Green, a second round draft pick of the Utah Jazz in 2013 (acquired by the Nuggets in a draft night trade) who spent last season as a draft and stash player for the Nuggets, playing for Montepaschi Siena in Italy, is trying to make his way onto a somewhat crowded Nuggets squad with his second Vegas Summer League showing. He had an up and down Summer League a year ago, becoming invisible for long stretches of time on the offensive end and playing matador defense. After looking unimpressive as a starter in his first three games in that competition, Green came off the bench in the remaining three and turned it around, putting up a decent stat line and confirming his offensive pedigree, especially from deep.
Additionally, after missing his first two free throw attempts in that competition, he shot 80 percent from the line in the remaining games, a figure much more in line with his career percentage at Virginia Tech. But alas, as I said a year ago:
"While Green didn't do a lot to play his way onto this team, he also didn't do a lot to play himself off of it. The bigger reason he might find himself out in the cold when the Nuggets break camp this fall is the signings they have made."
And I was right, as the Nuggets' signings essentially boxed Green out of a roster spot just by sheer numbers. While it was clear from his Summer League showing that he had some developing to do, I thought he could've been an end of the bench piece for them, and after a year, become a serviceable second unit guard that could provide energy and offense when Ty Lawson sat down. Alas, they didn't give him the chance to prove himself on the NBA level, instead shipping him to Europe without even extending him an invite to training camp. That last part is customary, but only for players who have little to no chance of making the team and usually is a reflection on how the front office sees that player. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have a nearly full roster once again, and that's with free agency in its infancy (or at least free agency AFTER Lebron made his decision, as many teams and free agents delayed signing until after he announced).
So how can Green make his way onto the Nuggets' crowded roster, how does he fit in to their plans this season (if at all) and what happens if he fails to make the team for a second-straight year? We'll analyze Green's situation respective to the team and try to answer those questions below.
Factor 1: Green's European Body Of Work
When it comes down to it, a year in Europe probably did him more good as a player than sitting at the end of an NBA bench just to do so, especially with how he performed for Montepaschi Siena. His numbers can be seen in the table below:
Montepaschi Siena finished 35-28 in all competitions, and lost Game 7 of the Serie A Finals to the team they finished second to in the regular season, EA7 Armani (or Emporio Armani...yes, that's really a team's name in Italy). In that game, Green led the team in scoring with 15 points, despite playing only 17 minutes. For the season, Green led the team in scoring, and was second in points per game among regulars.
Green played in 61 of Montepaschi Siena's 63 games, and the two games he missed were due to a hip injury. He posted averages of 10.8 points per game, 1.6 rebounds per game and 1.1 assists per game, while shooting a .54/.33/.81 line. Feel free to check my math, but just know I rounded to the next decimal point and that the stats listed on Eurobasket's team website for Erick's team contained impossibilities, such as Erick collecting 47.2 rebounds in league. Unless there's a way to bring down .2 of a rebound from a statistical standpoint, I'll just go with him grabbing 47 as an approximation. Assuming their stats are relatively correct, the margin of error for all of those stats over the entire season is relatively slim.
The scoring is damn good, both on a per-minute basis and efficiency-wise. Shooting 54 percent from the field is phenomenal for any player, not to mention a guard. The 3-point shooting needs to be improved, especially for a player like Green, who as we know from his last two years at Virginia Tech was so reliant on the shot as part of his offensive arsenal. I would think that, given his size and the increased strength and speed of his defenders in the NBA, he will become even more so at that level. Furthermore, in Europe, the 3-point line is over a foot and a half shorter than it is in the NBA, except in the corners where the difference is negligible. I don't think that is a factor, as I recall Erick being able to shoot as well from 26 feet as he could from 23 feet. 3-point shooting is the new efficiency in basketball, and so if Green wants to cut it as a guard in the NBA, he'll have to improve upon that percentage. 33 percent is the baseline at which players should be shooting 3-pointers.
