NUGGETS

Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji are key to the Nuggets future

Dec 7, 2021, 6:40 AM
MIAMI, FLORIDA - NOVEMBER 29: Bones Hyland #3 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket against Ma...
(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

The Denver Nuggets have never won an NBA championship. Before last season, they also had never had an NBA MVP until Nikola Jokic changed that fact. While Jokic is the centerpiece of Denver’s best plan in the Kroenke Sports era to contend for a Larry O’Brien Trophy, the Nuggets are seeing a contending core form around him.

It’s impossible to discuss a potential championship without looking at the salary cap and matching it with the prime years of the key players on any roster. For Denver, Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon are both locked up under contract through the 2024-25 season, and Michael Porter Jr’s max extension runs a year beyond that. With Jokic expected to sign a supermax extension next year, that will give them a very strong “Core Four” to compete for a title through Jokic’s age 30 season, right in the prime of his career.

It’s a great plan that Tim Connelly and the organization have orchestrated thus far, but it’s also going to get very expensive. The Nuggets will be paying in the neighborhood of $138 million for those four players alone in that 2024-25 season, which is more than they pay the entire roster right now. Filling out the rest of the roster is going to be tricky, but it’s a huge key in determining whether or not this group ever makes it to or wins an NBA Finals.

So how are they going to do it? It starts with first-round picks Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji.

Aside from the “Core Four,” Hyland and Nnaji are the only other players under contract with the Nuggets through that 2024-25 season. Their increased roles this season with Murray, Porter and P.J. Dozier injured will accelerate their development and is helping to give the bench an identity it was sorely missing when the two youngsters weren’t playing to start the season.

Denver’s all veteran bench unit of Facu Campazzo, Austin Rivers, Dozier, Jeff Green, and JaMychal Green was an outright disaster to start the season. They were outscored by double digits nightly, and any advantage Jokic and the starters built up was wasted anyway in short order when the bench entered the game.

That all started to change when Bones got his first chance to consistently play during Denver’s 5-0 November homestand. Stretching the defense with deep threes and attacking the basket with a quick first step and crossover changed the entire dynamic of the bench unit and was crucial during that win streak.

Nnaji waited a little longer for his opportunity, seeing action only when it became necessary after Porter and Dozier were lost for the season. Two games after Porter went out, Nnaji responded with a 7-of-10 shooting effort and 19 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes. Then in Saturday’s win in New York, Nnaji played his best game as a pro with 21 points and eight rebounds in a career-high 34 minutes. Consistent production from Nnaji cannot yet be counted on, but he’s shown enough flashes to see that he can be a big part of this team’s future. Especially if he can stretch defenses as a shooter on offense and still defend bigs and rebound on the other end of the court.

While Hyland has missed five of the last six games, the early indications are that when he and Nnaji play together, they both flourish. Statistically, they’re the Nuggets most effective two-man combination when Jokic is off the court. And even more importantly they’re young, and with both on rookie contracts for at least three more seasons, they’re cheap. Denver could have major production from two established veterans at that point for a combined $10 million.

Jokic, Murray, Gordon and Porter are no doubt the “Core Four” that will determine if Denver wins its first NBA title, but Hyland and Nnaji are here to stay and are going to play a huge part in any future playoff success.

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