Denver Nuggets Friday Film Study: Preseason review

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

The preseason has officially come and gone. Now it’s time for the real thing. In five days, the Denver Nuggets will open up the 2019-20 regular season against the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 23rd. The game will kick off a campaign in which Denver hopes to build on the success it achieved in the 2018-19 campaign.

Preseason games must be taken with a grain of salt. However, the preseason did provide four games of offensive sets, defensive execution and personal brilliance from select players, so let’s take a closer look at three intriguing aspects of the Nuggets’ preseason games in this week’s film study.

Michael Porter Jr. showcased his smooth game

Heading into the preseason, all eyes were on Porter Jr. as he was set to make his NBA debut following his recovery from previous back injuries. Given all the anticipation surrounding his debut, the 21-year-old forward certainly didn’t disappoint.

Through his first three games, Porter Jr. averaged 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game on 62.5 percent shooting from the field. Time and time again Porter Jr. showed how he can fit in Denver’s offense as both an off-ball player and with the ball in his hands. His size allows him to get shots off over smaller defenders, while it can also help him on the boards.

In the first play above, Porter Jr. uses his size and footwork to get off a step-back jumper after handling the ball for a couple of seconds, while in subsequent plays he showcases his ability to read the floor and make timely cuts toward the rim for easy dunks.

While defense will continue to be a work in progress for the rookie, his length will allow him to block shots from slower forwards attacking the rim. “No matter what group he (Porter Jr.) is in or what part of the game he's in, he's shown he belongs out there," Michael Malone said following Denver’s third preseason victory. "Michael has had three great preseason games and it’s great to see."

With his ability to knock down catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, Porter Jr. should thrive in Denver’s offense, which is driven by player and ball movement. If provided with consistent minutes off the bench this season, Porter Jr. should add another dynamic element to Denver’s second-unit offense.

Jerami Grant proves to be a seamless fit

We had written about Jerami Grant’s potential fit with the Nuggets several times ahead of preseason, but now there is actual game film to analyze. What that film confirms is the overwhelming majority opinion that Grant is going to fit in seamlessly on both ends of the floor with this Nuggets team.

Grant’s 3-point shooting and defensive versatility stood out in the preseason. Through his first three games as a Nugget, the 25-year-old forward averaged 13.7 points per game on 54.5/60/91.7 shooting splits.

Denver’s marquee offseason addition looked comfortably taking 3-pointers out of pick-and-pop situations, while his effective screens opened up driving lanes for Denver’s guards. After he set a career-high in 3-point percentage and attempts last season (39.2 percent on 3.7 attempts per game), Grant appears ready to improve on those numbers in Denver’s offense.

However, the defensive end was always going to be Grant’s calling card, and he certainly hasn’t disappointed on that end of the floor so far. While Paul Millsap provides a stabilizing veteran presence and a big body to guard physical forwards, Grant’s quickness and length makes him a menace in the passing lanes or as a rim protector.

“Yeah, I would say defense is the strength of my game,” Grant said at Media Day. “I think that was the reason why I got into the league and now I’ve been trying to expand my game from that. I definitely think to be a great team you need to have a great defense.”

Grant has averaged at least one block per game in each of his five seasons in the league, including 1.3 per game during the 2018-19 campaign. As he showed in Denver’s opening preseason game, he can rotate over to defend the rim, using his wingspan to block shots and start transition opportunities.

As Denver looks to have a championship-mindset, Grant provides Malone with a great option to spell Paul Millsap at the four position. Now when Millsap rests or simply sees a reduction in minutes, Denver won’t be losing out on the defensive end, while Grant’s off-ball offense (3-point shooting, cuts to the rim) will fit in with the rest of the starters.

Denver’s offense continues to evolve

On the offensive side of the ball, the preseason has presented an opportunity for new players to fit in and for returning players to round into regular-season form. Heading into training camp, Malone emphasized his desire for the offense to shoot more 3-pointers this season.

“We want to generate more quality looks from the 3-point line,” Malone said on Media Day. “We took around 32 threes a game last year and I’d like to take that up to 36, 37 attempts per game while making sure they are still quality threes. Our 3-point shooting took a big step back last year. Two years ago, we were at 37.1 percent. This past year, we dropped down to 35.1 percent. And the way the league is going, we want to be a lot more efficient from the 3-point line.”

Throughout the preseason, the number of 3-point attempts dropped from last season’s average, although the percentage of shots at the rim has increased significantly (from 35.3 percent of shots in 2018-19 to 38.7 percent during the preseason).

Look for the offense to settle in and emphasize the importance of generating quality 3-pointers out of drive-and-kick situations.

Another aspect of the Nuggets’ offense that will likely evolve this season is the team’s pace of play. After ranking 26th in the league last season in pace, the Nuggets were in the middle of the pack throughout the preseason. With the addition of Jerami Grant to the second unit, look for that group to run in transition this season.

Throughout the preseason there were several examples of how pushing the ball up the floor in transition can lead to easy scoring opportunities. Against Phoenix, a live-ball turnover led to an easy 3-point opportunity for Porter Jr.

Denver’s ball and player movement will continue to be the backbone of the offense, and there were several examples of how deadly it can be in the preseason. In the opening scoring possession against the Suns, the Nuggets spaced the floor incredibly well, including Grant’s occupation of the dunker spot (the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline).

As Gary Harris and Nikola Jokić initiate the handoff action, Grant makes a timely cut across the paint to open up a driving lane for Harris, who finishes with a reverse layup. The amount of 3-point shooting on the floor opened up the paint, while Grant drew the attention of the defender closest to the basket. Given the amount of shooting and quality playmaking on Denver’s roster, the offense should return to top-five levels of production as the turnovers continue to decrease in the coming games.

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