NBA PM: Jameer Nelson is the Leader the Nuggets Need

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As players progress through their careers, some become clear candidates to earn head coaching positions after their playing days. History has shown that most of these players proved to be great leaders for their teams on and off of the court – former players like Jason Kidd, Earl Watson, Luke Walton and Tyronn Lue are all some of the recent examples of players becoming head coaches. All of those guys with the exception of Walton were point guards, often in charge of leading their teams.

If Jameer Nelson wants to eventually become a head coach one day, though, current coach Mike Malone jokingly advises him against it. Malone cautioned him on the idea not because Nelson wouldn’t be a great candidate, but because of all the headaches that come with the job.

Many people – both inside and outside the organization – believe Nelson has shown the necessary traits as a player that would translate well into becoming a head coach, however. At 34 years old, Nelson is the second oldest player on the Denver Nuggets behind only 36-year-old Mike Miller.

In just a little over two seasons with the Nuggets, Nelson has established himself as one of the most important players on the team. While he’s obviously not the leading scorer on a nightly basis, his leadership inside the locker room has become extremely valuable.

“Jameer is obviously a guy that is very valued within the organization as a player being a former All-Star [and] playing in the Finals,” Malone said. “He brings a lot to the table in terms of helping [the younger players]. Jameer has seen everything in the NBA that the league has to offer.

“Jameer is the leader of our team. It’s been important because we have so many young players on this team. It’s great to have a young guy that can look to a guy like Jameer and how to act on and off of the court.”

Over the course of his 13 years in the NBA, Nelson has experienced a lot. He spent 10 years with the Orlando Magic, was an All-Star in 2009 and was a member of the Magic team that went on to play the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2009 Finals.

Some players over the years have shown that they’re willing to embrace the role as the leader on the team. Watching Nelson interact with his teammates on and off of the court, it’s clear that he enjoys offering his wisdom to the team’s younger group of players and leading them on the court. He recently had the entire team over to his house for dinner in Philadelphia.

“It’s my personality,” Nelson said. “I’ve been a leader my entire career — in my life and all of the sports that I’ve played. It’s just natural. When you work hard and guys see that, they know you’re a student of the game and they come to you and ask you questions. For me, that’s a blessing to have guys that want to learn and ask me questions since I’ve been in the league [for 13 seasons].”

During his time with the Magic, Nelson and Dwight Howard helped lead the franchise to six trips to the postseason, highlighted by that run to the Finals in 2009. Nelson still ranks among the franchise’s all-time leaders in several categories, including first in assists, second in total games played and third in minutes played.

He was drafted in 2004 by the Nuggets and then later traded to the Magic on draft night. That was the same draft class that saw Howard taken with the first overall pick by the Magic. As Nelson and Howard entered the league as rookies, they were mentored by the likes of Grant Hill, Stacey Augmon and others. Nelson still credits those players for helping him that first year.

“One of the guys that took me under his wing was Grant Hill,” Nelson recalled. “Steve Francis [was another one]. Stacey Augmon was probably one of the biggest supporters of mine my first year. He made me stay in the gym and I appreciate it.”

After the Howard era ended in 2012, Nelson stayed on board with the team for another two seasons before he was waived during the summer of 2014. He signed that offseason with the Dallas Mavericks and was traded to the Boston Celtics after playing in just 23 games with Dallas. Less than a month later he was traded from the Celtics to the Nuggets, where he has played since.

Nelson is experiencing some of the best success of his career as a member of the Nuggets this season. He played sparingly last season during his first full year in Denver after suffering a wrist injury that sidelined him for about 16 games. While he attempted to recover from the injury, the Nuggets acquired D.J. Augustin through a trade and Nelson fell to the third-string at point guard behind Augustin and Emmanuel Mudiay.

Nelson has played a bigger role this season with a couple of players out injured – guards Will Barton and Gary Harris have each been sidelined due to various injuries already this season. With the increased role, Nelson has taken full advantage of it. In 24 games, he’s averaging 9.7 points, 4.5 assists and 2.9 rebounds in 26.9 minutes per game. He currently leads the team in assists.

Perhaps the biggest area in which Nelson has improved is his shooting. He’s currently shooting 38.6 percent from three-point range, the best he’s shot since the 2010-11 season in Orlando. His effective field-goal percentage, which adjusts for the fact a three-point field goal is worth one more point than a two-point field goal, is the highest it has been since his All-Star year in 2009.

Due to the injuries, Nelson has started seven games thus far this season. In those starts, he’s averaging 14 points, 5.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. During a three-game stretch at the end of November, he had an outing with 17 points and back-to-back games where he scored 21 points each.

“Jameer is playing at a high level for us,” Malone said. “We’ve had so many injuries. We’ve been without Will Barton [and] Gary Harris for extended periods of time. I’ve been playing Jameer at the one [and] at the two upwards to 25 to 30 minutes a night. He’s taken full advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.”

Nelson was asked after the team’s win over the Magic on Saturday night about the work that he’s put in that has allowed him to continue playing at a high level, and he responded directly: “I’ve never taken a summer off. That’s all I can say.”

While many agree Nelson would make for a great head coaching candidate one day, it remains to be seen what he’ll do after he’s done playing. He still has another year left on his contract following this season and hasn’t said what his plans are after that.

While his own head coach advised him against coaching, he also finished up that same sentence by admitting that Nelson would make “a hell of a coach because he has a passion for it, he knows the game and he has a very good way about communicating with people.”

It sounds like Nelson has at least one endorsement waiting for him.