The Denver Nuggets' disappointing 2013-14 season shouldn't overshadow some of the underrated performances and potential from the younger players.
Because of the unfortunate luck of injuries, it'll be a losing season and a missed playoff berth for the first time since 2002-03. But the other guys have gained valuable experience and have had their chances to show head coach Brian Shaw that they belong on this team long term.
In order to be eligible for the most underrated player, he must have been on the team the entire year and have been healthy for most of the season.
Therefore, we can acknowledge that Nate Robinson was a crucial scoring and energy element off the bench. Aaron Brooks has also been a nice addition with his 11.6 points and his ability to play in an up-tempo scheme. Both players could easily be considered for this.
But Robinson only logged 44 games before his ACL injury, Brooks has only played in 22 contests with Denver, and there are only seven games remaining.
After that, we know Ty Lawson is the star, and everyone is aware of the emergence of Kenneth Faried. We got pretty much what we expected from guys like Wilson Chandler, Randy Foye, J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur.
Anthony Randolph has had a few opportunities but hasn't been much of a force inside and has struggled with his outside shot. Jan Vesely becomes an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, per Basketball Insiders, and has rarely been involved since being acquired before the trade deadline.
With the departures of Andre Miller and Jordan Hamilton, plus Danilo Gallinari missing the entire season and JaVale McGee only playing the first five games, that leaves Timofey Mozgov, Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller.
I'll admit when Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that Mozgov was signed to a three-year extension worth $14 million, I was perplexed. His best season was in 2011-12 when he put up 5.4 points and 4.1 rebounds in 15.6 minutes.
But Mozgov's physicality and inside presence on both ends of the floor have proved to be a difference-maker.
The best part for Mozgov is that not only has he earned the starting job over the last five weeks, but with the injury to Hickson, he's played 28.3 minutes in the last five contests while remaining efficient. He's posted 14.2 points, eight rebounds and 1.4 blocks during this stretch.
Essentially, he can be just as productive against the opposing starting five in comparison to the bench. This is the first time we've seen this from the 7'1" beast.
In terms of numbers per 36 minutes, Mozgov is nearly on pace with both Faried and Hickson. In some ways, he's more effective.
|Numbers per 36 Minutes|
His offensive game is taking gradual strides, and I'm not referring to his recent three-point attempts. The strength around the rim, post moves and ability to finish are starting to come together.
Defensively, Mozgov continues to protect the rim and is getting better at keeping big men off the block.
This has led to 3.5 win shares (an estimate of the number of wins contributed by a player), which is the fourth-highest on the team and only 0.1 behind Foye, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Should Mozgov finish the season playing like this and continue to develop in the offseason, he may not just find himself in the rotation next season but also as the starting center.
There is a lot of upside with Evan Fournier, but he hasn't exactly had a stellar year.
Here's a look at how much his efficiency has dropped off from his first season to his second.
|Fournier's Numbers per 36 Minutes|
Some of this is due to the fact that he didn't come in until garbage time for a chunk of those earlier games his rookie year. But Fournier did put up 12.3 points in 22.8 minutes for the final nine games of the regular season.
The only area where he's made noteworthy improvement from last season to this season per 36 minutes is his rebounding, which went up from 2.9 to five boards.
Consequently, his player efficiency rating is 10.2, which is tied for third-lowest on the team, via ESPN.com. That includes all players who have suited up for Denver this season.
But putting this in perspective, there's nothing to panic about, and a lot of this is circumstantial. He's only 21 years old, and the Nuggets have frequently been dysfunctional on the court with the injuries. Because of this, Fournier has actually played four different positions this season, including 37 percent of his minutes at small forward.
Once Denver is healthy and the players are more in sync with Shaw's system, Fournier's production should increase, and he will become a more lethal scorer at shooting guard.
With Chandler still out with his groin and hip issue, it might be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. He may not play the rest of the season since the Nuggets are out of the playoff hunt, via Aaron J. Lopez of Nuggets.com, and Miller continues to start at the 3.
The one thing you have to like about Miller is that he has great physical talent for someone at his position.
He's 6'9" with legitimate ball-handling skills, and he can play inside and knock it down from three. On top of that, he's a solid rebounder and shot-blocker, and he has the combination of speed and length to guard the versatile players at small forward.
That's not to say he can do all these things consistently or that he can do it against top competition. Again, it's great potential and seeing signs of it.
The 37.2 field-goal percentage, 32.3 three-point percentage and 69.8 free-throw percentage all need to come up for not being the primary scorer and only playing 13.5 minutes. His PER of 8.8 and offensive rating of 90 are unappealing.
But his numbers per 36 minutes of 12.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks are encouraging. Miller is doing things without the basketball, and he can be a dynamic player at times.
You have to tip your cap to general manager Tim Connelly for keeping Mozgov. Denver already had depth in the post, and Mozgov was on the end of the bench for most of last season.
Yet, it's proving to be a great decision. Yes, the injuries gave him the opportunity, but that doesn't take away what he's done on the court.
Mozgov's an asset on both ends of the floor. He can play inside-out on offense, and he's a threat running the floor.
But most importantly, he gives tremendous effort each night, and this is what Shaw needs moving forward as he assembles his rotation for next season. Mozgov does more than advertised, and his value has been lost in the losing season.
(All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com unless noted otherwise)