The Nuggets Almanac: The Bench

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Denver Nuggets
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s what to know and who to know for the Nuggets upcoming season off the bench

The Denver Nuggets have seen a big overhaul in talent this off-season. There will only be 9 returning players from last season’s roster. Of those players, some didn’t play many minutes — such as Vlatko Cancar, Davon Reed, and Zeke Nnaji. Davon was on a two-way contract, so he couldn’t play a ton of NBA minutes. He’s now on a full contract, so he may see an uptick in minutes. Vlatko Cancar and Zeke Nnaji were both getting minutes at one point but dealt with injuries; returning for the 82nd game of the regular season after missing a lot of time, but not given enough runway to play reliably in the playoffs.Then, Nuggets stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. were injured for either the entire season, in Jamal’s case, or the majority of the season, in Michael Porter Jr.’s case. Both should be fully healthy when they do come back, but they will need to get reintegrated into the lineups and re-acclimated to NBA game levels of physical demands. The only Nuggets who played consistent minutes last season were Nikola Jokic, Aaron Gordon, Bones Hyland, and Jeff Green.

There were losses of some shot creation for the sake of defense this off-season. There’s a good reason behind that. The Nuggets had holes on the defensive end of the court, especially in the playoffs. The Suns and Warriors series both showed that the Nuggets needed better perimeter defenders. Nikola Jokic was repeatedly put in bad positions due to his teammates not being able to prevent switches and letting him end up on islands against the likes of Chris Paul and Steph Curry. Jokic has his skill set defensively, but that isn’t where he’s best utilized.With that in mind, Calvin Booth made moves to get defensive-minded players. He shipped out long-time Nuggets Monte Morris and Will Barton to get a great complementary piece in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He sacrificed some of the shot creation and playmaking to bring in someone who has a championship pedigree and provides some of the defense that the Nuggets need. KCP is also someone who provides more catch-and-shoot spacing than Will Barton. He’s a deadeye shooter from the corners. He shot 45% from the corners last season and has been a consistently very good three-point shooter. He can find holes in the defense and cut as well. He isn’t a complex offensive player, but he fits exactly what the Nuggets needed.

However, with that move, the Nuggets lost their long-time 6th man in Monte Morris. Monte was someone who the Nuggets could rely on to organize the Nuggets’ offense off the bench. He was a steady hand for units that often had some level of volatility. Last season, he stepped into the starting lineup to fill in for an injured Jamal Murray and did his job well. He wasn’t the player Jamal was, but he filled in his role well and was a reliable game manager. With his absence, a lot of pressure moves to the next Nuggets 6th man — Bones Hyland.


PG: Bones Hyland

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets
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Last season there were many things that didn’t go the Nuggets way. One bright spot that Nuggets fans could gravitate to was the 26th pick in the 2021 draft, Bones Hyland. It takes rookies showing a lot for Coach Michael Malone to trust them. If they show enough, he’ll play them but he has high standards for young players to make it into his rotation. Bones exceeded any expectation initially set upon him.

It only took 5 games for Bones to get a consistent rotation spot. After the 5th game of the season, there were only 5 games that he played in where he registered less than 10 minutes played. He missed some time with little knick knack injuries, but after the 5th game he played 19.3 minutes per game in 67 regular season appearances. He averaged 10.1 points per game and 2.8 assists per game on 55.8 TS%. That was good enough to get him a nod for All-Rookie 2nd Team.

He’s only one of 8 rookies to ever register a season with above 10 points per game, 2.5 assists per game, 55% TS%, with a 20% usage rate and assist percentage. The other rookies include Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, Ben Simmons, Kyrie Irving, Gilbert Arenas, Ja Morant, and D.J. Augustin. He finds himself in elite company and there’s a real shot that the Nuggets will need him to follow this season up with a great sophomore season as well.

He’s one of the only ball handlers on the projected bench unit, and is by far the best of the Nuggets’ bench players. The bench offense is likely to go as far as Bones can go. The closest thing to a secondary ball handler on the bench unit is Bruce Brown, and the Nuggets likely don’t want to use him that sort of role. He’s capable of it, but it’s not where he excels.

So, the Nuggets will need Bones to follow up his spectacular rookie season with a big leap in his second season. They will need him to set the table for his teammates, and to score at a high level. His efficiency will need to take a leap. He will need to be more consistent. There’s good reason to think he’s capable of this.

Bones is an impressive pick and roll operator in general, let alone for his age. He creates pressure on the defense anytime he touches the ball. His shooting can be streaky, but when he is on — he’s nuclear. If he gets the space necessary to get his shot off, he will let it fly. Per cleaningtheglass.com, he shoots 50% from long midrange. He’s a threat not only from deep, but if he snakes the screen he is a threat to pull up from the midrange too.

