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Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, April 2, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Nuggets

Mike Malone faces challenge of juggling young prospects

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Tim Connelly, Pete D’Alessandro and the Denver Nuggets’ brass have amassed a heap of promising young talent during their rebuilding efforts. They’ve stockpiled so much talent, in fact, that coach Michael Malone might struggle to adequately develop everyone.

Even after trading French forward Joffrey Lauvergne, the frontcourt is still brimming with prospects. But at least the big-man rotation is somewhat manageable. It’s the guard corps that present the toughest juggling act for Malone and Co.

Here’s the club’s overall depth chart entering 2016-17:

Point Guard: Emmanuel Mudiay, Jameer Nelson

Shooting Guard: Gary Harris, Will Barton, Jamal Murray, Malik Beasley, Mike Miller

Small Forward: Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, JaKarr Sampson, Axel Toupane

Power Forward: Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, Juan Hernangomez

Center: Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic

Training Camp Invitees: Jarnell Stokes, D.J. Kennedy, Nate Wolters, Robbie Hummel

Obviously not all of these players will be on the Nuggets’ active roster throughout the year, but you can tell there’s a surplus of backcourt prospects. Denver drafted Gary Harris in 2014, traded for Will Barton in 2015, drafted Emmanuel Mudiay in 2015, and then selected Jamal Murray and Malik Beasley in the 2016 draft. That’s a huge influx of players in a two-year span.

This could be a good problem to have. It’s just a tricky one. The front office and coaching staff must identify which players are most vital and how to groom each of them within the system.

One possible solution is trading a couple of assets for a defensive stud who fits the system. The Nuggets could use a long-term wing who’s defensive-minded, along with some athletic rim protection in the frontcourt. After the draft, Dan Fatigato of BSNDenver.com suggested Denver should pursue a 3-and-D swingman, and later in the summer, Today’s Fastbreak’s Court Zierk recommended trading for a shot-blocker such as Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel:

The Nuggets could certainly put together an enticing package for Noel that would address needs for both teams. The 76ers are in desperate need of shooting and offensive competency. Gallinari and Will Barton would fit that bill…Noel could bolster (Denver’s) lineup on the defensive end and would be a perfect fit next to the offensive-minded Jokic. Moving on from Gallinari and Barton frees up minutes for Murray and Hernangomez, which would hopefully accelerate their growth…

If an opportunity like this arises, and the two sides could make the salaries match, Denver should pull the trigger. However, an optimal trade may not materialize, and Malone might have an overcrowded backcourt to start the season. In that case, he’ll be tasked with carefully balancing the young talent with the well-equipped veterans.

Mudiay and Harris should form the starting backcourt because they’re young and exhibited tangible potential last season. Both averaged 30-plus minutes and 12-plus points per game. Mudiay also posted 5.5 assists per game while Harris shot 35 percent from three and showed promise on defense. Mudiay is 20 while Harris turned 22, so they’re still a couple of years from hitting their primes. It makes all the sense in the world to give this duo substantial in-game training next season:

 

However, most of the remaining guards aren’t second-round picks or negligible stopgaps. They’re talented youngsters and first-round picks in their own right.

Will Barton challenged for Sixth Man of the Year last season after posting 14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game off the bench. He’s turned into a tough cover off the bounce and a good close-out defender on the perimeter. Barton is 25 years old and starting to hit the peak of his career, so he’s worth running for 25-30 minutes per game. Some of that time could be spent at small forward, but only when Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler are on the bench or playing small-ball 4.

Then there are the draft picks. Denver used two of its three first-round picks in June on guards: Kentucky’s Jamal Murray and Florida State’s Malik Beasley. Murray has the offensive skill set to eventually spend some time at the point, but in the near future, he’s a shooting guard. Beasley isn’t quite as gifted as Murray, but his athleticism and shooting potential are also worth developing in the big leagues. Rounding out the backcourt are veterans Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller, along with training camp invitees Nate Wolters and D.J. Kennedy. Even Axel Toupane, who’s a 6’7″ swingman, could spend minutes at shooting guard.

Entering training camp, there could be up to 10 players trying to take a bite out of 96 backcourt minutes per contest. How should Malone divvy up these minutes?

First, we can’t stress enough that development trumps winning this season. Gerald Bourguet of HoopsHabit.com explained how Malone should favor growth over wins or an outside shot at the playoffs:

Like the Minnesota Timberwolves, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns in the West, the Denver Nuggets don’t need to make the playoffs in 2016-17. As long as their young, foundational pieces continue to show progress, the season will be a success…Denver’s top priority…is allowing the young players to grow on a semi-competitive team. Whether the youngsters can make enough of a leap to challenge for a playoff spot remains to be seen, but the Nuggets’ success won’t be determined by their place in the standings at season’s end.

It’s an inexact science. Much of the season will be dictated by injuries, D-League assignments and potential transactions. But here’s a rough sketch of how Malone could handle the 96 minutes per night:

Mudiay: 26-32 MPG

Harris: 26-32 MPG

Barton: 12-16 MPG (his other 12 MPG will be at small forward)

Murray: 13-16 MPG (some of those minutes might be at point guard)

Beasley: 4-8 MPG (may have to spend time in D-League to get game experience)

Wolters: 3-5 MPG

Nelson: 3-5 MPG

As you can tell, the remaining players, including veterans, will have to fight for minutes. Some won’t be on the roster for the whole season. This proposed minutes distribution is far from a surefire projection, and it illustrates how difficult it will be for Malone to spread minutes to all of his youngsters. He and his staff will have some tough decisions to make both in the big picture and on a nightly basis.

Mike Malone faces challenge of juggling young prospects

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