At the midway point of the 2018-19 NBA season, the Denver Nuggets sit atop the Western Conference. The development of Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley has been a huge reason way.
On Oct. 20, two games into the 2018-19 NBA season, the Denver Nuggets sat atop the Western Conference. Infinitesimally young as the season was at that point, it was novel and a fun little achievement for the upstart Nuggets. Then, Will Barton, Denver’s starting small forward, went down with a hip injury. Small forward easily being the team’s shallowest position, Denver was all but certain to take a bit of a tumble in the standings.
When Barton returned this past Saturday, nearly three months and 40 games later, the Nuggets still occupied the Western Conference’s top spot. And the team had maintained such a lofty position thanks to the strength of the very wing depth that had seemingly threatened its playoff life a few games into the season.
When we foretold of doom in Denver, it turns out we were working with outdated information, because somewhere, somehow, sometime Juan Hernangomez and Malik Beasley became the wings Denver needed to survive.
Hernangomez’s development is the easier of the two to understand because his emergence is much more of a resurgence. In 2016-17, his and Beasley’s rookie year, Hernangomez was sensational in limited minutes. He soaked up 13.6 minutes per game and canned 40.7 percent of his 3s.
Year two was a bit more challenging for Hernangomez. Stricken with mononucleosis, he missed a good chunk of the season and played sporadically and ineffectively when “healthy.” He seemed out of place, the wrong kind of positionless. Half a season later, it appears safe to say Hernangomez’s 2017-18 was anomalous. The 6-foot-9 Spaniard is chipping in 25.8 minutes per game and connecting on 40.1 percent of the 3.7 triples he’s hoisting nightly.
If you remember any of Hernangomez’s promising rookie campaign, you possess a rough approximation of what he’s doing this year: hitting open 3s (and spacing well), crashing the glass, and using his versatility on defense. His per-100 possession box score numbers this year (16.8 points, 10 rebounds, 1.9 assists) are a near-perfect replication of those in his first season (17.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.7 assists). Hernangomez is shouldering a larger minutes load than his rookie year, but otherwise, he’s roughly the same; his development has been freeing himself of debilitating illness. That development has been monumental for the Nuggets nonetheless.
Beasley’s development has been more of the conventional variety. As recently as 2018 Summer League, Beasley looked like a long shot to ever contribute in the NBA. Six months later, Beasley is playing 22.4 minutes per game for the first-place Nuggets, and he’s playing damn well.
Like Hernangomez, the primary and most valuable thing Beasley offers is spacing, as he shifts intelligently around the perimeter to open passing lanes and compromise defenses. The threat of Beasley’s shot rests on his outstanding 40.3 percent hit rate on 4.3 3-point attempts per game. Like Hernangomez, Beasley is primarily a spot-up option, but Beasley boasts some burgeoning playmaking skills as well:
Beasley’s not James Harden, but he can capably dribble off a ball screen and deliver a pocket pass to a rolling big man. It’s not a game-changing ability, but when the ball finds Beasley and he doesn’t have an open catch-and-shoot 3, he still has an outlet to create viable offense. Beasley combines his offensive aptitude with versatile, though not dominant, defense:
Denver feels equally comfortable putting Beasley on shifty Kemba Walker (who he held to 0-for-2 shooting on six possessions during their Jan. 5 meeting) and hulking centers. While Beasley’s far from a stopper — sometimes his slight 6-foot-5 frame is too much for effort and a good defensive stance to overcome — his ability to merely get by against a wide range of opponents enables Denver to switch various on- and off-ball involving Beasley. He doesn’t add a ton as a defender, but he doesn’t take much away either.
Ultimately, near-neutral players is what Beasley and Hernangomez have grown into. Neither is an elite player, or probably even a starting-caliber player right now. Both, however, have evolved into very competent rotation players. For a Nuggets team that didn’t appear to have any healthy rotation-caliber wings the instant Barton went down, that’s a monumental improvement; an improvement that’s been instrumental in Denver retaining the throne atop the West at the season’s midpoint.