DENVER | From Facu to JaMychal to Zeke, there have been plenty of new names to learn around the Denver Nuggets.
In all, seven fresh faces showed up this season. That’s a lot of additions for a Nuggets team that usually doesn’t have much turnover.
There’s still that rock-solid foundation of Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. The talented center-point guard tandem was a big reason the Nuggets overcame two 3-1 series deficits inside the NBA bubble as they advanced to the Western Conference finals.
Now, all the chatter centers around taking another step toward a title.
“We’re going to keep grinding,” Murray said. “Find a way to win the championship.”
With success comes some key losses — Torrey Craig joined Milwaukee, while Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee left for Detroit. Denver did bring back 35-year-old forward Paul Millsap, along with adding big men JaMychal Green and Isaiah Hartenstein.
There’s also the addition of Facundo “Facu” Campazzo, the 29-year-old Argentinian point guard whom Murray nicknamed “Spider-Man,” because “ that man is EVERYWHERE! ” Murray tweeted.
The Nuggets also drafted Zeke Nnaji at No. 22 and acquired fellow first-round pick R.J. Hampton in a draft-night deal. Other newcomers include Markus Howard and Greg Whittington.
“That’s a lot of new guys,” Millsap said. “But we still have our core guys.”
A core player in the making is Michael Porter Jr., the sharpshooting forward who will be counted on to fill the void left by Grant. Porter is confident he can take the pressure off Jokic and Murray.
“I want to be one of the best players and guard the best players,” Porter said.
Really, though, the level of success boils down to the play of Jokic and Murray, who both shined inside the bubble. Jokic, an All-Star for a second straight season, and Murray helped Denver rally to beat Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers before falling to the eventual champion Lakers in the conference finals.
“Nikola and Jamal are the cornerstones of our team, our two best players,” said Nuggets coach Michael Malone, whose team opens with Sacramento on Dec. 23 and hosts the Clippers on Christmas Night. “Last year was a great year, and we all want more.”
Don’t forget about Will Barton III, either. He didn’t play in the bubble due to a knee injury, but he’s rounding back into health and eager to contribute.
“I feel like if I was there, we could’ve went even farther,” Barton said. “That’s my drive, to see how far we can take it.”
In each of Malone’s five seasons in charge, the Nuggets have found a way to take a step forward either record-wise or through advancing in the playoffs. To do so this season in postseason terms would mean an appearance in the NBA Finals.
“I never look at it that way. We could have a great season and maybe not get back as far as we did this past year,” Malone said. “Of course that goal is to win a championship. That’s next in our progression. But this will not be a championship-or-bust year.”
Murray recharged over the short offseason by hanging out with family and shooting hoops with his teenage brother. Murray also got his wisdom teeth pulled.
Murray was sensational in the postseason. He averaged 26.5 points and had two 50-point eruptions during an epic back-and-forth first-round showdown with Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz.
Asked about his hunger level heading into this season, Murray said: “What do you think it is?”
“Exactly right, baby,” Murray said.
The precision-passing, smooth-shooting Jokic turned in 13 triple-doubles last season, the second-most in a season in the franchise’s NBA history (Fat Lever had 16 in 1986-87).
For his work, Jokic was a second team All-NBA selection.
“I feel and I believe he’s the best center in the world,” Malone said.
The 7-foot-2 Bol Bol sees himself as more of a power forward than a center. He explained with his thinner frame (a listed 209 pounds) he can “can get away more with that at the power forward spot than at center, because they’re a lot heavier.”
His goal this season: “Hopefully win rookie of the year.”
Bol remains eligible even after playing seven games in the bubble and four more in the postseason.
GREEN WITH ENVY
Count Millsap as someone who is glad the Nuggets brought in Green, a physical force Millsap faced in the Clippers series.
“He’s one of those power forwards you hate to go against,” Millsap said. “When they subbed him into the game, it put a little more pressure on me to do stuff.”