Denver Nuggets: The emergence of Trey Lyles

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 15: Trey Lyles
DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 15: Trey Lyles /

The Denver Nuggets won’t soon forget their draft-night trade that sent Donovan Mitchell to the Utah Jazz, but Trey Lyles’ emergence is helping to soften the blow.

Denver Nuggets fans probably won’t forget about that one for a while. Rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell had fallen right into Denver’s lap with the 13th selection in the 2017 NBA Draft. But Denver passed, trading the rights to Mitchell to the Utah Jazz for Trey Lyles and the rights to Tyler Lydon.

Chastising the Nuggets now for what was unknown then — how fast Mitchell’s star would rise — seems unfair, but the move drew extensive criticism at the time too.

Denver’s depth was already so plentiful it bordered on excessive, especially at the 4-spot, where Lydon and Lyles both project to play best.

There was also something distinctly underwhelming about those two players. The draft is a time of optimism, promise and upside. We doublethink our ways into believing that ceiling is the only possible outcome for every single prospect.

Mitchell had athletic upside and skill, the traits that allowed you to talk yourself into him as prime Dwyane Wade with a shot. Lydon and Lyles…didn’t. Lydon was destined to be a rotation player. Lyles, meanwhile, had proven that rotation player was his ceiling through two largely underwhelming years with the Jazz.

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As the 2017-18 NBA season got underway, criticism of the Nuggets multiplied. Mitchell had not yet begun his recent tear, but Lydon and Lyles were not exactly setting the league ablaze. Lydon was completely absent from the rotation, failing to log his first (and only) two minutes of the season until Nov. 20. Lyles was in and out of the rotation, alternating between limited minutes and DNP-CDs.

But as injuries piled up in the frontcourt, Lyles’ role expanded. Over the Nuggets’ last 15 games, Lyles is playing 24 minutes per game, averaging 11.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game on 65.7 percent true shooting. Lyles is thriving.

On post-ups, he’s scoring 1.0 points per possession this season. As a roll man in pick-and-roll, he’s putting up 1.29 points per possession. On spot-ups, he’s posting 1.41 points per possession. His offensive skill-set is diverse and effective.

Lyles is playing within himself. After struggling mightily with turnovers in Utah, Lyles is turning the ball over on just 8.6 percent of possessions (92nd percentile among bigs). Still just 22, Lyles finally seems to be getting comfortable in his role.

His most impressive skill, though, is his opportunism, as 56 of Lyles’ 62 3-point attempts (90.3 percent) have been either open or wide open. He’s shooting 48.2 percent on those attempts. When the defense makes a mistake and gives him a window, Lyles capitalizes.

That might mean nailing an open 3 after a defensive breakdown:

Or posting up poor Jameer Nelson when he gets switched on to a man with nearly a foot on him:

Lyles might not have the requisite talent to be the driving force of an offense, but he has adequate skill to punish mistakes. As he gains experience, he’s getting better and better at spotting mistakes and finding opportunities.

Lyles is currently a good rotation player. Whether he’ll grow into more than that remains to be seen, but he’s already so much more than what he was labeled as back in June.

Lyles also turned 22 just over a month ago.

The NBA is a high stakes business. People want to see huge returns on investment immediately. When things go well, you have people comparing Donovan Mitchell to prime Dwyane Wade with a shot after one strong month. When they go poorly, you have people writing off Trey Lyles before his 22nd birthday.

Could you imagine if you had been labelled a finished product before your 22nd birthday?

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I’m not here to say Lyles is destined for stardom, nor am I going to defend the Nuggets’ ill-fated draft-day trade, but all I’m saying is be patient. Give these kids time. Allow them to acclimate themselves to a foreign game. When you do, you get to enjoy the wonderful opportunism of Trey Lyles.