Assist-wise, the numbers are pretty alarming, as his totals have seemed to dip significantly, something our friend Nate Timmons from Nuggets SB Nation site Denver Stiffs pointed out in his analysis of Green's numbers/progression in early June. However, Green was on a team that saw four players average 15.1 assists, meaning that in the lower scoring European games he wasn't doing a lot of the ball-handling or assisting. His per-minute scoring numbers back that up, as he shot often while on the floor. So I would say his assist numbers are less of a concern. In fact, it's quite impressive to see that for someone with such a high usage rate as a scorer, that Green managed to take immaculate care of the ball averaging less than a turnover per game. So even with the low assist numbers that are incredibly likely to see an uptick on a team where he is seeing more of a true point guard role, his ability to not hurt his team by turning the ball over and continued positive assist-to-turnover ratio is encouraging.
Factor 2: 2014 Las Vegas Summer League Performance
Green's 2014 Summer League performance wasn't perfect. In fact, there are still some glaring flaws in his game that need to be addressed (first and foremost his size/strength). But what is clear is that he is an improved, more confident and NBA-ready player than the Erick Green we saw on the floor in the same competition just a year ago. His numbers were good, but he wasn't quite as good as those numbers suggested, as he was again beaten often and out-muscled on the defensive end, something that offensive metrics fail to show. Still, in looking at a comparison of his stats in this year's circuit versus 2013 the improvement is clear:
Erick Green 2014 Summer League Stats
Erick Green 2013 Summer League Stats
The uptick in points, particularly in the few number of minutes added, shows how much better offensively Erick was on a per-minute basis and the shooting percentages (save his 3-point shot) are significantly improved. That his three point shot has fallen off considerably from his time at Virginia Tech and the 2013 Summer League is a concern, but essentially, as far as this competition is concerned it just came down to Erick having two bad shooting nights from deep. Considering that he also had three very good shooting nights from downtown, this concern is lessened.
While Erick had slightly more assists per game at this year's event, he also committed almost twice as many turnovers per game. Though 1.8 turnovers per game isn't a number that is bad for NBA point guards getting the minutes Erick received in this competition—especially when also taking his steal numbers into account—he needs to create far more for other players on the offensive end of the floor. Once again, however the Nuggets' Summer League team was horrid offensively, relying on three perimeter players and failing to space the floor and move the ball from one side to the other. Watching Erick and the passes he made during the competition tends to indicate that 1. those assist numbers will be higher in a more functional offense, and 2. that he is making good decisions and good passes for that matter the majority of the time. While the Summer League alone won't cause him to make the roster, I certainly think he's improved his chances with his showing.
Factor 3: The Nuggets Roster/Roster Space
Once again, this is the biggest roadblock to Green latching on with the Nuggets. Currently, Denver has 13 players under guaranteed contracts (the NBA roster maximum is 15), and that's not counting 2014 first rounder Jusuf Nurkic, who opted out of his Croatian League deal and according to reports is Denver-bound immediately, or second round pick Nikola Jokic. Jokic can be stashed in Europe, and that's probably what the 19-year old center, who just failed to make the Serbian National Team for the 2014 World Cup (wait, I thought that was soccer) should do. But, Nurkic's case is not that simple.
