If things look a bit disheveled around the Pepsi Center in Denver, please pardon their progress as construction of a new frontcourt featuring four-time All-Star Paul Millsap is underway. The partnership of Millsap and Nuggets franchise player Nikola Jokic got off to a fast start this summer when Jokic decided to forgo playing in EuroBasket with the Serbian national team to focus on the upcoming NBA season. That level of commitment didn’t go unnoticed by Millsap.
“For me, it’s a great thing he did,” said Millsap after a win in his return to Atlanta last Friday. “He’s so focused. I got in the gym this summer a month before [training camp] and he was in there working. He worked his butt off this summer to get in great shape and it shows. He’s on the court, he’s making plays and he’s scoring the basketball. You can’t say enough about his work ethic and how hard he works.”
Millsap had perhaps his best game as a Nugget (20 points, three rebounds, four assists, plus-29) in Thursday’s 129-111 win over the visiting Raptors that elevated Denver to 4-4. Millsap gave an exclusive interview to Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto earlier this week and admitted that his incorporation into Denver’s attack remains a work in progress.
“It’s going pretty slow but I think overall we like the way we’re going,” said Millsap. “[It was a] short preseason so we didn’t have a lot of time. With practice and recovery, it’s kind of hard to cram everything in.”
Jokic was one basket shy of a triple-double against the Raptors with eight points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists.
“It’s obvious that his passing ability can help get easy baskets and help our team,” said Millsap. “We’re still learning each other, still trying to feed off each other.”
Basketball Insiders predicted that Millsap would see an uptick in quality and quantity of post-up attempts now that he’s playing with a passing center instead of the lane-clogging Dwight Howard. That hasn’t materialized so far as both Jokic and Millsap are in the bottom quarter of the league in scoring efficiency on about 20 post-up attempts each.
Meanwhile, the pick and roll hasn’t been a major weapon either. Jokic is scoring in the 51st percentile with 1.02 points per possession as a roll man (40 possessions) and Millsap the 24th percentile with .81 in 16 possessions. It’s too early to make much of these small samples, but these are certainly opportunities for improvement by Denver’s burgeoning frontcourt partnership.
Denver coach Michael Malone said he was glad to see Millsap get off to a strong start against Toronto with a pair of early three-pointers after struggling with his shot in the early season.
“I knew Paul was going to be aggressive coming off of a 2-for-13 game in New York,” said Malone. “I know he was disappointed in his performance in the Garden. Obviously, for him to get hot like that from the three-point line, draw two four-point plays, it was great to see. When he brings that element to the game, obviously we’re a pretty high-powered offense when we’ve got all our guys clicking.”
However, generating offense hasn’t really been the problem for Denver. The Nuggets are currently seventh in offensive rating, generating 106.3 points per 100 possessions. On the other side of the ball, Denver is allowing 105.8 per 100, which ranks an anemic 22nd. And the issue seems to be concentrated in the second unit. Denver’s five individual leaders in defensive rating are all five starters. Opposing teams are scoring 102.1 per 100 with Jokic on the floor, the worst defensive rating among the starters. But there’s a huge drop-off among bench players, where Will Barton and Mason Plumlee share a 111.2 defensive rating, best among Nuggets reserves with at least 100 minutes.
Richard Jefferson, another new addition to Denver’s frontcourt, said after the Toronto game that embracing Millsap’s leadership will be another element of the Nuggets’ construction project.
“I think he’s still finding his way, still trying to get more and more comfortable,” said Jefferson. “But he’s one of the best players in basketball. He’s one of the best power forwards in the game — four-time All-Star. He’s led teams to multiple playoff appearances. So, he’s a guy that I think our young guys need to look to and rely on a little bit more when things get tough.”
While Millsap was a respected leader on and off the court in four seasons in Atlanta, he told Scotto that he’s taking a measured approach to asserting himself in that area as a Nugget.
“I think it’s imperative that I help these guys in that aspect but also not beat them up to death with it,” said Millsap. “You’ve got to pick your spots when you’re doing it because they are young. If you hear too much of my voice you might drown it out, so I’m picking my spots. It’s still a learning process and they’re willing learners.”
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will be Denver’s revamped frontcourt as Millsap and Jokic learn to play together and the entire team learns how to get the most from Millsap. It may be messy at times, but the Nuggets are committed to the work of building something special.
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