The Denver Nuggets are looking to field a more versatile, physical and defensive oriented team for the 2017-18 season while also keeping their fast-paced and high-scoring identity. With the emergence of Nikola Jokic as one of the best big men in the NBA now slotted next to one of the best free-agent acquisitions in team history — Paul Millsap — it will be interesting to see who coach Michael Malone chooses to start at point guard throughout the season. Luckily, this team has three options that have all shown signs of being able to handle that task during preseason.
What he provides: A glimpse into the future
Murray’s one of the best up-and-coming talents for not only the Denver Nuggets, but in all of the NBA. If you ask the organization, Murray has star potential. He has shown in multiple ways that his rookie season was just the start of something special. There were spurts where he struggled, but there were also moments where he looked to be the best rookie in a very talented draft class. Murray provides spacing with the way that he shoots the ball and it’s contagious. He has the capability of getting red hot — particularly from three-point range.
Although he isn’t at the shooting guard — a position he often played at the University of Kentucky — with Gary Harris solidifying himself as the clear-cut starter, the Nuggets have shifted Murray to a point guard role. While he didn’t showcase himself as an above average defender last season, Murray is beginning to demonstrate hard work and tenacity on that end of the floor. A high-effort guy with deceptive athleticism, Murray battled through two sports hernias during the season and still managed to play in every single regular-season game. That type of grit and mental toughness is what sets Murray apart. It will be be hard for Malone to not place him alongside Harris, Wilson Chandler, Millsap and Jokic on Opening Night
What he provides: Fit
Mudiay’s size and length (6-5, 195 pounds) have always been one of his strongest assets, and what made him one of the most intriguing young guards when he was drafted by the Nuggets with the seventh selection in the 2015 draft. Last year was a personal battle for Mudiay, as he went from starter to playing quite sparingly for the final 40 or so games. His maturity prevailed, however, and a deeper look indicates that there were improvements in his game from year one-to-year two.
In the final month of last season, Mudiay made some progress. In five games throughout that month, he averaged 12.2 points, 5.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 45.5 percent from the field (an area of concern for the two-year guard). If he can put that together for a full season while being inserted in the starting line-up alongside the other key pieces, his size, penetration and pace aligned with the willingness to pass makes for a great fit to be in the starting line-up and allow Jamal Murray to provide a spark with the second unit.
All summer long, Malone spoke about Mudiay’s commitment to getting better during the summer; putting in the work to show that this will be a better year for him — and to prove that the Nuggets’ organization didn’t make a mistake when they drafted him. Mudiay finished off last season on a high note and looks to have regained the trust of the coaches over the summer, but will it be enough to become the starter on Opening Night?
What he provides: Balance
The fact that Malone hasn’t made up his mind and came out and said who will start at point guard to open up the year is quite telling. It indicates that neither of the two men listed above has created enough separation from one another to solidify themselves as the starter. With that in mind, why not go with your starter for much of last year — who also happened to also finish that season on a strong note? Many believed the 35-year-old Jameer Nelson would be a mentor to Denver’s talented guards — but no one told that to Nelson. He was with the team to compete and show that he’s still one of the most consistent players in this league.
Nelson started 40 games for Denver last season and was a major part of the attempt to get the Nuggets into contention for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. He finished the season averaging 9.2 points, 5.1 assists and 2.6 rebounds while playing 27.3 minutes per game and drilling 38.8 percent of his three-point attempts. What the Nuggets have in the crafty veteran is a high-IQ player with leadership skills that Malone feels very comfortable with. You can place him alongside the starters for balance, or off the bench, where he fits in seamlessly alongside Will Barton and Mason Plumlee.
The Verdict: The choice for starting point guard on opening night will have an impact on how the season goes. In the mighty Western Conference, the Nuggets can’t afford to experiment like they’ve done in previous years, as one bad stretch causes a ripple effect on the rest of the season.
While the Denver Nuggets were the most improved offensive team in the league last season — scoring 7.3 more points per 100 possessions (110.3) than they did in 2015-16 (102.7) — this was largely due to a roster move to make Nikola Jokic the starting center on December 15th. The Nuggets also had the league’s worst defense from that point on. It’s critical that the point guard that they decide to go with maintain the offensive tempo that this team is known for, but also stop some of the bleeding on the opposite end of the floor.
IMudiay had one of his best off-seasons since he’s been with the organization, but he’s on the outside looking in. Expect him to get his allotment of about 25 minutes per game and work his way into increased playing time. Expect Jameer Nelson to be the backup point guard and right the ship with a very strong second unit. He should see about 28-30 minutes per game if he’s playing well. Malone has stated that knows what he’s getting with Nelson, and that consistency will allow him to play those minutes.
It’s Murray who should be the starting point guard this season. Malone and president of basketball operations Tim Connelly have both indicated trust in Murray as the preseason has progressed. Both have stated on multiple occasions that the Nuggets don’t need a player at point guard who has to do it all. With the offense surely set to going through Jokic and Millsap, the point guard’s role will be a bit different. Murray will be tasked with making sure there is stability on the offensive end, while ensuring there’s resistance on defense. Expect Murray to be the starter come Opening Night and have a strong showing in his sophomore season.