When Michael Malone held court with the media in Denver’s practice gym prior to Summer League last month, I asked him about his depth chart at backup point guard. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the headliner that Denver got in its trade with Washington back in June, but the Nuggets also received Ish Smith from the Wizards in exchange for Will Barton and Monte Morris. The question I posed to Malone was, “Does Bones Hyland enter camp as your backup point guard?”
His answer I thought was notable. It also flew under the radar.
Malone was non-committal. He said it’s too early to pencil guys into rotation spots. Smith will come in and try to win the backup point guard spot and Hyland will enter camp trying to retain it.
“Competition is healthy,” Malone said.
I loved that answer from Denver’s coach. Yes, Hyland had a standout rookie season and established himself as a core piece of this team moving forward. His minutes and production are in for a substantial jump and he’s going to take on a lot of responsibility early on next year with Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. likely easing into the season and coming off significant injuries.
But you never want to hand young players too much too soon in this league. Malone knows that. It’s how he’s molded every young player that’s come through Denvers’ development pipeline over the last several years. You never want someone like Hyland to get too comfortable with where he’s at. You want him to bring the same fire and competitive spirit that he brought into training camp last season with him to Denver in a couple of months. You want Hyland as dedicated and committed in the practice gym as ever ahead of next year. That’s not saying if Malone came out and declared Hyland his backup point guard that he’d suddenly relax and take his foot off the gas. I don’t think Hyland would. But I’m with Malone. Competition is healthy.
Ultimately, Hyland will win the “competition” at backup point guard. In Smith, the Nuggets and Malone have someone in reserve they can trust. Smith played for the Warriors to open the 2011-12 season when Malone was an assistant in Golden State.
“He’s one of the best teammates and best pros you’re ever going to find,” Malone said. “Every time we played against him, he finds a way to kick our butts.”
I think we’ll see Smith in the rotation when Murray needs a rest early on next year.
Another “competition” I think we’ll see at training camp is for the backup small forward spot. Like Hyland, I think Davon Reed enters camp as the leader in the clubhouse for those minutes, but Christian Braun will push him. Malone is a big fan of Braun and the rookie has already made a strong impression on Denver’s coach. His fire, competitive spirit and motor on defense are all qualities that can get him on the floor as a rookie.
Those two training camp battles along with Murray and Porter’s health are all storylines to track over the next few months.
Bruce Brown at PG
I think Bruce Brown will play more point guard than people think next season. Brown logged minutes at point guard throughout his two seasons at the University of Miami — he played with now-teammate Davon Reed in 2016-17 — and handed out a team-high four assists per game as a sophomore in 2017-18.
The Nuggets think Brown can fit with a number of different lineups. Brown’s primary position will be shooting guard and he’ll play most of his minutes off the ball next to Bones Hyland on Denver’s second unit. But I’m also envisioning him logging minutes as the lead ball handler (think beginning of the second quarter) next to Hyland and Jamal Murray. With Murray coming off injury, getting him off the ball more next season than in years past will be a priority, I’d think. Brown will play a part in making that happen.
Here’s what Michael Malone said about Murray at Summer League.
“We’re going to be smart. Jamal and I were talking about this the other day. To start the season, he’s not going to be playing 35 minutes. We’ll build him up. He’ll probably play somewhere in the 20s to start the season, will not play every single game. We want to be smart. We want to be a team that’s hopefully playing into June. That’s always the plan. How we do address that with Jamal and Michael? We want to be smart and build up their confidence and build up their stamina as the season goes along.”
The Nuggets mostly brought Brown in mainly for his defense. Denver envisions him as a disrupting defensive weapon that will guard up and down the lineup and I can see him filling a similar role to the one Gary Payton II played last season with the Warriors. He’ll play minutes with Denver’s starters and could find his way into the closing lineup too, especially if Michael Porter Jr. struggles defensively. But how versatile he is offensively and the number of roles he can fill was appealing to Denver as well.
What’s going to happen at backup center this year?
I’ve written and talked a lot this offseason about why Denver signed DeAndre Jordan and didn’t bring back DeMarcus Cousins, but I’ll summarize those points here real quick.
- There were legit worries about if Cousins could stay healthy for a full season. Cousins was battling a lingering calf issue when he signed in Denver, then missed a few games with a foot sprain early on in his Nugget tenure. Jordan is 34-years-old but has stayed relatively over the last few years.
- The Nuggets wanted more rim protection at backup center behind Nikola Jokic. Denver believes Jordan provides that.
- The Nuggets also wanted a backup 5 whose priority is to roll to the rim and be a lob threat instead of popping to the 3-point line in pick-and-rolls. Cousins was exclusively a pick-and-pop big. There’s a belief that Denver’s guards will mesh better with Jordan partially for that reason.
- Jordan is regarded as one of the top locker room guys in the NBA. He has a close relationship with Jeff Green and Bruce Brown. All three were teammates in Brooklyn two years ago.
- This is just my read, but I don’t think the Nuggets wanted to deal with Cousins’ propensity to rack up technicals again.
All of that being said, you can’t take anything away from how much Cousins helped the Nuggets last season. Denver’s bench went from absolutely horrid to pretty good, simply by signing and playing him with the second unit. Cousins was a great offensive weapon. He can still shoot the 3 and is an underrated passer and playmaker. His 19 points on 8-12 shooting with Jokic hurt and in foul trouble nearly won the Nuggets Game 5 in Golden State. I think Cousins should absolutely get a contract from another team next season.
Also, don’t rule out the Nuggets mixing in Jeff Green at backup center. That’s something I definitely think will happen from time to time. Denver envisions Jordan in that role, but I don’t think it’s set in stone that he has to play every game. Jordan won’t take a DNP-CD as a slight and he’s a consummate pro who’s going to stay ready. We’ll definitely see Green, and maybe Zeke Nnaji, at backup center throughout the year.
We’ve discussed first-round picks Christian Braun and Peyton Watson plenty this offseason, and I still hold the same line of thinking around both players heading into next year that I did at Summer League. Braun has the chance to crack the rotation at times next season. Watson will spend much of the year developing in the G League.
Second-rounder Ismael Kamagate has expectedly flown a bit under the radar. It’s no surprise since he’ll be playing abroad again next season and had a mixed performance at Summer League. But he does deserve a mention here.
The Nuggets first brought Kamagate in for a workout in mid-June prior to the draft, and Denver’s coaching staff came away from that workout very impressed. Michael Malone saw in that workout what Kamagate could be in a few seasons: a rotation player and rim-protecting backup center who’s versatile defensively and carries a ton of gravity when rolling to the basket. Denver envisions the 21-year-old as someone who has the ability to switch 1-5 at the NBA level and guard smaller guards. There’s real excitement for Kamagate among Denver’s front office.
The Nuggets were 29th in the league in blocks per game last season and dead last in the league in opponent field goal percentage at the rim. Both are stats that Malone has repeated several times throughout the offseason. It’s not hard to tell that he was frustrated by his team’s inability to protect the paint and rim last season.
In due time, the Nuggets think Kamagate can be a real presence in the paint. He was the Defensive Player of the Year in France’s top league last year and averaged 1.6 blocks per game. I don’t think it’s out of the question that he can log minutes at backup center for Denver in two seasons.