Denver Nuggets Roundtable: How player development has helped build a contender

by Eric Spyropoulos, Alex Labidou

The Denver Nuggets currently sit in a rare position in the NBA, as the team is a top-three seed in the Western Conference that relies mostly on players under the age of 26 to fuel their recent success.

As a result of impressive draft picks over the past five seasons and even more impressive results developing those players, the Nuggets are poised to remain a contender in the Western Conference for years to come.

In this Nuggets.com roundtable, Nuggets.com writers Eric Spyropoulos and Alex Labidou discuss some of the key questions related to Denver’s player development program and the results that the team has seen in recent seasons.

What has been the most impressive aspect of Denver's player development in recent seasons?

Spyropoulos: The most impressive aspect of the player development in recent seasons has just been the number of players the Nuggets have drafted and actually developed into rotation caliber players. Nikola [Jokić] and Jamal [Murray], who the Nuggets drafted, are the team’s leading duo. Then you have Gary Harris, Monte Morris, who are staples of the rotation. You also had Juancho Hernangómez and Malik Beasley, who were also part of the rotation before being traded.

Labidou: That’s a good point. I can’t, off the top of my head, point to another team in the NBA who have as many drafted rotation players as the Nuggets have had in the past two or three seasons. You look at the LA teams for example, and their rosters are largely constructed by free agency. It’s fun to see what the Nuggets are doing.

I think the biggest area where it helps Denver is the buy in. Most of these guys have been drafted by the team. I think for Coach [Michael] Malone, it is easier to teach a philosophy or system to a player who has been drafted or brought in at a young age to the team.

Spyropoulos: Yeah, I think it will help in the future too, seeing how the model has worked. Sometimes, you might not play as much as you would want in your rookie season. Given the success that Denver has had in the past with player development, those rookies or new players can see a path toward their future. They can see how loyal and dedicated the team has been in player development.

Labidou: What is fascinating to me is the parallels between what Denver is doing now and what the Spurs did during their time as contenders. I think the Nuggets understand their place in relation to other NBA markets and how player development has to be a crucial part of it.

How effectively has Denver used the G League to further player development?

Spyropoulos: Despite some challenges, I think overall they’ve done as good of a job as you’d expect them to. Monte, in his rookie season, played over 30 G League games. He’s now developed into one of the best backup point guards in the NBA over the last two seasons.

Torrey Craig, although he was 26 or 27 in his rookie season, he played 15 games in the G League on a two-way contract. He’s been a pretty big addition for the team over the last two seasons. Malik Beasley played in the G League a lot in his rookie season. In his second year, he started showing why he can be a fit in the NBA and thrived over the past two seasons. That rookie season really gave him a chance to grow.

Labidou: As you mentioned earlier, young players are likely going to follow suit if they see their colleagues having to do that as well, especially in situations like Beasley and Morris. And I think the product of this season’s trips to the G League will pay dividends in the coming seasons.

We didn’t get to see Bol Bol play in the NBA this season, but he showed some promising signs in the development this year. Vlatko Čančar struggled early on in the G League, but really developed some confidence towards the end of his stay. Jarred Vanderbilt, before he got traded, had shown some marked improvement.

READ MORE: Bol Bol Film Study

Then there is PJ Dozier, who really blossomed and literally played four positions at the Windy City Bulls. I believe he was in the conversation for G League MVP and he really established that he is an NBA player both during his time in the G League and NBA. So just seeing his development has been encouraging and he’s really proven that he can carve a niche for himself on the Nuggets. The G League played a big part in that.

Spyropoulos: Yeah, I think the last thing I'll say is and this is kind of about the third question too, but the fact that there are so many people like Nuggets fans and some analysts look at, you know, guys like PJ and Vlatko and they're already projecting that this could be the “next Monte” for the Nuggets. With how much success that the Nuggets have already had with two-way contracts and player development, the fact that pretty much anytime someone gets on a two-way or is drafted by the Nuggets, the fans and the analysts already kind of project them to be a rotation player in two years. That really speaks to how good the system has been.

What will be the key in Denver continuing to have success with player development in the near future?

Spyropoulos: It's kind of tough because, at some point, their current players are going to reach the age where it's “win-now” time.

I don't think Denver's at that point yet. But there may be a time where they start trading young players and future draft picks for an established All-Star or something like that, which makes it a little bit difficult to project the future. But I think the basic key to this question is just continuing to draft well. If they (the Nuggets) just draft well, I feel pretty confident in the player development program that if they get a player in the system, that player is going to develop into at least a rotation caliber player. But the fact is you have to have the draft picks.

Labidou: I think if you speak to most people around the Nuggets organization, losing Malik and Juancho was a difficult decision, but I think they saw the writing on the wall of sort of where this team is and sort of improving that pipeline that has done the team so well over the past, you know, three to four years.

So I think, for them, they realized that the odds of keeping both and making both happy and also keeping player development as part of the philosophy would have been very hard to hit all three of those things. And that's why you needed to make that trade. And, to your point, again, you know, it's kind of a luxury where you look at the draft picks and you're confident that these are well-made decisions that aren't just you know, someone throwing a dart at the wall. It's these are really well-calculated decisions and that that's a credit to the organization scouting and analytics department who do a heck of a job.

Spyropoulos: Yeah, that is the case for the Nuggets, they kind of have that luxury like you said that if they do have draft picks, or even trading into the draft like how they got Bol, which is, you know, another philosophy that the Nuggets have taken recently is taking a little bit more risk with their draft picks like Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol, but even their safer picks they've nailed on and that's kind of a luxury to have as they continue to try and get more into win-now mode.

But at the same time, if they have one or two draft picks each draft you have you feel confident that they're going to continue to replenish at least the backups in the rotation which is huge for a contending team.

Once you hit on enough of those kinds of steady, surefire picks, you know, the desire and willingness to take a risk on a Michael Porter or Bol Bol is, especially once you get in the second round, which is what kind of threw me off about so many teams last year is that they just let Bol slide when most of the second-rounders don't even make the NBA. So why not take a shot on a guy who either may never make the NBA or if he does could be one of the most unique players of all time?

Labidou: Yeah, I think with Bol especially in the second round, especially as far as he fell, it was a no-brainer decision. You get a player who, for the past two years had been called a lock for the lottery at minimal risk.

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