Bones is a crafty finisher too. The left hand finishing could use work, but he knows how to contort his body well. There were flashes of a really good finisher in Bones’ rookie season. He knows how to use his body to seal off defenders and is quick enough to beat them to his spots. Coming off of screens gives him a runway to get going and he’s able to create advantages for himself and others through his pick and roll play.

Take this possession, for example. He utilizes Jokic’s screen to it’s fullest potential — getting Buddy Hield on his hip. This forces Goga Bitadze to put himself between Bones and Jokic. Bones finds the open window for a pass to Jokic. Jokic, in return, gets an easy look. Nikola Jokic is far better than any bench big that Bones will be playing with this season, but that sort of possession is replicable.

If Bones can get a good screener, they can have good chemistry. He had good chemistry with Demarcus Cousins, Zeke Nnaji, and Nikola Jokic last year. He finds a way to easily click with his pick and roll partners. There are a couple of able screeners on this bench lineup too. Fans have reason to be optimistic about Bones Hyland. He’s an uber talented young player and has all the necessary tools to fill in what the Nuggets need him to. He may struggle from time to time, but for this bench to have a high end outcome those will need to be few and far between.


SG: Bruce Brown

NBA: Playoffs-Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics
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The other key addition of the offseason for the Nuggets is Bruce Brown. A stellar defender with a unique offensive skill set. He’s far from conventional, but in a modern NBA — he’s the kind of funky that a contender needs. A glue guy on both ends of the floor. Someone that can fill in a variety of roles at high levels and fit in with a ton of lineups.

He has played every position in his NBA career so far, and most recently with the Brooklyn Nets served as a big in a lot of lineups. He set every sort of screen you can imagine for them. He’s only 6’4” but has the strength to set very effective screens. As a roller and cutter, he also has one of the better floaters in the league.

Fans and media are trying to figure out who the backup 5 will be, and I propose Bruce Brown as someone to fill that role. He’s not the best shooter, but he’s not a non-shooter either. Using him as a screener primarily, and then giving him room to make passes on the short roll or making floaters in rolls set up by Bones is a role that he would be fantastic in.

Setting him up as the bench “big” would give him an opportunity to play in the dunker spot and roam the baseline when not involved in actions too. He’s great at using those opportunities to find holes in the defense and catch them off guard. With his floater he can knock down shots from the short midrange, and he’s a good finisher around the rim too. He’s the sort of player that makes everyone else’s jobs easier.

He’s also capable at filling in for some secondary ball handling duties. If the Nuggets were to run actions like this for Bones and Bruce, that could create very easy looks for both of them. Bruce is able to set screens that free up space, and Bones is able to find rollers with ease. The two of them have potential for a dynamic duo off of the bench for the Nuggets.

Bruce Brown was brought in to be one of the key pieces for the Nuggets and, while he can fill other roles, using him in a psuedo-big sort of way makes use of his skill set to the fullest on the offensive end of things. Bones Hyland is sure to attract a lot of attention from defenses, and Bruce Brown knows how to take full advantage of that. If his defender even looks to another player for a second, Bruce is already putting up a floater.

Even if he’s not involved in the screening, he gets himself involved. He’s not someone who will just stand still off the ball. He can space the floor if he’s left wide open, but most of his scoring and impact on offense will come within the arc. Imagine him as the bench’s equivalent to Aaron Gordon. Someone with enough playmaking chops to occasionally run an action to give the other ball handlers a break, and enough shooting that opposing teams will occasionally suffer from leaving them open. Overall though, someone who can cut very effectively and a screener who can finish around the rim with strength.

On defense, he will help make up for Bones Hyland not being a good defender. He’s good at digging on opposing teams’ drives and getting steals that way. Driving by him is always a risk because he has quick hands. He knows where to be defensively and has the physical tools to take advantage of that. He can guard basically any position and switch effectively. He can fill a lot of roles defensively too.

Have an off-ball scorer that’s giving you issues? Well Bruce can take care of that. He’ll chase them around and be a pain for them to deal with. Need him to body up an on-ball scorer? He can do that. He’s strong enough to defend bigger players, and quick enough to defend quick guards. He registers very good steal and block numbers, with a steal percentage of 2% and a block percentage of 1.5%. That means that on 3.5% of defensive possessions he plays he is directly affecting the oppositions possession. He’ll be a very impactful defender for the Nuggets, and will likely be a huge part of any success the Nuggets have this season.


