Evaluating the Nuggets Options at Small Forward

Zach Gotlieb | Sept 2nd, 2019

Last year the Denver Nuggets were one of the deepest teams in the league. Managing to have the most games lost due to injury of any team in the league and still finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference is a true testament to that. When they got eliminated from the playoffs, most fans felt like the team was legitimately one or two guys away from being a championship contender. One hole that hasn’t been filled since Carmelo Anthony, and needs to be filled is the starting small forward spot. Thanks to their depth, the Nuggets have seven different options for who can fill the starting and backup small forward role. So let’s go through the potential options.

Vlatko Cancar

 I’ll start with the player with the most fun name, Vlatko Čančar. Čančar was a “draft-and-stash” player out of Slovenia from the 2017 NBA Draft. The 6’9″ forward has been playing for San Pablo Burgos in Spain for the last two seasons while joining the Nuggets Summer League team each of the last couple summers. He showed well last season in Europe averaging 10.2 points-per-game on 46% shooting from the field. He improved in just about every statistical category from his previous season. That, with how well he showed at Summer League this year made it a pretty easy decision to bring him over from Europe to join the team.

 Čančar is an intriguing prospect. Certainly, a guy that you should keep an eye on in the future. That being said, it’s highly unlikely that he can carve out any sort of significant role this season without injuries. There’s so much depth that it’ll be interesting to see if he suits up on a night-to-night basis. 

Malik Beasley

 Watching Malik Beasley‘s growth since he was drafted in 2016 has been unbelievable. He came into the league with great energy and a decent jump shot, but nothing was “elite.” This year he averaged career highs in almost everything. He led the team in shooting percentage from beyond the arc, which was also top-15 in the entire league. The thing he brought last year that he hadn’t previously shown is consistency. He was consistently good, bringing production and energy every night. Something he has to continue to do and something I expect him to do next season. 

The only reason I’m including him is simply that I’ve seen some fans suggesting this option. The simple answer is no, he will not be the starting small forward. He’s simply the backup shooting guard behind Gary Harris, being a primary energy boost off the bench which he excelled at last year. Now, he could be the guy they use if coach Michael Malone decides to go small with a three-guard lineup. He’s going to have an essential role on this team, just not at small forward.

Jerami Grant

 Jerami Grant was Denver’s only significant acquisition during the mad rush of free agency. They traded what’s likely to be a late first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder to get him, and he’s a great acquisition. He’s a very good stretch forward, able to play both forward spots efficiently, with his primary position at power forward. He only stands at 6’9″ and a smaller frame, but plays much bigger than he is. He’s able to score with physicality and athleticism at the rim while shooting efficiently from the perimeter. That creates a lot of versatility. He’s good on offense, but his real value comes on defense. He’s a smaller looking guy, but he’s able to defend bigger guys, including an excellent defensive game against the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo. He doesn’t necessarily do anything to an elite level. However, he does so many things well and a few things at close to an elite level that he’s going to be very valuable. 

 While Grant is a viable option at small forward, he’s not the right option. Denver lost Trey Lyles to free agency and have several questions about second-year forward Jarred Vanderbilt. Grant is best suited to fill the primary backup role to Paul Millsap. It seems likely that Grant will get some run at the small forward spot because of his versatility and defense, but that won’t be his primary role.

Juan Hernangómez

 I feel bad for Juan Hernangomez. He’s just been in a tough spot in Denver, and it’s not his fault at all. He’s a good perimeter shooter, that’s silky smooth and with a quick release. Past that, he has a decent, but not great interior game and an underrated, but not elite defensive game. He’s always been suitable for when you need a bucket. He did do reasonably well in a starting role when Will Barton got injured at the beginning of last season. That said, he quickly fell out of the rotation due to a core injury he’d been playing through. The emergence of Torrey Craig as a near-elite wing defender that has grown tremendously with his offensive game also affected him. 

 It’s going to be another tough year for Hernangomez to carve out a role with the addition of Michael Porter Jr. and a healthy Will Barton. If he can prove that he is healthy and give consistent shooting while showing improvement everywhere else in his game, he definitely will be providing good competition for the bench role. He’s just unfortunately in a tough spot. However, there are going to be situations, especially early on in the season, where he’ll get a chance to prove himself.

