and hopefully get stops, run the floor and score easy baskets in transition. That’s going to be the best way for them to manufacture offense.

Brendan Vogt: Zeke pushes the bench closer to a formed identity. When sharing the floor with Christian Braun and Bruce Brown — not to mention KCP when he staggers — that bench can get stops. They’ll struggle to score in the half-court, but is that any different than the various lineups we’ve seen? Scoring in transition could be their best bet. This gets even easier with the Jeff-Vlatko swap mentioned above.

What’s been most impressive about Michael Porter Jr.’s ascension this season?

Mares: Just how much he’s improved his feel for the game. He reads Denver’s free flowing offense so much better than he did in previous seasons and has found a few go-to off-ball actions that get him easy buckets. He loves to set those flare screens when Jokic operates from the elbow, waiting for the perfect moment to slip to the basket. He’s starting to attack closeouts with more and more athleticism. And his overall sense of direction and rhythm in the offense is night and day compared to before.

Wind: How well-rounded he has become. You saw Porter’s full offensive arsenal on display against the Nets, and it was a great example of how much his entire offensive game has grown this season. Porter shot 5-9 from 3 but also scored five more baskets from two-point range. He flashed great two-man chemistry with Nikola Jokic on one of his buckets. Then on another, turned down what could have been a wide-open mid-range jumper and went all the way to the rim, used his body, and finished at the basket. Porter is so far beyond being just a long-range shooter, although he leads the NBA in corner 3-point percentage this season. It’s been really fun watching his entire game mature.

Vogt: That it happened under pressure. He’s been tabbed as an x-factor in this potential title run for a few seasons. The pressure mounted after missing even more time last year and grew more intense when this was labeled a must-win season. Denver then got off to a slow start as a team. He was playing well, but the heel injury derailed him. There was little runway left when he returned. They needed him to perform well and catch up on the missed work. He responded. Now, he’s thriving when terms like adversity are thrown around in every press conference. We’re learning a lot about what he’s made of.

What are you watching for Wednesday against the Wizards?

Mares: The bench rotation and the defense. With the bench, I’m curious if Malone tries Reggie Jackson again or goes with Bruce Brown as the de facto backup point guard. Does he stagger Murray again? And does he give Cancar another shot in Jeff Green’s place?

Team defense is another story. I don’t think I will be able to pick the Nuggets to win the championship this season unless they can prove that they can string together several positive defensive games in a row. With just 10 games left in the season, it’s now or never to get started.

Wind: Can the Nuggets look like the Nuggets again? We were able to say this is Nuggets basketball during Denver’s win in Brooklyn for the first time since the Nuggets beat the Grizzlies at home back on March 3. That was a long time ago. But Denver finally looked like itself again on Sunday. The connectivity was there. The Nuggets competed on defense. They played for one another. There was an edge to this team again. I want to see that version of the Nuggets again against the Wizards.

Vogt: More of the same in quarters 1-3. The next step in returning to top form would be putting it together in crunch time. That used to be Denver’s calling card, and they need it to be in the postseason. It starts by playing through Jokić, something they’re becoming strangely reluctant to do late in games. Hopefully, there are no clutch minutes played against the Wizards. If there are, I’m looking for execution.


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