The Denver Nuggets got back on the court for the first time during the 2023-24 NBA season on Tuesday night, debuting in their preseason opener against the Phoenix Suns. There was no Kevin Durant, Devin Booker, or Bradley Beal in this matchup, but the Nuggets still played four of their five starters and earned a win on the road. The Nuggets ultimately won 115-107 with some impressive showings from some likely (and unlikely) contributors.

Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray got out there again for the first half. Both showed plenty of rust but also made some impressive plays. Jokić accumulated nine points, four rebounds, two assists, and two steals in 17 first half minutes. Murray put up 12 points and five assists in his 18 minutes, hitting some impressive shots around the rim. Both sat out the second half.


Here are some other takeaways from the Nuggets’ first preseason game of 2023:

The starters casually won their minutes

Jokić and Murray were certainly big parts of the Nuggets starting group, as noted above. Both mostly made plays within the flow of the offense and defense, a unit that was completed by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, and Justin Holiday. Michael Porter Jr. and Christian Braun both sat out due to injury, leaving an opportunity for Holiday to step up. The veteran contributor had just five points and missed some open shots, but he had a steal, a block, and an assist in his 19 minutes.

Gordon was a strong contributor on the glass and as a playmaker. He only attempted one shot, but he notched seven boards, three assists, and a block of his own in 13 minutes.

Caldwell-Pope was the floor spacer of the group, hitting 3-of-4 three-pointers in his 18 minutes. Murray in particular looked to set up his backcourt running mate, and the two showed some good chemistry in the open floor.

The Suns starters were fine on their own, but without the three stars to put pressure on Denver’s defense, the Nuggets mostly played shell coverage, didn’t close out too hard, and went through the motions. It’s preseason after all.

Julian Strawther shows out

Even though Strawther was the highest drafted Nuggets draft pick this past June, he received a bit less fanfare than fellow rookies Hunter Tyson and Julian Strawther due to a solid but unspectacular summer league. Entering this season, it wasn’t expected for Strawther to be ready and contribute immediately.

Well, so much for that.

In 21 minutes on Tuesday night, Strawther accumulated 20 points, five rebounds, and three assists off the bench. He shot 8-of-12 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range, showcasing an absolutely lethal shooting stroke in both spot-up and on-the-move situations. It was always expected for Strawther to be a great shooter, but if it can translate sooner rather than later, that would go a long way.

What wasn’t expected was the all-around contributions. Strawther defended his position reasonably well, grabbed rebounds, attacked off the dribble, and made some plays for himself and others. His off-ball movement to create opportunities was a clear value-add, and the Nuggets will need that kind of juice off the bench at points this upcoming year.

A strong debut for Strawther at the next level.


Zeke Nnaji makes a case for backup center minutes

One of Denver’s most interesting lineups during the contest occurred at the beginning of the second quarter. Jamal Murray staggered with a second unit that featured Julian Strawther, Hunter Tyson, Zeke Nnaji, and one of Peyton Watson or Justin Holiday. That group looked pretty good with Murray running the show, better than with Reggie Jackson out there, and excelled at switching defensively and getting up and down the floor.

Nnaji is a big part of that. Having the ability to switch almost any pick and roll and guard whoever’s in front of him in isolation is an important skill. In the first half, Nnaji made the little plays, grabbed some rebounds, and finished a possession or two around the rim.

In the second half, Nnaji continued to excel, playing the final 15 minutes of the game and racking up some points. Jalen Pickett and Collin Gillespie did a good job of collapsing the defense and generating space for Nnaji to catch around the rim and either score, get fouled, or both.

In 21 minutes, Nnaji finished with 17 points, six rebounds, one assist, one steal, and one block. He tied with Murray for the team lead in plus-minus at +12. His skill set makes sense as a backup big man with the versatility to play inside and outside on either end of the floor. He even hit a three-pointer tonight, shooting 5-of-8 from the field, 1-of-2 from three, and 6-of-7 from the line. It was good to see Nnaji figure some things out.

What’s Next:

The Nuggets will travel on the road again to face the Chicago Bulls on Thursday night at 6:00pm MT.

Final Rotations