When the Denver Nuggets took the court against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors on Sunday night, trying to prevent the Warriors from matching an NBA record with their 15th consecutive win to open the season, Denver head coach Michael Malone joked that his team was playing the role of the Washington Generals.
“Nobody’s here to watch us,” Malone joked to a larger-than-normal contingent of reporters before the game, referring to the attention the Warriors and their winning streak was drawing.
While Malone may have joked about his team’s role in history, and eventually saw his Nuggets fall to Golden State 118-105, one thing the Denver head coach is not joking about is the abundance of young talent currently taking the court for the Nuggets. As the Nuggets take the court against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday night, the first-year head coach is rolling out three players 21 years old or younger during a critical four-game homestand against Western Conference teams.
This summer, Denver used the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft to select point guard 19-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay. Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers, Mudiay is averaging 12.9 points and 6.4 assists per outing. There’s still plenty of room for improvement as Mudiay is averaging 4.3 turnovers per game and shooting just 32.8 percent from the field. However, Malone knows his rookie floor leader is facing a gauntlet of the NBA’s best point guards in the first month of the season.
“It’s always one game at a time. If you try to give Emmanuel, ‘Hey, you’ve got Steph Curry then Chris Paul then Tony Parker,’ that’s way too much for a young kid,” Malone said. “You have to take it one day at a time and one game at a time. It’s also about us helping Emmanuel get better and be the best player he can be as opposed to worrying about everyone else who comes in here. He knows every night he goes on the floor that it is going to be a challenge. All of these experiences he is going through makes for great learning opportunities. As long as we continue to learn from these situations and get better and grow from those experiences, at the end of the season, he’ll be a much better player than he was to start the season. It’s a great challenge and opportunity for him. He’s got nothing to lose. He’ll continue to play and play to the best of his ability.”
At the age of 21, Gary Harris has transitioned from a seldom-used rookie to a defensive-minded starter in the span of less than a year. Harris is playing nearly twice as much this season and has seen his average rise from 3.4 to 9.9 points per game with his move into the starting lineup.
This season, Malone says has seen Harris grab the opportunity and make the most of it.
“I think he’s done a great job overall,” Malone said. “For whatever reason, last season he played and averaged 11 minutes a night. This season, he’s starting and averaging 27 minutes a night. He’s been one of our most consistent players and shooters. He’s been shooting the ball very well for us, which has been a sore spot for us. On the other end, he’s guarding Tony Parker or Steph Curry or Klay Thompson or whoever it might be that night. Gary loves that challenge. He’s a very competitive young man who is more than capable defender and looks forward to the challenge every night of going out there and guarding the other team’s best perimeter player. If he continues to do that, his future is looking brighter and brighter every day.”
In the middle, 6-foot-10 Nikola Jokic has two starts under his belt heading into the Clippers game and has two double-doubles in his last three outings, pushing his averages up to 7.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
“Jokic has had great stretches. The coaches have had to tell me to take him out because he’s about to pass out,” Malone smiled. “It’s exciting to see a young big with so much potential and talent who does everything at a high level. He passes it, he has great hands, he has a high basketball IQ, and he’s going to play more and more. He’s not phased by anything.”
With a 6-8 record and enduring perhaps its toughest month on the schedule, Denver has a lot to be thankful for heading into the Thanksgiving holiday. A bright future is certainly on the list.
“We have a 19-year-old point guard, a 21-year-old shooting guard, and 20-year-old center,” Malone smiled. “Yes, there’s growing pains but, on the bright side, they’re only going to get better.”