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Nuggets Training Camp Journal: Isaiah Thomas isn't practicing, but he's already making his presence felt
SAN DIEGO — Isaiah Thomas is small in stature, but the aura that followed the former NBA most valuable player candidate on Nuggets media day was one of the main takeaways from the official start to Denver’s season. As the Nuggets wrapped up their first training camp practice Tuesday at San Diego State University, Thomas’ presence again stood out, even though Denver’s backup point guard watched most of the team’s morning session from the sidelines.
First, Thomas was seen giving rookie Jarred Vanderbilt tips on his shooting form. Then, Thomas made his way over to one of four main hoops at Jeff Jacobs JAM Center, where reserve point guard Monte Morris was shooting threes. Thomas watched intently from a few feet away, trailing Morris as he moved around the arc, offering words of advice to the 23-year-old, who will act as the Nuggets’ backup point guard in their preseason opener Sunday against the Lakers – if Thomas sits out as expected.
Thomas can’t do much on the court as he rehabs from hip surgery. But he can still help the Nuggets in the lead-up to the 2018-19 season.
“I talked to Isaiah before practice,” Malone said. “And he said ‘what do you need from me, coach?’ And I said ‘Listen, right now you can’t do a lot of stuff on the court. That’s not the only reason you’re here. I need you to be involved in practice. I need you to pull Jamal and Monte to the side and tell them what you see. And I need you to be a leader. … Isaiah Thomas is never going to be quiet and I don’t want him to be quiet because he does a great job of being a vocal presence for this group.”
“He was on the sidelines really pumped up,” Nikola Jokic added of Thomas. “He was cheering and he was saying some words I don’t want to say. … He’s always teaching the guys, especially the young guys. He’s always trying to help someone.”
The Nuggets aren’t in a hurry to get Thomas back on the floor. Thomas said Monday that he didn’t have an exact date that he was hoping to return by and is more concerned with being healthy for the end of the season, not the beginning.
“I’ve rushed it before,” Thomas said in reference to when he admittingly returned too early from his rehab last season. “And that didn’t work out for me.”
Nuggets hit the ground running
One difference between this season’s training camp from last year is that Denver enters the 2018-19 season with much better roster clarity. There is no three-way point guard competition to navigate like there was a year ago. Position battles within Denver’s roster are few and far between.
“Day 1, you try to put stuff in and introduce stuff and philosophy and terminology,” Malone said. “I think the advantage that we have is continuity. Year four. We know each other.”
Denver started to build that continuity in Atlanta where the Nuggets held a voluntary team minicamp in mid-August at Paul Millsap’s Core4 training facility that was attended by most of the team. It continued in the lead-up to this week’s training camp as the majority of the Nuggets’ roster was in Denver working out together prior to the official start to the season on Monday.
Those team workouts put Denver in a healthy spot ahead of their preseason slate. The Nuggets don’t have to get into shape prior to their preseason slate begins. As one team official told BSN Denver Tuesday, one reason why the team isn’t conducting two-a-day practices is that for the most part, everyone’s already in shape.
Defense remains Denver’s focus
If your head coach doesn’t say his group had a “good” or “great” first day of practice, it’s probably a bad sign. And if he says that anything other than “defense” is the focus of training camp, you’re in the minority.
Sure enough, the Nuggets had “a very good first practice,” per Malone. They also plan to focus this week on, you guessed it, defense.
“It’s no secret that we have to be better defensively,” Malone said. “Last couple of years we have a unique offensive identity. We’ve become a premier offensive team in the NBA. It’s no secret. But on the other side of the ball, there has to be buy-in, there has to be commitment, there has to be improvement. And when we do that consistently we’ll be a very dangerous team.”
Can the Nuggets improve from their 26th-ranked defense last season? There’s reason to believe they can. Before Millsap’s injury last November, Denver was the 17th-best defense in the league. With their defensive traffic cop in Millsap healthy again, the Nuggets feel like they can play more aggressively on that end of the court, take more chances, force more turnovers and defend higher up on the floor.
They’ll get a feel for just how much they can improve on defense throughout the remainder of this week