When people talk about the mediocrity treadmill in the NBA, they are thinking about where the Denver Nuggets have been over the past few seasons. Ever since breaking up a team that won 57 games but lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2013, the Nuggets have been stuck in the middle, not good enough to compete for a playoff spot and not bad enough to secure a high lottery pick. They had 36 wins and the No. 11 pick in 2014 and 30 wins and the No. 7 pick in 2015, and they seem on pace for a similar finish in 2016.
But while they haven’t been in a position to draft guys like Karl Towns and Andrew Wiggins, Denver has still managed to bring in a significant amount of young talent in the last few years. What gets lost in these discussions about maximizing draft position is that there’s no shortage of good young players coming into the league. If you go back and look at the history of the draft, you can find good players available at almost any point. The key is being able to identify them and that’s where the Nuggets front office has really stood out over the past few seasons.
Joffrey Lauvergne (No. 55 in 2013) - Lauvergne was a second-round pick of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013 and he was part of a draft-day deal that sent Darrell Arthur to Denver and Kosta Koufos to Memphis. While the Arthur for Koufos part of the deal hasn’t worked out great for the Nuggets, Lauvergne looks like the rare late second-round pick who will stick in the league for a long time. At 6’11 240 with a 6’10 wingspan, Lauvergne doesn’t have ideal length but he has the build and the athleticism to be a small-ball C in the modern NBA. The most encouraging thing about him is that he is shooting 12-23 from beyond the arc this season and finding a big man with size, athleticism and shooting range so deep in the second round is almost unheard of.
Jusuf Nurkic (No. 16 in 2014) - Easily the most impressive of Denver’s recent picks, Nurkic already looks like one half of a massive draft day heist. With the Chicago Bulls desperate to move up and grab Doug McDermott two years ago, the Nuggets moved back from No. 11 to select Nurkic (No. 16) and Gary Harris (No. 19). Moving back rarely works in the draft but it helps when you wind up with the two best two-way players in the deal. McDermott had the big name and the college success but he didn’t have the same type of physical tools as either of the two guys he was traded for.
At 7’0 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic is a genuine back-to-the-basket center with a high-level post game in a league that is rapidly moving away from that prototype. Not only does he benefit from zigging when almost everyone else is zagging, he has the athleticism that allows him to compete on defense and survive against small-ball attacks that seek to force bigger players to move their feet and guard in space. Nurkic is the rare player with his skill-set who came into the league as a positive defensive player - the Nuggets' defensive rating was 5.2 points lower with him on the court than off it last season.
He hasn’t played this season as he recovers from off-season knee surgery but his ability to be a factor on both sides of the ball at his age makes him look like a potential franchise cornerstone. There isn’t all that much that separates him from Jahlil Okafor on the offensive side of the ball and he is far ahead of the 76ers rookie on defense, which is crazy when you consider that Philadelphia took Okafor at the top of the lottery while Denver found Nurkic in the middle of the first round.
Gary Harris (No. 18 in 2014) - After a very difficult rookie season where he struggled to hold his own, Harris has found himself in his sophomore campaign thanks mainly to the arrival of Emmanuel Mudiay. Mudiay’s size as a PG allows him to cross-switch on defense with Harris and lets Harris thrive in the role that makes the most sense for him at the NBA level - playing off the ball on offense and using his size and athleticism to harass smaller PG’s on defense.
At 6’4 210 with a 6’7 wingspan, Harris has only average size for a SG but he towers over a lot of PG’s at the NBA level. He may never be a high-level shot-creator or playmaker but he’s an excellent spot-up shooter (43.8% from 3 this season) who has the ability to attack a close-out and be a secondary playmaker. The combination of Harris (21 years old) and Mudiay (19 years old) could end up being a high-level backcourt in the NBA for many years to come and Denver didn’t need to win the lottery to wind up with either guy.
Nikola Jokic (No. 41 in 2014) - The days of the San Antonio Spurs finding Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the back half of the draft have come and gone but the Nuggets success in mining the international ranks in the second round is a clear indication that there’s still value to be had in looking under every rock overseas. There’s just no way that a guy with Jokic’s size, feel and touch would have been available in the 2nd round if he had played in the NCAA.
At 6’11 250 with a 7’3 wingspan, Jokic isn’t a great athlete by NBA standards but his size and feel for the game allows him to survive on that side of the floor and he allows him to leverage his unique skills on the offensive end of the floor. Jokic has an excellent post game and he can finish with either hand around the basket and step out and knock down a perimeter jumper. Just don’t ask him to lead the break. It’s unclear whether Nurkic, Lauvergne and Jokic can all play together in Denver but all three have already shown flashes of real talent, which is pretty amazing considering where they were drafted.
Emmanuel Mudiay (No. 7 in 2015) - Mudiay has had an up-and-down transition to the NBA, which my colleague Brett Koromenos outlined recently. Mudiay has been given the keys to the offense at a very young age and been asked to sink or swim. He has the ability to control tempo and create shots for other people but he still needs a lot of development when it comes to shooting from the perimeter and refining his shot selection and his decision-making. Nurkic’s return should help because it will give Denver another option in the half-court and not force Mudiay to have so much of the responsibility when it comes to shot-creating. The jury is still out on his ceiling but his size (6’5 200 with a 6’8 wingspan) and his feel for the game already puts him ahead of a lot of his peers.
To be sure, a front office can look a lot better when their draft picks have the benefit of playing for a team that can give them as many minutes and as many touches as they can handle. It’s hard to look good when you are sitting on the end of the bench. At the same time, there are plenty of young players who have sank when given the responsibilities that the Nuggets young players have received. Turning a mid-lottery pick, two mid-first round picks and two second round picks into five legitimate NBA players is an accomplishment in and of itself, much less if those guys can be developed into the core of a good NBA team.
The Nuggets will still need to figure out if Nurkic and Mudiay can be cornerstones, and if Harris can be a long-term starter, and if Jokic and Lauvergne make sense as long-term role players in Denver. A big part of that equation will be the types of players they draft in the 2016 and the 2017 drafts and that’s where Nuggets fans can be most optimistic. No matter where they end up picking in those drafts, a front office with an eye for talent goes a long way when it comes to turning those picks into real players and turning those players into a real team.