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How the Nuggets’ draft-night haul impacts Denver’s free-agent outlook

Biden Harris

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Nuggets pres­i­dent Tim Con­nel­ly swore he draft­ed for tal­ent, not need,  Wednes­day night.

Lucky for the Nuggets, those two roads con­verged with the No. 22 pick.

Con­nel­ly and his staff, includ­ing coach Michael Mal­one, wait­ed patient­ly inside their war room before it became obvi­ous that at least one of their tar­gets was going to slip. After that, it was just a mat­ter of select­ing the right one.

Yet with a front­court fac­ing myr­i­ad ques­tion marks as free agency opens Fri­day, that deci­sion was almost made for them. At No. 22, Den­ver took Zeke Nna­ji, a 6‑foot-11, high-octane post play­er out of Ari­zona. The pick offered imme­di­ate insur­ance with Jera­mi Grant, Paul Mill­sap and Mason Plum­lee all on the doorstep of free agency.

“It cer­tain­ly helps that Zeke can play both front­court posi­tions,” Con­nel­ly said Thurs­day morn­ing. “It was both tal­ent, and it doesn’t hurt that we’re pret­ty thin in the front­court as we enter free agency.”

If Nna­ji plugged one hole, poten­tial­ly mak­ing Mill­sap or Plum­lee more expend­able, then their swift, deci­sive stroke two picks lat­er offered anoth­er intrigu­ing ele­ment.

Denver’s draft board wasn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly aligned with how the draft played out. As for­mer blue-chip prospect R.J. Hamp­ton dropped fur­ther than any­one pre­dict­ed, the Nuggets, as they tend to do when they see oppor­tu­ni­ty, pounced. By trad­ing a future lot­tery-pro­tect­ed first-round pick to New Orleans, the Nuggets were in posi­tion to make yet anoth­er val­ue play. It turned into a break­neck 6‑foot‑5 com­bo guard who spent last sea­son in New Zealand.

Nna­ji was the neces­si­ty; Hamp­ton was the ace in the hole. His injec­tion of ath­leti­cism and speed will be a wel­come addi­tion to a back­court sore­ly in need of play­mak­ers. It was also the third con­sec­u­tive year Con­nel­ly bet on pre­mi­um tal­ent after draft night heists of Michael Porter Jr. (2018) and Bol Bol (2019).

By now, you’d think the rest of the league would start to catch on.

And as if Con­nel­ly hadn’t already put his trade­mark stamp on Denver’s draft class, he under­scored his strat­e­gy once the sec­ond round con­clud­ed. The Nuggets planned to sign Marquette’s Markus Howard to a two-way con­tract, a league source told The Den­ver Post, top­ping off a night where Con­nel­ly assem­bled as much tal­ent as pos­si­ble. Howard, despite his 5‑foot-11 frame, led the NCAA in scor­ing last sea­son at over 27 points per game.

Fol­low­ing the fire­works, and with at least two ros­ter spots still avail­able, there remains a press­ing ques­tion: How much will Wednesday’s haul impact Denver’s plans mov­ing for­ward?

If you take Connelly’s word for it, not much at all.

“When you’re a team that had the suc­cess we had, it’s dan­ger­ous to expect too much from first-year play­ers,” Con­nel­ly said. “We saw some oppor­tu­ni­ties to add tal­ent last night and we went for it. We view those guys as cer­tain­ly plays. I don’t think it’ll have a huge bear­ing on what we do in free agency.”

If that’s the case, then more front­court help could be on the way. Nna­ji pro­files as an ide­al back­up four or five, but it might take time before he gets on the court. His addi­tion could mean the end of either Plum­lee or Mill­sap in Den­ver, depend­ing on their pre­ferred salaries.

Most of Denver’s off­sea­son flex­i­bil­i­ty hinges on Grant’s free agency. The 26-year-old opt­ed out of his play­er option last week in search of more mon­ey and secu­ri­ty. Hav­ing pri­or­i­tized the ver­sa­tile for­ward, Grant is wide­ly expect­ed to remain in Den­ver. A 4‑year, $64 mil­lion deal could be a real­is­tic range, which would put the Nuggets well over the salary cap ($109 mil­lion) but safe­ly below the lux­u­ry tax line ($132 mil­lion).

“We have sev­er­al of our own free agents that we want to take care of and have to take care of, and then cer­tain­ly, see what else is out there,” Con­nel­ly said.

Once above the salary cap, Denver’s best mech­a­nism for out­side help is their mid-lev­el excep­tion worth over $9 mil­lion a year or their bi-annu­al excep­tion worth $3.6 mil­lion. Unless a Grant deal falls apart or the Nuggets move on from Gary Har­ris ($19 mil­lion in 2020–21) or Will Bar­ton ($13.7 mil­lion), it’s those excep­tions that could net them some help.

The safe assump­tion is their back­court is set. The more press­ing need appears to be on the perime­ter, where the Nuggets need to estab­lish a peck­ing order between Michael Porter Jr., Will Bar­ton and restrict­ed free agent Tor­rey Craig. That depth could get thin rather quick­ly depend­ing on what offer sheets Craig attracts and the sta­tus of Barton’s knee. In the event Denver’s look­ing for anoth­er wing, Jae Crow­der or Mau­rice Hark­less might make sense.

Final­ly, the Nuggets need to make a deci­sion on Mill­sap, who looked his age (35) at times inside the “Bub­ble.” A league source said Mill­sap is wait­ing to see what mar­ket devel­ops for his ser­vices at the start of free agency. If he remains in Den­ver, an annu­al salary of $6 mil­lion to $7 mil­lion would be rea­son­able. If not, there are plen­ty of avail­able replace­ments, begin­ning with vet­er­ans like Taj Gib­son and JaMy­chal Green.

Con­nel­ly won’t say who or what the Nuggets are tar­get­ing in free agency. With­in the next few days, we’re more than like­ly to find out.

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