DENVER — Give it up for the man. He did it again, folks.
Nuggets draft ace Tim Connelly did ... it ... again.
When NBA draft night rolls around, Connelly hides in the tall grass. Then he recalls the lottery projections from the previous year and pounces. He pounced on Michael Porter Jr., a former top-five pick who tumbled to the Nuggets at No. 14. He pounced on Bol Bol, a former top-five pick who tumbled to No. 44. This is how Connelly has built a NBA championship contender with staying power, and the Nuggets president of basketball operations did it again Wednesday night in the 2020 NBA draft.
As an appetizer, the Nuggets drafted Arizona forward Ezekiel “Zeke” Tobechukwu Nnaji, a piano-playing analytics darling, at No. 22. Here’s what one opposing college coach told me Wednesday about the 6-foot-11 forward from the Pac-12 Conference: “High motor. Physical. Aggressive. Liked him!”
But then came the Connelly Special. On draft night there’s usually a Connelly Special, even if Connelly would sooner clip off a toe than take the credit himself. He inevitably credits his staff.
The Nuggets traded with the New Orleans Pelicans for the rights to RJ Hampton. Who’s RJ Hampton? Well, RJ Hampton is Bol Bol and Michael Porter Jr. and all the high school superstars who were projected for lottery-pick status but for various reasons didn’t go in the lottery. Hampton was the nation’s No. 7 recruit in the Recruiting Services Consensus Rankings Index . Bol was the No. 6 recruit in his class. Porter was the No. 2 recruit in his.
Notice a trend? These are elite basketball talents who trickled down draft boards due to injury concerns or one bad season and ultimately became Nuggets — even though the Nuggets draft late because the Nuggets are good.
Goodness gracious, this is how I’ve always wanted the Nuggets to run things. Get weird and take risks. The glitzy, high-priced free agents aren’t looking to hang out in LoDo, so find another way to stockpile elite talent and roll the dice. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but you’re not winning here without taking risks.
And you know what’s crazy? I’m not convinced Hampton, Bol and Porter ever become big parts of the Nuggets team that ultimately wins an NBA title. But that’s a glut of trade pieces to stash away when The Big Move presents itself. You know, when the Bradley Beal trade presents itself. When the next Jrue Holiday trade presents itself. When the next final-piece-to-the-puzzle presents itself. That’s three prospects under the age of 23 once labeled “can’t-miss stars.” That’s a heckuva position to carve out for yourself.
That’s a position the old Spurs would find.
Let’s be clear on something: neither RJ Hampton nor Zeke Nnaji push the Nuggets past King James and the Lakers next season. Both will be lucky to see minutes in a 2020-21 season that begins one month from Sunday. No summer league, one week preseason, and a grown-man roster positioned to compete now. Want to feel old? Both Nuggets picks are teenagers. Both are 19. Sheesh.
These picks aren’t about now. They’re about later. They're about throwing all your chips on double-zeros because you can.
But this is what good teams do. Actually, let me correct that: this is what good teams that aren’t the Lakers or Celtics or Rockets or Nets do. They get a little lucky with a generational player like Nikola Jokic and afford themselves an opportunity to take fliers on elite talents who might pan out, might not, but there’s nothing lost if they don’t and a ton to be gained if they do.
The Nuggets took Nnaji at No. 22. They lean heavily on advanced analytics, and Nnaji was the second-best player in the Pac-12, according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics. He’s a musician, once played the national anthem at Arizona, and tickled the ivory for Nuggets brass on a Zoom call.
“I have confidence in myself because I know the Most High is with me,” Nnaji said Wednesday.
Hampton went 24th. He’s a 6-5 athlete who was headed to Kansas or Memphis before he opted for the professional option in New Zealand. He's going to drive Michael Malone crazy because he doesn’t guard a soul, but one mock draft in 2019 had him going No. 3 overall. He's a leaper, a dunker, and I didn’t think there was any way RJ Hampton would be available to a team at No. 24, just as I didn’t think there was any way Michael Porter Jr. would be available to the Nuggets at No. 14.
Both are worth the risk. Both are worth the potential payoff. Connelly and Co. did it again.
Give it up for the man.