Who should the Nuggets play at the backup small forward?

The backup back court seems pretty set in stone for the Nuggets at the moment. Both Bones Hyland and Bruce Brown are in line for big minutes and are likely the two players to get the most minutes of the Nuggets’ bench players. The rest of the bench is a little more muddled though. For the backup small forward position, the two most likely candidates are rookie Christian Braun and Davon Reed.

Davon Reed is a returning player and showed a decent amount of flashes of being exactly what the Nuggets need from a role player. It was in a small sample size, but in the sample that was given, he showed a lot of promise. Last season, he couldn’t play in the playoffs because he was signed on a two-way contract. This offseason, the front office brought him back on a full contract. Davon Reed will be part of the Nuggets’ full time roster.

Davon Reed will be able to provide the Nuggets two of the most important things this season. Shooting and defense. He shot 43% from beyond the arc this past season for the Nuggets. He did this on 1.8 attempts per game in 48 games. It’s not a big size, but he’s shot well at every level. It’s been a consistent part of his game. With his 6’6” frame and 7’0” wingspan he has the tools to play defense. He also has a nose for playing in passing lanes. Davon’s defensive instincts are pretty good. He isn’t a lock down defender but is a good defender. Someone you can feel good about having out on the court.

Davon won’t provide you with shot creation of his own and isn’t much of a playmaker either. He can make good swing passes but fans shouldn’t really expect him to be a creator. While he is good at being a 3 and D wing, Davon is fairly limited in what he can do. He struggled to finish at the rim at times, only shooting 62% at the rim this past season. That’s only good for the 32nd percentile among forwards, per cleaningtheglass.com.

His touch around the rim isn’t great. He isn’t an awful finisher, but it’s not a strength in his game either. He can struggle to finish through or around contact. He likes to attack off of closeouts and is good at one dribble pull ups. However, if he gets all the way to the rim he can put a little too much or too little on a layup attempt.

Christian Braun, on the other hand, is a rookie trying to earn playing time this season. It’s a common misconception that Michael Malone doesn’t like to play rookies. However, if the rookies play well enough, Malone will give them their chance. He played Bones Hyland last season, gave Zeke Nnaji some chances the season before that, and Michael Porter Jr. eventually got his shot before that.

He has gone on the record before saying that Christian is a player he’s excited for. Braun fits what the Nuggets have attempted to go for this offseason. He is a physical defender and competitor. He’s going to annoy guys up and down the court; getting into them, bumping them, finding ways to get under their skin. Add on to that his three point shooting and he seems like a dandy role player for the Nuggets to have.

His upside is also a little higher than Davon Reed. He showed in summer league that he could occasionally run some pick and roll. He was one of the better players in college last season at attacking closeouts too. It’s not something to ask Braun to do all the time, but he has the upside to be a tertiary ball handler for the bench unit if most things pan out for him.

As for which player the Nuggets should choose as the backup, it will likely be Davon Reed to start the season. Malone likes to have rookies earn their minutes. Christian Braun will get his opportunity eventually, but it might take some time. Davon was one of Malone’s favorites last season and fits the mold of what type of players Malone typically likes to play. Come March though and Christian Braun is likely playing consistently.

The Nuggets front office picked him to contribute right away and he has the skills to make that happen. It wouldn’t come as that much of a shock if Braun was in the playoff rotation. His mindset, physicality, and know how on defense will be extremely helpful for the Nuggets if Braun can make it click early on.


Who are the Nuggets backup bigs?

The Nuggets are once again without a clear answer for a backup center going into this season. Last offseason, the front office didn’t go for a traditional backup center — instead opting to run two power forwards in JaMychal Green and Jeff Green. It didn’t work out that well because Jeff Green was put into the starting lineup after Michael Porter Jr. got injured. With that JaMychal Green was put under immense pressure and didn’t live up to what was needed of him.

The bench unit struggled to rebound, defend, or score well. Anytime the bench came in, they lost their minutes. Those lineups were anchors for the Nuggets as a whole. So some fans are anxious after seeing a backup center not get added this offseason. DeAndre Jordan was signed, but his best days are far behind him. He hasn’t been a positive player for a few seasons at this point, and to expect him to be one is probably unrealistic. He’s a fantastic locker room guy, but his role should be as the fifth big.

That leaves two options as the clear backup bigs — Jeff Green and Zeke Nnaji. Two returning players who both have shown good things for the Nuggets. Fans might be hesitant on Jeff Green, but do keep in mind that he was not meant to play that much last season. He was supposed to be a spark plug off the bench and instead ended up playing 25 minutes per game as a starter. Jeff Green still does things that bring value to the team, especially if his three point shot can fall with more regularity.

