NBA draft preview: Do Nuggets need more depth at forward behind Michael Porter Jr.?

Editor’s note: The fourth of a five-part series previewing the Nuggets’ positional outlook heading into the June 23 NBA draft. Today: power forwards. Part 1: point guard. Part II: shooting guard. Part III: small forward. 

If there’s a swing piece on the Nuggets’ roster, it’s 23-year-old sniper Michael Porter Jr.

When healthy, he’s a lethal shooter with size, a walking mismatch and an ideal floor-spacer around Nikola Jokic. Send a double team in the MVP’s direction, and you’ll pay with Porter, a career 42% 3-point shooter, in the corner.

When he’s healthy, as he was two seasons ago, Porter’s a plus rebounder on both ends of the court. Curious why Jokic obliterated his career-high in rebounds last season, jumping from a previous-best 10.8 per game to 13.8? It’s because Denver’s second-best rebounder was sidelined due to his third back surgery.

Porter, who’ll start his five-year max deal this upcoming season, is presumably healthy after appearing in only nine games last season. He’s a vital offensive cog alongside Jokic and Jamal Murray, and if he’s playing up to his potential offensively, perhaps the Nuggets can live with his defensive limitations.

That gamble — in addition to ever-present questions about his health — is what the Nuggets signed up for when they reached an early extension with him prior to last season. The swing component is exactly what it sounds like. Not that anyone admitted it at the time, but Denver’s season had an immediate cap on it once Jeff Green became the starting power forward for the duration of the season.

Green, who picked up his $4.5 million player option and will remain with the Nuggets next season, represents some insurance. So does Zeke Nnaji, who hasn’t been on the court consistently through two seasons. Lingering knee injuries hampered his progression over the final two months last season. With JaMychal Green traded, Jeff Green aging and Porter easing back into the starter’s role, perhaps this is the year Nnaji blossoms.

At bare minimum, the Nuggets need to know what they have in the versatile, 6-foot-9 forward who has shown he can defend in space and, last season, shot over 46% from 3-point range. A strong season could yield an early contract extension, or it could prompt a less favorable evaluation. The point is Denver needs to have an accurate read on who Nnaji is.

Any more trades involving forwards would leave the Nuggets thin and vulnerable at the position. On the other hand, considering Porter’s health, maybe it’s not the worst idea in the world to be hoarding extra depth at the position.

If the Nuggets go that route, there should be a number of defensive-minded forwards waiting there for the taking. Here are their best options.

1. Tari Eason, 6-foot-6, LSU, 21 years old: Eason is a high motor, elite energy big, who can play both ends of the floor. He’s got a better handle than most guys at his position (though he’d be undersized as a true NBA power forward). He’s got a quirky face-up game and can finish at odd angles, but his defense is the real selling point. It’s intriguing to think how much better he’ll get with NBA coaching.

2. Nikola Jovic, 6-9, Mega, 19: Aside from his name and nationality, Jovic doesn’t have too much in common with the NBA’s back-to-back MVP. Jovic has a skinnier frame but has enough shake to create separation on his jumper. He’d need to get stronger at the next level, and there are legitimate questions whether he’d hold up defensively.

3. Jake LaRavia, 6-6, Wake Forest, 20: LaRavia’s an interesting prospect in that he’s not particularly athletic, but given his unique skillset, he can be deployed all over the floor. He can hit from outside, moves well off the ball and can handle in transition. He has a mature game that could fit in seamlessly with any roster. Taking him at No. 21 would likely be a reach, but No. 30 could be a possibility.

4. Patrick Baldwin Jr., 6-9, Milwaukee, 19: Baldwin has the length and size to hold his own in the NBA with the offensive potential to find a role. The Panthers used him in any number of offensive sets. Though his stroke looks repeatable, there’s clearly significant room for improvement after shooting 26% from the 3-point line. With an ankle injury that has held him back, Baldwin is a total wild-card on draft night. Don’t be surprised if some team takes an early swing on him.

5. David Roddy, 6-4, Colorado State, 21: Roddy’s positional size is his limiting factor, but he does enough well to make you think he can grind out a role in the NBA. He can take defenders off the dribble, stretch the floor from outside and routinely gives defensive effort all over the floor. His margin for error will just be smaller at the next level. That doesn’t mean he won’t ingratiate himself to some team.

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