Denver Nuggets: First Round Draft Options
The State of the 2021 Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets are about to enter a pivotal and interesting offseason after losing to the Phoenix Suns in Round two of the NBA Playoffs. Will Barton and JaMychal Green are free agents after declining their player options. Rising star, Michael Porter and defensive ace, Aaron Gordon, are eligible for extensions on their current deals. Jamal Murray, after tearing his ACL, is projected to return sometime in March. At this moment, Monte Morris is slated to be the team’s starting point guard with Facundo Campazzo as his backup. PJ Dozier, after a breakout year, figures to be the team’s starting shooting guard if Will Barton does not return to the Mile High City.
The 2021 NBA Draft is the first key date in the Denver Nuggets offseason. The Nuggets currently hold the 26th pick in the draft. After scouting potential draft prospects the whole year, the Denver Nuggets will have their chance to draft a potential contributor. The team’s guard depth is shallow right now, considering Will Barton and Austin Rivers‘ uncertainty. The Nuggets also dealt RJ Hampton in the Aaron Gordon trade, so adding another young guard to the roster can be beneficial for depth and another core piece.
The Playoffs Showed the Nuggets’ Flaws
According to the latest intel on several mock drafts on ESPN, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated, there is an abundance of guards projected to be available at around pick 26. The three options that I am outlining are Jaden Springer, Josh Christopher, and Jared Butler. Against the Blazers in Round 1, the Nuggets guards were able to defend CJ McCollum and Norman Powell effectively, two guards known for their scoring ability. Damian Lillard is Damian Lillard, but Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers were able to use their strength and length to wear him down over the duration of the series.
However, in the second round versus the Phoenix Suns, Denver’s guards had an extremely difficult time staying in front of the Sun’s guard trio of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Cameron Payne. Phoenix’s guards were able to execute 1v1, in the pick and roll, and in transition versus Denver’s perimeter defenders. PJ Dozier’s absence was extremely glaring, as the Nuggets did not have a defensive guard in the rotation above 6’5 other than Will Barton in Game 3.
Nuggets’ Options in Round 1 at 26
Three options at 26 who make sense as fits beside Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter are Jaden Springer, Josh Christopher, and Jared Butler. These three prospects provide some combination of height at over 6’3, length, shooting, playmaking, and defensive ability. Adding another young player who can develop with the core, as well as possibly receiving G-League minutes would be beneficial to where the Denver Nuggets are at in their process.
Perimeter Defensive Flashes
Jaden Springer is a 6’4 guard from the University of Tennessee. The freshman averaged 12.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, and 2.9 AST. He shot 47 percent from the field, and 44 percent from 3 point range, albeit on limited attempts. The main draw that makes Jaden Springer an intriguing prospect is his defense. He has a nice blend of strength at 202 lbs, length with a 6-7.75 wingspan, and lateral quickness. In the clip below, Springer is able to navigate multiple screens and make it ineffective. He’s able to stay in front of Jahvon Quinerly and block his shot. Springer’s height, strength, screen navigation ability, and quickness would be a great complement to Denver’s guard rotation.
Finishing in the Paint
Jaden Springer’s finishing ability is another great quality in his arsenal. At 6’4 with a 202 lbs frame, Springer is able to bully his way into the paint. He finished the year shooting 66 percent at the rim on 76 attempts, 42 percent being assisted. Springer displayed pristine paint finishing against similar-sized guards as well as lengthier defenders. The Nuggets’ current guard rotation lacks guards who can effectively get into the teeth of the defense. In the clip below, Springer is able to get BJ Boston off balance with a crossover and then knock him off of his spot to finish at the rim
Another aspect of Springer’s game that I envision improving is his playmaking. He averaged 2.9 assists to 2.5 turnovers at Tennessee. However, his role as a secondary playmaker allowed him to play off of the ball frequently. The flashes of interior passing were extremely encouraging.
