Nuggets rookie Christian Braun has already made the most astute observation he’s going to make all season: if he doesn’t have the answer, Nikola Jokic inevitably will.
It started in San Francisco, when Braun had his breakout defensive game against the Warriors on Friday night. On several occasions, he approached Jokic during a stoppage and picked his brain on positioning and timing.
“If you see something and you want to know, you go to him,” Braun said. “You try to learn from him because he knows your spot probably better than you do.”
Braun did it again Saturday night, when he, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Porter Jr. feasted off Jokic’s plate, combining for 14 of the Nuggets’ 20 3-pointers in their 122-117 win over Oklahoma City. Again, Braun went out of his way to ask the two-time reigning MVP a few pointed questions.
“He can be talented, he can be this, but if he don’t want to try and work for it, it doesn’t mean anything,” Jokic said. “He really tries.”
Braun, Calvin Booth’s first draft selection this past summer, is among the latest additions to a team that is starting to assemble scary depth around Jokic. Two of Braun’s 3-pointers came as a direct result of Jokic. The first was a cross-court pass for a corner 3-pointer, or a “gold” shot in Nuggets parlance. On the second, Jokic provided such a debilitating screen on Braun’s defender that it gave him no choice but to shoot.
After bypassing an open look in Friday’s win over the Warriors, Nuggets coach Michael Malone told Braun he works too hard not to shoot in those instances.
“(Christian’s) a rookie who’s just kind of growing up pretty quickly in this league,” Malone said.
For those keeping track, Braun has earned early admiration from Jokic. He’s also earned the praise of Jamal Murray.
“I picked him,” Murray said, without explaining what he meant by that. But know that Murray is an early adopter.
Last season, Booth candidly reminded reporters that it doesn’t take a basketball genius to know what happens when you surround Jokic with shooters. As the Thunder made a tactical decision to double-team Jokic, the two-time reigning MVP picked Oklahoma City’s defense apart.
With 3:26 left in the first quarter, the Thunder swarmed Jokic with two defenders before he spun out and heaved a baseline bounce-pass to Caldwell-Pope in the corner. It was already Caldwell-Pope’s fourth 3-pointer of the night.
The first had been a product of the Thunder over-helping on Jokic and leaving Caldwell-Pope open from the wing. The next look came via selfless ball movement, as all of Denver’s stars quickly got off the ball. On the third one, Jokic earned a hockey assist, seeding the pass that busted the Thunder’s defensive shape before Aaron Gordon found Caldwell-Pope again. Of Denver’s 20 3-pointers, Jokic was directly involved, or indirectly responsible, for 15 of them.
“Jok is unbelievable,” Caldwell-Pope said. “… One pass in Golden State, I didn’t even think he’d seen me.”
I get that there’s a regular assist, and a screen assist, but what’s the name for it when Joker’s mere gravity warrants overhelping and leaves a sniper (ahem, KCP) open? pic.twitter.com/1UPnCqu6oz
— Mike Singer (@msinger) October 23, 2022
Following a quiet season opener at Utah, Caldwell-Pope, or “Kenny Pope,” as the team has started calling him, was back in the gym for an optional shooting session prior to Friday’s Golden State game. Malone said he couldn’t help but notice his professionalism and work ethic as he went through his routine. The 10-year-vet – potentially another Booth masterstroke – brought Braun with him to the gym that day to impress more of his routine on the rookie.
Caldwell-Pope, like Braun is starting to do, has found early pay-dirt in Denver sprinting to the corners and finding space. Naturally, Jokic has noticed.
“That’s why he’s played so much on good teams because he’s doing his job, and I think that’s really rare in the league that he’s accepting what he’s good at,” Jokic said of Caldwell-Pope.
Now that Porter’s healthy – Saturday night was his second consecutive game shooting 5-of-10 from 3-point range – the Nuggets have plenty of levers to pull on offense. Against the Thunder, four of Porter’s 3-pointers came from the corner (a point of emphasis all training camp), and on four of them, Jokic was involved, either passing, initiating or screening.
It could be Jokic in the post, any of aforementioned shooters in the corner, Gordon in the paint, Bones Hyland or Bruce Brown off the bench, and that’s before the reintegration of Murray really happens.
The latter began against the Thunder, when Murray caught a streak in the third quarter. For now, he’s still limited to around 26 minutes per game despite a tongue-in-cheek plea to ramp up to 35 minutes next game.
What the Nuggets have building is an enormous offensive force. Plug a leak, and the Nuggets have counters for that fix. If the defense can get even marginally better, most teams won’t have the personnel to keep up.