By the time the dust settled for the Denver Nuggets on Thursday’s NBA draft night, the team had acquired four new rookies, most of them developmental projects, without making any trades aimed at upgrading the roster in the short term to boost their title contention chances.
It was the first draft helmed by newly-elevated general manager Calvin Booth, following the recent departure of longtime lead executive Tim Connelly. And the moves the Nuggets made raised as many questions as they answered regarding how Booth’s philosophical and strategic approach to roster-building might differ from his predecessor’s, and whether owner Stan Kroenke is willing to green-light the level of financial investment which will likely be necessary to construct a legitimate contender around back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets initially had one first-round pick, number 21, leading up to draft night. But as discussed in my previous piece for Forbes, in his first move at Denver’s helm, Booth had increased the Nuggets’ flexibility and range of options by adding an additional first-round pick in a trade of JaMychal Green and a protected 2027 first-round draft pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for pick 30 in this year’s draft, two future second-rounders, and an $8.2 million traded player exception.
Given the need for Denver to prioritize a “win-now” mode of roster building while Jokic is in his prime (Booth himself said he and the Nuggets organization are the “stewards” of Joker’s peak years), it was widely speculated, including by me, that the team would almost certainly only use one of their two first-rounders to draft a rookie, and package the other with either Will Barton III or Monte Morris – both of whom having been reportedly made available by Denver for trade – to make a more immediate roster upgrade.
Instead, in a surprising and counterintuitive series of draft night choices, the Nuggets acquired four new rookies, drafting three – Christian Braun (21), Peyton Watson (30) and Ismael Kamagate (46) – and signing an additional undrafted player, Collin Gillespie, to a two-way contract.
And while that constellation of draft choices should not reflect negatively on the players themselves who were chosen by Denver, who have every possibility of proving themselves worthy selections, it did lead to a reaction of disappointment from a fairly significant segment of the Nuggets Nation fanbase, where hopes were high that Denver would, for example, package pick 30 with Monte Morris, or 21 with Will Barton, to trade for targets such as Washington’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Memphis’ De’Anthony Melton, or Portland’s Josh Hart in order to make an instant upgrade – especially defensively – at the starting shooting guard spot (the Nuggets’ greatest position of need) in order to fortify Denver’s core of Jokic, Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon, and in the process meaningfully boost their title odds.
In fairness to Booth and his new tenure atop the Nuggets’ front office, the 2022 NBA offseason has just begun. The free agency period does not begin until June 30, and months remain for additional moves to be made prior to the beginning of next season, which Denver should be entering into with a fully-healthy roster, including a Murray and Porter both rehabilitated from injury, for the first time in recent memory. And unquestionably, the Nuggets still have many moves to be made, not the least of which will involve how to approach their own free agents.
Denver will face some challenging decisions around their restricted free agents Davon Reed (highly likely to be re-signed), Vlatko Cancar, Facundo Campazzo and Markus Howard, and unrestricted free agents Austin Rivers (another probable re-sign), Bryn Forbes and DeMarcus Cousins. Who among these players Booth and his front office staff prioritize in alternately keeping or choosing to let go may, in fact, be more revelatory of his designs on Denver’s roster construction than draft night was.
But while there is still plenty of time to make the Nuggets’ draft moves make more sense, Booth did undermine to a large degree the flexibility he created with the Green trade by locking up both of Denver’s first-round picks with draft selections.
And while there is arguably a valid defense for that decision given that the trade value of this year’s draft picks in particular may have been overvalued by fans relative to how their perceived worth by teams around the league (pick 30 in a “weak” draft not being seen as much of a deal-sweetener), objectively the Nuggets’ cabinet of trade assets has been largely depleted.
As I wrote post-draft on Twitter, this ramps up the pressure on Booth and his front office to do what is now a harder job of finding more immediate roster upgrades.
If there is any consistent throughline to Denver’s draft night moves, it is doubling, then tripling down on bolstering the team’s defense, albeit more in the future than upcoming seasons, with the possible exception of their first selection.
With their own first-round pick at 21, Denver chose six-foot-seven defensive wing Christian Braun (pronounced “brown”), who is projected to become a starting-caliber three-and-D player who figures to be a fitting complementary piece to offensive juggernaut of the Nuggets’ core. (Following the deadline trade for Aaron Gordon in the 2020-21 season, the Nuggets had a blistering 127.2 offensive rating with Jokic, Murray, Porter and Gordon on the court, per Cleaning the Glass).
Braun is by far the most NBA-ready among Denver’s new rookies, and while Booth acknowledged that he will have to “earn” his minutes, it seems the Nuggets are ready to put him in the rotation if he shows his mettle. A feisty, tenacious defender (think Facu but nine inches taller), Braun has the potential to make Denver’s draft night look more right if he’s given minutes and proves he can make an immediate impact on that end of the court.
The selection of Peyton Watson with the 30th pick was a bigger surprise. Booth said post-draft that both he and Braun would likely spend time in the developmental G League with the Nuggets’ affiliate team the Grand Rapids Gold, but it’s a safe bet that Braun will be given more opportunities with the major league squad while Watson will be more of a project. At six-foot-eight with a wingspan of over seven feet, Watson has the upside of being an elite defender in the NBA, but his offensive game is sorely lacking, and averaged a lowly 3.3 points per game in college, which reportedly is the lowest scoring average of a first-round pick in NBA history. And while Watson’s 90th percentile outcome just might be making the NBA’s All-Defense team, he definitely does not appear to be a player who could contribute to the Nuggets’ postseason success as early as 2023, when they should be in the mix for fighting for the championship.
The same holds true for 46th selection Ismael Kamagate, with the pick acquired via trade from Portland, or Collin Gillespie, signed by Denver to a two-way contract as an undrafted rookie. Kamagate, a six-foot-eleven big man from France with a seven-foot-three wingspan, will be a draft-and-stash for Denver, remaining for now with his current team, Paris Basketball, where he last season won the NLB Pro A Best Defender award.
Collin Gillespie, Denver’s only acquisition who is not primarily known for his defense, is a two-time Big East Co-Player of the Year (2021, 2022) with Villanova, a knockdown shooter and a very capable point guard in the pick-and-roll. As an undrafted two-way player, the chances he may or may not get to play with the main squad will largely be determined by Booth’s moves in free agency. If Rivers, Campazzo and Howard were all to be retained, Gillespie may not see much daylight outside of the G League, but if the depth chart above him thins out by the beginning of the 2022-23 regular season, he could get some spot chances.
Even so, the most important headline of the 2022 Denver Nuggets draft – given that two-time MVP Nikola Jokic is in the prime of his career, given that his co-stars Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will be returning and will be ostensibly healthy, and given that, unlike in previous NBA eras where one or two teams were superlatively dominant, the championship window is as wide now as it ever is likely to be for the Nuggets – is that even if Denver’s draft selections this week prove to be great choices, and they all deliver in the optimal range of their respective upsides, Booth and his front office staff have yet to make the necessary improvements to the roster to lift them into a more legitimate championship contender tier.
With now-depleted assets in one of the Nuggets’ most critical offseasons in franchise history, the pressure is on Booth and his team to deliver moves that will upgrade Denver’s title chances in the immediate future. And the degree to which they’re able to do that will have a defining impact on the legacy of this new incarnation of Denver’s front office.