DENVER — Hear this through, because it’s not as bad as it sounds.
Yet. But check back when free agency is over. For now, the Nuggets had a bad draft night Thursday. That’s partly because they should have taken Derrick White with the No. 24 pick. He was there — the rare born-raised-and-schooled first-round pick from right here in Colorado — and just itching to stay home. Derrick’s story — from a guy with two scholarship offers to a Division II All-American at UCCS to all-Pac-12 in Boulder to the NBA draft — is so improbable that Hollywood would toss it away for being too unbelievable. Instead, White went to the San Antonio Spurs at No. 29.
The Nuggets have been nails in the draft, an admirable combination of sharp (Nikola Jokic), daring (Juancho Hernangomez) and lucky (Jamal Murray). But if we’re comparing track records, if White is good enough for the Spurs, he’s good enough for the Nuggets. Denver missed on this one. Not because of his story — did I mention White was born at Denver’s St. Joseph Hospital and, like a bunch of us, grew up with the belief Chauncey Billups walked on water? — but because he’s going to outperform his draft position to thrive in the NBA. Plus, he plays a position of need for the Nuggets, point guard.
But that’s not the biggest reason the Nuggets had a bad draft night. The biggest reason they had a bad draft night is because of what happened around them: the other half of the Western Conference grew fangs.
The half that doesn’t include Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and White’s new teammate, Kawhi Leonard. At this point in Nuggets Land it’s safe to assume the Lakers will go ahead and open the checkbook for whoever opts out first, LeBron James or Jesus.
I wrote two weeks ago that July must be Denver’s new June. Considering the developments in Minnesota, Portland and elsewhere, the road back to the playoffs goes through free agency. It opens July 1 — so check back then — and is not a place that’s been kind to the Nuggets franchise.
The Timberwolves finished eight games back of the Nuggets. With the addition of all-NBA forward Jimmy Butler, they stepped over the Nuggets like Allen Iverson with Tyronn Lue. The Blazers finished ahead of the Nuggets and took another jump forward by adding Gonzaga center Zach Collins — if not now then later, because Collins was the best big man in the draft. That’s not to mention New Orleans, which also finished behind the Nuggets, getting a full season with twin towers DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis.
The Western Conference is now Fury Road.
I dig the potential of a Jokic-Murray-Hernangomez trio more than most. But without a splashy move that brings a Paul Millsap or Blake Griffin-type veteran talent to Colorado, they are putting a ton of pressure on a triumvirate with an average age of 21. Yes, there’s plenty of time to fix that in free agency.
This was just one draft night.
Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon was a savvy pick. That’s who the Nuggets took at No. 24 after wisely trading down from No. 13. Lydon can play. He’s a 3-point marksman who surprises the gym when he dunks on somebody. If nothing else, Denver will have their difference-making 3-point sniper, either with Hernangomez or Lydon. Smart pick. Applause for that one.
See what I mean? The Nuggets didn’t have a bad draft because of what they did. This was an eight- or nine-player draft and a bunch of wild cards after that. Trading down was smart. Skipping past Derrick White wasn’t.
When you think about it, White’s rise to first-round pick caps a banner year for Colorado basketball. Just as Chauncey Billups convinced Derrick White it’s possible to get there from here, White’s going to show the same for the next generation. He was dominant in the Pac-12 during a season in which the Pac-12 had the top two picks in the draft, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, both playing his position.
"It's crazy to be part of the Spurs organization," White said.
At the college level, Park Hill’s Josh Perkins started in the NCAA title game at point guard with the mighty Gonzaga Bulldogs. At the pro level, Jokic emerged as a potential superstar for the Nuggets. And the biggest move from a Colorado baller could come from the best of all: Billups, who continues to blaze a trail after reportedly being offered a top-shelf gig as the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Not a bad run lately, Colorado.
This was not a good run for the Nuggets. Jokic and Murray should be untouchables. If they are the holdup to a Butler-like deal, cool. But unless the Jokic factor allows them to do what rarely has been done here before — entice a top free agent to the party — the Nuggets got passed up by standing still.