The Nuggets managed to go 1-2 in their three games without Nikola Jokic, who’s still out of the lineup due to COVID protocols. There’s a possibility that Jokic returns Tuesday vs. the Pistons, but his status is still TBD. What are the silver linings from a week without the back-to-back MVP? What’s going on with Michael Porter Jr.? Who has exceeded expectations the most 16 games into the season? The DNVR Nuggets crew discusses.

What’s your biggest silver lining from the last three games without Jokic?

Harrison Wind: We’re learning more and more about this roster. Bruce Brown’s playing point guard and has 15 assists over his last two games. Christian Braun continues to impress defensively. DeAndre Jordan can really rebound when he focuses in on the task. Vlatko Cancar can still absolutely hoop. Zeke Nnaji is an NBA-calbier rotation player. Of course, this roster is unrecognizable without Nikola Jokic on the floor, and that would be the case on almost every other team that has a player the caliber of Jokic. But what we’re learning about this team now will pay dividends later in the year.

Brendan Vogt: The Dallas win can be a galvanizing moment for the role players and younger guys. It drew comparisons to the legendary victory of ‘The Seven’ in Utah—the poster win for the dynamic I’m highlighting. Denver hit an unlikely bump in the road when they learned key players would miss the same games, but it may not feel like it in that locker room. Confidence should be up. The vibes too.

Adam Mares: That they won. I’m not sure how meaningful these games are in the grand scheme of things. Only thing that matters is whether or not you can collect wins.

What do you think is the main reason for Michael Porter Jr.’s current struggles?

Wind: I have to think the No. 1 reason is that Jokic isn’t playing. It’s a bit of an eye-opener to see just how reliant Porter is on Jokic to get buckets — I didn’t think he was this reliant on him up until the past week. But I’m also worried about Porter’s health, even though he hasn’t been listed on Denver’s injury report. He just doesn’t seem to be moving well. He’s never had a ton of vertical pop, but it seems like right now he has even less than he usually does. Porter has only been credited with four dunks in 15 games this season — when you go back and watch, only two were actual dunks where he made contact with the rim — and is dunking way less than two years ago (.021% of Porter’s field goal attempts this season are dunks, .095% of his field go attempts were dunks in 2020-21.) He had a great start to the season but needs to turn it around. Porter has been bad in four of his last five games.

Vogt: Porter is returning from a third back surgery and hit the ground running. In addition to playing without the benefit of Nikola Jokić’s playmaking and gravity, fatigue may be a factor in this stretch. We could be taking his availability for granted so far this season. Until there’s the word of newfound discomfort, I’ll refrain from speculation over the elephant in the room. There are other potential factors than health. He’s not that far removed from dismantling the Bulls on the road.

Mares: I have been worried that his hot shooting has disguised a new, more limited athleticism to his game. He’s not finishing at the rim like he has in previous seasons and he’s not getting to the rim. He’s always been a below average ball handler but he has never been this inept at putting the ball on the ground and getting to his spots. Almost 20 games into the season, I think it is becoming more obvious that he is just more limited athletically than ever before.

Who has exceeded your expectations the most through 16 games?

Wind: Christian Braun. It’s clear that after 16 games Christian Braun is a rotation player. It’s already a massive win for Calvin Booth who selected Braun 21st overall. Even better, he’s the type of big, defensive guard that Denver wants to fill out its roster around Jokic. He’s such a smart, high-IQ defender. He’s always in the right position. He rarely makes mistakes. He knows his matchup inside and out. He looks more comfortable as a corner shooter already. Right now, he’s playing the exact role that he wants to. Braun’s playing time should only increase as the season progresses.

Vogt: KCP. I knew he’d fit like a glove, but he’s done more than fill the role. He’s excelling in it early, which does more than contribute to wins. One of Calvin Booth’s first decisions since ownership handed him the keys was to bring Kenny Pope in. It’s nice to see his vision validated early, and it could be an injection of confidence for the entire organization. At the very least, it sets a good tone for the fans to rally around.

Mares: I don’t think people fully realize how good Christian Braun has been at the things that rookies typically struggle with. He is an expert at KYP (know your defender). He moves his feet and shadows the player he is guarding like a 10-year pro. His size and athleticism translate perfectly on the defensive end of the floor. And he hasn’t been an anchor on offense since he has elite shot selection. I think it is far more likely than not that Braun is playing important minutes in the playoffs. And that is not something that I thought we’d predict 18 games into the season.

When the Nuggets are healthy, is Zeke Nnaji going to get more playing time going forward?

Wind: I think so. What Nnaji has done these last two games has definitely earned some trust from Michael Malone. Now, he’s still behind DeAndre Jordan at backup center and probably should be. But he’s narrowing the gap, in my opinion. If Jeff Green misses time (he’s already been ruled out of Tuesday’s game vs. the Pistons), Nnaji will continue to play. Also, I sensed that Green wore down last season so it would be a good idea to give Nnaji his minutes during this part of the year anyway. Why not? Nnaji’s defense on Doncic was impressive over the last two days. I think there will be matchups going forward where Nnaji gets the nod ahead of Jordan. Plus, it’s just a long season and Jordan is 34-years-old.

Vogt: We know the answer. He won’t unless the emergency glass breaks again, and then he’ll have to stay healthy and play well to remain in consideration. Malone showed his hand on this one a long time ago.

Mares: Sadly, I don’t think so. But this upcoming stretch may change my mind. Last season, Nnaji broke into the rotation when he got an opportunity for extended minutes but then lost his spot once he got injured. Perhaps now is the inverse scenario. With Jeff Green sidelined for Tuesday’s game, perhaps Nnaji can impress enough to steal some of his minutes and establish himself as a key piece of the second unit. I hope that is the case. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Christian Braun continues to impress, what’s next for the rookie?

Wind: More and more playing time. I’d love to sit in on a Nuggets film session where Malone is breaking down Braun’s defense. Because if you think Braun is a good defender right now, I guarantee you he’s actually better than you think. He’s such a smart defender who just makes things happen. Buy your stock right now, because the price is going to go up.

Vogt: Braun’s found his niche, which overlaps neatly with the needs of a very talented team. He’s already established a role on the team, demonstrated a strong understanding of the role, and is well on his way to claiming an identity at the highest level in basketball. What comes next is building his confidence on the offensive end. Braun’s an exceptional athlete and might develop into a potent transition threat. Can he turn defense into offense consistently?

Mares: More minutes. Malone trusted him enough to stick him on Luka Doncic over the weekend and the rookie performed at a very high level. Those are the types of performances that coaches will remember. And unlike Nnaji, Braun fills a clear and immediate need for Denver, providing additional perimeter defense. It was just 6 games ago that Braun collected a DNP-CD. I think those days are over and Braun will be a regular fixture in the rotation.

As for how he can build upon his success, perhaps the next step is more minutes with Nikola Jokic. Braun has shared the court with Jokic for just 72 minutes but the results have been fantastic. Lineups with Jokic surrounded by low mistake offensive players who can play defense is a recipe for playoff success. Braun fits that description as well as anyone. It’s time to start exploring the Jokic-Braun combination.

Author

Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. The University of Colorado alum grew up in Boulder and has covered the Nuggets for the last three seasons. You can hear him every weekday on the DNVR Nuggets podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind

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