After an off day following their final preseason game against the Golden State Warriors, the Denver Nuggets reconvened for practice on Sunday.

Michael Malone knew that today could be a little sloppy, but he still liked the energy the Nuggets brought.

“The hardest practices in the NBA are after a day off. Just mentally trying to get guys back engaged,” Malone shared with local media after Sunday’s practice. “I thought early on, there was a little bit of, mentally you could tell we weren’t all in. Probably 20 minutes in, I think our guys were firing on all cylinders. Good, competitive practice. Guys went hard.”

Malone has constantly preached championship habits and being about the right things as the Nuggets have gone through training camp practice and preseason. As the Nuggets approach the regular season, Malone has commended the team for excellent mentality, energy, and effort all throughout the process. This was certainly a welcome change from previous seasons.

Here are some other news and notes from today’s media availability:

Health questions

Jamal Murray played in just two of the five preseason games the Nuggets had across the last two weeks. Recovering from knee surgery, Murray sustained a hamstring injury that forced the Nuggets to sideline him for the last week. With the regular season so close, the concern surrounding Murray and his return-to-play process is definitely fair.

Malone offered some good news on Murray’s health though.

“[Jamal] really wanted to play on Friday night in Golden State. If he did play, it was probably only going to be first quarter minutes, but it’s that risk/reward,” Malone emphasized. “Knowing we had today, tomorrow, and Tuesday to get those guys some minutes, it’s going to be a work in progress, it really is.”

Murray went through the majority of Sunday’s practice, though he sat out at least one of Denver’s live drills with Ish Smith replacing him in the starting unit. The Nuggets are managing Murray and know that they must maintain a long-term view in the process.

“Jamal looked good today. I think come opening night, he should be good to go,” Malone shared. “He’s not going to be at 30 something minutes. He’s going to build up throughout the season, but he should be good to go if we continue along the path that we’re headed.

Nikola Jokić also appears good to go after his right wrist sprain, despite still wearing protective tape around the wrist. He was a full participant in practice and, according to Malone, insisted on completing every portion of practice in full despite the Nuggets recommending he take some time off.

Finally, Michael Porter Jr. is in a good place with his return-to-play process. Porter, Malone, and the training staff have had conversations about how Porter’s feeling to determine if he should play. Malone approached preseason hoping to give each of his starters at least one game off for rest purposes, but it seems that Porter isn’t interested in sitting out any more games unless necessary.

“With Michael, he came to me and he goes, ‘You know, I’m feeling really good, and if it’s okay with you, I’d rather not sit a game and just kind of stay in my rhythm, keep on playing. I missed 70 some odd games last year.'”

Porter’s rehab has gone well, and though the Nuggets will continue to monitor his progress, Porter appears as close to back to normal health wise as he was during the 2020-21 season. That’s an exciting prospect.

Serious Joker

Nikola Jokić was the first to become available to media for questions following Sunday’s practice, and his interview time was undoubtably quickest. He appears as serious as he’s ever been and hasn’t felt the need embellish answers, which is perfectly fine.

On the team’s mentality from training camp in San Diego to now, Jokić was very direct that there weren’t necessarily any standouts because of the expectations:

“I expect them to show up, be ready to play, bring energy, positivity.”

Jokić has been in the NBA for seven years. From being an unserious jokester as a 20-year-old in his rookie season to becoming a two-time MVP, a husband, and a father, Jokić has had to grow up. He isn’t as focused on the light stuff as he once was.

Malone was asked about Jokić’s terse nature lately, and he had an interesting perspective on it.

“I think he has a right to be in his mood,” Malone declared. “He’s not going to have a smile on his face every day, which I’m fine with. The one thing I love about him is that no matter if he’s in a great mood or not great, it never affects his work ethic. That’s all I care about.”

Jokić has talked about his desire to be the team’s Tim Duncan but noted the lack of championships on the resumé. In the spirit of “don’t talk about it, be about it” it doesn’t appear that Jokić has much to say. He’s heard the criticisms and doesn’t care about the individual accolades if there’s an opportunity to win as a team. That’s the most important thing for him at this stage.

Once the Nuggets put themselves in position to succeed, Jokić will likely soften up a bit. He’s approaching this season like a real competitor though, and he doesn’t seem to need to tell anyone how hard he’s working toward that goal.

Tidbits and quotes

There were some other notable tidbits that came out of practice on Sunday from each of Malone, Jokić, and Ish Smith, who continues to prove his value to the team as a veteran voice and contributor.

On Denver’s biggest improvements from the beginning of training camp to now, Smith cited defense and physicality.

“I think those are the two biggest keys,” Smith said. “We held Phoenix to 105. I don’t care if it’s the preseason. I don’t care. We’re prepping for the games. Then, we held the Clippers to 115. I don’t care who played or didn’t…we still have to build good habits and different things like that.”

Malone has leaned on his veteran additions ever since media day: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, DeAndre Jordan, and Ish. He has cited them in nearly every presser, and it’s no secret as to why the Nuggets are currently having their best training camp and preseason of the Malone and Jokić era. The veterans have offered stability and professionalism, keeping things light enough to be enjoyable but also serious enough to get work done.

When asked about what he expects his role to be in the rotation this year, Smith gave about as professional an answer as one can give:

“I just hoop. We talk about it all the time, I just play. For me, I try to eliminate the confusion and just control what I can control. So, no conversations have been had, and I think that’s a good thing. You just play your game, play your role, and let the chips fall where they may.”

The Nuggets know they have a talented team. Malone has experimented with different bench combinations all preseason and knows the rotation may eventually shorten to include starters with the second unit anyway.

Ish also discussed how he and Bones Hyland played together on Friday night, which seems like a bench combination Malone will use at some point as well.

“[Coach Malone] just put me out there with Bizzy, and we just went out there and played with a level of aggression on the defensive end. And offensively, pushing the tempo, getting into the paint. I thought that was pretty good. I actually thought that was the key to the game.”

Ish continued: “That’s what you’ve got to be as a second unit. Whenever your number’s called, you’ve just got to come in, change that pace, change that tempo.”

The bench rotation remains unsettled. Malone told media today that he has two backup centers he can use at different moments: DeAndre Jordan and Zeke Nnaji. Ish Smith is pushing for time. Christian Braun is pushing for time. Jamal Murray will assumably return to the starting lineup on Wednesday night and play 20 to 25 minutes.

This will be an ongoing storyline that evolves throughout the regular season.