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Seventeen thoughts on the 17 players the Nuggets are bringing to Disney World

Harrison Wind Avatar
July 6, 2020

The trepidation in Michael Malone’s response was obvious.

“I guess I’m fairly confident because I’m willing to go,” Malone said last Thursday in response to a question about his confidence in the Disney World bubble that the Nuggets are entering on Tuesday.

There’s plenty of anxiety about what’s going to happen across the next few days — let alone the next few months — within the Nuggets’ organization and around the league. But the show goes on. Denver flies to Orlando Tuesday and is scheduled to conduct its first practice in just under four months later this week.

From Nikola Jokic to Bol Bol, let’s take stock of the 17 players the Nuggets are taking to Orlando:

Nikola Jokic

As soon as pictures of a rather trim Jokic surfaced in June he instantly became one of the most intriguing players ahead of the NBA restart. How will a slimmed-down Jokic look on the court? Did Jokic lose any of the power and strength that has played such an integral role in his game of the last couple of seasons with his new physique?

First, let’s lay out how Jokic got to this point. Way back on Dec. 3 the Nuggets fell 105-96 to the Lakers. Jokic struggled offensively that night, shooting just 4 of 12 from the floor for 13 points while his primary matchup, Anthony Davis, finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds.

Around that same time, Jokic began lifting weights and working out after both wins and losses. From that point on, Jokic’s weight loss became increasingly evident. He got quicker and played lighter on his feet. He was also dominant in between the lines. From Dec. 3 through the suspension of the season, Jokic averaged a monstrous 21.8 points (55.1 FG%, 35 3P%), 10.1 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game.

It’s impossible to tell how much weight Jokic lost from March 11 when the season was suspended from those pictures that surfaced last month, but this quote from Jamal Murray could give us some insight into what he could look like on the court when the season resumes.

“You remember, my second year how skinny Joker was, and you could see him start to put on the weight? Now it’s like he put on a lot more and it’s just gone. It’s just gone,” Murray said back in June. “He just took it all the way off. It’s weird to see him like this where he’s a lot more athletic, he’s moving a lot better.”

Here’s Jokic circa 2017-18 (Murray second season). Check out that speed and explosiveness.

Here’s Jokic from the same season backing down and scoring on Zaza Pachulia on the block.

Finally, here’s Jokic in the post against Anthony Davis in 2016. Contrary to the power he has usually gone with on the block this season, Jokic makes a quick move and sinks a hook shot before Davis can react.

In the post is where a slighter frame could theoretically hurt Jokic, but even going back to his first couple seasons in the league, he was a highly-efficient post-up scorer despite a slighter frame.

Add in a more mobile Jokic like Murray alluded to, especially on the defensive end, and it’s pretty enticing to think about the player he could be when the season resumes.

Jamal Murray

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity,” Albert Einstein once said. And as NBA teams travel to the Disney World bubble this week, opportunity is bountiful.

I agree with the messaging from prominent NBA voices over the last week that this season’s NBA champion will navigate a harder path to the Finals than any team in the league’s 70-plus year history. To survive a four-month layoff where players can’t practice and play as they normally do, enter a bubble inside one of the country’s coronavirus epicenters, and win a championship while potentially separated from family and friends for up to three months will be a Herculean task. The winner of the 2020 NBA Championship deserves a permanent badge of honor.

“I think this will be the toughest championship ever won,” Michael Malone said last week.

Mentally and physically, players (along with coaches and staffers) will be tested in unprecedented ways inside the bubble. They’ll have to find a way to stay composed and collected as they go without physical contact from the outside world for months on end. From a physical standpoint, players will have to battle through an every other day slate of games that’s unprecedented and will be especially grueling after four months of not playing in regulation games.

It’s why you won’t be able to place a value on leadership at Disney World where Malone’s word can only go so far.

