The Denver Nuggets went prospecting on NBA Draft Day last Thursday with an eye to the future. Despite some banal criticism from members of the online media (like our friends at Bleacher Report) this is rock-solid team-building by Masai Ujiri & Co.
Ujiri is a premier NBA GM, and he’s one of only a handful in the NBA that won’t panic on draft day. Kenneth “Manimal” Faried came in and filled a crucial need at power forward as a rookie last season. Now the Nuggets are stocked with proven young talent. They don’t need to take stabs at “NBA-ready” college players in the first round.
Instead they tagged young Frenchman Evan Fournier (19) as a future Nugget. Fournier has been sensational with the U20 team in European competition and was promising in the French League. He’s a great stash player at the 20th pick.
Like any player that could have come out of the latter half of this NBA Draft, Fournier needs time to develop before he can get anywhere close to playing for George Karl in Denver. As a bonus he’ll do his development in a professional environment with Ligue Nationale de Basket club PB86 in France.
Guards Jordan Hamilton and Julyan Stone have already put in a year’s reps with the Nuggets and gotten spot playing time after a rash of injuries to starters. There’s absolutely no way any player picked 20th in a weak draft was going to make Karl’s squad. Anybody making criticisms about the Nuggets not “drafting for now” simply have not been following this organization post-Melo.
In fact, Karl said as much before the draft. “I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but I don’t think the 20th pick in this draft is going to be better than Jordan Hamilton or Julyan Stone. If Jordan is in this draft, he’d be in the top 10. And if Julyan goes in the draft, he’d be going right around where we pick.”
Fournier will most likely end up marinating in the French League for at least a year, but he’s coming to Denver with the attitude that he’ll make the team. In his time as a pro he showed signs of evolving into a dynamic scorer in the mold of Tony Parker, becoming the youngest player in league history to score 20 points in a game.
“I want to play next season,” Fournier offered on draft day. “I don’t want to go back to Europe.” He continued, “I’ve always been ambitious. My parents gave me that motivation.”
In the second round the Nuggets grabbed Baylor forward Quincy Miller with the 38th overall pick, and 20 year old Turkish pro Izzet Turkyilmaz at 50th. Turkyilmaz comes from Bandırma Banvit as a 6’11” PF/SF. He joins 7-footers Kosta Koufos and Timofey Mozgov in the Nuggets’ big man club.
Miller tore his left ACL in his senior year of high school after being rated a top collegiate prospect. He played one year as a Bear before opting for the NBA. “That kind of brought me down,” said Quincy on his injury. “But I went to Baylor, had a great season and helped us reach the Elite Eight.”
So the Nuggets got a prospect collegiate forward sandwiched between a French scoring guard and a big Euro-forward that get to develop in a professional environment overseas. Fournier and Turkyilmaz also play for their respective national teams.
Nuggets President Josh Kroenke defended Denver’s common sense draft strategy on Friday. “At the beginning of the day, we all sat down and we thought our team was in pretty good position across the board. Our existing roster we felt deserved to move forward and compete together. Those guys earned that right.”
Ujiri and Kroenke are using European leagues as a farm system, and that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Really, this is exactly why Kroenke brought Masai Ujiri to Denver from Toronto. Masai has been involved with international basketball around Europe and Africa for years, most especially in his home nation Nigeria.
Read more about Ujiri’s experience around the World of Basketball
The Nuggets are working on building a solid organization instead of worrying about criticism. This is exactly the way that the West’s best teams operate. The Spurs and now the Thunder have collected 10-deep talent and worked it in gradually. Most NBA teams cannot afford to make boom-or-bust draft picks and then depend on heavy free agent buys to pick up the slack. The Denver Nuggets are playing their position perfectly.
Meanwhile the Lakers are falling apart because they keep flinching every time Pau Gasol ends up an ESPN headline. Kobe Bryant is the most authoritative voice on the court instead of the coach, and operations has to bow to the whims of a panicky owner.
The Heat bought their championship with an unholy trinity of free agent talent. The Mavericks bought and sold free agents for years – including letting go of a young Steve Nash – trying to find a winning formula before getting lucky in 2011. If Denver is going to make the NBA Finals it will be by taking the Spurs/Thunder route of long-term team building.
Denver is right on course. A healthy season for the young core and some breakout scoring by Jordan Hamilton could get the Nuggets to another level. And as a fan it’s refreshing to know that the man behind the curtain has a long-term plan that stands unaffected by the half-assed musings of the assembled press.