NBA draft preview: Will Nuggets find their shooting guard of the future?

Editor’s note: The second of a five-part series previewing the Nuggets’ positional outlook heading into the June 23 NBA draft. Today: shooting guard.

No one on the Nuggets elicits more scrutiny than Will Barton.

The shifty, veteran guard arrived via trade months before coach Michael Malone did in 2015, and he’s been privy to everything the Nuggets have become in the subsequent seven seasons. He’s seen, firsthand, their steady ascent up the Western Conference ladder and was one of the earliest subscribers to Nikola Jokic.

Before Gary Harris was traded, Barton played out of position as an undersized small forward, gamely accepting his role even though most nights he was mismatched on bigger wings. That wasn’t his fault. It wasn’t his fault, either, when prolonged injuries to Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. thrust Barton’s offense into the spotlight, elevating him from a valuable role player to one of Jokic’s primary sidekicks.

Yet Barton, whose 14.7 points per game last season narrowly trailed Aaron Gordon (15) for second-most on the team, drew the lion’s share of the criticism when things went wrong. For Barton, now 31, that comes with the territory. As one of the only Nuggets with an ever-present attack mindset, he would more often than not be the outlet when defenses swarmed around Jokic. Among the starters, that was usually a better outcome than if the ball found Gordon or Jeff Green late in the shot clock.

Some of the criticism was warranted. There were lapses on defense, including badly timed missed box-outs, and other times when he’d submarine possessions on offense. But as glaring as those faults were, many were a result of the fact that he was the only real wing on the Nuggets’ roster last season and they were severely compromised due to injuries.

Their other shooting guards – Austin Rivers and Bryn Forbes – were either defensive stoppers or 3-point specialists. Denver wasn’t deep in terms of two-way players.

All of which brings us to this summer, where the Nuggets have publicly stated the need to improve their perimeter defense. The impending returns of Murray and Porter also mean there will be far fewer shots to go around, which raises the question of Barton’s fit moving forward. With one year and $14 million left on his deal, Barton’s contract is far from toxic. He’s also coming off the healthiest season of the last four years. If the Nuggets had one obvious area to improve, it would be at shooting guard. Could that come via trade, where the Nuggets might be able to get younger? Or might that happen in the draft?

If it’s the latter, they’ll have ample prospects to choose from with the No. 21 and 30 picks in the first round of the draft. Here are five worthwhile options:

1. Ochai Agbaji, 6-foot-4, Kansas, 22 years old: A strong, stout athlete who plays both ends of the court hard, the Nuggets could do worse than selecting this seasoned college veteran at No. 21. Agbaji shot nearly 41% on his 3-point attempts this past season, and his positional size makes him a versatile defensive candidate. In Denver’s case, drafting a more NBA-ready player makes sense.

2. Blake Wesley, 6-3, Notre Dame, 19: Wesley is an explosive leaper who won’t be overmatched in the NBA from an athleticism standpoint. He can break down a defense, get his own shot and has a shifty handle. He’s already got a really strong frame for a freshman and is known to compete defensively. Before Denver takes him, they’d have to consider how soon he’d be a contributing player.

3. Malaki Branham, 6-4, Ohio State, 19: For the Nuggets’ range, Branham could be a home run pick. He’s an elite shooter, with a quick release that should translate to the next level. From beyond the arc or even from mid-range, Branham has a knack for getting into space. He could be an ideal floor-spacer next to Jokic. If the Nuggets see two-way potential, it’s not hard to see Denver taking a chance on the freshman.

4. Marjon Beauchamp, 6-5, Ignite, 21: An explosive leaper and excellent off-ball cutter, the only glaring flaw in Beauchamp’s game at this point is his unreliable shooting. But with a long frame and a nose for rebounding, he could be the ideal defensive wing the Nuggets have been looking for.

5. Wendell Moore Jr., 6-4, Duke, 20: A good distributor with an excellent feel for the game, Moore looks like he can do a lot of things at the NBA level. A 41% 3-point shooter last season who also racked up 4.4 assists per game, he might have the most potential on the defensive end of the floor. The Nuggets are fortunate in that this particular draft is deep with two-way talent.

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