Jeff Green would probably be the center on offense in most bench lineups. His gravity as a roller and ability to create rim pressure is a welcome sight. Even though he’s 35 and almost 36, he can still get up with the best in the league.

He’s not only limited to rolling though. He can create advantages off of closeouts and occasionally create off the dribble. He can add a dynamic player in a lineup that doesn’t have too many of those. He can also still play in lineups with Jokic and the starters as a stagger. Nikola and Jeff had a great chemistry. Jeff was able to cut and find dunks with ease and Nikola found him every time.

Defensively he struggled at times, but in a more reduced role he should be able to exert himself more and make more of an effort. One would hope the same for his rebounding, though historically he’s never been much of a rebounder. That’s where the other big would come in.

Zeke Nnaji is finally primed to make a bigger leap in minutes this season. He’s spent the past two seasons with limited playing time due to either players being ahead of him in the rotation, or this past season some knee soreness. However, in the time he has been on the court, he’s been very productive. His shooting and defense are going to be impactful. He’s a top notch shooter, hitting 46.3% of his attempts from three last season. He did that on two attempts a game, and also shot 40.7% in his rookie season. He’s near automatic from the corners and is an excellent floor spacer.

He can also serve as a roller in the offense. Before he got hurt last season, he was establishing a great rhythm. Him and Bones were playing well with each other. He was starting to assert himself more physically in the paint. He rebounded better than he had before in his career, and started drawing fouls. Zeke has a very effective pump fake that gets his defenders to jump and he’s skilled at drawing fouls in those situations.

From January 7th to February 11th of last season, Zeke played in 19 straight games. He got 18.6 minutes per game and it was the most consistent playing time he had gotten in his career. During this stretch he averaged 7.6 points per game and 4.5 rebounds per game on 62.8% from the field and 52.9% from beyond the arc. He only shot 61.3% from the free throw line, but was getting to the line 1.6 times a game. His offensive rebounding also took a big leap. He rebounded 10.5% of the teams misses while he was on the floor which is good for 69th percentile among bigs. His finishing around the rim also improved to 81% during that stretch, per cleaningtheglass.com.

The defensive rebounding still wasn’t good, but there were flashes of him being able to put his nose down and get physical. The improvements were very noticeable, but his season got cut short with bilateral knee soreness. He only played in two more games after February 11th. Injuries hadn’t been a big pattern with Zeke before that though.

If Zeke can pick up where he left off last season and be a physically assertive big on top of his shooting and perimeter defense — that makes him the best backup big on the Nuggets roster. He can move very well on defense and help the Nuggets use different defensive schemes than they do with Nikola Jokic on the floor. He’s versatile on both ends of the floor and would give Bones Hyland another offensive tool to utilize as he runs the second unit.


What sort of play style should the Nuggets’ bench use?

With my projected bench lineup of Bones Hyland at point guard, Bruce Brown at shooting guard, Christian Braun at small forward, and Jeff Green and Zeke Nnaji as the backup bigs the Nuggets can run a variety of different play styles. A lot of offensive schemes the bench could run rely on Bones to be a high usage player and someone who is reliable night in and night out. There aren’t many playmakers on the bench, and that’s a lot of pressure for Bones. He’s capable of handling that though.

If Malone wants to help alleviate some of that pressure though, he could stagger one of Michael Porter Jr. or Aaron Gordon. Depending on which player he decided to stagger it relieves a different sort of pressure. Michael Porter Jr. is one of the top off-ball scorers in the league, but won’t be creating off of the dribble much. Where as Aaron Gordon can cut very well and provides more playmaking and off the dribble creation than MPJ. He also is a better defender, but isn’t nearly the shooter that MPJ is.

With the bench lineup as is, however, it has five players who are all at least good shooters and floor spacers. It gives Bones three potential pick and roll partners in Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, and Zeke Nnaji. Braun, Brown, and Jeff are all good to great cutters too.

Defensively, the Nuggets could run a switch heavy scheme with this unit. All of the players are mobile, and while some have their defensive weak points, Bruce Brown, Zeke Nnaji, and Christian Braun are good help defenders. Those three can help cover up for some of Bones’ and Jeff Green’s lapses.

The potential of a Bones Hyland, Bruce Brown, and Jeff Green Spain pick and roll with Zeke Nnaji and Christian Braun spacing the floor in the corners sounds good on paper. The bench has a good chance of being better than fans are expecting on both ends of the floor. Expect staggering, but also don’t be surprised to see a lineup like this one to touch the floor a lot for the Nuggets in this upcoming season.

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