The Denver Nuggets’ Solution at Small Forward

Nuggets small forward
DENVER CO - JULY 2: Michael Porter Jr. takes a moment during the Nuggets summer league practice, at the Pepsi Center, on July 2, 2019 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

In 2018-19, the Denver Nuggets had one traditional small forward on its roster – Torrey Craig. With Craig spending the majority of the previous season (2017-18) in the G-League, Head Coach Mike Malone was forced to be creative when addressing the wing position throughout the season. To begin the season, he went with Will Barton until a right hip injury forced him to miss 39 games. This injury led to Torrey Craig, Malik Beasley, Juan Hernangómez, and Trey Lyles getting a shot at starting small forward. All of whom are NBA capable players, but not quite starting small forward caliber players in today’s NBA.

Small Forward Solution for the Denver Nuggets

After ending the season with a surprising 54-28 record and two seed in the West, the Nuggets are now entering the season with higher expectations. Addressing the concern at small forward is imperative for them to repeat or even finish better than last season. And without drafting, trading for, or signing a traditional small forward, the Denver Nuggets may have found their solution.

Mostly, the Nuggets bring back the same team from last year with minor tweaks. They added Jerami Grant and Vlatko Čančar at the forward spot and Bol Bol at the center position. They lost Trey Lyles, Tyler Lydon, and guards Isaiah Thomas, Brandon Goodwin, and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell.

Options at Denver Nuggets’ Small Forward

Michael Porter Jr.

2018 14th overall pick, Michael Porter Jr. is expected to be healthy for the start of the season. Porter Jr has brought on a lot of positive anticipation throughout the off-season, despite not playing in the summer league. He hasn’t played more than three games in a season since his senior year in high school (2016-17). But, short clips from workouts have shown his explosiveness, and the testimonies from coaches and players praise how good he has looked in practice.

The 6’10” 210-pound forward has the tantalizing skill and NBA-ready athleticism. Porter Jr has a Kevin Durant-type build with similar ball-handling skills. His form on his jump shot looks incredibly encouraging to become a 35-40 percent three-point shooter. Defensively, it will take him time to adjust to the physicality and speed of the game, but has the shot-blocking skills and lateral quickness to be a positive defender.

With him just turning 21 in June, his body might be maturing enough to keep him healthy and, on the court, where he can show why he was thought as a potential number one overall pick.

Jerami Grant

In addition to Michael Porter Jr, the Nuggets took advantage of the surprising rebuild happening with Oklahoma City Thunder. They acquired former Syracuse forward, Jerami Grant who has developed into an impactful two-way player throughout his career.

At 6’9” and springs in his legs, playing power forward is his natural position. However, his lateral quickness, willingness to defend, and newly found shooting stroke (39.2 percent from three), he has showcased the ability to move up a position.

In the 2018-19 season, Jerami Grant defended the following small forwards

  • Kawhi Leonard – 12.5 possessions in two games, giving up six points on 40 percent shooting
  • Kevin Durant – 15.5 possessions in two games, giving up seven points on 75 percent shooting (3-4)
  • Jimmy Butler seven possessions in two games, giving up five points on 2-2 shooting
  • Tobias Harris 37 possessions in one game, giving up ten points on 50 percent shooting

Against the top true offensive small forwards, Grant was able to force them into passing more than shooting. The shooting percentages are not great; however, the limiting of shots is the encouraging part for him to play spot minutes at small forward.

Vlatko Čančar

Tim Connelly and his scouting department may flash their brilliance again by finding another impactful player overseas with the signing of 2017 second-round pick, Vlatko Čančar.

The Slovenian forward measures in at a healthy 6’8”, 210 pounds, and fortunately his build isn’t a hindrance. Čančar has deceptive athleticism allowing him to be a capable help-side defender around the rim. Playing small forward around legitimate defenders in Gary Harris and Paul Millsap, in addition to Mike Malone’s help-side defense eliminates the majority of concern around the Slovenian forward’s ability to guard the strong-side attack.  

His shooting touch – especially around the rim – and the quick release will make it difficult for defenders to help off of any Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic pick-and-rolls. In addition to his shooting ability, he has the skill to navigate a pick-and-roll as the ball-handler, making him a dangerous weapon in Malone’s offense. Lastly, his most intriguing skill-set for this team is his passing ability. In the summer league, he flashed his accurate and feathery soft-touch by threading the needle from all over the court.

An unconventional small-forward, but a unique weapon Mike Malone will be able to utilize in the right match-ups.

Returning Small Forwards

Will Barton

Barton looks to assume the position he started the year at and the position he lost halfway through the playoffs, as the starting small forward. Rehabilitating the hip injury to full health throughout the off-season will help get him back to the play that earned him the four-year, $53 million contract extension the previous summer.

His ability to be a secondary playmaker makes him very valuable to the offense that utilizes multiple ball-handlers to initiate the offense — taking the pressure off Murray and Jokic as playmakers are when the Nuggets play their best brand of basketball. Of the 39 games he played last season, Barton had five or more assists in 10 games, and the Nuggets went 7-3. His playmaking needs to be more consistent for the upcoming season.

Torrey Craig

Truly an inspirational story of his climb to the NBA from the University of South Carolina Upstate, the 6’7” small forward showcased his defensive prowess all-season long. He can guard one through four effectively and has even shown the ability to hold his own against centers.

His value is shown consistently on the defensive side of the ball, but he showed an offensive spark towards the end of the year and into the playoffs. In Game Four, against the San Antonio Spurs, Craig went 5-7 from three and ended with 18 points in a pivotal win. Continuing to work on his catch and shoot jump shot – especially from the corner – will keep forcing Malone to carve out minutes for the 28-year old.

Expectations for the Season 

The Denver Nuggets will start the same way they did last season.

Jamal Murray – Gary Harris – Will Barton – Paul Millsap – Nikola Jokic

Their bench unit will look a little different.

Monte Morris – Malik Beasley – Torrey Craig – Jerami Grant – Mason Plumlee

Ultimately, both Michael Porter Jr and Vlatko Čančar will begin to eat into the small forward minutes and find their role as another offensive weapon teams have to game plan against. Mike Malone has a significant problem with having at least 12 NBA rotational players on his team. Now he must show why he is a great coach and optimize that rotation.

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