Several players need to step up for the Denver Nuggets this season, but Evan Fournier, in particular, has a unique opportunity.
With Andre Iguodala out of the picture for the Nuggets and Randy Foye off to an inconsistent start in the preseason, Fournier potentially could be the full-time starter at shooting guard.
As a rookie last season, Fournier spent most of his time on the Denver bench. But as injuries started to unfold down the stretch, the Frenchman took advantage and was one of Denver's biggest assets in getting to a franchise-record 57 wins.
Fournier played double-digit minutes in eight of Denver's last nine games. The Nuggets also won eight of their last nine, with the one game they lost being the one where Fournier only played eight minutes.
While some of that was a coincidence, there's no doubt that Fournier is making an immediate impact for the Nuggets.
How can Fournier take the next step in 2013-14? Let's take a look.
Keep Shooting Three-Pointers
If there's one thing we know that Fournier can do, it's knock down three-pointers. Even though he didn't get significant playing time until the end of last season, he converted on 40.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
As a team, one of Denver's biggest weaknesses was its 25th-ranked three-point shooting, at just 34.3 percent.
As the Nuggets slow it down and play more of an inside-out offense under new head coach Brian Shaw, Fournier should get ample opportunities to pull the trigger. Of the top three-point shooters from last year's Denver team who return this season, here's how it breaks down:
|2012-13 Nuggets Three-Point Shooting|
|JaVale McGee shot 100 percent, but only had one attempt. Stats via NBA.com|
Foye and Nate Robinson enter the three-point mix after shooting over 40 percent last season, but with Danilo Gallinari's return date still unknown and Iguodala and Corey Brewer gone, Fournier's long range is definitely needed.
Given that he should have a spot in the primary rotation, one way or another, Fournier will certainly play more than the 11.3 minutes he averaged last season. That means instead of taking an average of 1.4 three-point attempts, Fournier's average needs to be more than three shots per game from long distance.
If Fournier can maintain his high percentage from behind the arc, that'll provide more one-on-one opportunities for the Nuggets' big men inside.
Work on Mid-Range Jumper
While Fournier, who will turn 21 on Oct. 29, does shoot it from outside and can attack the basket in transition, there's room to add a shot from just inside the arc as well.
As we can see in this shot chart from NBA.com, Fournier only took eight of his 152 shots from 16-to-24 feet.
It makes sense that a rookie doesn't have a fully polished game and his numbers are influenced by head coach George Karl's up-tempo offense, but a shooting guard taking only 5.3 percent of his shots from that range is rare.
We've seen Foye utilize his mid-range jumper in the preseason. Whenever the defender plays tight, Foye gives him a pump fake, takes one dribble and shoots before the defense can recover.
When Founier puts the ball on the deck, he's usually taking it all the way or looking to pass if the defense collapses on him. By establishing his 18-footer, it makes Fournier more diverse and tougher to guard.
Improve Defensive Skills
Perhaps the biggest loss that Denver suffered in its crazy offseason was saying goodbye to the defense provided by Iguodala and Brewer. Sure, they averaged 25.1 points combined, but they also forced 3.18 steals.
Without them, the Nuggets need someone to lock down the opposition on the perimeter. Considering they gave up 101.1 points during the 2012-13 regular season and 107.2 points to the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs, the Nuggets need to improve defensively regardless of the departures of their former players.
They have a few players who can improve at the 3, but with Foye at 6'4" and assuming Wilson Chandler and Jordan Hamilton don't slide down to the 2, that leaves the 6'6" Fournier as the best option.
The point guards get a lot of the attention in the Western Conference, but the West is loaded with dynamic shooting guards such as James Harden, Kobe Bryant and Klay Thompson. One of Shaw's goals this season was to improve defensively, and Fournier could be an essential player in containing those star players.
We've seen Fournier's length in shooting over defenders and we've seen his speed in running the floor. Now, Fournier needs to take those attributes and put them to use on defense.
If he develops in those areas while maintaining an aggressive mindset, Fournier should be in the starting five for the Nuggets this season.