First, if he doesn't play for the Nuggets this season, he will still count $1,468,900 against their cap number as an unsigned rookie hold. For a team like the Nuggets, that currently sports a cap figure of around $74 million (once their cap holds are processed), that's not desirable. For one, the 2014-15 NBA Salary Cap is $63.2 million and the luxury tax is $77 million. So that means they're around $11 million over the cap and around $3 million under the luxury tax whether they sign Nurkic or not. That means the only contracts they can offer are the taxpayer mid-level exception, as the full mid-level would take them above the luxury tax apron, and veteran minimum deals. Considering they'd be fielding a roster of 13 players without Nurkic for the same price as they could field 14 with him, and with two vacant spots, it's hard to see a scenario where he isn't on this roster in 2014. Even so, there is some dissension about whether he'll end up stateside as a result of declining the Nuggets' offer to join the Summer League:
Jusuf Nurkic declined NBA Summer League because he wants to play for National Teams, U20 and A team— Igor Marinovic (@sofoklo13) July 2, 2014
According to Bosnian Basketball Federation secretary Denver Nuggets offered Jusuf Nurkic a contract but only if he plays NBA Summer League— Igor Marinovic (@sofoklo13) July 2, 2014
And then there's this little piece of information from Sportando:
According to Bosnian Basketball Federation secretary Denver Nuggets offered to Jusuf Nurkic a contract but only if he plays NBA Summer League.
Jusuf Nurkic declined to play NBA Summer League because he wants to play for National Teams, U20 and A team.
"Nurkic will join the National Team Under 20 on July 5 to play Eurobasket B Division and then he will join the senior National Team. But we are in a comical situation. Denver Nuggets want to sign Jusuf Nurkic to a contract but just if he plays in the NBA Summer League. However, Jusuf doesn't want to change his plans because he wants to play for Bosnian National Team. His agent called us begging to accept Denver Nuggets' proposal to play in the Summer League. Honestly, we did not know how to answer him. It is a ridiculous to ask us to let a player leave. Nurkic has a terrible desire to play for the National Team. He loves his country and we are all pleasantly surprised by his attitude" said Harun Mahmutovic.
But according to the Nuggets' official site:
"Because of Nurkic's commitment to his national team, he was unable to participate with the Nuggets at the Samsung NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Denver still plans to have him on its roster for the 2014-15 season."
Are the Nuggets really playing hardball with their top pick in 2014, or was this just a bluff because they preferred him to be stateside and play for their Summer League team? I would think it's the latter, but until it happens I can't be sure and I would take both pieces of information with a grain of salt. However, Rotoworld, the top player tracking site in existence, reported that Nurkic WILL be with the Nuggets in 2014, eight days after he turned down Denver's offer to play on their Summer League team.
Nurkic is currently participating in the U20 Division B European Championships that conflicted with the Summer League schedule. He is playing well, averaging 18.2 points and 12.4 rebounds in 26 minutes as of three days ago, although against admittedly inferior competition. He will also join his nation's A team, which he is already practicing with, at the end of the current competition.
Whether or not Nurkic is with Denver in 2014 does not apparently affect the Nuggets' way of thinking in regards to roster construction. Prior to the draft, Denver planned to bring over 2013 second rounder Joffrey Lovergne, a French center/power forward who played well for Partizan Belgrade last season. He has since signed a two-year deal with Khimki Moscow, which has an NBA opt-out clause in 2015. So while he will not be on the Nuggets' roster this year, it is clear that Denver believes it needs to add another big to its current roster. That's bad news for Erick Green, as whether that be Nurkic or someone else, it indicates there will likely be only one remaining roster spot once they have accomplished that.
There's also no guarantee that the Nuggets don't sign someone, or more than one someone, with either their taxpayer mid-level exception or a veteran minimum deal, as they don't have to be down to 15 players until after training camp. There are still plenty of names that could improve this roster, especially if they can be had for the league's veteran minimum amount. But what's for sure (assuming the player is not a rookie), even that would be a greater cap hit than Green's $507,336 deal if he were to sign and become fully guaranteed. So there's some financial incentive to sign a cheaper player, whether that be Green or otherwise. There is, however, still some talent left on the free agent market (though most of the talented players are restricted free agents or out of the Nuggets' price range), with the question being, is said talent that much better than Green for the price? If not, Green has a decent shot. But if so, or if the Nuggets sign more than one player for camp, it's hard to say. Luckily, according to Woody Paige of the Denver Post:
"Coach Brian Shaw claims the roster is set, so Kevin Love with the Nuggets is a Pipe Dream Team. And don't look for the Nuggets to sign other sexy free agents."