Murray, who emerged throughout the season as a central voice in the Nuggets’ locker room has a chance to seize the moment from a leadership standpoint during the NBA’s restart. Players will be looking for a uniting voice and someone to steady the ship while navigating what’s sure to be choppy waters at times over the next few months. The setting is ripe for a Murray to emerge as the Nuggets’ heartbeat.

He can speak loudly with his play too. In the 2019 playoffs, Murray became the first player 22-years-old or younger since Bradley Beal in 2015 to average at least 21 points, 4 rebounds and 4.5 assists in the postseason. Over the last 10 years, just Murray, Beal, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook have achieved those numbers at that age in the playoffs.

Murray loves the big stage and the bright lights. He loves when the pressure falls on his shoulders. Expectations should be high for both his play on the court and leadership off it at Disney World.

Michael Porter Jr.

Will he play?

Here’s what Michael Malone said last week when asked what role he sees Porter playing in the playoffs.

“It’s tough to say anything right now because I haven’t’ seen any of our players play in three months. I believe most of our guys are a healthy but until we get down there, we can get everybody back in the gym and start working. Michael Porter going into the All-Star break was playing great basketball for us, hurt his ankle obviously in that Milwaukee game and coning out of the break never really returned to the form he had been playing at in large part because of that injury. It was not allowing him to play to his capabilities. But Mike has got all the talent in the world and having him on our roster there’s a good chance that he’s going to get a chance to play in these playoffs, and I look forward to seeing how he handles that being that it’s his first time going through it.”

Like Malone said, Porter will definitely get a chance to play in Orlando, but to what extent remains to be seen. We’ve seen Porter’s role fluctuate over the course of the season, from a single-digit minute player to someone who averaged more than 20 minutes per game in January when Denver caught the injury bug.

What Malone said about Porter’s play post-All-Star break is also accurate. He wasn’t good and averaged just 5.2 points on 42.6% shooting from the field in 12.7 minutes per game in the Nuggets’ last nine games before the hiatus.

Porter will get his chances just like he did throughout the season, but just how long of a rope Malone gives him is the biggest rotation-centric question that Denver’s coach has to answer.

If Porter does get significant run once the seasons resumes he’d aid the Nuggets in one of their most inconsistent statistical categories: 3-point shooting.

Porter has converted on 42.2% of his 3-pointers this season, the second-best percentage on the Nuggets behind Paul Millsap (44%). He also led all rookies in 3-point percentage (minimum 100 attempts). There’s no one on Denver’s roster that I’d feel more comfortable with taking an in-game 3 than Porter.

Gary Harris

Harris shot 57.7% from 3-point range post-All-Star break after hitting just 29.9% of his triples over the Nuggets’ first 46 games of the season. He shot better around the rim too (59.5% from less than 5 ft. post-All-Star compared to 55.8% from that same distance pre-All-Star).

Was Harris’ 10-game post-All-Star break shooting resurgence for real? It’s tough to say. Harris had strong stretches like the one he had in late-February to early-March earlier this season and this hiatus happened at the worst time for him. He was attacking the rim with more confidence and got some of his 2016-17 mojo back.

We’ll see if it carries over to Disney World.

Will Barton

Barton struggled mightily in the 2018-19 playoffs, shot under 35% from the field, converted on just 27.3% of his 3-pointers and got booed by his home fans during the second round against Portland.

After a strong season where Barton set career-best marks in 3-point shooting (37.5%) and rebounding (6.3 per game), and was also better on defense than many thought he’d be, I have to think that no one on the Nuggets’ roster is looking forward to the playoffs more than Barton. He’ll have a chance to erase a rough 2019 postseason once and for all.

Paul Millsap

Here’s why I’m buying Millsap stock ahead of the restart: a short runway with just eight games plus a playoff run should bode well for a veteran like the Nuggets’ starting power forward. Millsap doesn’t have to worry about conserving energy for the playoffs throughout an 82-game season. That being said, I’d expect the Nuggets to be careful with his playing time during the eight seeding games and for Denver to slowly and gradually ramp up his minutes.

