Nuggets 2020 draft philosophy as they prepare for “crapshoot”

Most years, the NBA draft is Christmas for league executives.

Years of scouting, hundreds of flights and thousands of conversations culminate in one night that can shape a franchise’s fortunes. Find a gifted, 7-foot Serbian center midway through the second round and the trajectory of your team can flip on a dime.

This year, the NBA scouting calendar was uprooted by the coronavirus pandemic. There was no NCAA Tournament. The Power 5 leagues all canceled its conference tournaments. The NBA draft combine in Chicago – a melting pot of league executives, basketball luminaries, college coaches and a few dozen media members – was canceled. No hosting prospects by the Nuggets and introducing them to Denver. Even if only one or two of them got drafted, at least the Nuggets had established a working relationship with players. Not in 2020.

Instead, teams have relied on Zoom interviews to interact with incoming prospects. It wasn’t until recently that teams were permitted to travel and watch up to 10 individual workouts — never against competition. The sobering reality for next Wednesday’s NBA draft is that organizations, including Denver, are dealing with much the same information they had back in March.

“Collectively teams are probably less certain what might be happening around them, what other teams are thinking, because we’ve lacked those avenues to get together and talk about what this team’s doing, that team’s doing,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly told The Denver Post. “It should make for a fun night. There’s some clarity on the very top of the draft, and then after that, it’ll largely be a free-for-all.”

That could be an advantage for the Nuggets, who’ve explored moving up from No. 22 into the top 10 of the draft, according to two league sources. One possibility as a result of the atypical process: One of Denver’s lottery targets could slip within a reasonable, attainable range. Another, more likely, possibility: Denver’s draft philosophy will prove fruitful yet again.

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Under Connelly, who’s overseen the organization’s last seven drafts, there have been some notable mistakes, including facilitating the 2013 and 2017 draft-night trades of Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, respectively, to the Utah Jazz. The Mitchell trade stung, not only because of who he became, but because the Nuggets missed on their primary target that night (OG Anunoby) and were stuck with Tyler Lydon. Of course, several other teams passed on Mitchell as well. Nonetheless, it was a miss.

In totality, Connelly’s hit big more than he’s whiffed.

In 2014, he traded down, swindling Chicago, to snag Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris. That same year, Connelly found franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokic with the 41st pick. Two years later, Connelly struck again with Jamal Murray at No. 7 – a pick team officials now say they never expected to be there. He salvaged the 2017 debacle by finding Monte Morris at No. 51. More recently, the Nuggets pounced on opportunity and bet on talent. Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol represent two of the most intriguing players on Denver’s roster.

“The draft’s a crapshoot,” Connelly said. “You’ve heard me use this term countless times: ‘Make informed mistakes.’ We just try to be as informed and as knowledgeable about the players, where they potentially will go on draft night. It’s far from a perfect science.”

Connelly humbly admits that truth, while also giving his organization the best shot at getting lucky. The Nuggets cast a wide net. At the beginning of the years-long process, Denver’s front office constructs a list of several hundred prospects at one point deemed draft-able. Through some combination of scouting, film work and internal debate, that gets whittled down to around 75.

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Because travel and exposure were limited during the pandemic, the Nuggets had to adjust. Denver’s staff, with new general manager Calvin Booth and new assistant GM Tommy Balcetis, prided itself on developing “convicted opinions,” on prospects, according to Connelly. And though the pandemic presented major obstacles this spring, the Nuggets’ front office has been gathering information for years.

“Most of these guys we’ve kept tabs on two, three, four years,” Connelly said. “We’re lucky that we have a pretty diverse staff. All have unique relationships throughout the whole basketball world. Collegiately, high school, AAU, internationally.  … One of the things we feel like we can control is how much we know about these guys. All the credit goes to our staff for making sure I don’t make mistakes or making sure we know as much as humanly possible about these guys.”

And here’s where the Nuggets have an advantage come Wednesday night. In a year where the pandemic has stunted “groupthink,” the Nuggets can trust they’ve never operated that way. When lottery team after lottery team bypassed Porter in 2018 because of his medicals, the Nuggets waited patiently for the sweet-shooting 6-foot-10 forward to drop.

“In Michael’s case, we felt like we had good depth,” Connelly said. “We were uncertain what impact any rookie was going to make. We thought he was an elite talented guy and should’ve heard his name called in the first couple picks.”