Denver Nuggets Position Season Preview: Forwards

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

Players: Paul Millsap, Jerami Grant, Will Barton, Juancho Hernangómez, Vlatko Čančar, Torrey Craig, Michael Porter Jr., Jarred Vanderbilt

The Nuggets enter the 2019-20 season with arguably their deepest contingent of forwards in recent memory as they possess a talented group of versatile players who can make an impact in multiple positions. 

Paul Millsap has been the veteran pillar of consistency and leadership in the starting power forward spot for the past two years and Nuggets head coach Michael Malone insists he will remain in that spot this season. Millsap is seen as the quarterback of Denver’s defense as he often is vocal in directing defensive positioning. Although he isn’t No. 1 option on offense like he was during his days in Utah and Atlanta, the 34-year-old’s game has aged well. He keeps defenses honest with his three-point shooting, an area where he converted 36.5 percent of his attempts last season. 

He can still take over games when needed as evidenced by a strong showing in the Western Conference semifinals against Portland. He averaged 17.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in the seven-game series. That’s a significant uptick from his regular season numbers of 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 0.8 blocks.

During the offseason, the Nuggets brought in some much-needed athleticism in 25-year-old Jerami Grant to bolster their bench. The former Syracuse standout brings an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan and underrated speed at the position. The Nuggets were a middle-of-the-pack team in producing fast breaks last season and 24th in blocks last season. Grant has a career average of 1.2 swats per game and should give the team a welcome boost in both categories. 

If Malone decides to rest either Millsap or Grant, one of his options could be giving Jarred Vanderbilt a look. While the second-year player is still raw offensively, he’s shown some improvement on defense and is a beast on the glass. Vanderbilt was part of a three-way tie for the rebounding lead at the 2019 Summer League, averaging 11.3 rebounds. Although he averaged 3.8 rebounds in 10 minutes per game in preseason, his 16 percent rebound percentage is in line with his college and NBA career averages. There’s also the chance small forwards Juancho Hernangómez and highly-touted rookie Michael Porter Jr. could see minutes at the position. 

READ MORE: How will small forward rotation pan out?

Speaking of the small forward position, the open competition there has been well-documented. Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Hernangómez and Porter Jr. have all vied for minutes at the three spot. Barton is projected to be the opening night starter as he played the most at that spot during preseason. Barton is aiming to rebound from an injury-plagued 2018-19 season, but will have to improve his shooting if he wants to keep hold of a potential starting spot. The 28-year-old shot 36.1 overall and just 14.3 percent from downtown through four exhibition games, but Malone has been happy with Barton’s rebounding (5.5 per game in 19.3 minutes per game). 

READ MORE: How hip-hop and leadership brought Barton's Thrill back

Porter Jr. has shown flashes of why there’s so much expected of him, but also displayed the need for more seasoning. The former Mizzou standout averaged 9.3 points on 55.2 percent shooting in just 16 minutes of action. Porter Jr. was partially effective around the basket and shot 75.9 percent on two-point attempts. In order to gain minutes on a deep roster that’s expected to contend, Porter Jr. will need to continue to improve on the defensive end. There were signs he can excel in that area, evidenced by his two blocks against Phoenix. Porter Jr. has shown enough to merit playing time in the regular season, but don’t be surprised if Craig is the second small forward in Malone’s rotation. Craig is arguably the team’s second-best perimeter defender after Gary Harris, and when he hits threes like he did in the playoffs last season, (47.2 percent), it’s difficult to take him off the floor. 

Hernangómez wraps up the group competing for minutes at the small forward position. The Spaniard comes off an impressive FIBA World Cup, where he won a gold medal. Although he’s been inconsistent in preseason, averaging 5.5 points on 40 percent shooting, his ability to stretch defenses (a career 36.6 percent three point shooter) make him another valuable asset on the roster. 

Vlatko Čančar comes into this season as an expected understudy to the aforementioned group. In Summer League, the Slovenian averaged 8.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in four games. 

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