When the Nuggets acquired Arron Afflalo from Detroit five months ago, it was widely viewed as a reactionary move to losing defensive-minded guard Dahntay Jones.
That's not entirely accurate.
In the week leading up to the June 25 draft – well before Jones became a free agent – Denver's management team discussed using its second-round pick (34th overall) to help land Afflalo. Among those consulted as part of the due diligence was Nuggets point guard Chauncey Billups, who was with Detroit during Afflalo’s rookie season.
“Chauncey was around the draft room learning. He spent that week before (the draft) with us,” Nuggets vice president of basketball operations Mark Warkentien recalled Wednesday. “His eyes lit up. He couldn't feel better about (Afflalo).”
A draft-night trade with Detroit never materialized, Warkentien said, because the Nuggets believed they could get Afflalo after the draft. By July 9, word spread that Jones was going to sign with the Pacers, leaving Denver with an easy decision.
“It made the move crystal clear for us,” Warkentien said.
On July 13, the Nuggets sent their 2011 second-round pick to Detroit in exchange for Afflalo and Walter Sharpe, who was packaged with Sonny Weems and shipped to Milwaukee in a trade for Malik Allen 18 days later.
How has it worked out so far for the Nuggets? Afflalo is averaging 8.4 points – double his career average – and is expected to start alongside Billups for the 16th time in 22 games when Denver (16-6) faces the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday night.
Billups, who guided the Pistons to the 2004 NBA championship, received a long standing ovation when he returned to Detroit last March, but Afflalo isn't expecting much of a reaction when his name is announced during pregame introductions.
“I wasn't there as long as (Billups) and didn't do as much for them,” he said. “It'll still be fun. It's always fun to play against a former team.”
Afflalo spent two non-descript seasons with the Pistons before his arrival in Denver. Because of his limited playing time, most people didn't know what to expect in his first season with the Nuggets. That includes teammate Carmelo Anthony, who was candid when asked if Afflalo's production has been a surprise.
“Yeah, to be honest with you,” Anthony said. “What he's been giving us is defense and hitting the open shot. He's working hard and being consistent with his game. It's really paying off for us.”
Afflalo's ability to hit three-pointers from the corner, attack the basket and play steady defense has come as no surprise to Billups. The budding NBA executive told anyone who would listen that there was more to Afflalo's game than just hustle and hard work.
“I told people at the start of the season, Arron Afflalo is going to make a nice name for himself this year,” Billups said. “He's scoring just like I thought. He's proving he’s a competitor. He's going to compete extremely hard on both ends. And you have to guard him out there. He's an option for us offensively, too.”
In a lineup of home-run hitters (Anthony, Billups and J.R. Smith), Afflalo has given coach George Karl a nice utility infielder who can hit for average and minimize his mistakes. Afflalo typically is the first person in the gym and often the last to leave. He doesn't pout when criticized and takes pride in the game's fundamentals.
“Arron's fired up and focused on the game and the strategy. It gives everybody, including the coach a little more confidence,” Karl said. “Fundamental nature is a little bit better than swing-for-the-fences and strike-out nature. Sometimes you want the guy that's not going to walk anybody – not the guy that's going to strike out 20 and walk 10.”
After scoring in double figures 12 times in 74 games with the Pistons last season, Afflalo matched that total in his first 19 games with the Nuggets. Entering Thursday's game, he was shooting 50 percent from the field and 45.8 percent from 3-point range.
“My focus is trying to get open shots, run the floor and play smart,” he said. “If I get going, there's times I can be creative out there. But a lot of my energy nightly is going to be expended on the defensive end.
“I've been a scorer and I love to score. It's situational right now. It's just part of being on a team that's competing to win a championship. I'm not out there freelancing trying to score points. Doesn't mean I can't do it. Just that's not what's asked of me.”
That attitude pretty much sums up what Afflalo is all about. In a self-promoting world that takes full advantage of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, the 24-year-old is a throwback of sorts: Humble, hard-working, affable and unassuming.
“There aren't any funny stories (about him) because the guy is all about basketball,” Warkentien said. “He's serious, organized, structured. He's everything a coach wants in a player. He's all an employer wants in an employee. He's all about his craft and getting better.”