As the Nuggets approach their 20th game of the season, Tim Connelly is feeling good about how his team has performed in the first quarter of the season.
"We're off to a strong start and our defense has been fantastic. We've had a lot of really good wins," He told Nuggets.com ahead of the Nuggets' game against the Lakers. "There's a couple of games that we kind of let get away from us [but] it's hard to say you're not happy with a 13-4 record."
The President of Basketball Operations sat down with Nuggets.com to give his assessment of the first quarter of the season. In the one-on-one, Connelly gave his insights on Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray's growth as a leader and Will Barton's resurgence among other topics.
Here is what he had to say:
[Editor's Note: Responses have been edited for clarity and brevity purposes]
What has been the biggest positive development of the season so far?
It's continued growth. Mostly on the defensive end. I think our offense will continue to get better, we have a couple of guys who aren't making shots as they are accustomed to, but that will come.
Certainly, Nikola is our best player and we go as far as he's going to take us. Jamal and Gary [Harris] are taking on bigger voices in the locker room with leadership. I think the expected uptick with continuity has all come to fruition from players to the basketball operations staff. It's fun to see that we didn't come into the season content off of last season's return to the playoffs.
Everyone has been asking this: When will we see Nikola Jokić back to being his best? What is your assessment of his season so far?
I think Nikola plays to win. As long as we're putting a lot more dashes on the left box then the right box, Nikola has been [fine]. I think coming into this season, we were aware of [the toll] of a long playoff season. Fourteen games, he had never done that. Then he played with the [Serbian] national team, it was a grind for both him and Juancho Hernangómez. I think we're cognizant that those heavy minutes matter.
I don't think enough people are talking about Nikola's impact defensively. We're certainly not 13-4 without Nikola. He's all about winning. You'll see him improve his percentages [offensively]. He'll make more shots -- that will come. In terms of superstars, he's the most winning-centric guy that I've been around regardless of his own personal numbers. He really doesn't care about that, he just wants to win. I think that's a testament to his team-first mentality.
This offseason, you renewed Jamal Murray's contract. Are you happy what you're seeing from him on defense and leadership?
I'm not surprised because part of the appeal of Jamal, even from the draft process, was his mental toughness and his willingness to embrace responsibility. I think Mo [coach Malone] has done a fantastic job.
We can't hide [Jamal Murray] defensively. You're too important to our team and you're too good of a player. You have size, toughness, strength, good instincts, you should be a really good defensive player. I think Jamal really takes to a challenge. He knows he doesn't want to be the weak link out there defensively and he's done a fantastic job on that end. I think the sky is the limit for him as a defensive player. He's going to keep getting better and better.
Are you surprised at all of what you're getting from Will Barton III and Paul Millsap this season?
I think the return of a healthy Will [has been phenomenal], he's really taken the challenge on the defensive end. As good as he's been offensively, I think he's defending at a level he's never defended at for a consistent time. Having Paul back, that calming influence and his improved touch from outside the three-point line has been very helpful.
If you look at how Will was playing going into the final stretch two years ago, when we just missed the playoffs, there weren't many guys playing at a higher level in the NBA. In the last 10 games, his numbers were certainly All-Star level. We know he's a worker and he's obsessed with basketball.
Paul is the ultimate professional. He's the rock on our team, he's so reliable. He brings the defensive IQ and swagger that is invaluable [for us]. He made a real conscious effort this offseason to become more proficient as a three-point shooter. The results speak for themselves 17 games in.
Last question, you spoke throughout the summer about how you've long coveted Jerami Grant and were happy to finally acquire him. How do you think he's fit in so far?
I think he's fit in as seamlessly as possible. To go from a rival to another team that has some expectations this year [he's done well]. I think you'll continue to see him get more and more comfortable. It's not easy going from the role he had in Oklahoma City to the role he has here. I think the best is yet to come for Jerami. He's exactly [what we thought were getting] in terms of the player and the guy.