Afflalo emerges as deft two-way player for Nuggets

Shooting guard stops scorers at one end, burns them at the other

The impromptu meeting took place near the 3-point line after a morning shootaround.

The roll call included Nuggets coach George Karl and power forward Kenyon Martin, two men whose playing styles could politely be described as “agitatingly physical.”

Karl told stories of tripping opponents from behind as they ran down court, while Martin shared tales of the handprints he had left on various wrists and forearms over the years.

Shooting guard Arron Afflalo was also in attendance, taking mental notes as Karl and Martin dispensed advice from their handbook of defensive tricks.

The not-so-subtle message was clear: Don’t be so darn nice all the time.

As a case in point, Martin brought up Dahntay Jones’ infamous trip of Kobe Bryant during the 2009 Western Conference finals. Jones left Denver as a free agent within two months of that series, and Afflalo was acquired, in part, to fill his defensive-stopper role in the backcourt.

“Dahntay was known for playing hard and playing physical,” Afflalo said. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t like a guy like that playing on your team. As far as me playing like that, I don’t know if I would trip somebody, but I could definitely make the game a little grittier.”

There is a trail of January box scores showing that Afflalo’s above-the-board technique of moving his feet and contesting shots can be pretty effective.

Jan. 23: Danny Granger 2-for-10, 8 points – 13 under his average.
Jan. 19: Kevin Durant 6-for-18, 22 points – 6.9 under his average.
Jan. 13: Dwyane Wade 7-for-19, 16 points – 9.7 under his average.
Jan. 3: Kevin Martin 3-for-15, 8 points – 15 under his average.
Jan. 1: Tyreke Evans 6-for-17, 12 points – 5.8 under his average.

Afflalo had defensive support from his teammates in helping keep those volume scorers in check, but that shouldn’t blur the bigger picture.

Rarely, if ever, does Afflalo get to relax when trying to contain top perimeter players ranging from point guards to small forwards. It’s a point that is often emphasized by Karl, who has been Afflalo’s unofficial campaign manager in his bid for a spot on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team.

“Arron’s a hardworking guy with great skills,” Karl said. “People didn’t see the skills maybe a year ago that they’re seeing now. I think Arron should get All-Defensive team votes this year.”

Afflalo would be a lock for the All-Humility team because he always deflects attention from himself after a strong performance, but he would welcome the recognition that comes from playing good defense.

“I think it’s always good to set goals and the All-Defensive team is somewhat of a selfless goal,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of good defenders who don’t get the recognition that they deserve, but if I could build my reputation to that point where it is recognized by other coaches around the league, that would be a great deal.”

As strange as it sounds, Afflalo’s improved play at the offensive end might help in that regard.

After averaging a career-high 8.8 points last season, his scoring average has jumped to 12.9 points, and his .447 three-point percentage ranks sixth in the NBA. Over the past seven games, he has hit 18-of-31 (.581) shots from beyond the arc.

Those numbers are certainly worthy of an invitation to the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest at NBA All-Star Weekend.

“He is a guy that you’ve got to know where he’s at,” Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan said. “He’s letting it go and he’s knocking down shots. He’s going to get those shots with teams trying to cheat towards Carmelo (Anthony) and Chauncey (Billups) and Nene. That is a dream for players who can shoot the ball, to sit over there and wait for you to cheat so they can make you pay the price.”

Given his improvement at both ends of the floor, Afflalo also should receive some votes for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award (Minnesota forward Kevin Love, Los Angeles Clippers guard Eric Gordon and Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook are among the leading contenders).

Afflalo’s candidacy for any accolade is based on the fundamental principal of hard work. He is studious in his scouting of opposing players and rarely a day goes by when he doesn’t take extra shots or meet with the coaching staff after practice or shootaround.

“I like Arron. I’ve liked him ever since he was at UCLA,” said Cleveland Cavaliers coach Byron Scott, who makes his offseason home in Los Angeles. “He’s one of those young guys who just works hard. He’s made himself into a very good basketball player.

“He was known when he first came into the league as a defender, but he’s really added to his basketball game, which is great because you can see a young man who’s trying every summer to get better. I’m very happy for him.”