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Klee: To succeed in NBA draft, Nuggets must take risks

By: PAUL KLEE The Gazette
June 25, 2014 Updated: June 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm
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Among the names that the Nuggets might call when the 11th pick rolls around on Thursday are Nik Stauskas, left, Dario Saric, center, and Zach LaVine.

DENVER — What will the Nuggets do with the 11th pick in the NBA draft on Thursday night?

Nudge aside all the rumors and rigmarole that turns the predraft process into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. There's one quote that should tell you something:

"We've seen Dario Saric as much as Gary Harris," Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly told me.

Saric plays 5,000 miles away, in Croatia. Harris played one time zone away, at Michigan State. Connelly used the international prospect and the Big Ten prospect only as examples, but his statement speaks to the bigger picture for the Nuggets.

In my never-ending quest to help the Nuggets win an NBA championship, this has and always will be my theory with the local basketball club: to win big, Denver must think outside the box, play a unique style or luck into a star in the draft.

When they did all three, the result was a thing of basketball beauty. In 2003, Detroit drafted Darko Milicic and gifted Carmelo Anthony to Denver. That was lucky. The Nuggets then turned up the tempo and played fast and furious. That was unique.

I'd take another appearance in the Western Conference finals. Wouldn't you?

Here's the stumbling block that makes the Nuggets one of the toughest jobs in the NBA: unlike pot heads and obnoxious sports fans transplanted from the Midwest, free agents aren't racing to the Colorado border as fast as they can.

The Nuggets must take risks. That's why Connelly, a general manager by trade and a basketball scout by resume, should give hope to Nuggets fans everywhere. As long as he's walking the walk and not just talking the talk, Connelly has the right idea.

"It's like I've told you all along: we're going to be very aggressive in how we approach this off-season and future offseasons," Connelly said. "Nothing is off the table."

What qualifies as taking a risk? It could be as simple as drafting Saric, a 6-foot-10, 215-pound point forward who has signed with a Turkish club, and stashing him away until his European contract runs out. The Nuggets dig the potential of Saric, who is only 20.

The Nuggets built a heavyweight international scouting department by hiring Lithuanian Arturas Karnisovas as the assistant GM and Poland-born Rafal Juc as the top overseas scout. If the idea of another European prospect makes you sleepy, remember the Spurs won the NBA title with six foreign-born players in their rotation.

"I think we have the leading mind in international basketball in Arturas. We have a fantastic overseas guy in Rafal," said Connelly, who personally made three trips to Europe during the 2013-14 season. "We're very fortunate that our network is well-developed. So we see them play a ton. It's just like (scouting) college guys."

Or taking a risk could be as drastic as trading everything but Josh Kroenke's penthouse condo in Pepsi Center to move into the top two and select the real prize of this draft, Jabari Parker. A statewide ban on Peyton Manning jerseys is more likely.

"I think if you look at the roster as is, we have depth at all positions. It will be hard with the 11th pick to come in from Day 1 and have an instant impact," Connelly said. "We're going to be back in the playoffs next year; that's our goal. It's hard to come in as a rookie and make an instant impact.

"We're looking for a guy to grow with. If he's able to help us from year one, fantastic. I think, more importantly, we're looking for another foundational piece."

The Nuggets dodged a bullet last year by whiffing on Andre Iguodala, a No. 3 player with a No. 1's salary. It appears they dodged another one by not giving up too much for Kevin Love, who is 0 for 6 in playoff berths and would be a target of vicious criticism if his name were Carmelo Anthony.

Hitting the target with the No. 11 pick in the NBA draft is much tougher.

This draft is OK. With the No. 1 pick, Cleveland will be fooled by the hype machine and draft Andrew Wiggins. He's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, another supreme athlete whose lack of skill will be exposed in a league where everyone's a big-time athlete.

Among players who should be there at No. 11, my preferences among the college guys include Michigan gunner Nik Stauskas (the Nuggets like him, too) and UCLA leaper Zach LaVine (take a risk!).

But unless the draft goes haywire and a no-brainer like injury-riddled Kansas center Joel Embiid tumbles to the Nuggets, I don't expect there will be an American player who is capable of making an instant impact still there at No. 11. Then it's time to trade down or gamble on an international prospect who could develop into a real talent down the road.

"Overseas (scouting) is a huge part of what we do," Connelly said.

That's a good thing. So is taking a risk.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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