The Denver Nuggets haven’t been to the playoffs since the 2012-13 season, but that should change this April thanks to a trio of youthful players brimming with abilities that are just barely beginning to scratch the surface. Thanks to the play of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic, the future is bright in Denver, perhaps, the brightest of any young team in the NBA.
The Nuggets’ trio may lack a superstar in the traditional sense of the word, but when they combine their powers, their sum is greater than their parts. Peep this play where their movements are like fingers on the same hand, independent, yet collectively working toward the same goal:
As Jokic receives the pass at the top of the key, Murray comes to set a screen for Harris on the wing, who performs an automatic curl; which is more to set up the next screen than it is to receive the pass from the big man up top. Jokic then gives the ball back to Murray, who catches it on the three-point line, while Harris is performing more fake-action by setting a cross-screen on Millsap’s man. Then, comes the real purpose behind the play, as Jokic sets a down screen on Harris’ man and he catches and shoots for an easy triple. Gorgeous.
This play may look easy to the untrained eye, but the threesome has worked relentlessly at improving their on-court play and are far from a finished product.
In his second season, Murray has taken the biggest leap and has boosted the teams ceiling a couple of notches. He’s made one of the most difficult tasks in the NBA look easy, improving his efficiency while transitioning from a role player with limited minutes (21.5 minutes per game last year) to a full-time starter (30.4 minutes per game this year). According to CleaningtheGlass.com, his points per shot attempt ranks in the 94th percentile (119.9 points per 100 possessions) among combo guards, which is up from the 66th percentile last season (106.0 points per 100 possessions).
He’s improved his efficiency by making a higher percent of his shots from everywhere on the floor, but most specifically from the mid-range. Last season, he knocked down only 36 percent (38th percentile) of his mid-range shots compared to 46 percent (94th percentile) this year:
The video begins with Murray throwing an entry pass to a posted-up Jokic and then immediately following his pass and curling around the center. Jokic does a nice job of getting his wide frame into Murray’s man, freeing him up on his way to the basket. However, Dirk Nowitzki does a great job of sliding over and preventing an easy basket for the guard. Murray then dribbles through the baseline, shows off a little behind-the-back dribble, and calmly rises and hits a 15-foot fadeaway.
While this may look somewhat simple, it’s certainly not something Murray was able to consistently do last season. This improved marksmanship has taken some pressure of his backcourt mate and allowed both of them to excel in this free-flowing offense.
At 23-years-old, Harris is the grandpa of this young core. And while he hasn’t taken as noticeable a step forward as Murray, his performance is right where it needs to be. He’s posted a 57.0 percent effective field goal percentage this season which ranks among the best combo guards in the entire league.
His game is predicated on being a lethal off-ball threat by slashing into the lane and spotting up on the three-point line. According to NBA.com, he ranks in the 76th percentile by averaging 1.39 points per possession on cuts to the basket:
After receiving the pass from Jokic, the two immediately go into a two-man game beginning with a ball-screen. Harris then bounces it back to the big man and immediately cuts to the rim. Despite being grabbed by his defender, he shoots the gap and receives a gorgeous on-time pocket pass from Jokic and explodes to the rim for an easy layup.
As for spotting up from behind the arc, he’s just as good if not better, knocking down 40.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot opportunities from downtown:
This devastating combination of skills is the perfect compliment to Murray and Jokic, as it forces opposing teams to cover every inch of the court when the three share the floor together.
As good as Murray and Harris have been and will be, Jokic has the brightest future of all three.
He’s not your prototypical superstar in the 2018 sense of the word, as he’d much rather make a game-changing pass than hit a game-changing shot. Often called a unicorn of the NBA, he averages more passes per game (64.3). assists (5.7), secondary assists (0.5) and potential assists (9.4) than any other center according to NBA.com. Hell, he makes more passes per game than all but two players in the entire NBA.
Jokic does most of his dirty work assisting the other two studs in Denver’s terrific trio, as he completes the highest percentage of his passes (38 percent) to Murray and the second-highest (16.4 percent) to Harris. He also collects 2.8 of his 5.9 assists per game to those two.
What’s even more beautiful than the numbers is how they all work together. The way they flow and weave on the court almost becomes its own language even their teammates don’t understand, thus, making it impossible for the opposing team to translate what they’re saying:
With Murray, Harris and Jokic, the Nuggets have something special and unique building in Denver- a triplet of players who thrive off one another instead of beside one another.
Murray still has two years left on his rookie deal after this season. Harris begins a four-year $84 million contract extension next year that could become extremely team-friendly as he improves and as the cap goes up. And Jokic has a team option next season which Denver will certainly accept. As they work toward extensions for the other two, Denver will have a foundation of players to build around for years to come.
That’s splendid news for the best young core in the NBA who isn’t only talented, but also smart, unselfish and they understand how to play together.
The future isn’t just bright in the Mile High City, it’s the brightest.
*Unless otherwise noted, all stats are taken from Cleaningtheglass.com.