The Nuggets entered Las Vegas Summer League with one of the more intriguing, and stacked, rosters around. Even though first-round pick Malik Beasley was held out as a precaution coming off injury, two other first-rounders (Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez) and second-round Frenchman Petr Cornelie figured heavily into Denver's Vegas plans. The Nuggets even got returning starters Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay to play in Summer League somehow, even though they will be training with Team USA later this month.
Two rotation forwards that played real minutes down the stretch last season, Axel Toupane and JaKarr Sampson, were brought in to duke it out for a roster spot and on top of all that, Jimmer Fredette signed on to the Nuggets Summer League roster, much to the delight of Thomas & Mack Center and Cox Pavilion crowds.
Denver played one of the showcase games Friday night, a thriller against Kris Dunn and Minnesota. They looked stellar in the second-half of a comeback win over the Wolves and destroyed Memphis the next day, 106-62. They dropped their third game to Miami on Monday. Below is a ranking of each player on the Nuggets Summer League roster through three games.
1. Gary Harris (2015 Draft Pick - Bulls) - Harris is coming off a breakout second season in the league and figured to be much better than the competition in Vegas. He played in just the first game against Minnesota, before the Nuggets coaching staff wised up and put him in street clothes for the remainder of Summer League. Harris put up 22 points with four rebounds and two steals, distinguishing himself on both ends of the court in Denver's comeback win. He's been working on his game and should be able to hold off Jamal Murray for the foreseeable future at the starting 2-guard spot.
2. Emmanuel Mudiay (2015 Draft Pick) - The 20-year-old point guard didn't look all that engaged at the beginning of the Nuggets tilt with the Timberwolves, airballing a three and getting beat on the other end by Dunn. He may have been unmotivated after starting most of the season and having some legit big moments in his rookie year. It's hard to get up for Summer League after that. However, Mudiay came out of halftime with a chip on his shoulder. You could almost see him thinking, "We're better than these guys, let's quit fooling around." He finished with 23 points, eight rebounds and six assists, while working with Harris to elicit oohs and aahs from the crowd. The two guards took turns knocking down shots and throwing lobs to each other, and Emmanuel also had a gorgeous block.
He and Harris displayed the type of confidence and swagger they were lacking a year ago both on the court and from the bench in games two and three. Amazing what a difference a year of starting in the NBA makes.
3. Jimmer Fredette (2011 Draft Pick - Bucks) - It was surreal being in the building whenever Jimmer got a chance to touch the ball. He drew more wild cheers than any other Nugget by far, and the energy shifted each time he pulled up from three. Fredette has been very impressive offensively, averaging 16 points on 44% three-point shooting. He also scored on some crafty drives and delivered dazzling passes that I didn't know he had in his arsenal. Sadly for Jimmer, he seems to be stuck in purgatory. He dominates in Summer League, but isn't quite complete enough to be part of an NBA rotation. Coming off the bench, teams want their guards to be able to do more than just shoot. They also have to play defense. Jimmer will never be a plus defender and probably not even league-average. But man, Summer League Jimmer is a thrill to watch.
4. Juan Hernangomez (2016 Draft Pick) - The 15th overall pick in June's draft, Hernangomez has long been a favorite of Nuggets brass. At 6-foot-9 with a silky jumper and a skill-based game, he lit up the ACB league in Spain last season. Juancho came out looking even skinnier than we imagined, and looked lost in the first half against Minnesota. But as he settled in, he gave us glimpses of the stretch four he could become. Offensively, Hernangomez is all over the court. He shoots from outside, gets to the line and finishes in traffic routinely thanks to his great hands. He's also a wonderful offensive rebounder. Despite his slight frame, Hernangomez finds the right angles to crash and collect missed shots. On the defensive end he got abused down low by Adreian Payne and JaMychal Green. He needs to add bulk before even attempting to cover true NBA big men. However, his ability to stay in front of guards on the perimeter makes him valuable as a switching defender, important in the modern NBA. It was widely believed he'd be stashed for a year in Spain, but there's at least an argument to be made for bringing him over right now after his Summer League performance.
5. Petr Cornelie (2016 Draft Pick) - I love Petr Cornelie, probably to the point of being irrational. He's a tower in the post and is a comfortable rim-runner in the pick-and-roll. He had 19 points and seven boards (four offensive) against Memphis and showed off a pretty 3-point stroke. With some added bulk he could become a stretch five in the unicorn mold of Kristaps Porzingis. Of course, he was the 53rd pick so I'm likely getting way ahead of myself. But at least at first glance, it looks like Nuggets GM Tim Connelly snagged another potential international gem in the second round.
6. Jamal Murray (2016 Draft Pick) - The eyes of all Nuggets fans were on Murray last weekend. He started the first game, alongside Harris and Mudiay, and was basically an afterthought on the wing. He forced a few shots and drew front iron often. In game two against Memphis, he struggled even more, with just six points and five turnovers. Finally, he found his stride Monday night against Miami, going off for 29 points and showing some alpha-dog swagger. The nice thing about Murray is he can score from three, on drives to the rim and off-balance looks from mid-range. He's going to be hard to contain once he gets his legs under him. The downside of Monday's explosion: just 10-25 from the floor and 2-10 from three.
7. Axel Toupane (2015 Undrafted - France) - Toupane was the D-League's Most Improved Player last season and got the call up to the Nuggets after injuries took out Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. He looked good at times and found a niche as a 3-and-D guy. He's competing with Sampson for one of the final roster spots and his performance at Summer League has likely given him the slight edge. He's scored 7.3 points per game with five rebounds but is shooting just 20% from three. The length he provides on the wing raise his ceiling as an off-the-bench defender, always a valuable commodity.
8. JaKarr Sampson (2014 Undrafted - St. John's) - Sampson had some moments in the first three games, but for the most part has underwhelmed. He is not dynamic offensively and his shot is worse than Toupane's. His defense is OK but nothing to write home about and he's not a big rebounder. Probably the most telling number: he's averaged 12.3 minutes per game to Toupane's 23.7.
9. Josh Adams (2016 Undrafted - Wyoming) - Adams is an undersized guard who plays with an underdog's mentality. He hustles on both ends and can get hot as a shooter. He's played in two of the first three games, scoring seven points in the win over Memphis. Adams won't make the team but he's gotten a nice opportunity to showcase his skills for the D-League.
10. Ondrej Balvin (2016 Undrafted - Czech Republic) - Balvin picked up six fouls in the first half against Minnesota. His defensive principles need a lot of work. That said, he's got great size at 7-foot-1 which leads to blocked shots and offensive rebounds. He's done enough this week to earn himself a contract with Bayern Munich.
11. Mateusz Ponitka (2016 Undrafted - Poland) - He's only played in two of the games for a total of 28 minutes but collected 13 rebounds in that limited time. He hasn't shown an ability to score or do much else.
12. Antwan Scott (2016 Undrafted - Colorado St.) - A local college product that worked out for the Nuggets a few times this summer. He hasn't gotten much run (six minutes in one game).
13. Darius Carter (2015 Undrafted - Wichita St.) - Also has played just six minutes in mop-up duty, scoring just two points with three rebounds.
14. Antonio Barton (2014 Undrafted - Tennessee) - Four points in five minutes! His per-36 numbers must be through the roof.
15. Josh Scott (2016 Undrafted - Colorado) - Another local product who's played the same six minutes as Antwan Scott. The center got a steal in his opportunity but no rebounds.