The ceiling for Bones Hyland is higher than ever

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets
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How a rookie saved the Denver Nuggets season with a position change

When the Denver Nuggets first selected Bones Hyland during the 2021 NBA Draft, I was disappointed.

That might sound harsh, and it might certainly seem like I’m team “No Fun” in all of this, because anyone that watches Bones Hyland clearly comes away with the feeling that the dude is fun and entertaining as hell on the court.

No, it was because of Bones’ size and defensive concerns that I disliked the pick. At 6’2” but just around 175 pounds, I didn’t see Bones as a high ceiling defensive prospect, something that I thought Denver needed in their quest to surround Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Michael Porter Jr. with a championship level supporting cast. Bones, while an interesting and fun offensive prospect, wasn’t going to make things any easier for Jokić on the defensive end of the floor. That thought initially persuaded me to disparage the selection at the time.

But as the draft turned into Summer League and Summer League turned into preseason, it became clear that Bones was much more than just a scorer and a chucker. He set the table well for his teammates, and when asked to run pick and roll, he showcased a level of vision as a floor general that I never expected. Perhaps that was my own fault, since Bones played point guard in his freshman year and was very successful doing so. Rather than simply profiling as the next version of Jamal Crawford, Lou Williams, or Jordan Clarkson, there appeared to be more nuance to Bones’ game, and that got me excited for his rookie season.

The Nuggets were slow to add him to the rotation, and throughout the season, the bench lineup as been a source of consternation for the Nuggets and Nuggets fans alike. The starters were taking care of business, but the bench was simply underpowered given a major injury to Michael Porter Jr. and the surgery recovery time for Jamal Murray. With Monte Morris and Jeff Green in the starting lineup, Facundo Campazzo and JaMychal Green were placed in high leverage bench roles as the backup point guard and backup center. Neither operated well in that capacity, nor did the rest of the bench unit.

When Bones was ultimately inserted into the rotation, he played the backup shooting guard spot most frequently, taking plenty of shots but running little offense as more of an off guard than anything else. As a result, his numbers were fairly spotty, averaging a reasonably high number of shots for his role but on fairly low efficiency. Through December of 2021, he scored in double figures in just six of of 24 games played, and the Nuggets weren’t getting enough from him.

Still, there were moments to be excited about. He was a big reason the Nuggets demolished the Miami Heat on November 29th with his deep range. He also had a strong game against the Atlanta Hawks on December 17th. Both were extremely important wins, and the Nuggets wouldn’t be in the playoff field today without those performances.

But the shooting performances were too irregular to be relied upon night in and night out for awhile there. The 1.8 assists per game were problematic too. He wasn’t setting up teammates enough to justify having the ball in his hands as a secondary creator. Campazzo was all pass and little score as the point guard, but Bones was the opposite at the shooting guard spot for awhile, not knowing where best to find the passing lanes in an off ball role.

It wasn’t for a lack of talent, but the Nuggets were struggling to find cohesiveness with what was clearly a faulty second unit. Denver went through many five-man units hoping to find the right combination, even trading Bryn Forbes and signing DeMarcus Cousins to try and get there. It wasn’t until Denver made the decision to change the backcourt rotation in which things began to fall into place. Campazzo was benched, and Bones slid over to the point guard spot with Forbes and Austin Rivers on the wings next to him. Cousins would ultimately slide into the center spot as well, bolstering Bones in a way that helped his transition to become a lead ball handler.

What followed was a transformation from an inefficient gunner to an absolute baller.

Season Segment Games Minutes Points per 100 Assists per 100 Rebounds per 100 Turnovers per 100 eFG% TS% Total Plus-Minus
Before 1/29 36 630 23.0 4.8 6.9 3.1 47.0 50.2 -14
After 1/29 26 516 28.5 8.6 7.4 3.4 57.8 61.9 +28

There’s improvement across the board for Bones, as well as improvement for the Nuggets. His combination of playmaking, floor spacing, and scoring usage made things easier for the entire bench unit. Bones became the default option almost immediately, and though he was initially writing the plays out on his tape to make sure he didn’t forget certain play calls, the transition period was fairly quick and painless. The Nuggets immediately experienced a bench resurgence, and a unit that for so long had been the anchor of Denver’s success quickly became an asset.

Before the change, the Nuggets were 27-21, a respectable record but nothing crazy. Since the change, the Nuggets are 17-10, and they’ve survived a bit of a drop in production and effectiveness from the starting unit. The starters carried the bench for so long that a drop-off was inevitable, and Denver’s avoided a tailspin with the bench remaining positive during Bones’ minutes.

There were of course other factors outside of Bones,. Forbes has hit his shots and Cousins has established himself as a capable backup big. In addition, the reinstitution of Austin Rivers as Denver’s veteran guard defender and JaMychal Green as a bash bro with Cousins has helped too. Still, it’s clear that Bones has been the straw to stir the drink for the last few weeks. He pushes the pace, sets up his teammates with precise passes, slithers in and around the paint, and spaces the floor with and without the ball in his hands. Some of the performances Bones has put together have legitimately saved the team from certain failure, including the show he put on in Philadelphia to help secure a major road win on national television.

Bones has scored in double digits in 18 of the 26 games he has played since moving to backup point guard. He had just 10 double digit performances in the 36 games prior to that. Bones has had fewer than three assists in eight of the 26 games since the change, compared to 22 such games prior to. He’s shot below 40% from the field in just 11 of the 26 games. In the 36 games before that? 23 times.

The efficiency and consistency have recovered in a way that saved Denver’s bench, but it was Bones’ swagger and fearlessness that saved Denver’s season. His willingness and desire to be that dude has been the catalyst for so many Nuggets wins in the last 25 to 30 games or so. The Nuggets have turned to him as the leader of the bench unit in several fourth quarters and allowed him to control the pace of the game, something he’s done exceedingly well as he’s become more acquainted with the position at the NBA level.

Whether Bones continues to play at this level for the rest of the season and into the playoffs remains to be seen, but the facts are the facts. He has proven to be an exceptionally capable playmaker in his rookie season, and the sky is pretty clearly the limit.

The comparisons to Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams are still potentially valid if this is just who Bones is for the rest of his career, but there’s a strong possibility that Bones continues to grow and develop at the NBA level and become something even more potent. His staunchest supporters have compared him to Damian Lillard. Perhaps a resemblance to CJ McCollum and his play style is more apt. In general, there aren’t a ton of great comparisons for Bones. He’s a better prospect than Immanuel Quickley in New York. Is he a better prospect than Darius Garland in Cleveland, who just made an All-Star game in his third year? Probably not, and he probably won’t have the same level of freedom in Denver.

Whatever Bones develops into though, it’s important to remember this moment, with just a few games left in the 2021-22 regular season, as the year of Bones in Denver. Sure, the Jokić guy is pretty good, but without Bones stepping up and shouldering the responsibility for a bench unit that desperately needed it, there’s no doubt that the Nuggets would be in the play-in tournament this year. There’s no shame in that given who they lost, but Bones becoming so good so fast changed the complexion of this Nuggets season.

It’s safe to say I’m no longer disappointed. Elated, actually.

Score another one for Tim Connelly and the Denver Nuggets scouting department.

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