DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 26: Trey Lyles #7 of the Denver Nuggets dribbles the ball during the game against the Utah Jazz on December 26, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Dempsey: Lyles Path to Prominence is Following that of Teammate Gary Harris

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

Opportunity.

It’s both as overused and undervalued a word as there is in sports. Players talk about needing one. Coaches and executives hold those golden tickets, which can make or break a player’s career.

As soon as he was named Nuggets coach back in 2015, Michael Malone handed one of those golden tickets to Gary Harris. He had not played much as a rookie. There were questions as to just how good he would turn out to be. But Harris took that ticket, ran with it, and never looked back, not only ascending to being one of the best players on the team, but one of the best two-way players in the league. And it’s not only recognized in-house.

Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger gushed when asked about Harris.

“I think he’s a superhuman guy,” Joerger said. “He has high character. I think he’s the kind of guy that you build a franchise around. He’s a quality dude, works hard and plays the way you’re supposed to play. I’ve always been a fan. I’m just very impressed.”

Now, Trey Lyles has started down the same path.

Since Dec. 1, Lyles is fourth on the team in points (15.7), third in field goal percentage (54.5), first in 3-point percentage (48.8), second in 3-pointers made per game and fourth in rebounding (7.0).

His jumper? It’s never been as automatic as it has been in the last six weeks.

“It’s up there, yeah,” Lyles said, smiling. “I’ve been playing really well and feeling really well when I have the ball. So, that just comes from continuing to put in work in practice and in workouts and stuff like that.”

If he’s drawing a straight line back to the origin of all of this, it leads right back to last year’s NBA Draft.

That night, the Nuggets traded their 13th pick for Utah’s 24th pick, and Lyles. Since then, the Nuggets have made no secret of their affinity for Lyles’ game; that they coveted him when he declared for the 2015 NBA draft; that, from over the Rocky Mountains as he played for the Jazz, they continued to see he’d be a great fit in their system.

“Once I got traded here I was really happy because I think this offense caters toward players like me,” Lyles said. “I think it’s shown that much so far. I’m just happy and excited to be a part of it.”

The feeling is mutual.

Lyles has a current streak of 11 straight games in double-figure scoring. The Nuggets are 6-4 in games that he scores over 15 points. Lyles, like Harris, has made the most of the opportunity.

And that brings us back to the word. It’s so easily used in conversation, in interviews. But when you’re the player, those 11 letters carry the weight of 10 metric tons. Opportunity can boost confidence or break it. Opportunity can take a player’s career to the next level. A lack of one can effectively end it.

On a human level, the opportunity Lyles has received from Malone and the Nuggets has been a game-changer.

“It’s meant a lot,” Lyles said. “It’s given me a chance to get to play, play freely and play a lot, play through mistakes and stuff like that on a team where the coach allows us to play through mistakes and play freely. So, for me, it’s a relief to be able to go out there without having to look over at the bench every time, and just being able to go out and play. It’s meant a lot to me.”

Through the first month and a half of the season there were snickers coming out of Salt Lake City. Donovan Mitchell, who the Jazz selected with the Nuggets’ pick, was a nightly fixture on sports highlight shows. Lyles, meanwhile, was a fixture in warmups as he waited – and waited – to play.

He’s getting the last laugh now.

“I think it’s a total (180) for me, from my first two years,” Lyles said. “I feel the most confident that I’ve felt in a long time. And that feels good, being a player and off the court just in life in general. I think a lot of heads are being turned, people are being surprised, and that’s okay. But I expected it from myself and I’m just happy that it’s happening now.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.

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