NBA

Record of the Nuggets’ three-position battles entering training camp

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There are only about two months left of the NBA offseason before the Denver Nuggets report for training camp to begin their quest for an NBA title.

While much of Nuggets head coach Michael Malone’s rotation is already set in stone, there are a few slots that will be up for grabs early in training camp. The starting five is locked, but the only two players off the bench who feature in the rotation every night are Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown.

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That means there are two or three spots left in Malone’s bench rotation: small forward, power forward and centre. Let’s take a look at how these position battles are set up before the start of training camp.

Who will lock the small forwards save minutes between Christian Braun and Davon Reed?

This will be the most important positional battle before training camp.

Christian Braun — the 21st pick in the 2022 NBA draft — will face Davon Reed — who just signed his first full-time contract with the NBA this offseason after playing on a two-way deal for Denver last year — to decide. who the first wing off the bench will be.

Reed, who was a Malone favorite last season, will enter training camp as the most experienced and prepared player. Reed may not have the same edge as a shooter, but his physicality and toughness on defense have been proven at the NBA level, making him the most trustworthy player. He’s more limited as a scorer than Braun on paper, but he has some use as a secondary creator who can attack the rim or perform pick and rolls.

That being said, if Braun wins the job out of training camp and keeps that role for the rest of the season, it would be a major win for the Nuggets, as it would mean Braun’s defense and three-way shooting points would be translated to the NBA with ease. If so, his advantage jumps a bit higher than Reed, who isn’t a threat to opponents as a three-point shooter.

Still, Braun is a rookie and asking him to shoot well – somewhere around 37% from three-point range or better – and defend at a high level on a championship contender while potentially logging significant playoff minutes is huge demand. Denver will need a go-to wing defender to diversify their rosters to take their defensive potential to the next level. Can a rookie really step into this role right away? The answer to this question is usually no.

Malone, although he thinks Braun might be able to play minutes right away, is forcing his rookies to prove themselves. No roles are assigned; they are won. It was true for Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Nikola Jokic. That gives Reed an early advantage to earn the role of first winger off the bench ahead of training camp, although it’s likely an open competition.

Who will earn most of the vault minutes?

Backup center might be the least straightforward role in Malone’s rotation at the start of the season. Will it be Jeff Green like he was for much of last season? Will DeAndre Jordan, who has struggled for the past few years, find a way to help Denver enough to deserve the role? Could Zeke Nnaji or even Vlatko Cancar see some of those minutes as a small ball center?

Jordan’s signing was confusing when it happened and still is. Yes, the Nuggets needed a real center to face teams that also employ real centers off the bench. Yes, the center market was exceptionally expensive during free agency. But that being said, Jordan hasn’t been a productive player in years. He’s been immobile on the perimeter as a defender and his outburst around the rim has dropped significantly in recent seasons. Apart from scoring around the edge, he hurts more than he helps.

It is very likely that the role of the save center will be decided based on the matches and the players available. If the Nuggets are playing against a team that employs an actual backup center that Green and Nnaji couldn’t physically match, Jordan would make sense as a counter. The same goes if Nikola Jokic rests for a night or misses games due to injury. Having someone who is tall enough to take up space in the paint, frame bigger bodies, and ride to the edge is helpful in certain circumstances.

Still, outside of those specific situations, it would make sense for Green to take a few minutes as a backup center alongside Nnaji. Green was one of the few stabilizing forces in the injury-plagued Nuggets roster last season and he has the confidence of the team and coaching staff. His rim-rolling and pick-and-pop ability would give the bench a few more ways to attack on offense. Green is also a much better defender in space than Jordan.

If the Nuggets wanted to get even smaller, they could play Nnaji at center and play both Braun and Reed or even bring Cancar into the mix to play center while Nnaji falls back into his more natural forward position. Malone will probably experiment soon enough.

The backup center will likely be different every game, with Green getting the biggest slice of the pie, but that could change after training camp or depending on the Nuggets’ needs as the season progresses.

Can Zeke Nnaji solidify his place in Michael Malone’s rotation?

It may seem like a stretch to some, but Nnaji is one of the biggest X-factors for the Nuggets. His potential as a 3-and-D forward at six-foot-10 can create tremendous versatility for a Nuggets bench unit that has lacked life for much of the 2021-22 season. Luckily, before he got hurt, there were signs he was finding where he stood with the Nuggets’ reserves.

Before Nnaji got injured last season, he was just starting to blossom as a player. His finishing around the rim had improved, he had some of his best rebounding performance, and his combination of perimeter defense and three-point shooting shone. He looked like a player who could be considered core for the Nuggets, but much of that was masked by the fact that he missed 25 Nuggets games in the final 27 games of the regular season. with bilateral knee pain.

To put it into perspective, before getting injured, Nnaji had played 21 games since January 1. During that time, he played 19 minutes per game and averaged 7.1 points and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 57.3 percent from the field and 47.4 percent from three-pointers. He was 18-38 from deep and the Nuggets went 13-8 in that streak. He had great chemistry with Hyland, was more assertive around the rim as a scorer and rebounder, and his confidence was growing quickly.

If the Nuggets get Nnaji’s version before he gets injured this season, their bench unit has a lot more options as he spaces the floor and helps on defense. Each offensive action will have more room to breathe and he will cover a lot of ground in defense. To succeed in this role, Nnaji will need to improve in two clear ways: the first is to stay healthy and the second is to enter the season with a stronger rebound.

If Nnaji can’t claim his place in the rotation and doesn’t live up to the expectations the Nuggets have for him, they will be much more limited. They should consider filling his role with Cancar or giving Jordan a full-time role in the rotation, but that comes with losses. With either option, Denver’s perimeter defense and point shooting would be much worse.

Nnaji is one of the biggest X-factors coming into the season for the Nuggets because of everything he can provide to the bench unit. If this group struggles like they did last year, it could be the difference between winning or losing a playoff series. Denver needs Nnaji to seize his role and thrive if they hope to hit their cap.

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