The Nuggets seem to have a good understanding of the system, sets and defensive strategies they’ll employ this season after four days of training camp. But the starting five to first run the plays isn’t so clear, as Will Barton found out Friday.
“By no means is there a leader in the clubhouse in terms of who is going to be our small forward on opening night,” coach Michael Malone said after Wednesday’s second day of camp.
Barton is one of the key players in that competition, with Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez, though that was news to the veteran wing after Friday’s shoot around at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“I didn’t know that. Nobody told me that,” Barton said. “You heard that? You’re telling me something new.”
Barton may be the presumed favorite to get the nod after starting 38 of his 43 games last season. Craig started 37 of 75 games he played in 2018-19, with a good chunk of those starts coming at the end of the season, while Hernangomez started 25 of 70 games played, settling into a reserve role as the season wore on.
The competition may have something to do with the fact that Barton’s been nursing a strained hamstring stemming from an off-season workout. After being held out of contact drills earlier in the week, he went through Friday’s shootaround and hoped to take part in the evening’s scrimmage, though that wasn’t a certainty, either.
“Definitely a little deflating coming off an injury-plagued season last year, but the good thing is I feel good,” Barton said. “When I’m out there, I’m real confident. I’m not really holding back. I’m feeling athletic, doing the things I like to do.”
Malone has mentioned improvements made by Hernangomez and Craig over the summer and in their first-team reps in camp. The Spaniard, who helped his country to the FIBA World Cup championship this summer, returned stateside with a bit more confidence, Malone said. The same goes for Craig, who worked with the player development staff to get a better idea of where he takes most of his shots. He found most of his looks came from the corner and focused on becoming more reliable, shooting the game’s shortest 3-pointer.
“Just repetition, just getting the same shots I would get in a game,” Craig said Thursday, describing his summer workouts.“I always felt like I was a good shooter, but it’s just a confidence thing. Toward the end of last season and playoffs, I kinda got my confidence back.”
With all of the Nuggets’ top 10 players in minutes per game returning, this camp has been able to feature less instruction and more live action.
“We’re just trying to integrate a couple of guys, so we’ve been able to do more earlier,” reserve big man Mason Plumlee said. “There hasn’t been as much stop action and explaining. We do that to start the practice, and then we just go right into what we want to do.”
That’s given the small forward spot some measure of regularity despite uncertainty over who will be introduced alongside Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic on Oct. 23 in Portland.
“It’s always good when guys compete, because when we compete, we bring out the best in each other, and that’s best for the team,” Craig said. “As long as we approach every day the right way and compete at a high level to make each other better, that’s all that matters.”
Barton agreed, soon after he found out he had competition. “Now that you just said that, I think the guys at the three position have been playing well,” Barton said with a big smile.