Denver Nuggets: Trio of Centers Providing International Flavor

Jan 6, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) shoots the ball prior to the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 6, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) shoots the ball prior to the game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Nuggets’ three young centers are providing international flavor and youth for a transitioning franchise.

The Denver Nuggets have dipped into the international pool in both free agency and via the draft in recent years, bringing in talent with long-term potential to help bolster a needed rebuilding period. In 2014, general manager Tim Connelly drafted, then subsequently traded Creighton’s Doug McDermott for Bosnian center Jusuf Nurkic and Michigan State shooting guard Gary Harris.

Connelly lucked out into drafting Emmanuel Mudiay — a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo — at No. 7 in the 2015 NBA draft, but has failed to excite as a rookie (11.1 PPG, 32.6 percent FG). Even though Mudiay is the supposed leader for a new revolution in Denver, a trio of centers is a unique theme currently being played out in the Mile High city.

Also added in 2014, along with Nurkic, both Nikola Jokic and Joffrey Louvergne have been revelations off the bench — and at times starting — for head coach Mike Malone. Malone had an unfair campaign last season, getting fired after an 11-13 start for the Sacramento Kings. Prematurely losing his job, Malone’s potential as a coach never fully was spotlighted or realized. Now, with a youth-laden roster in Denver, he’s had an exemplary opportunity to get the most out of his roster.

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He inserted Jokic when Nurkic went down earlier in the season, and in return, Jokic has been one of the most efficient rookie bigs in the association.

Nikola Jokic

Selected with the No. 41 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Jokic looked like a prototypical draft and stash option for Denver. The 6’10”, 250-pound Serb displayed stretch-5 potential overseas last season, shooting 32.6 percent from deep on 144 total attempts. Offensively diverse, Jokic also was a board cleaner playing in Serbia-hauling in 9.6 RPG in 38 total games. In his first season in the association, he’s brought over some of the traits that made him a relatively successful player across the Atlantic Ocean.

Jokic is consistent. He hasn’t shot below 53.5 percent in any month since joining the roster and has filled in whatever role Malone’s asked of him. In 45 games, he’s started 20 of them and the sporadic playing time hasn’t deterred his production in Denver.

Averaging 9.0 PPG and 5.6 RPG, in just 19.2 minutes per game, Jokic has shown the ability to be — at worst — a backup big man in the league that can provide instant offense off the bench. With a deep offensive arsenal, he could be a force against less mobile bigs. In addition, he has evidential polish on his shot, which won’t have to be tampered with or overhauled throughout his career if he maintains his offensive consistency.

Jokic has surprisingly acclimated to the NBA at a rapid pace for a second-round rookie one year removed from playing overseas. His ridiculous 60.8 percent TS% (True Shooting Percentage) is by far the highest on the youthful Nuggets, due to being able to consistently make shots in the paint and at the free-throw line. The 21-year-old hasn’t endured the infamous ‘rookie cold spell’ and could eventually supplant Nurkic full-time as the Nuggets’ starting center.

Being named Wednesday to the 2016 Rising Stars Challenge, Jokic is one of the premier bigs on the World team alongside Houston’s Clint Capela. It’s the quintessential honor Jokic needed to cement his status as a player to watch in the Nuggets’ system.

Joffrey Lauvergne

Like Jokic, Joffrey Lauvergne is another young, finesse-like center Denver can build with. The Frenchman, albeit limited defensively due to little athleticism and bounce in a 6’11”, 220-pound frame, has become another offensive weapon for Malone in Denver in the paint or along the perimeter.

After a forgettable 2014-15 shooting performance (40.4 percent), Lauvergne has become a more consistent threat. He’s added the three-point shot into his developing arsenal and has the ability to be a unique stretch-5 for many years in the league.

Shooting 41.4 percent from deep, the sample size isn’t small for Lauvergne, who attempts 1.1 three-point shots per game. With the finesse-like style the league has transitioned to in recent years, big men who can shoot could be a major commodity in free agency in the upcoming offseasons.

He doesn’t have the upside to either Jokic or Nurkic, but Lauvergne has developed a niche in the league. Despite the sporadic playing time, he’s become a stretch-5 backup center, capable of providing offense to any second unit.

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Lauvergne is averaging 8.2 PPG and 5.5 RPG on the season, but has shown enough promise, and offensive versatility, to label him a long-term option for Denver when it comes to frontcourt depth.

Jusuf Nurkic

The third member of the promising trio, Jusuf Nurkic hails from Bosnia and is one the primary enforcers down low for Denver. Nurkic’s 7’0″, 280-pound frame packs substantial power and he’s trying to transition his game to become more effective in the NBA. Ruthless aggression only carries you so far in a league that’s becoming increasingly soft.

Over-the-shoulder hook shots and clean-up baskets fuel Nurkic’s offensive game, but it hasn’t translated into the consistent production Jokic or Louvergne have put up this season. Averaging just 6.3 PPG and shooting 33.3 percent from the field in an injury-riddled campaign (10 total games), Nurkic hasn’t developed as quickly as Jokic or Lauvergne. Recovering from offseason surgery, the Bosnian force has been limited in the recent games he’s played in. The Denver Post’s Christopher Dempsey articulates on the struggles Nurkic has dealt with.

"“He is a competitive young man, and before we play him, it’s not just ‘Yeah, he’s been cleared for these minutes,’ but can he go out there and play effectively? Can he help us win a game? I know when he’s in shape, he’s more than able to do that. I look forward to having that Nurkic back.”"

However, he carries more upside as a two-way center capable of impacting the game on both ends. He has the defensive intangibles necessary to deter shooters and block shots, but eventually, the offense has to match his defensive ability.

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Nurkic could progress his way into earning the bulk of minutes at the center position, and has potential for a breakout season next year. Nonetheless, when he eventually gets to 100 percent, he’ll be a key cog in Denver’s young and promising trio of international bigs.