With the 2019-2020 NBA season on the verge of cancellation, it’s time to look forward to what the Denver Nuggets will look like next season. While the main spin players are usually at the center of the fans, the entire NBA list is important when it comes to winning a championship, from the star player to the bench warmer.
Every Wednesday, Denver Stiffs will take a look at a bench player who has barely played for the Nuggets this season. The Nuggets had a spin on the stack throughout the 2019-2020 period, leaving limited opportunities for end-of-bench players to impact the floor. However, with many Nugget players having expiring contracts, end-of-bank players may suddenly find themselves with a regular role in the rotation as soon as next season.
The Nuggets have five players at the end of their bench who are 25 or under: PJ Dozier, Keita Bates-Diop, Vlatko Cancar, Noah Vonleh and Bol Bol. Could any of them be a high impact member of the Nuggets organization in the future?
This week, we start with PJ Dozier.
Dozier’s role during the 2019-2020 season
PJ Dozier was a late addition to the Nuggets roster before the start of the season. In mid-August, the Nuggets decided to add Dozier to a training camp deal, an opportunity for Dozier to prove himself worthy of an NBA contract on the Nuggets or with another NBA team going on. Apparently, the Nuggets were very impressed with him during the training camp and in the preseason, and in mid-October the Nuggets and Dozier accepted a two-way contract for the duration of the 2019-2020 season.
For the first three months of the season, Dozier spent most of his time in the G-League with the Windy City Bulls, which was impressive. In 18 games, Dozier scored an average of 21.4 points, 7.7 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game, showing a versatile ability with the ball in his hands. The Nuggets were impressed by Dozier, but with Jamal Murray and Monte Morris absorbing all the minutes of the guard points, that skill set wasn’t necessary.
So when Dozier was called by the Nuggets for accident insurance reasons in mid-January, Jamal Murray sprained his ankle during the second quarter of a game against the Charlotte Hornets on January 15. That was the possibility that Dozier needed to prove he belonged to the NBA level, and it looked fantastic.
12 points on 5 out of 7 shots to combine with four rebounds and two assists for the South Carolina product, but it was not only his production that showed me right away and there he was an NBA player. I was in the game and seeing how comfortable he was in his first game of the year with the Nuggets, getting off the bench in the middle of the third quarter, was extremely impressive. Physical instruments were on display on both ends, but the ability to read the field and play the game simple was what stood out the most.
After that game, Dozier remained in rotation for 14 of the next 15 games heading for the All-Star break. Even when Jamal Murray returned, Dozier remained in the rotation because Will Barton went down with his injury problems. Dozier moved from the reserve point guard to the reserve shooting guard, sometimes even playing alongside Murray and Monte Morris in a three-guard formation.
In the 15 games in which Dozier played a regular role off the bench before the All-Star break, the Nuggets recorded a 11-4 record, mainly due to the excellent work of Murray and Nikola Jokic, but also because many players as Dozier have stepped up. During that stretch, the Nuggets had a total + less than +4 with Dozier on the floor. It wasn’t a negative while out there, an encouraging number for a player with a two-way contract.
After the discontinuation of All-Star, Dozier’s role turned into garbage minutes with every guard / winger available to play. Dozier played only 12 total minutes in six games and fired badly during the waste time. His season was practically over when the Denver roster returned to full force, but not before he showed off an NBA skillset that the Nuggets would be wise to cultivate for future seasons.
What to expect from Dozier in the future
Given that Dozier had a two-way contract in the 2019-2020 period, this summer he will be a limited free agent who will join the 2020 free agency (hopefully). With the Nuggets currently tied to Jamal Murray with a maximum contract, Gary Harris and Will Barton with significant deals, and Monte Morris heading for the final year of a low-cost contract, I’d be surprised if blocking Dozier was a top priority for the Nuggets. He never thought of playing an important role for the Nuggets while the group of four players above remain intact.
However, the Nuggets must remain forward-looking and, as other elements on their list become more expensive, keeping players able to fill a necessary role for a lower price could be the difference between winning and losing a championship. Although Dozier is not a shooter, passerby or top scorer of all the players who precede him, he has the potential to be the best perimeter defender on the roster.
What people don’t remember about the moment Michael Porter Jr. completely left Khris Middleton on the ground earlier this year: PJ Dozier started the game by stripping Eric Bledsoe cleanly on a disc towards the edge. His long arms and defensive awareness allow Dozier to be in an excellent position to play this type of game. Torrey Craig is the only other Nugget player who can harass a guard with length and strength, as opposed to lightning speed like Gary Harris.
I mean, watch Dozier lend Rudy Gobert a hand from the crushing point in transition to block Emmanuel Mudiay from the edge. This is a play that a power forward or a center makes. Dozier is a guardian who handles the ball, but at 6 feet-6 with long arms, he can do those kinds of physical games necessary to deny the passage of lanes and play basketball.
He is a small champion, but there were only 11 other guards in the NBA who could match Dozier’s theft and block rates this season in his limited minutes. These were players like Josh Richardson, Mikal Bridges, Jrue Holiday and Matisse Thybulle among those who played a significant amount of time, and David Nwaba, Edmond Sumner and Shaquille Harrison among players like Dozier. These are long perimeter players, some try to break into NBA circles, others already there and thrive as perimeter defenders.
Is this potential sufficient to justify offering a fully guaranteed contract to Dozier? I think so.
It is very likely that what Dozier has put on tape over the past year was nothing more than a light bulb moment. Almost all NBA players have those moments, but what sets spin players apart from garbage players is how consistently those bulb moments become. Dozier has played quite well for 15 games, and that’s about it. It is fair to ask if he can do the same thing for an entire season, if it makes sense that a team competing for a championship should invest resources to find out.
I am of the opinion that Dozier is still worth the effort. He has NBA skills that need time and repetition to develop, but if what he does from time to time can become more consistent, that player can help the Nuggets as early as next season.
I am reminded of the race for the Toronto Raptors championship when I think of filling the end of the bench with young players who could potentially help the team. With Monte Morris and Dozier in particular, I am reminded of Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright, two talented point guard prospects who helped the Toronto bench. The Raptors eventually exchanged Wright as part of a commercial deadline package for Marc Gasol, but since they had invested and cultivated Wright’s talent, they were able to flip him into a piece that helped the Raptors get past Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers and win a championship last season.
Could Dozier be Delon Wright of Denver? A bench guard perspective that adds length, versatility and athleticism to the backcourt before the Nuggets ultimately decide if they want to keep their version of VanVleet (Morris) in the long term? It looks like a bar that Dozier can meet. Wright averaged 18 minutes per game from the bench for the Raptors in 2018-19 as a versatile facilitator and defender before trading. I could see Dozier hit those marks if he had the opportunity.
In the event that the Nuggets decide to move one of Harris or Barton, they may already have a good candidate for the reserve shooting guard minutes next to Morris next year. Dozier has a different skill set than Malik Beasley and other traditional shooting guards, but that skill set could defensively improve the Nuggets in future seasons.
Remember, Dozier is only 23 years old. He was a player on the project when he discussed his potential during the 2017 NBA Draft and in the three years since that time, he had time to develop his skills in the G League and within minutes of being on the bench. It is precisely in the period when he can begin to show his true potential.
The Nuggets would be wise to invest on the ground floor and hope that Dozier will take it from there.