Julian Strawther is back from injury, but Michael Malone says Nuggets plan to stick with Jamal Murray-led second unit

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Julian Strawther is back from his right knee injury, but he’s not necessarily back in the Denver Nuggets’ rotation.

When asked Friday night about the process of transitioning Strawther back to NBA minutes, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said the Nuggets plan to stick with their Jamal Murray-led second unit for now — a lineup thats consists of Murray, Reggie Jackson, Christian Braun, Peyton Watson and DeAndre Jordan.

“Just gotta stay ready. He’s a rookie on a really good basketball team, and he was playing earlier in the year,” Malone said pregame Friday night. “He played well for us. But Jamal was not playing with that second unit, and he is now. It was good to see (Strawther) back on the court, being healthy, ready to go. And if we’re able to get him in any games, obviously it’s a bonus for him. But right now, Reggie, Jamal, Christian, Peyton and D.J. — that’s our second unit. So for a guy like Julian, he’s just gotta stay ready and take advantage of any and all opportunities.”

Strawther, who cracked Denver’s rotation as a rookie sharpshooter with heat-check capability earlier this season, was inactive for 13 consecutive games in January due to a right knee sprain and contusion. He was cleared to play last Friday but didn’t appear off the bench in a win against Portland that night. Strawther was then assigned to Denver’s G League affiliate, where he scored 21 points Wednesday in a win for the Grand Rapids Gold. He rejoined the Nuggets on Thursday and dressed for both games of a road back-to-back.

After Malone’s pregame remarks in Sacramento about the bench unit, starters Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were both ruled out for the second game of the back-to-back. (Neither absence is cause for concern, Malone said later.) So Strawther played his first NBA minutes in more than a month, wearing a knee brace for the first time in his life. He had never dealt with a serious knee injury before this, he told The Denver Post.

“I needed to go down there (to the G League) to get some reps for sure,” Strawther said. “I still feel like I need to knock a lot of rust off, just in terms of my timing and my mental, and wearing the brace. It’s all different. It’s all new to me. So just kind of settling in.”

Strawther said he thinks he’ll only need to wear the brace through the All-Star break. Then he hopes to be done with it. He shot 3-for-8 from the field and 1-for-5 from 3-point range in his return Friday.

As for his minutes going forward, Strawther remained upbeat, pointing out the same context Malone brought up: It’s not supposed to be easy for a rookie to become a mainstay in the rotation of a defending NBA champion roster.

“There weren’t too many conversations (with coaches about minutes),” Strawther said. “It’s just a matter of understanding that getting toward the end of the season, getting closer to battling for higher seeds, obviously the rotation is gonna shorten as the season goes. So whatever coach (Malone) rolls with, that’s what I trust.”

Before Strawther’s injury, Malone was using an all-bench lineup as Denver’s second unit, featuring Strawther and alternating between Jordan and Zeke Nnaji at backup center. The Jordan variation of that unit had a minus-7.4 net rating in 42 minutes together. The Nnaji variation is still the Nuggets’ third-most utilized five-man lineup this season. In 86 minutes, it has a minus-16.3 net rating.

Since Strawther’s injury, the newer version of the second unit featuring both point guards — Murray and Jackson — has a  minus-3 net rating in 72 minutes. Malone has increasingly relied on Jordan at the five to back up Nikola Jokic.

Murray has commonly staggered with Denver’s second unit past seasons. Malone’s philosophy is generally to keep one of his two best players, either Jokic or Murray, on the floor at all times. For the most part lately, Murray has countered double-teams and other confrontational coverages with impressive efficiency during his staggered minutes, when opposing defenses tend to focus on containing him. He entered Friday night’s matchup at Sacramento with double-digit assists in each of his last three games, good for a 5.0 assist-to-turnover ratio.

“It’s what we saw last year during our run to a championship: reading the game, reading how he’s being guarded,” Malone said. “With that first unit, he gets more normal coverage. And then when he’s out there with the second unit, teams get a lot more aggressive with him. Some teams are throwing the box-and-one. They blitz him. They trap him. They hit him. … Once you put two on the ball, you’ve done your job. Get off in a timely manner and trust your teammates to make the right play.”

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