While not perfect, the Denver Nuggets draft picks showed why they were selected and where they still need to improve.
Las Vegas Summer League is a hard egg to crack. What, if anything, is actually meaningful in what is essentially a glorified exhibition game?
Does a player scoring against Summer League competition mean he will be able to score at the NBA level? Is a player actually a lockdown defender or is he just mugging less skilled players who will not make a NBA roster? Are turnover issues actually concerning or is it a product of a team that has only played together for a little over a week?
Sorting through what is — and is not — real can be one of the most difficult aspects of watching these games.
So what, if anything, did the Denver Nuggets draft picks prove or disprove in their first Summer League game? Let’s dive into the play of all three of the Nuggets’ draft picks and look at what it taught us about each player.
No one who took part in the Nuggets first Summer League game looked like they belonged quite like Braun. Essentially, his skillset at the University of Kansas perfectly translated to Summer League despite the improved talent opposing him and everyone being bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic.
There was no better way for him to kick off his professional career than showing off his vertical athleticism for the second bucket of the game as he exploded off the floor to throw down an alley-oop in transition.
As soon as the shot by the Minnesota Timberwolves went up, Braun took off down the right side of the court. Porter saw him streaking down he floor, threw an outlet pass to Gillespie who tossed up a perfect pass for Braun to slam home.
For anyone who watched Braun at Kansas, this is a very familiar sight. When Braun is out in transition — with or without the ball — his goal is to demoralize their opponent with a big flush on the other end. He plays with an intimidating ferocity in the open court that translated immediately.
From there, Braun continued to show what he can do. Just a couple possessions after throwing down that oop, he bailed the Nuggets out with this shot-clock beating step-back 3-pointer.
Braun was thrown a grenade at the end of the shot clock. Despite the bad situation he found himself in, he put the onus on himself. He took the pass, set up the defender across from him, created separation with a step-back jumper in isolation, and drilled a 3-pointer with a hand in his face with less than five seconds left on the shot clock.
Braun has not always been the most aggressive player looking for his own shot. He makes high IQ decisions and tries to pass up a good shot for a better one, but it is good to see him reach deeper into his bag and create a look for himself.
What makes Braun such an ideal fit for the Nuggets is the fact that his skillset goes beyond his ability to sky above there rim for dunks and unload from beyond the three-point arc. He is a player who thrives doing dirty work as well.
One of his most under-heralded skills is his rebounding acumen. Look at him squeeze into the paint from the corner, carve out strong rebounding positioning and grab the offensive board before putting it back up and in for two points.
Even better is that his mind never fades during the game. His focus is always dialed in. Even though Peyton Watson completely missed him wide open in the corner for an easy look at a 3-pointer, he instead took advantage of defenders ball watching by out-muscling everyone around the rim for the rebound.
That type of assertiveness and fearlessness is exactly what the Nuggets need from Braun, who could fit perfectly in between Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. as the starting shooting guard in time.
The other reason Braun could be a great long-term option as the starting shooting guard is because his defensive impact has the potential to be immense. Not only does he have the size to be impactful, but he has the IQ as well.
Look at this steal by Braun in the clip above. Braun notices Mitchell gets blown by on the perimeter so he patiently waits to dig down on the driver at the perfect time in order to keep himself in position to grab the steal if possible or recover to the corner if the ball ends up there after Braun digs down.
Braun perfectly digs the ball out, gets the steal and pushes the pace in transition. It does not lead to a bucket, but that off-ball disruption created an advantage for the Nuggets. Denver needs significantly more defensive impact and Braun provides it in spades.
He is not just impactful as an off-ball disruptor either. On the ball, he can be a smothering defender.
This is textbook on-ball defense. Braun stays in front of him, slides his feet without crossing them over, physically holds his ground on the baseline and gives a great contest to what is already a tough shot for Minnesota.
Denver’s most important need this offseason was point-of-attack defense. Braun has that skill in his repertoire as he displayed against the Timberwolves.
Still, while his first professional game showed all that Braun can do, it also showed the gaps in his game.
Braun can lack the offensive assertiveness that could unlock his potential as a scorer. Look at the clip above. Braun has a fantastic look at a top-of-the-key triple, but he hesitates first which leads to a record scratch. Now, Braun is driving into multiple defenders at the rim instead of using his stellar shooting stroke on an open attempt from three-point range.
Braun also struggled creating a shot for himself or others. He is not someone who can create advantages for himself and/or his teammates at this juncture of his career. He is a finisher; not a table setter.
While that skill might not be essential to his NBA outlook, it is the missing piece that could allow him to become the ideal defensive-minded guard who can stretch the floor, attack bent defenses and play above the rim with the Nuggets starting lineup. Look for the Nuggets to put the ball in his hands more often as Summer League continues.
Watson, while displaying some of the reasons people are so excited about his upside, struggled much more than his fellow draftees.
