Nuggets Summer League preview 2024: Expanding Julian Strawther’s game and other storylines heading into Las Vegas

Andrew Munson had a Michael Malone moment Monday.

It was the first day of minicamp for the Nuggets’ Summer League team. Munson has worked closely with Malone for almost nine years, first as a video intern and now as Denver’s special assistant to the head coach. But Summer League is a time for aspiring coaches to get reps, too — not just burgeoning players. The Nuggets have handed Munson the head coach’s whistle for the next couple of weeks.

So he used it.

“He showed me a little Coach Mo-esque timeout,” Julian Strawther said.

Translation: a really angry timeout.

“We had a loose ball, and nobody got on the floor,” Munson said, shrugging. “We didn’t fly around like we’re supposed to. … I’ve been watching (Malone) for nine years, so I’ve got a good idea of how to do it.”

He doesn’t anticipate needing to call more of those timeouts once the games begin Friday in Las Vegas, considering the surplus of young enthusiasm brandished by the Nuggets, from their 15-man roster to the two-way and Exhibit 10 contracts. Still, Munson did admit after the rage timeout: “It felt pretty good. I get it now. I get it.”

Results in Summer League are always somewhat trivial, but the upcoming games should be informative for an organization relying heavily on youth. They mark the first opportunity to see first-round draft pick DaRon Holmes II compete as a Nugget, along with two-way signings Trey Alexander and PJ Hall. They also represent a progress report for second-year players Strawther, Jalen Pickett and Hunter Tyson, at least one of whom has a strong chance to become an everyday rotation player next season.

Munson will be the Makeshift Malone running the show.

“I’m just grateful for the opportunity from Coach Malone and Calvin (Booth), letting me do this,” he said. “… As an assistant coach, you have all these grand ideas in your head. ‘I want to do this,’ and ‘We’re gonna do that.’ All of that. So now I’m in the position of: ‘Well, that didn’t work very well,’ or ‘Maybe I need to rethink that.’ So it’s just exciting to try some ideas maybe I’ve had, see how they work.”

Player to watch: Julian Strawther

Strawther knows as well as anyone: The loss of a starter at his position, while painful for Denver to absorb, means “there’s a lot of opportunity for the taking.”

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s departure in free agency has mostly been dissected through the lens of how Christian Braun fits into the starting unit. But arguably just as important is the next domino. Strawther is next in line to be the Nuggets’ second-string shooting guard. He was the most-used of Denver’s three rookies last season, and now he seems to be the most likely of the trio to enter the rotation.

Obviously, his shot needs to improve in 2024-25. The former Gonzaga sniper was only 29.7% from beyond the arc as a rookie. But he and the Nuggets have broader intentions for his development than just catching and shooting.

“He has the ability to put the ball on the floor. He attacks close-outs,” Malone said. “When we drafted him, we knew that he was a great midrange shooter. … But we want to expand his game. We feel that he’s a guy in today’s NBA that can play the one. You think about his past year. We had so many different guys try to fill that position of being a backup point guard. And we think Julian has all the tools, as he continues to work on that, not to be a full-time point guard, but to be a guy we can play second-side pick-and-roll with, be a secondary ball-handler. Because we do not have a lot of that.”

Strawther has stayed in Denver most of the offseason so far. He’s been a near-daily presence in the practice gym at Ball Arena. The coaching staff’s emphasis has been on expansion as much as refinement.

“I think he’s a little more advanced (as a ball-handler) than you guys have seen,” Munson said. “In the regular season, he’s mostly off the ball. The guy’s really talented. He’s a talented shooter, but also a scorer, play-maker.”

Look for Strawther to explore and experiment with his skill set in Vegas. He’ll be the most imminently relevant player on the floor for Denver.

“It’s always a fine line in Summer League,” Munson said. “They’ve got a bigger opportunity (than usual). So they’re gonna have the ball and do more things. But you also want to take little pieces of, ‘Oh hey, Julian’s going to do that when he’s with Nikola (Jokic). Hunter’s going to make that cut when he’s with Nikola.’ Are they seeing those things? Are they making those plays?”

Other storylines

Jalen Pickett: The Nuggets are still seeking a backup point guard in free agency, but Pickett also has an opportunity to earn increased playing time as he enters his second year. Munson plans to put him in a lot of pick-and-roll reps at Summer League. The Nuggets can also cultivate Pickett’s unorthodox game by getting him the ball at the elbows or in the post, where he can be a cunning distributor.

“We want to see him run this team,” Munson said. “I could call a play down every time if I want, but I’d like to see Jalen kind of take control. Get everyone organized. ‘Hey, Julian’s got 20. He’s made four 3s. Let’s run some action for him.’ Same thing for Hunter. Just be Jalen Pickett.”

College roomies: The Nuggets forfeited the 56th overall pick this year when they traded up six spots to draft Holmes. One of the players they were strongly considering at No. 56, according to a league source, was PJ Hall, who ended up in Denver anyway as an undrafted free agent. Hall led Clemson to the Elite Eight in March. Before that, and more pertinently, he and Hunter Tyson were college roommates. They should have chances to rekindle their on-court chemistry at Summer League. Could Hall become this year’s Collin Gillespie for the Nuggets, earning solid NBA minutes on a two-way contract? Or will that be Creighton’s Trey Alexander, who left a strong first impression on coaches at mini-camp?

Family affair: Denver brought in some familiar names to play Summer League ball this year. Parker Braun is the older brother of Christian, another Kansas basketball alum. And Walter Ellis of Grand Canyon University is the son of former Nuggets player LaPhonso Ellis.

Strangely, none of the 14 players on the Summer League roster are listed as centers. It’s officially all guards and forwards for Denver, with Braun standing tallest at 6-foot-10.

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