Bones Hyland has more confidence in his pinkie than most people will ever know.
It’s what makes him such a unique and compelling piece of the Nuggets’ outfit. Nikola Jokic is the anchor of Denver’s championship dreams, but Hyland infuses energy like a swift gust of wind. His voice is memorable, nickname endearing, and personality infectious. His deep 3-pointers might as well be worth four points for the jolt they provide inside Ball Arena.
Evidently, he likes them, too. At home, Hyland’s shooting 44% on 3-pointers compared to a still very respectable 38% on the road. If basketball is entertainment, there’s a reason why Hyland has become your favorite player’s favorite player. Memphis’ Ja Morant said so about Hyland, and Kevin Garnett gave him love, too. According to Hyland, both players sent extended messages to Denver’s second-year guard about how much they appreciated the way he attacks the game.
Hyland’s appeal is obvious. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and his story tugs on all the strings. But is he a dependable piece of a championship puzzle? With the trade deadline less than a month away, only Nuggets GM Calvin Booth can decide that.
Three executives from different Western Conference teams speculated to The Post that if the Nuggets were going to make a trade, Hyland would be involved. It doesn’t take a significant leap to deduce what they might be looking for, as Booth has prioritized size, defense and experience since assuming the top job last summer.
Hyland can be simultaneously spellbinding when he gets the crowd behind him and frustrating when he hoists an ill-advised shot. Some nights he’s engaged and swarming the passing lanes, while other nights he can relax on defense.
He’s also only a second-year player just beginning to tap his immense potential. Among his draft class, his 13.6 points ranked eighth heading into the weekend. After Cleveland’s roving big man Evan Mobley, and Toronto’s versatile Scottie Barnes, there’s an argument that Hyland’s minutes could be the next most valuable among all second-year players. If they’re not, then they’re at least in the conversation with the minutes amassed by New Orleans’ Herb Jones and Trey Murphy III. Those are substantial, significant minutes, the kind that are earned with trust. The Pelicans entered the weekend firmly entrenched as the No. 3 seed behind Denver and Memphis.
Hyland isn’t toiling away in Houston, Orlando or Detroit; he’s shepherding the second unit of the No. 1 team in the West.
After tying Jokic for a team-high 21 points in Wednesday’s rout of Phoenix, including five 3-pointers, Hyland spoke to his situation in Denver.
“I like to win,” Hyland said. “I feel like, if I would be on another team, of course (there’d be more playing time), but I’m satisfied where I am. I feel like we have a great team, it’s a great locker room, and I’m playing at a high level. I’m satisfied where I’m at.”
That’s one part of the equation. Over his last eight games, Hyland’s averaging 16.6 points on 52% shooting from the 3-point line in just 22 minutes per game. That’s third on the team in scoring, behind only Jokic and Jamal Murray. He’s also dished 3.6 assists per game over that span. Even though Hyland’s a relentless, score-first guard, he’s starting to grasp the nuances of distributing in the NBA. When he started against the Kings on Dec. 28 in Murray’s absence, Hyland registered a career-high 11 assists. Once teams fear his marksmanship, those passing lanes will only widen further.
The core of the question Booth has to ask himself is whether he believes Hyland’s timeline matches the team’s championship window.
The Nuggets, winners of 14 of their last 17, are among the few franchises that can genuinely talk themselves into title contenders this season. Do the Nuggets trust Hyland in the playoffs, where he helped them win a game against the eventual champion Warriors last season? Or is he tantalizing enough to an opponent that they’d be willing to part with a player that elevates Denver’s championship potential?
No one said the choice would be easy.
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