Denver Nuggets Banking on Young Stars, Healthy Vets to Be 2016-17's NBA Sleeper

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 1, 2016

Emmanuel Mudiay is ready to build upon his rookie season.
Emmanuel Mudiay is ready to build upon his rookie season.Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

DENVER — Fresh off a 33-49 campaign, yet oozing untapped potential, the Denver Nuggets internally believe they can end a playoff drought that stretches back to 2013. 

"I think we have some guys on our team that last year...quite frankly, leaguewide there's still not a real sense of belief in. We have a strong belief that those guys will make the next step," general manager Tim Connelly explained Monday at Nuggets media day, tacitly referring to pieces such as Nikola Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray.

Mar 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) dribbles the ball up court in the second quarter against the New York Knicks at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Jokic—despite earning First Team All-Rookie honors, lagging behind only Kristaps Porzingis and Karl-Anthony Towns in the Rookie of the Year voting, and emerging as one of the league's top 75 players, according to Bleacher Report's NBA 200 ranking—is already emerging as a critical building block.

That much was made clear in front of an international audience at the Rio Olympics this summer. Jokic further validated the hype from his rookie season with two impressive performances against Team USA. "He gave USA buckets," Mudiay said on Monday.  

The Nuggets' best-case scenarios involve Jokic and Mudiay stepping into leadership roles, with Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler staying healthy.

Mudiay, entering his second year at point guard, spent much of media day explaining he's ready to become a more vocal leader who can challenge his teammates to improve.

Head coach Mike Malone agrees.

"Emmanuel improved in so many areas last year. For the fans, they see just the improvement in his three-point percentage and his decision-making," Malone said. "What I saw was a guy who came in and was very quiet, was kind of to himself. By the end of the year, you saw a completely different Emmanuel Mudiay—someone who had matured, who had grown up, who had kind of gotten comfortable in his own skin."

Gallinari reminded reporters that health has kept the Nuggets from scaling any momentum. "If you think about it, the last three years, this roster never played together. Not even one game. So finally, we have all the guys back. Everybody's healthy."

Malone's rotations also enhance the mystery surrounding this team. The roster can play big or smalla blessing or a curse depending on who you ask. It's unclear which of the young players will assume larger roles, with multiple inexperienced contributors competing at most positions. 

"We know we're young," Mudiay admitted. "We know a lot of teams aren't counting on us to do too much, but that makes it fun because that's when you sneak up on teams or you get more out of your team than you're supposed to." 

Without any clear, established identity, Malone can justify creative roster decisions.

He could play Jusuf Nurkic and Jokic together, similar to how the Memphis Grizzlies use Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They might mimic the Golden State Warriors' "death lineup" (or even go smaller still, as the concept of playing Chandler at the 5 was mentioned). Or they could buck convention and use Murray and Mudiay together in a dual-point guard lineup. 

Apr 8, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Andre Miller (24) guards Denver Nuggets guard Emmanuel Mudiay (0) in the fourth quarter at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets defeated the Spurs 102-98. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

However, the one legitimate, long-standing concern continues to be the lack of a singular superstar. 

"Without an alpha player, you can't [win]. We're so young. People are starting to find themselves and find what they can do. ... You can't win without an alpha player," Mudiay claimed. But when pressed about whether he could eventually fill that role, his response was even more telling.

"I am an alpha player."

He very well could be.

So too could Murray, given his shot-creating skills and ability to play on or off the ball. So too could Gallinari, who served as the team's No. 1 scoring option in 2015-16. So too could Jokic as he continues to grow into an elite big man. So too could Malik Beasley. So too could Harris or Will Barton. But winning is the only validation in the NBA. Assert yourself as a playoff team, and the recognition comes right along. 

Of course, that won't be an easy task.

The Western Conference remains stacked, and the final postseason berths likely won't be determined until the campaign's literal conclusion, with teams such as the Minnesota Timberwolves, Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks all fighting until the bitter end. 

If the Nuggets win only 40 games, as ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton predicts (though he projects that earns the No. 8 seed), it won't be a disaster. But this team is still expecting more, and that's not particularly crazy. 

"I cannot leave another season without going to the postseason," Gallinari bluntly asserted. "It's not going to happen."

        

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com or NBA Math, and all quotes obtained firsthand. 

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