SAN FRANCISCO – If you notice a little old-school grit in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s game, here’s why: As Caldwell-Pope was molding himself into a switchable, ball-stopping defender, one of his primary sources of inspiration came from the Grizzlies’ school of defending.
“One of my main guys, old school Memphis — Tony Allen,” Caldwell-Pope said from shootaround Friday morning, inside Golden State’s sparkling new Chase Center.
His other favorite study? Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers’ ball-hawking forward.
“He’s long in the gaps,” Caldwell-Pope said.
Caldwell-Pope had two steals and a block in hounding Jordan Clarkson and Mike Conley in Wednesday’s season opener at Utah. The two veteran guards were a combined 6 for 17 from the field. Caldwell-Pope explained his defensive philosophy: stay down in front of his mark, move his feet, and limit the number of times he gambles.
He was so effective that not even a quiet scoring night (two points on three shots) could keep him from playing 35 minutes Wednesday night.
The 29-year-old veteran shooting guard was brought to Denver to defend. Long on offensive skill players but short on hardnosed, competitive defenders, Caldwell-Pope checked numerous boxes for the Nuggets. He had heard his name associated with Denver since the Western Conference Finals series against the Lakers in 2020.
Where it came from will remain anonymous, but the fact that it finally came to fruition this summer, via a trade with Washington, was a benefit for both parties.
Caldwell-Pope’s scoring will come. As he learns to play off Nikola Jokic and tries to settle into a role somewhere behind Denver’s first three offensive options, Caldwell-Pope will find his shots. Denver’s offense has too many weapons for opposing teams to contain them all.
That being said, he admitted his first game wasn’t what he expected.
“I’m still learning as I go,” he said, including when and where Jokic’s passes might arrive from.
But even if the offense wasn’t there, he still contributed with six assists as well as his defense.
“I’m a great passer,” he said. “… That’s another secret I have.”
On Tuesday night, one night before the Nuggets got punched in the mouth by the Jazz, they held a team dinner at a local Italian place in downtown Salt Lake City. The dress was casual, as was the conversation.
“Just talking about basketball, talking about life,” Caldwell-Pope said.
As one of the veterans on a team trying to reach the pinnacle, Caldwell-Pope said he’s trying to take a more active role in organizing team dinners and establishing trust among many of the team’s new faces. If the Nuggets are going to win a championship, new guys like Bruce Brown, Caldwell-Pope and even veteran DeAndre Jordan are going to have to mesh with the team’s established core.
Caldwell-Pope has already done his part. When the trade from Washington became official, it effectively meant Caldwell-Pope would transition from a team competing for the postseason, to a team competing for a ring. Though he was fond of his time with the Wizards, Caldwell-Pope can already see the foundation that’s been laid in Denver.
“They understand the pressure and the sacrifices,” he said.