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NBA PM: Nuggets Playing Through Learning Curves

With young talent and a group of solid veterans, the Denver Nuggets are well-positioned for the future.

Cody Taylor

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Nuggets Playing Through Learning Curves

It’s often said that in the NBA, the worst place to be is in the middle of the pack. Teams either want to be among those competing for a title, or in position to compete for one of the top picks in the draft.

Of course, teams that earn high draft picks year after year want to eventually work their way up to be able to make a deep playoff run. Oklahoma City followed that model years ago and have been in the playoffs in four out of the last five seasons (and narrowly missed out on the playoffs last year because of injury issues).

The Denver Nuggets are one of the teams in the league that find themselves in the midst of a rebuild. As the third-youngest team in the Western Conference, with an average age of 25.6, they now look to be on their way up. In fact, their rebuilding efforts look to be ahead of schedule as they’re currently just six games back of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

Prior to landing in its current two-game skid, the team had been playing well recently as they won five out of six, including four in a row at home. However, since that stretch, the team lost back-to-back games on the road to the Miami HEAT and Orlando Magic.

With tough upcoming road games against the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Cleveland Cavaliers, their playoff hopes could fade fast. While no one inside of the locker room will concede on the postseason, it seems like an accomplishment to still be mathematically alive in the playoff race with so few games remaining.

During their two-game losing streak, the Nuggets have shown some normal bad tendencies for a young team on the rise. The defense has slipped at times and the offense has gone through bouts of inconsistency as well.

The Nuggets trailed by as many as 18 points in the third quarter on Tuesday against the Magic, but managed to cut that deficit to just three points early in the fourth quarter. After cutting the lead down, the team went on a cold streak and the Magic eventually built their lead back up to 13 points just five minutes later. That’s life for a young team on the rise.

“It’s a matter of defense and we’ve shown that we can be a good defensive team, but consistency has been a huge issue for us,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. “I think that speaks to our age and our youth. We’re playing and closing games with a bunch of rookies so there are going to be nights where we look pretty and there are going to be other nights where we don’t look so good.

“What is disappointing for me is that we’re coming off of a four-game win streak and a very productive home-stand and we won because of our defense. We won because of our ball movement and our valuing the ball. We’ve come on the road and we’ve forgotten that. We have some tough teams coming up – Atlanta, Charlotte and Cleveland. It’s not going to get any easier until we learn that defense has to be a constant for 48 minutes [and] 82 games a year.”

Earlier this season, Kevin Durant recalled a game early in his career when the Thunder was still learning how to win games. He told a group of reporters in Orlando that he still remembers the exact game when Carmelo Anthony hit a game-winner over his team. He said that all great teams have to go through those moments in order to become better.

Durant applied that moment to what the Magic are going through and it seems applicable to what the Nuggets are going through as well. While the Nuggets are rebuilding, it’s those moments that they’ll have to learn how to play through in order to be taken seriously as a team and take the next step in their development.

By all accounts, it appears they have the foundation in place to be taken seriously. While the chances of making the playoffs this season are fading quickly, the team will be taking these final 14 games as a chance to build for next season.

“We play a lot of young guys,” Will Barton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the core of our team right now in the rotation, so we got a lot of rookies and second-year guys that’s playing. If we can close the season on a positive note and get us some momentum and confidence going into next season, that’ll be huge and guys will feel more ready and more comfortable going into next season.”

Denver’s young core is made up of last year’s lottery pick Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Gary Harris and Barton. Of course, they join veteran players in Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Each of these players are under contract for the foreseeable future and figure to play a huge role in Denver’s push to return to the playoffs.

Aside from the development of Mudiay, perhaps one of the biggest stories to come from Denver this season has been the emergence of Barton. Since arriving in Denver at last year’s trade deadline, Barton’s numbers have improved dramatically.

He’s improved his offensive production from 6.8 points last season to 14.8 points per game this season. His rebounding has improved from 2.8 to 6.1, assists from 1.4 to 2.4 and his three-point shooting has jumped from 27 percent to 34 percent.

Barton was rewarded with a three-year, $10.6 million deal over the summer to remain in Denver. With the emergence of C.J. McCollum this season in Portland, it remains to be seen whether or not Barton can win the Most Improved Player of the Year award, but he’s certainly in the conversation.

“The next level with me I feel like is more mental than anything,” Barton said. “I’m a guy that expects a lot from myself and I want a lot from myself. I think sometimes that kind of gets me in trouble just trying to prove myself that I can do this and I can do that.

“I feel like I’m at best when I’m just out there playing care-free; not thinking and not over thinking. Just going out there and having fun playing the game. I feel like now I have to come to grips with myself that [I’m] becoming who [I] want to be – don’t rush it too fast or don’t try to get caught up in it all.”

Given the rise with Barton, and several other players on the team, the Nuggets seemed to be well-positioned for the future. They have a good mixture of veterans on the roster that can help mentor the younger players.

This summer could be the offseason that boosts the team into contention. They could have as many as three first-round draft picks in the draft, and as much as $28 million in cap space to utilize in free agency.

When Malone took over as head coach last June, the Nuggets were a mess. Players were said to have been counting down the days until the end of last season, and the future of several of those players was in question. Fast forward nearly one season later, and it seems like those issues are a thing of the past.

Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA, but it seems like the Nuggets are on the verge of achieving success for years to come.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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