Published: July 11, 2014
DENVER - Muffled in the background, the shouts of a developing fast break echoed across the Nuggets' practice gym. Sneakers screeched across the wood court.
Arturas Karnisovas, the team's assistant general manager, stepped through a door to see a flat-screen TV blasting more hours of LeBron lunacy.
"Anything going on in basketball?" Karnisovas said, drawing laughs.
At the risk of committing basketball blasphemy, there are other storylines playing out in the NBA. There is life outside of LeBron James. While James will assume one of the 450 available roster spots back home in northeast Ohio, there are hundreds of other players simply trying to find a home.
As they try to lock up a roster spot, their mission is simple, if sometimes misunderstood: "I've got to find that one thing I do well," said Erick Green.
The Nuggets drafted Green in the second round last year. After spending his first year of pro ball in Europe, he learned a valuable lesson that often takes years for players to grasp. For players like Green, or Nuggets draft pick Gary Harris, they needn't be a guy who shoots well, rebounds well, passes well and dribbles and defends well.
They need to be a player who does one thing well. Then they might stick. Then they might nail down one of the 449 roster spots that isn't taken by LeBron James.
Sixteen players are on the Nuggets' summer league roster that opens play in Las Vegas on Saturday. And that's just one of the NBA's 30 summer-league teams.
Their odds would be better at the Venetian's roulette tables. How can they improve their chances of bypassing the Adriatic League and making an NBA roster?
"I'm not going to be able to play if I can't defend," Harris told me. "That's something I've got to be able to do from the jump."
The Nuggets drafted Harris with the 19th pick in the first round. Nineteen years before, he was born into basketball, quite literally, from a mother who ranks as one of the all-time leading scorers at Purdue. His delivery nurse was Megan Weber, the wife of then-Purdue assistant coach Bruce Weber. The game is in his blood.
But if Harris wants to play for the Nuggets next season - and beyond the rookie contract he signed Wednesday - the Michigan State product must make defense his top priority. At 6-foot-3, Harris remains undersized as an NBA shooting guard. He's not a great shooter, but a streaky one. He's not particularly skilled with the ball. But if Harris embraces the idea of being a player who is willing to defend anyone, the Nuggets will find him a spot in the rotation. The Nuggets are desperate for a capable perimeter defender, coach Brian Shaw said in May.
"One of the good things about playing at Michigan State is playing against good competition," Harris said. "So I was able to guard a lot of really good players."
When I asked a few Big Ten coaches which player they would take in the NBA draft - Michigan's Nik Stauskas or Michigan State's Gary Harris - they all chose Harris. The reason? He's as eager to lock up a shooter as he is to launch shots.
"Playing defense is something that was instilled in me at a young age," Harris said. "It's just stuck with me."
The Nuggets possess one of the best examples of a specialist. Do you trust Kenneth Faried's jump shot or when he dribbles in the open court? Both are nerve-wracking. But the former 22nd pick hovers on the brink of a major contract due to his fearless rebounding. Faried developed his one thing into a big thing.
The prized targets of this NBA July - whether it's James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Love - are the 1 percent. They do almost everything well.
The majority of NBA hopefuls are wise to make their name, and a roster, by excelling with that one thing they do better than most.
"I think I can help the team by putting points on the board. That's one thing I'm very good at is scoring the ball," Green said. "That could be my niche."