Michael Porter, Jr. 

 Here it is, the most highly anticipated answer of all, Michael Porter Jr. We honestly don’t know that much about him. We’ve seen highlight reels of him in high school, and those videos show a player that looks like he could be a dominant force. He stands at 6’10” and can score from all levels with impressive length and physicality. The highlights of his three games at Missouri were while he was playing with a severely herniated disc in his lower back. It’s hard to tell exactly how much he was hampered by the injury. His workouts during rehab with the team and during Summer League practices show precisely what we saw on his highlight tapes from high school. A potentially dominant scorer. As far as on-court abilities go, the only concern is on defense. He’s got the size and physicality to be really good on that end, but he seems to struggle a little with communication and lacks some instincts. The real concern is his durability. I talked about it in a previous article earlier this summer here.

 His role this year is going to be interesting and something to watch. Michael Malone said during the offseason that he’d be “surprised” if he didn’t crack a spot in the rotation. He’s right, I’d be shocked if Porter doesn’t end up with a role this season. That being said, I don’t think it’ will be early on. He’s fully cleared from his back issue, but he suffered a minor knee sprain that kept him out of Summer League, so his durability is in question. If I were the team, I’d start with him getting like 8-10 minutes per-game just to give him some run. Hopefully, he can catch up to NBA speed and stay healthy during that time. If he can do that, I think it’s very realistic for him to end up being the primary backup at some point. I don’t know if he’ll be able to crack the starting spot this season, it’s possible, but I don’t know if it’ll happen. I’d predict if he stays healthy he definitely will be the starter next season at the latest.

 These last two are the two main options for the starting role.

 Will Barton

 The starter at small forward last year got a lot of flack for his performance. I’m here to tell you that while he deserves some, if not most of, the criticism he got, especially in the playoffs, he got far too much. He suffered a core injury during the second game of the regular season that forced him to sit out 39 games. He never really looked healthy after coming back. I fully expect Barton, with the whole summer to get healthy, to have a resurgent year. Excluding last season, Barton has a career effective shooting percentage of 49%. He’s a decent, albeit streaky, three-point shooter, but he’s very good at getting to the basket, and he’s a fairly good passer. He’s an underrated defender, but that’s mostly because he doesn’t always show it.

 Given as he was the starter, and did play well in the game and a half he played before the injury, he’s gonna get every chance to earn the starting role. I’d even venture to say that he has the early lead on landing the role. His chemistry with the rest of the starting unit being a key factor for the edge. The energy and vocal leadership that Barton brings is huge and makes him invaluable to the team, no matter the role.

 Torrey Craig

 Craig was the other main starter from last year. Torrey Craig was one of the best stories from last year. He went from solely a defender to a near-elite defender with a solid offensive game. His three-point shooting, while shooting 130 more attempts, went up from 29% to 32% and that was huge for him retaining his role. It was his shooting in game five of the first-round playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs that won them the game and possibly saved the series. He’s excellent at defending those brute force guys, like Russell Westbrook, but he needs to work on staying with the more finesse and agile guys to take the next step defensively. His tenacity is what sets him apart there.

 Will Barton may have the early lead, it’s not by much, and it’s all because of Craig’s development. His offensive game is still developing, and it’s clear that he has not reached his ceiling. Barton has the edge on him there, but there is a big difference in defense between the two. Like Barton, the constant high energy is extremely valuable in any role, and both of them work well with superstar, Nikola Jokic.

 Frankly, you can’t really go wrong with either of these two guys. At least to open the season, whichever one isn’t starting will start as the primary backup. While I believe that Barton will end up being the opening night starter, my personal preference is Torrey Craig just because of how valuable his defense is to the team. The other bench roles should primarily go to Porter and Hernangómez. 

 This team is full of depth, just like last year. Coach Malone handled it wonderfully last year, it’ll be fascinating to see how Malone divides up the minutes this year with all of these guys deserving of minutes. That’s across the whole team, especially at small forward.

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