Jerami Grant

Once this season ends, Grant will become one of the more enticing free agents on the market. He’s just 26-years-old and is hitting a career-high 40% of his 3-pointers this year. After converting on 39% of his triples last season it’s safe to say that his 3-point shooting is for real.

Grant’s also a rangy and versatile defender that will have a lot of opportunity to shine this postseason. He could be matched up against players ranging from Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to LeBron James, Luka Doncic and James Harden. I wouldn’t be shocked if he averages more minutes per game than Millsap in the playoffs. Millsap is a much better team defender but Grant is more versatile.

It could be a bit of a showcase for Grant on a national stage. He’ll likely have many suitors this summer but make no mistake, the Nuggets want to bring him back badly.

Torrey Craig

Craig may open the postseason ahead of Porter in the Nuggets’ small forward pecking order, but that could change based on Denver’s playoff matchup. It’s also the position battle to really watch over the course of the seeding games.

Craig would obviously be deployed if the Nuggets matched up with the Rockets in the first round and has guarded Russell Westbrook very well over the last few seasons. But what if Denver draws a team like the Jazz? Gary Harris should be able to do a decent job on Donovan Mitchell and with no Bogdan Bogdanovic for Utah, Porter could be the pick as the primary small forward off the bench.

Mason Plumlee

In last season’s playoffs, Plumlee averaged 15.6 minutes per game as the third big in the Nuggets’ front court rotation. Now, he’s firmly behind Jokic, Millsap and Grant in the pecking order at both interior spots. As difficult as it is to play four bigs in the regular season it’s even more ambitious to do so in a playoff environment.

But still, I bet the Nuggets try to go to Plumlee when possible. Denver will want to play to its strengths no matter who its playoff opponent is and considering how Grant struggled to rebound his position throughout the season, the Nuggets can pick up some glass insurance with Plumlee patrolling the boards alongside him.

Monte Morris

Morris shot 0-13 in the playoffs last year from 3-point range. Like Barton, he’s trying to erase a rough 2018-19 postseason.

PJ Dozier

I’d bet Dozier gets more playing time over Denver’s seeding games than most 15th men on team’s rosters. From what a few coaches across the league have said over the last couple of weeks, teams will gradually ramp up their regular’s minutes over their seeding games and the same will likely be true of the Nuggets. Denver really likes Dozier too. He can soak up a bunch of minutes at point guard on a “third unit” and next to Morris on the Nuggets’ primary bench unit. Denver had a 9.5 Net Rating in just under the 100 minutes that Morris and Dozier played together this year.

Vlatko Cancar

Call me crazy, but if I’m the Nuggets I feel confident if Cancar has to eat up minutes on the end of Denver’s rotation. In the Nuggets’ classic seven-man win over the Jazz earlier this season, Cancar logged 17 minutes and held his own.

Noah Vonleh

I’m cautiously optimistic about Vonleh and excited to see what he can do. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could be the Nuggets’ backup center next season if Plumlee signs elsewhere this summer.

Keita Bates-Diop

Bates-Diop was the lone player that the Nuggets got back in the three-team trade that they executed at February’s deadline who’s under contract for next season. His $1.6 million salary is non-guaranteed but Denver is surely curious about what a potential piece of its 2020-21 bench looks like.

Troy Daniels

The Nuggets signed Daniels on March 5. Six days later the NBA suspended the season. Daniels has played just one minute in a Nuggets uniform and if he gets on the floor in Orlando it will be because Denver goes ice cold from 3-point range. Daniels is a career 39.6% 3-point shooter.

Bol Bol

An NBA debut at Disney World? That would be something for Bol, but I’d be surprised if he played during the restart.

Tyler Cook

Why did the Nuggets bring back Cook who they cut before the season started? According to league sources, the Nuggets’ familiarity with Tyler Cook was a significant factor in Denver signing him to a two-way contract ahead of the restart. The Nuggets want to take players they trust into the Disney bubble and they know Cook well from training camp.

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