20Q: Which Nuggets reserve can crack the regular season rotation?

Mar 18, 2022; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers center DeAndre Jordan (9) reacts to a three point basket against the Dallas Mavericks during the fourth quarter at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks 35 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 12: Which Nugget currently projected outside of the rotation is most likely to play a role?

The top of the Denver Nuggets rotation is reasonably well defined.

With the impending returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to the starting lineup, Nikola Jokić will be surrounded by two strong scorers in Murray and Porter and two quality defenders in Aaron Gordon and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Denver’s starting lineup projects to be one of the best in the NBA during the 2022-23 season.

Off the bench, the two guard spots are likely spoken for: electric sixth man Bones Hyland and Swiss army knife Bruce Brown. Both should play significant roles. The frontcourt is more ambiguous, but Zeke Nnaji and Jeff Green should get the most time. They proved themselves to be capable rotation players last year. Davon Reed also showcased some 3&D production when given his own opportunities and likely gets the 10th spot in the rotation.

Denver Nuggets 2022-23 projected full strength rotation:

  • Point Guard: Jamal Murray (30 minutes per game) / Bones Hyland (20)
  • Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (28) / Bruce Brown (20)
  • Small Forward: Michael Porter Jr. (30) / Davon Reed (16)
  • Power Forward: Aaron Gordon (30) / Jeff Green (16)
  • Center: Nikola Jokić (32) / Zeke Nnaji (18)
    • Total: 240 minutes

That means seven players, including both two-way contract players, are on the outside looking in as training camp rapidly approaches.

Injuries happen though. Absences occur. Players 11 through 17 in the rotation still have to remain available for the right moment. Some players will play more than others, and there will be situations when head coach Michael Malone shifts the rotation entirely.

Projections can be wrong, though.

So, which player on the outside looking in is most likely to play a legitimate role for the Denver Nuggets this season? Let’s go down the list and discuss each player.


DeAndre Jordan

The player most likely to play rotation minutes on opening night that isn’t projected in the above lineup is DeAndre Jordan. The 34-year-old backup center is a traditional big body that can set hard screens, roll to the rim, and direct a defense from the paint. His best days are behind him, but as a veteran that the Nuggets signed this offseason, he’s likely to get at least an opportunity from Malone.

Right now, Nnaji is my projected backup center. He’s an unconventional option though, as a below average screener that struggles to finish through traffic in the paint. He shoots well from the perimeter though, something that could help space the floor for Denver’s second unit.

If the Nuggets are seeking out a more traditional option at backup center? Jordan is the only such player on the roster.

Ish Smith

The Nuggets acquired Ish Smith as part of the KCP trade. Monte Morris and Will Barton went out the door, two of Denver’s most trusted veteran ball handlers for a long, long time. Ish Smith, like Jordan, is also 34 years old. He’s about to enter his 13th season and has played 719 regular season games. He’s tried and true, though he doesn’t project to play ahead of Bones on the second unit.

Still, there will be opportunities for Ish, namely when Jamal Murray sits out games as part of his knee injury management process. Even before the season, the Nuggets can pencil in Murray for about 60 to 65 regular season games if everything goes according to plan. That leaves 17 to 22 games worth of point guard minutes open automatically. Bones likely starts in those situations, but Smith is the clubhouse leader to be the primary backup. He’s stable and should hold down those minutes well.

Christian Braun

While Jordan and Smith are the two in-house veterans off the bench, Christian Braun is the Nuggets reserve most likely to exceed 500+ minutes this season.

The Nuggets selected Braun 21st in the 2022 Draft with the intention of adding a player ready to help win games now. Braun’s skill set as a 3&D wing with size and athleticism gives him a leg up. The Nuggets haven’t had a ton of wing defenders to choose from over the last several years. Braun gives them another option, even if he isn’t the first choice.

Braun has an opportunity to win the backup small forward job out of camp if he performs well. Malone usually defaults to the in-house veterans though, meaning Davon Reed is likely to get first crack at the job. If Reed struggles out of the gate though, expect Braun to get consistent reps sooner rather than later.

Vlatko Čančar

Vlatko is currently playing for the Slovenian national team in EuroBasket. He’s playing pretty well, too. While Luka Dončić is the superstar, Vlatko has operated as a role player and done everything Slovenia has asked of him as a rebounder, defender, and floor spacer.

Can Čančar use that momentum to break into the rotation next season? While it seems unlikely, it’s possible. Vlatko has enough versatility to fit in at small forward, power forward, or even center in some lineups. He’s best used at power forward, but if the Nuggets sustain injuries to other positions, Vlatko could certain fill in.

Peyton Watson

The 30th pick of the 2022 Draft, Peyton Watson was deemed a “project” selection by general manager Calvin Booth. Watson will take some time to develop, but the physical tools and the defensive skills are clearly there. It may take some time, but Watson could eventually turn into the ace defender on the wing the Nuggets have sought after for a long time.

During the 2022-23 season though? It’s extremely unlikely. Watson is probably the least likely reserve to play significant time this season, and that’s how it should be for a team with championship aspirations. If this were 2016 coming off of a 33-win season, Denver should make time for Watson. Unfortunately for the rookie from UCLA, that isn’t the case in 2022.

Jack White

Denver’s final addition to the roster was Jack White, a 6’7″ forward that played multiple seasons at Duke before playing multiple seasons in the NBL (Australia/New Zealand). White is a high IQ player that executes rotations and play calls, making the extra pass and fitting into what’s going on. He’s not a great shooter, but the rest of his game is solid enough across the board. That’s why the Nuggets added him to the roster.

Whether White plays or not remains to be seen. There are several players the Nuggets would rather play ahead of him, and if Jack White is playing extended minutes for the Nuggets, that probably doesn’t bode well. Still, he’s a player that should be able to fill in for a quarter here, a half there, maybe play some backup small forward or power forward if the injury bug strikes.

White is lower on the rotation totem pole, but he’s not at the bottom.

Collin Gillespie

Finally, Colin Gillespie projects to be Denver’s 17th man this season. The Nuggets liked what they saw from Gillespie in Summer League, and he definitely had some Monte Morris vibes going. Unfortunately, Gillespie sustained a broken leg while playing basketball back in Pennsylvania earlier this summer. He had surgery and doesn’t yet have a timetable for his return.

It’s difficult to project when Gillespie could realistically come back. As such, it’s difficult to project a role for Gillespie. The safer choice is to pencil in Ish Smith for all of the reserve point guard minutes, perhaps Bruce Brown if the Nuggets are in a pinch. Gillespie will have to take his time to recover, and the Nuggets are willing to give him that time.

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