Juancho: Denver's Missing Piece
To say that the Denver Nuggets season has been a roller coaster ride is to speak the truth.
Just when you feel safe talking about their sizzling 9-1 start, they drop six of their next seven to tumble all the way down the standings to 10-7. Concealed amidst that stretch of misery was an important change, however -- Juan Hernangomez was elevated to the starting line-up.
After Will Barton went down in the second game of the season, the Nuggets were faced with a choice: elevate a second-stringer to the starting line-up, our leave their primary bench intact and plug a third-stringer in to fill a temporary hole and maintain rotations until Barton came back. They chose the latter, starting Torrey Craig, to great success -- beating the World Champion Warriors as part of their hot early season start.
But when fortunes started to change in losses to Memphis and Brooklyn, the Nuggets decided they couldn't wait out the return of Barton, and plugged in Hernangomez. The former #15 overall selection in the 2016 draft -- one of three first round Nugget selections that year -- saw his 2017-8 season decimated by mononucleosis, so this was finally his chance to show his mettle in the pros, and he has responded in kind.
Averaging 12.2 points and 6.9 rebounds in 31 minutes a game, Hernangomez has shown that an increase in his minutes does not result in a decrease in efficiency and productivity. If anything, he excels with more playing time, shooting a career high 48.5% from the field including a scorching 46% from downtown on a not-insignificant 3.5 attempts per game.
Though the Nuggets lost their first two games with him starting, Hernangomez has now been part of seven wins over their last nine games, including last night's victory over the East-leading Raptors in Toronto -- only their league-leading 5th loss thus far this year. And in doing so, the Nuggets have climbed back up the leaderboard in the West; after falling as far as 6th in the conference, they are back tied with the Los Angeles Clippers for the conference lead.
What's more, Hernangomez' success in the starting line-up has had a ripple effect throughout the roster. After Craig left the starting line-up, his minutes per game dropped from 18 to 8, and Juancho wasn't the only beneficiary. Fellow 2016 draftee Malik Beasley has seen his minutes rise to nearly 19 per game, and he has responded with his best season in his young career, averaging 7.1 points, 2.2 rebounds, and the better part of an assist: all career highs.
When Barton returns, Juan Hernangomez will likely go back to the bench, but will bring outstanding experience as a starter with him. When he does, the Nuggets second unit will be comprised almost exclusively of former first round picks in Mason Plumlee, Trey Lyles, Hernangomez, and Beasley, with an ever-improving Monte Morris at the point. The Nuggets starting five is one of the strongest in the league when healthy and whole, but having a talented and experienced second unit can really set them apart in the rugged West.
Juan Hernangomez's time in the starting line-up may well be the key to a season of success in Denver.