Bones Hyland’s offensive game is maturing in real time

Feb 16, 2022; San Francisco, California, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Bones Hyland (3) brings the ball down the court against the Golden State Warriors during the first quarter at Chase Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Bones Hyland no longer has to remind people how good he is.

He has unequivocally proven that he belongs in the NBA through his play which culminated into being named as an injury replacement for the Rising Stars Challenge during the All-Star break. There is no more debate; Hyland is clearly one of the exciting young guards in the National Basketball Association which is why he is tied for the eighth-best odds for Rookie of the Year at +10000 according to FanDuel Sportsbook.

Even so, it is important to look at just how he has been able to impact winning thus far in order to project just how good he can be for the Nuggets. Hyland has grown immensely during his first 46 games as a professional and, based on the film, it appears his potential could be higher than many expected.

Attacking in the pick and roll

One of the most encouraging aspects of Hyland’s production is his ability to attack in pick and rolls; not an easy task for a rookie lead guard.

There are so many nuances to a how to create for others or yourself in the pick and roll. Hyland has already shown a natural feel for timing, angles and the gravity created by himself and his teammates, but what makes his ceiling exciting is how he is able to already apply that information in real time with a live dribble. It is not consistent yet and he is far from ready for even reserve minutes in the postseason, but these flashes of understanding are a big reason the Nuggets are so excited for his potential.

In the clip below, Hyland gets into the paint using a screen from JaMychal Green and Stephen Curry has to fight over Green’s screen because of Hyland’s outside shooting ability. Most rookies in this situation would see a mostly-vacated painted area with their defender trailing and hunt their own shot, but Hyland is already one step ahead of the Warriors.

This is where his court awareness and basketball IQ shines. Hyland knows he has Bryn Forbes in the corner and Green on the opposite wing so regardless of which defender rotates over to contest Hyland’s drive to the rim, it will have to leave a shooter open one pass away. Then, instead of rushing the obvious pass to a shooter, Hyland creates the ideal passing angle by getting deeper into the paint to allow DeMarcus Cousins’ screen on Otto Porter Jr. to connect effectively.

Porter tries to jump the passing lane to keep the ball from getting to Forbes in the corner, but Hyland’s aggressive drive paired with Cousins’ savvy screen remove him from the play allowing Hyland to create a perfect passing angle to drop a dime to Forbes right in his shooting pocket with no defender within six feet.

Once again, here is Hyland setting up a teammate for a bucket based on his court awareness and understanding of how opposing defenses will react. In the clip below, Hyland appears to be using the incoming screen by Nikola Jokic on Fred Van Vleet, but instead of waiting for the screen to arrive, Hyland attacks Pascal Siakam’s outside shoulder to get him to open his hips to contain Hyland’s drive; and in turn make Siakam unable to limit Jokic’s movements.

From there, Jokic rolls to the rim putting Siakam in an impossible position. Siakam has to tag Jokic rolling or two very bad things could happen: Van Vleet will be forced to switch onto the gargantuan Jokic or Gary Trent Jr. has to help off of Forbes to contest Jokic at the rim, leading to Forbes being left wide open in the corner. Neither could slow Jokic so Siakam attempts to split the difference by sitting in the passing lane, but this is precisely what Hyland wanted.

Now Hyland can loft a touch pass over Siakam, but under the rim where only Jokic can catch it. Once Jokic is that close to the rim, he is virtually unstoppable.

For Hyland to continue to create for others in the pick and roll, he has to be a threatening three-level scorer. Throughout his rookie year, Hyland has shown he can finish around the rim and hit all sorts of shots from beyond the 3-point arc, but there are no lack of microwave scorers who thrive at the rim and beyond the arc. What makes point guards truly threatening in the pick and roll is also having a mid-range game that forces defenses to respect their scoring ability at all times from anywhere on the court.

The best example of this from the past few years of Nuggets basketball would be Gary Harris during his tenure in the Mile High City. At his best, he was elite at the rim and beyond the 3-point line, but Harris was never able to add in that mid-range floater or jumper. Because of that, defenses would just drop their big and have their perimeter defender fight over the screen every time Harris ran a pick and roll which forced him into the mid-range shots he struggled with.

Hyland already is more comfortable in that middle area than Harris ever was, as seen in the clip below, which gives him a significantly higher ceiling as an offensive initiator.

it is nothing more than a simple stop-and-pop jumper from the free-throw line after using a  screen from Jokic, but this shot can have massive ramifications on Hyland’s long-term projection. With Jokic as his pick and roll partner, there is little-to-no help coming from the opposing big man being involved in the pick and roll to slow Hyland so the guard defending him has to fight over the screen to keep him from getting an open 3-pointer. That will regularly provide Hyland with an open look at a mid-range jumper.

It is important for Hyland to have more than one type of way to attack teams from the mid-range so he has begun incorporating a floater into his arsenal as well.

With Hyland growing in the mid-range, there will not be a defensive coverage that he will be unable to counter very soon. If you go under the screen, Hyland will pull-up for a triple. If you fight over the screen, he will attack the rim. If you play a drop defense with the big containing the drive, he will hit mid-range looks.

It is all starting to come together; slowly, but surely.

Pushing the pace in transition

One trait Hyland utilizes that many of his teammates lack is a willingness and excitement to push the pace off of turnovers, missed shots, or even made baskets if the Nuggets can create an advantage.

