20Q: Can Bones Hyland carry the burden of the bench unit?

Bones Hyland. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports.
Bones Hyland. Credit: Isaiah J. Downing, USA TODAY Sports.

Today marks 42 days until the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. In preparation for the most anticipated year in Denver Nuggets franchise history, Ryan Blackburn is asking and answering 20 burning questions facing the Nuggets prior to Media Day on Monday, September 26th. One question each weekday for the next four weeks.

Question 7: Is Bones Hyland ready to be “that guy” for the Nuggets second unit?

Just over a month ago, I wrote a similar article about Bones Hyland which fits most of what will be discussed in this format. Make sure to read that one for extra Bones content, because all Bones content is good content. In that piece, some very impressive statistics were shared that paint a rosy picture of Bones’ future.

For this piece though, I want to focus on Bones in the present. Just how good was he by the end of the season? How do Denver’s rotation changes this upcoming season affect Bones’ role and responsibility? Is Bones ready to take on what is likely to be a role usually suited for a tried and true veteran, despite this being his second season?

Let’s set the stage a little bit. Last season, Bones Hyland saved the 2021-22 Denver Nuggets. Yes, Nikola Jokić was the alpha and omega of the team, but without Bones lifting up the second unit and giving the entire team a midseason jolt of energy, the Nuggets would have been a play-in team. Bones averaged 12.8 points and 4.3 assists per game in 23 games after the All-Star break. His playmaking was the difference maker in at least five games during that stretch.

In the playoffs, Bones was up and down. He scored in double digits in three of the five games against the Golden State Warriors, but his shooting percentages left much to be desired. He also struggled to keep up on the defensive end, but that was to be expected. The Nuggets went down with a bit of a whimper in five games, but Bones put on a show in Game 4, hitting three three-pointers in a row and getting the back into an elimination game.

There was just something so pure about Bones’ success last season. He put his heart and soul into his craft, and Nuggets faithful responded in kind. His play style and sauce was a perfect way to enrapture a fan base desperate to cling onto something positive with the injury bug stealing so much of the joy. Bones was exactly what he needed to be for the Nuggets in his rookie season.

But what does Bones need to be for Denver this year?

Much of the same passion and fire certainly wouldn’t hurt. The Nuggets will be getting back reinforcements, and the starting lineup featuring Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. is bound to generate some leads early on. When Bones comes into the game, whether the Nuggets are winning or losing, he can still serve as that jolt of energy. Because whether an opponent has done well against the Nuggets starting unit or not, Bones Hyland coming into the game at the 4:00 mark of the first quarter and going on a personal 10-0 run will be exceedingly frustrating for opponents. There’s no doubt in my mind that Bones can add on to what the Nuggets already do well and maintain the pain for an opponent that was initially caused by a potent starting unit.

The bigger question is whether Bones can maintain that elite play with the bench unit.

Here are some scoring and playmaking splits from Bones last season depending on who his center was:

Though many of Bones’ minutes without a center also took place while he was playing shooting guard next to Facu Campazzo, the point still stands that Bones struggled without a traditional five. This could have happened for a number of reasons, but two stand out:

  1. Perhaps Bones needs a big body to set screens for and run dribble handoffs with that just didn’t happen with JaMychal Green, Zeke Nnaji, or Jeff Green.
  2. Perhaps most of those minutes simply happened early on in the season when Bones was growing accustomed to the NBA and still figuring out his role.

Roughly half of the non-center minutes occurred during the 2021 calendar year, and Bones’ numbers certainly look better in 2022, even when Jokić and Cousins both sat.

Still, it’s something to monitor as the Nuggets enter the 2022-23 season with just two traditional centers: Jokić and newcomer DeAndre Jordan. Bones will of course spend some time with Jokić, and an additional season to accrue chemistry and experience will do both players well. Jordan though, is unlikely to be a major factor in Denver’s second unit. The Nuggets brought the 34-year-old veteran in to be a locker room presence and give Denver an extra big body at the position. It’s unlikely that he plays extended minutes though, as his previous teams have had limited success with him on the court and have chosen to move on quickly.

So, Bones will likely play a significant chunk of his minutes next season, perhaps greater than 50%, without a traditional center in the lineup. Whether it’s Zeke Nnaji, Jeff Green, Vlatko Čančar, or even Aaron Gordon staggering with the second unit, the Nuggets will need to play a different way in those lineups to find consistent success.

A lot of that improvement is going to have to come from isolations against switches. When Bones got the big man switched onto him, he was comfortable going to his isolation game. On the season, he maintained 0.94 points per possession on isolations, a fairly impressive number and fourth best among all rookies. Possessions like the one below will likely become a mainstay in Denver’s second unit.

Independent of the center position though: there will be plenty of turnover in the roster spots surrounding Bones. The teammates Bones played the most minutes with last season were:

  • Austin Rivers (620 minutes)
  • JaMychal Green (596)
  • Nikola Jokić (505)
  • Aaron Gordon (434)
  • Facu Campazzo (428)
  • Will Barton (425)
  • Bryn Forbes (376)

Heading into next season, five of the above seven players are no longer on the team, and the other two are starters. Bones’ most common lineups next season are likely to include the following players, with new faces in italics:

  • Bruce Brown
  • Zeke Nnaji
  • Davon Reed
  • Jeff Green
  • Nikola Jokić
  • Christian Braun
  • Aaron Gordon
  • Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  • Michael Porter Jr.
  • Jamal Murray
  • Ish Smith

It will be a drastically different cast of characters in Bones’ life on the court, and though the overall level of talent is better, there will still be an adjustment period.

Outside of Jokić, Murray, Porter, and Gordon, the other seven players all have one other statistical trait in common: they all have below average career usage rates. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does put the onus on Bones to be a strong scorer throughout the season. Bones’ usage rate in his rookie season was 23.8% on Basketball Reference, which itself is a high number for a rookie, but he has to maintain or even improve upon that number if Denver’s bench offense is going to survive.

Last season, Denver’s lineups with Bones and without Jokić or Cousins had an offensive rating of 109.1 in 511 minutes. With Bones and Jokić: 120.4. With Bones and Cousins: 121.8. Denver’s lineups were more functional with a traditional center, but they were also successful because both Jokić and Cousins could soak up some shot attempts and help Bones out that way. Without either of them, Bones will be on a bit of an island. None of Bruce Brown, Christian Braun, Davon Reed, Zeke Nnaji, Jeff Green, or DeAndre Jordan are about to step up as volume scorers. So, in order for the Nuggets bench to keep pace, either the defense is going to have to improve significantly…or Bones is going to have to take more shots and stay efficient all of the while.

To assist Bones a bit, the Nuggets will likely stagger Murray and Porter as frequently as they reasonably can. Both players are coming off of injury and have other problems to worry about. For the Nuggets to be their most successful though, they can’t hemorrhage their point margin when the stars are sitting. That means Bones and Murray will play together at some points, and Bones and Porter will play together at others.

Still, the burden squarely falls on Bones Hyland to be ready to hold up his end of the bargain. The Nuggets willingly traded Monte Morris for a reason. They wouldn’t have done so if they didn’t believe Bones was ready (or at least ready enough) to take a big step forward in his development. Other young players have done similar in recent years, and Bones projects to be a guy that looks drastically improved from Year 1 to Year 2.

It’s a lot of if’s though. Bones has to be great, and he has to do so while working with a new second unit, no traditional backup center, and the weight of the scoring and playmaking burden almost entirely on his bony shoulders.

No pressure.

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