Offensively, Watson was lost far more often than he knew what he was doing. His handles are loose and unprotected. His shot was slow and missed right of the rim, left of the rim, was short and was long all at different times. He did not finish around the rim well and had a rough six turnovers.
Even on defense, his NBA calling card, there were moments of complete confusion from him. Thankfully his physical gifts evened out his defensive impact, but mentally he did not seem to be engaged or understanding of what was going on around him.
There might not be a play that better encapsulates Watson at this point of his career than the one below.
Watson is supposed to be one of the more exciting defenders in the draft, but his control and grasp of defensive coverages is lacking. Look at the multiple switches he ends up having to make simply because he is trailing after getting screened. That left him unable to catch up to the play. Comparatively to everyone on the floor, Watson almost looks like he is moving in slow motion.
He loses his man rolling to the rim after three switches, but thanks to his athletic gifts and size, he was able to recover to protect the rim and force the miss despite being far out of position.
That is why he was drafted. For him to mess up two-to-three times in one defensive possession and still protect the rim is a credit for just how much space he can cover.
With all of the chaos and disorganization Watson displayed in his first professional game, there were some eye-opening moments that displayed just how high Watson’s upside is.
Just look at this three-quarter court pass Watson unloaded before halftime to get Braun a dunk in transition.
That is not an easy pass. Lofting it up and over the defense on the move with the accuracy to allow Braun to catch the pass and dunk in stride is wildly difficult, but Watson unleashed that pass without a second thought. That assist was not a lucky moment. He has skill as a passer due to his good vision and size.
This was one of a couple of passes that were illuminating. Watson being so tall and long allows him access to passing lanes that others cannot see or utilize. If he can continue to grow from that foundation, he might be able to grow into a big guard who is a terror on defense.
Thinking of defense, just look at how his length can eliminate shots at the rim.
There are not many guards who have the standing reach and explosion to recover on slashers and eliminate their shot by spiking it off the backboard. Adding that type of size and athletic ability to the Nuggets roster could be a truly terrifying combination.
Again, Watson is not close to being able to contribute to the Nuggets right away. He is expected to spend time in Grand Rapids playing for the Gold, Denver’s G-League team, which will hopefully do wonders for his feel on a basketball court. Watson barely played in college and simply needs time playing competitive basketball.
If he receives that in Grand Rapids, there could be a bright future for the supersized guard.
The most surprising aspect of the Nuggets first Summer League game was the how well Ismael Kamagate played despite logging next to no practice time in the lead up to Summer League.
Kamagate did not start, but came off the bench and that did not hurt his impact in the slightest. Offensively, he played his role well and on defense, he proved that he has a bright future as a shot blocker and mobile big who can hopefully be a productive switch defender on wings and guards.
Look at Kamagate as he ends up in the bottom corner. Despite being pulled away from the rim, he knows what he needs to do to support Denver’s defense even if he is out of position.
First, he uses his size to eliminate the driving and passing lanes, but as he does that, his man cuts baseline to take advantage of Kamagate’s perfect positioning to stymie the initial action. Kamagate sticks with him after containing and ends up in the opposite corner. This is where Kamagate really shines. He slides back to the rim to protect it from the corner, but as he does, the ball gets swung to his man in the corner. That leaves Kamagate with the task of closing out to the corner from the paint, but if he does so recklessly, there will be no one left to protect the rim.
Kamagate closes out under control, does not leave his feet, slides with his opponent who attacks his closeout, deters the shot at the rim, contests the layup attempt after his man passed the ball and, while doing all of that, managed to stay in strong rebounding position.
That connectivity takes years to understand and apply to the game, but it appears Kamagate already has that skill.
On offense, he displayed a calm decision making that surprised many. Look at him dribble the ball up the court with all guards being smothered, get off the ball, make himself available after the double team is sent to the top of the key, patiently collect the pass, wait for a cutter to appear and make the right pass for an easy layup.
That level of patience is rare for bigs in the NBA right now; let alone someone who is still as raw as Kamagate. If he can continue to grow as a playmaker out of the short roll like that or simply keep his head up and make easy passes to cutters, his functionality at the NBA level will grow substantially.
That might seem like a small skill to impact the game so much, but look at the clip below. Without Kamagate’s quick decision making, high IQ and willingness to instictually make the right pass, this and-one by Braun would not have been possible.
As soon as Kamagate collected the rebound, he already knew who his outlet was. He turned to find him and — as soon as he saw the passing angle — he got off the ball and allowed Braun to take off in transition.
Kamagate’s comfort on the court at Summer League with little-to-no practice time against a caliber of opponent he has never faced before was wildly impressive. It seems Denver was right to get into the second round to grab him. Denver, and many other teams, had Kamagate in the 20s on their draft boards and he played like a first-round pick in his first Summer League game.