When the Denver Nuggets convened for their annual preseason Media Day on Monday, the attention centered around Nikola Jokić’s possible MVP campaign. Some focused on the chance for Jamal Murray to break into the NBA’s top-20 or -30 players. Others pondered the role and load waiting for Paul Millsap as he earns $30 million in his final big-money year.
It would not be fair to say Jerami Grant went overlooked, being the only true, notable addition to the Nuggets’ roster this offseason and the piece that could take it to a higher level for years to come, but he was far from the lead headline.
Grant arrived in Denver in exchange for a 2020 first-round draft pick, not a cheap price to pay for a player on an expiring contract. When Grant inevitably opts out of his 2020-21 player option of $9.3 million, the Nuggets will feel a distinct need to re-sign him.
They will also need to be prudent in making that decision.
With Jokić already a year into a max contract and Murray a season away from beginning his extension, Denver has salary cap space to add only one more big deal. Inking Gary Harris and Will Barton at modest price points allowed such flexibility to live for another offseason, just as Millsap’s deal comes off the books. Whomever the Nuggets commit that space to, however, will tie him fiercely to this Jokić-centric championship window, as well.
That may well be Grant, but the biggest determining factor will be his fit with the franchise cornerstone. More specifically, how Grant fits outside of and around Jokic.
If there is any hole in Jokić’s game on the offensive end of the floor, it is his perimeter shooting. Thus, Denver has stocked its roster with guards and wings to surround the post-dwelling center, allowing him to operate efficiently from the elbow. The Nuggets have not, unfortunately, found a true stretch forward to pair with Jokić — although, now, they’ve adopted a shotgun approach and hope at least one of a few lottery tickets pays off.
There’s Michael Porter Jr., who was once seen as the best player in his class, and, if healthy, his 6-foot-10 frame could complement Jokić in all the ways desirable, but that “if healthy” disclaimer looms large.
And it’s the same situation with rookie Bol Bol’s and his respective health. Those concerns dropped him to the No. 44 pick in April’s draft and a two-way contract, and are expected to keep him sidelined for the immediate future — but Bol shoots well from three-point range and could be the ideal piece to match with Jokić on both ends of the floor.
Both of those possibilities have the luxury of taking some time to pan out, on minimal salaries for the foreseeable future. Not so for Grant. He either impresses this season or finds a new home next year while Denver commits that salary space elsewhere.
By no means is Grant inefficient from deep; he shot 39.2 percent from beyond the arc on 3.7 attempts per game last season. Those numbers make Grant certainly more of a threat than Juancho Hernangomez, who finished last year with a 36.5 percentage from deep on 2.6 attempts per game and now stands a winter away from restricted free agency.
Hernangomez hit 12 threes off Jokić assists last season, per nba.com, some coming as a trailer in transition …
… and some coming via proper floor spacing.
Millsap made 14 threes off Jokić assists, while Mason Plumlee did not manage any. No frontcourt piece established a rapport with Jokić from outside, even as he averaged 7.3 assists per game.
That role remains vacant, a genuine means to amplifying an already-efficient offense, one quite apparent to even Grant.
“I’m extremely excited to play in an offense like this,” Grant said Monday. “You never know who’s going to get the ball but I’ve definitely seen that they make the game easy for everybody in the offense.”
Grant’s shooting ability has caught the eye of the Nuggets’ leading passer, the player who matters most.
“He’s good. Sometimes he surprised me how athletic he is,” Jokić said Tuesday, per nba.com. “He is shooting the ball really well right now. If he plays like he did last year in OKC, I think he’s going to be really good.”
By no means is Grant’s success or failure a one-dimensional gambit, but his defensive prowess is hardly in doubt. His 7-foot-3 wingspan should cover for Jokić’s occasionally-sluggish feet, as well as possibly provide the Serbian big man defensive respite against quicker forwards. (Draymond Green comes to mind as an example.)
Grant’s ability to shoot, though, will be the key to fitting head coach Mike Malone’s visions for 2019-20.
Michael Malone: “I want to take 36-37 threes a game this year. Quality threes, paint threes.”#Nuggets
— Ryan Blackburn (@NBABlackburn) September 30, 2019
At least four or five of those should be from Grant every night, even if he is coming off the bench. For a team that finished seventh in offensive rating and returns all the main contributors to that effort, matching Jokić with a “really good” and sizable perimeter shooter is a viable way to more points.
Grant should fill that role. If he cannot do so this season, the Nuggets will have little cap choice but to look to someone else until Porter or Bol prove both able and healthy. And for a team with championship-level aspirations, Grant’s performance could not be more crucial — but all that’s left now is to see if he lives up to the hype.
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