For Denver, one of the slowest teams in the league, getting easy points in transition or by creating mismatches in mid-transition is important to diversifying their offensive attack and Hyland is always looking for those opportunities as he does below.

Malone loves turning defense into offense. He preaches it to his players, the media and really anyone who will listen. Hyland does exactly that in the clip above when he grabs the steal and begins to get out in transition. Will Barton III is running the break with him, but with Jaylen Brown back on defense, Hyland instead falls back on his creativity to create the best possible look. Yes, he could drop a pass off to Barton, but Brown could easily rotate back to Barton. Why even risk it?

That is when Hyland unleashes a fake behind-the-back pass to freeze Brown like he was stuck in concrete and finish at the rim without difficulty. Having a player like Hyland who has so many ways to attack in transition is extremely helpful to a half-court focused team like the Nuggets.

Off-ball movement

What makes Hyland even more threatening is that he never stops moving the he gets off the ball. Yes, he has rookie moments where he does not know exactly where to move, but he does not stay stagnant which creates more passing angles for his teammates to find him.

Look at how quickly Hyland transitions from on-ball initiator to off-ball finisher after getting the ball to Jokic

As soon as Hyland realizes Horford is stopping him from driving to the rim, it connects to him that the MVP is open on the wing and gets him the ball right away. Instead of admiring Jokic play in isolation, Hyland knows Jokic will more-than-likely attract a second defender so he stays mobile on the perimeter in an attempt to keep himself in Jokic’s sight lines.

As Jokic attacks the closeout and further drags the defense towards him, Hyland slowly fades to the opposite wing to make any potential closeout on his shot as difficult as can be. Once Jokic sees Hyland has found the soft spot on the floor, he passes him into the 3-pointer.

If Hyland did not stay in constant movement on the perimeter as soon as getting off of the ball, that shot might not have been created, but Hyland knows this and he executed. That gives him great potential as an off-ball shooter as he continues to learn the intricacies of NBA basketball.

Understanding of how to play with Nikola Jokic

There are already multiple instances of Hyland grasping how to play with Jokic all throughout this story, but the fit between them can be so good it also deserved its own section.

Hyland has naturally fallen in line with Jokic’s style of play which is not surprising considering Barton essentially acts as a road map for Hyland to follow. They both are aggressive drivers and more-than-willing outside shooters who can create for themselves or others with or without a screen. Additionally, Barton and Hyland have a fantastic relationship that spans long before Hyland was drafted by the Nuggets.

Now, as Hyland continues to develop better chemistry and trust with his teammates, the Nuggets have began to call plays that involve Hyland including possession that include Jokic. This play came against the Magic when the Nuggets started Hyland at point guard with Monte Morris out while he was in concussions protocol. Instead of easing Hyland in, Malone would call plays like the one below.

If that play looks familiar, it is because the Nuggets run it with Jamal Murray very often. It starts with a wing — in this case Aaron Gordon — having the ball near the top of the key as the initiator. At the same time, the point guard sets an off-ball cross-screen for Jokic to get him moving across the court, with his defender trailing, to get into strong post position.

While getting Jokic an advantageous post touch is always a good idea, there are other reads that exist in this set. In the clip above, the screen from Hyland on Gary Harris instantly leads to a miscommunication between Harris, Cole Anthony and Mo Bamba.

Bamba drops towards the rim to keep Jokic from walking to the rim with no resistance, but at the same time, Harris jumped behind the screen to accomplish the same task instead of switching onto Hyland to rebalance the defense. Anthony, who was also involved in the screening action, attempts to tag Jokic because he is also worried about Jokic getting to the rim too easily which takes him too far from Hyland to contest the triple. All of that focus on Jokic took all of the focus off Hyland, who is two steps away from a wide open 3-pointer after setting the screen.

Seeing Nuggets head coach Michael Malone utilize Hyland in similar sets as Murray shows just how comfortable he is playing in the two-man game with Jokic.

These experience are important for the Nuggets progression as a team; not just for Hyland individually

It is crystal clear how important Hyland is for the Nuggets this season.

Denver is 27-19 in games that Hyland has played in this season. When Hyland scores 10-or-more points in a game, Denver is 13-3. Furthermore, Denver is 16-5 when Hyland hits two-or-more 3-pointers. He fits well with the starting unit as well as the reserves. He gives the Nuggets creation and scoring on the perimeter during a season they have been desperate for both. All of that essentially boils down to one indisputable fact: when Hyland plays well, Denver wins with ease.

Denver can rely on Jokic every single night, but they have badly needed assistance from the rest of the roster. That is why when Hyland plays well and gives Jokic the boost of not being the only difference maker, Denver tends to win.

That fact will not change after the All-Star break or the postseason which is why it is hyper-important to get Hyland as close to ready for the playoffs as possible. Getting these repetitions as a point guard with the starters and with the bench are not just important minutes, but necessary for him to reach his potential.

It will come with growing pains — Hyland has 93 assists against 57 turnovers this season and his defense has been far below even a passable level — but that does not diminish his importance. If the Nuggets want to unlock the best version of this roster, they will have to suffer through some setbacks during the process.

Malone has shown more willingness to trust his rookie recently and that trend seems likely to continue. The only remaining question is just how much information Hyland can soak up before the lights get brighter in the postseason.

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