His ability to get into the paint, break down the defense, and create advantages is a large part of the optimism in regards to his game. In this clip, he’s able to beat his defender off of the dribble, make the big defender step up, and dump it off for a dunk. In conclusion, I value Springer as a top 10 selection in this class at the least. A solid perimeter defender with shooting ability and an improving self-creation game is a gamble I am willing to bet on.
The Denver Nuggets have had a history of targeting highly ranked high school recruits whose draft stock had fallen, most notably Michael Porter, Bol Bol, and RJ Hampton. Josh Christopher fits the bill as a former top 10 recruit. Josh Christopher at 6’4.25 with a 6’9.25 wingspan averaged 14.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 1.4 AST for Arizona State.
Josh Christopher’s shotmaking upside ranks near the top of the class. Christopher can truly score at all three levels: at the rim, from three, and from midrange. Christopher only shot 31 percent from three on 4 attempts a game, but there is hope that with time it can improve. Arizona State having many score-first guards also may have been a detriment to the offense. The offense in the NBA is valued at a high premium, and Christopher can definitely score. The freshman also displays incredible footwork, something I look at closely when evaluating prospects. In this clip, Christopher is able to pump fake and get his defender in the air making the shot plus the foul.
Switching has become a common trend for NBA defenses, and Christopher has the potential to dominate versus slower-footed bigs. In this clip, Christopher is able to create space with the crossover and hit the three.
The Nuggets ranked near the bottom of the league in transition scoring this past year. Josh Christopher excels at getting out in transition off of a rebound, pushing the space, and either scoring for himself or making a play for others. With Christopher’s speed, elite athleticism, and strength, transition scoring will be a big strength of his from day one. The freshman shot a stellar 73 percent at the rim on 44 attempts at 38 percent assisted.
Individual & Team Defense
Christopher can immediately contribute to an NBA team with his defensive ability. He has the frame, quickness, and length to be a legitimate difference-maker on that end of the floor. He has displayed the makings of an on-ball disruptor at the point of attack as well as making sound rotations as a shot blocker. In the clip below, Christopher recognizes the big out of position and the guard getting beat, so he rotates over to get the block.
Finally, Christopher can play a combo guard role. His decision-making is a work in progress, but he also displayed sound reads at times. I believe he can make a difference in a scaled-back role, as a defender and someone who can hit shots on and off of the ball.
Jared Butler is a 6’3 guard out of the University of Baylor. Butler is older as a junior and more experienced compared to Springer and Christopher. He averaged 16.7 PPG, 4.8 AST, and 3.3 RPG. Butler shared the backcourt with projected top 10 pick, Davion Mitchell, and won the NCAA Championship. Butler shot 35 percent or better in each of his three seasons at Baylor, shooting 42 percent as a junior. The appeal with Butler is that he can play on or off of the ball, play make for others, is a deadeye shooter, and is sound defensively.
Ball Screen Navigation
Butler can operate in ball screen settings in a variety of ways. The pick and roll is the most common offense teams run and Butler excels in that role. His versatility changes how defenses guard him and the rest of the team. In the clip below, Butler runs a pick and roll. Agbaji defends it perfectly stopping him from getting into the paint. The big flips the screen, Butler sees Agbaji going underneath and drills the three.
Shooting Relocation/Off Movement
Jared Butler’s ability to relocate off of the ball is something that was really integral to Baylor’s offense. Butler can play beside a bigger initiator because he does not have to handle the ball at all times. Having that flexibility is key to lineup construction. In the clip below, Butler relocates, catches the ball, pump fakes, beats his man, and finishes at the rim. Butler shot 64 percent at the rim on 102 attempts, with only 26 percent being assisted.
Lastly, the Denver Nuggets have options with their first-round pick. No doubt, if Springer or Butler are still available at 26 they should take them. It would be costly to pass on either of the two. Christopher might be a candidate to go in the early second round. With Jamal Murray out, Denver’s backcourt uncertainty, a guard in this range can be a potential contributor as soon as next year and for the future.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images