LAS VEGAS -- The Nuggets have backcourt weapons everywhere. They just have to figure out what to do with them.
Denver opened Summer League play Friday in Las Vegas and promptly completely fell apart. They turned the ball over and nearly everyone threw up an airball. But eventually, the bigger point of how their summer league squad matches up with their Game 1 opponent, the Minnesota Timberwolves, won out. The Nuggets had too much talent.
While Kris Dunn stole the show with 27 points, the Nuggets stole the game behind 45 points from Gary Harris and Emmanuel Mudiay in an 88-82 victory. Harris in particular showed why despite the conversation about Jamal Murray being the hyped rookie guard, Harris is very much an established product.
Harris was the best player on the floor with the way he was able to disrupt the game defensively, get out in the open floor and cause mayhem. Dunn had the points, but Harris (22 points on 50 percent shooting) was the best player on the floor.
"I just wanted to come out and play with the young guys," Harris said on the decision to play in Vegas for the third year. "We've got a young, talented crew. So I wanted to help us get a step ahead going into training camp in the fall."
"He just took over. He and Emmanuel stayed poised, and controlled the game," Summer League Nuggets coach Micah Nori said of Harris.
Mudiay, too, showed up in a big way. Mudiay's handle has improved considerably, ("Emmanuel has gotten stronger with the ball," Nori said post-game), and his combination of size, athleticism and vision put him on a substantively higher level, even as he dueled with Dunn.
For Murray, though, there was some clear awkwardness. The youngster found his way to 14 points on 5-of-12 shooting and had some incredible finishes. But he also seemed ill-at-ease without the ball. This is going to be continuing issue for the Nuggets, with Mudiay, Harris and Murray all needing the ball for various reasons. For Denver, though, they see this as a plus.
"The one thing that you're seeing is that Emmanuel," Nori said, "because he's played, he's much more comfortable. And that's not bad, because Jamal can shoot and spread the floor. Later on it was easier to use them both and counter where Jamal would take it or they'd run a side pick and roll and use the other guard on the other side. With Jamal, Emmanuel, and Gary we've got three guys who can create with the ball in their hands."
Murray showed flashes of the dynamic scorer and playmaker he can be, but there's a long way to go for him to get comfortable as should be expected with any rookie in his first summer league game, and in the meantime, Denver's dynamic backcourt from last season continues to improve.
Harris, for one, isn't threatened by the competition from the youngster from Kentucky, saying he just wants to help Murray in any way he can to help "speed up his process" because he'll be a "helluva player" for Denver. Harris said that he still has way more of a chip on his shoulder about not getting opportunities his rookie season (under then-coach Brian Shaw) than he does about his current situation.
The Nuggets lost out on Dwyane Wade in the free-agent sweepstakes, but with a talented backcourt combo and equally-under-the-radar phenom Nikola Jokic (who finished with 19 points in Olympic qualifier play Friday), Denver continues to percolate what is a stealthy good team headed into next season despite adding nothing to the roster in the free agency bonanza.
Denver's taking the long game approach, and Friday night was another in what the team views as a long journey of progress towards returning to playoff contention.