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Summer League recap: Denver Nuggets 86, Atlanta Hawks 71

Kalen Deremo Avatar
July 11, 2015


After a slow start the Nuggets ran away with a victory in their first Summer League game of 2015. While Gary Harris led his team in scoring, it was defense and a well-rounded offensive attack that allowed the Nuggets to waltz away with a win after a slow start in the first half. Here are some additional observations…

(Box score)

— Emmanuel Mudiay is gonna be really good someday. From the opening whistle it was fairly obvious he was on another level apart from his peers. He had several outstanding passes and a few impressive offensive possessions to highlight his night, however he also had an equal number of rookie gaffs that were pretty difficult to digest.

In examining his overall poise and decision-making I came to the conclusion Mudiay was either nervous, rusty, complacent or a little bit of all three. He had far too many wasted possessions where he nearly dribbled out the clock or took awful shots from long range. These are to be somewhat expected in Summer League, but if Mudiay plans on being a franchise player he needs to cut them out of his diet with haste. I imagine the coaching staff will undertake this aspect of his improvement moving forward.

Additionally, Mudiay’s shot mechanics and defense both need myriad work. Although he clearly has the ability to hit difficult jump shots, not only were they not falling but as the game progressed Mudiay’s form appeared to fall apart with each missed jumper, often due to lower-body imbalance and unstable leg movements. His defensive effort left much to be desired as well.

Mudiay will continue to be a work in progress and fans should expect to see an improvement in his overall game as play continues in Las Vegas over the next several days. Still, it was refreshing to finally see a juvenile member of the Denver Nuggets display so much potential at such a young age.

— Gary Harris exhibited exactly the type of improvement you’d hope to see from a sophomore at Summer League. Even though he fared well at Vegas last summer, he also hoisted up countless ill-advised shots to register his point totals whereas in his first game this year Harris managed a team-high 15 points on an efficient 6-11 from the floor to go along with four rebounds and three assists. And did I mention he only shot one 3-pointer which he didn’t even make?

To me, when watching Harris, I can’t help but admire his basketball IQ more than anything. Again, he might never develop into the type of knock-down long-range shooter I thought he would coming out of Michigan State, but I can almost guarantee Harris will have a long and prosperous career in the NBA thanks to his defensive intensity and cerebral approach to offense. Against the Hawks he was the best defensive player on the floor for the Nuggets and scored all his points in the flow of the offense, often through lane penetration rather than parking behind the 3-point line for easy open shots.

I can’t wait to see how he plays in Game 2.

— Nikola Jokic was without question the one guy I kept a close eye on throughout the game for the simple fact that he fascinates me. I was extremely high on him in the 2014 draft largely due to his court vision and in his first game donning a Nuggets uni he did not disappoint in this regard.

As the game progressed Jokic became visibly more confident and comfortable on the floor. He finished with nine points, six rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal in 26 minutes (the most of any Nugget), but it was his ball movement that mesmerized more than anything. Jokic is truly a point guard stuck in a power forward’s body. The way he thinks, the way he moves and anticipates cuts and player movement, the way he utilizes the hardwood to teleport his passes  — it all says point forward. There were a few passes he made — in his first professional NBA game nonetheless — that were truly amazing, especially for a 20-year-old rookie. His lone 3-pointer, displaying his impressive range, wasn’t half bad either.

Jokic certainly needs help understanding positioning and rotations but his man defense was also more than acceptable. As of now Jokic reminds me a lot of a young Mozgov with much better range, far higher IQ and certainly more potential. Again, I can’t wait to see how he improves throughout the week.

— Erick Green was another pleasant surprise. Yes, he’s old. Yes, he should have figured it out by now. But it’s important to remember how many NBA players don’t figure it out and never will. Green did just about whatever he wanted on offense and displayed an improved shooting stroke from all over the floor in route to scoring 13 points in only 16 minutes of action off the bench. He looked really comfortable in whatever it was he decided to execute, which often resulted in a made basket. At the moment Green might be the most talented offensive player on the Nuggets’ Summer League roster — and considering how good that roster looks, that says a lot.

— Joffrey Lauvergne is not flashy. He’s not gonna light up the box score. He’s not gonna win you games by his lonesome. But damn, I really like his game. Lauvergne was undoubtedly one of the better defensive players on the floor for the Nuggets and was perhaps the best overall man defender for either team. He truly understands positioning and how to defend up close. I don’t know what the Nuggets plan is for Darrell Arthur but if Lauvergne continues to improve Michael Malone is gonna have a really solid backup power forward by season’s end.

— Gilvydas Biruta (who?!?) is gonna walk away from Summer League with lots of interest from several NBA teams — at least he will if he plays like he did against the Hawks. The Lithuanian-born Rhode Island product was a stalwart on the defensive side of the ball terrorizing the Hawks with two steals and a block. He also made all four of his field goal attempts and had a monster dunk displaying covert athleticism. After only one game Biruta seems to have cemented himself as the Nuggets go-to seventh man off the bench.

— In closing I’d just like to acknowledge the superb job Tim Connelly and his staff have done in working the NBA Draft over the last few years. It’s times like these where you really get to witness the manifestation of the work put in prior to the draft. This Nuggets Summer League squad is loaded, and it doesn’t even include last year’s lottery selection, Jusuf Nurkic. To put things into perspective, take the Nuggets’ opponent the Atlanta Hawks for example. This is a team with a combined six draft picks from 2013-14, yet only one of those players is on their 2015 Summer League roster and most aren’t even with the Hawks organization anymore. The Nuggets, meanwhile, have nearly every one of their draft picks over the last two years suiting up in Vegas this week and each and every one looks promising. Keep in mind also, outside of Emmanuel Mudiay not one of these guys has been a top-10 pick, while Green, Jokic and Lauvergne were each second rounders!

In projecting where the Nuggets will be two to three years down the road it’s often Summer League where you’ll place your bets. Even though Mudiay and Nurkic appear to be high-level starters in the NBA, it’s still anyone’s guess as to how good they’ll actually become. But what’s certain in analyzing the Nuggets’ up-and-coming core is that this is a talented group of players who understands the game of basketball and will therefore be able to find a role in the NBA. And for a rebuilding team without any top-five picks over the last two years, that’s about all you can ask for.

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