That would seem to benefit Green, assuming that Shaw doesn't mean the roster is set with their current 14 players, as NBA teams have been increasingly reluctant to carry the full 15 for trade flexibility. But let's say, even with what Brian Shaw said there, that the Nuggets do sign a few players, either on partial, full or completely unguaranteed deals or as camp bodies. Are there any internal candidates for trade or release that could facilitate Erick Green making the roster? Perhaps.
Quincy Miller is the one player who is a candidate for release by the Nuggets. Miller was tearing it up at the Vegas Summer League before tearing up his right ankle, averaging 18.7 points per game while shooting a .39/.35/.71 line, which are very close to his career shooting averages of .37/.32/.70. Early reports are that it is just a serious sprain that won't require surgery and that he should be fine for training camp. He has a contract that is only guaranteed for $150,000 of its value this year, and could possibly be cut if the Nuggets want to do that. But as he can play both small forward, of which they currently only have two others, and shooting guard, Miller is unlikely to be let go. Miller has been somewhat of a disappointment in his two NBA seasons after being drafted high in the second round, and is inefficient on the offensive end. So it's not like his release would be a shocker. I would be mildly surprised if the Nuggets release him, as they're supposedly happy with the progression he's shown. It feels like more of a make or break year for Miller rather than time to throw in the towel altogether.
As for a trade, only two players come to mind: Randy Foye and Darell Arthur. Foye had somewhat of a career year in 2013 for the Nuggets, but was still below league average by a number of metrics. Furthermore, he is owed a fully guaranteed $6,405,000 over the next two years. While I don't know of a team willing to take on that kind of commitment for Foye, perhaps a playoff team looking to space the floor with shooters would be interested, but that's usually the kind of deal that happens at the trade deadline, not before the season starts. Arthur, acquired last year by new GM Tim Connelly, was underwhelming as always, doing about exactly what he had every season prior on a per-minute basis. While Connelly is unlikely to jettison Arthur off to another taker and admit his first major move didn't go down like it was expected, it could make sense for him to find a better power forward for his rotation if there's a team like the Orlando Magic or Philadelphia 76ers that doesn't care about competition this year or the salary hit. But that usually requires an asset, and it's likely an asset the Nuggets don't want to give up (usually a pick). So it's likely that Connelly will just roll the team out there and let Arthur's $3,457,149 come off the books at the end of the year.
Final Verdict: If the Nuggets decide to go with the full 15 players, I think Green stands a pretty good shot of making the team this year, despite what our friends at Denver Stiffs think (though they would know better):
"Along with Harris and Miller, Green will be the most watched Nugget during summer league play to see if he has a chance at cracking the Nuggets roster this fall ... but with the arrival of Harris, Green is likely a longshot and will be sent overseas again."
There's no one heads and shoulders above him for the price and the Nuggets are already up against the luxury tax, so are unlikely to make a big signing via their taxpayer mid-level exception. Also, as Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said above, he thinks the roster is pretty much set (though no indications if that statement includes Green or not) without free agent signings. Plus, if they pass on Green again, it's much more likely he signs a long-term deal in Europe (he could also ask really nicely for the Nuggets to relinquish his rights, though I don't know that they would do it). Players that do not make the NBA team that drafted them by their second year, however, are highly unlikely to ever see the hardwood stateside again. If the Nuggets don't go with 15 players or make another signing via free agency, the chances are that Green does not make the team. But right now, with Summer League and all the roster developments for the Nuggets over the last month, Green has certainly improved his chances. Best of luck Erick. Hokies everywhere are rooting for you.
We will continue to cover Erick's attempts to latch on in the NBA, as we will with every other Hokie. Stay tuned to both Gobbler Country and Denver Stiffs for news and updates, right here on SB Nation.