DENVER (AP) – On the roster, 36-year-old Mike Miller is listed as a shooting guard/small forward. His most essential position is mentor.
It’s an assignment Miller takes seriously on a young squad still learning how to consistently win.
The Denver Nuggets boast a rookie sharpshooter (Jamal Murray), an array of up-and-comers (Emmanuel Mudiay, Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic) and a few veteran leaders hoping to blend it all together.
“Being a dinosaur in this league, and seeing everything that I have, I’ve been a part of really talented teams that have won 23 games. I’ve been a part of talented teams that have won championships,” said Miller, who agreed to a two-year deal in July. “What’s the difference? To me, it’s the culture and having that understanding in the locker room where you can hold guys accountable. Those are things you have to start developing.”
These days, the Nuggets are all about development. That begins with Mudiay, a 20-year-old point guard who steadily improved during the second half of last season. There’s also Jokic, a versatile big man who is loaded with confidence after a summer in which he helped Serbia to a silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. And it’s hard to overlook Nurkic, a bruising 7-footer who pairs nicely in the middle with Jokic.
“The reason so many of our young players grew last year is we allowed them to play through mistakes. It wasn’t a situation where a guy made a mistake and looked over at the bench and was like, ‘Am I coming out?'” said coach Michael Malone, whose team finished 33-49 in his first season in Denver. “Guys had the confidence to play through their mistakes.”
That approach certainly will apply to Murray, the seventh overall pick during the June draft. No doubt, Murray can shoot. No doubt, the Kentucky product will at times play like a rookie.
All part of the process, Malone said.
For a change, the Nuggets actually head into a season healthy. Wilson Chandler is back from a hip injury that sidelined him all last season and Danilo Gallinari’s ankle – the one that forced an early end to his season – is healed.
“I’m well rested and ready to go,” Gallinari said Monday.
This city has grown on Gallinari, so much so that the Italian forward has a house in Denver. This roster has grown on him, too. So much so that he’s voiced his desire to remain with the squad whenever trade rumors seem to surface.
“I think we’re close and getting closer,” Gallinari said.
Still, the Nuggets are a team without an alpha player – a LeBron James or Steph Curry type that can take over in big moments.
The way general manager Tim Connelly sees it, maybe that top-notch player is already on the roster, and just needs some time to mature. Possibly even Mudiay, the seventh overall pick in 2015.
“I’m an alpha player. I’ve been like that my whole life,” Mudiay said. “I don’t plan to change that.”
Nor do the Nuggets want him to. Miller’s task is to help Mudiay & Co. elevate their games – and think big.
“Our expectations and our goals have got to be playoffs,” Miller said. “I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t think it was realistic, because nothing good comes out of making unrealistic goals, especially for a young team.”
Keep winning and the fans should return, too. At times last season, the Pepsi Center looked half-empty.
President Josh Kroenke understands. The Nuggets have to earn back respect after missing the postseason for a third straight year. This offseason, Kroenke made a big push to bring in Dwyane Wade, before Wade signed with Chicago.
“Fans are going to see a direction with a young roster that has a chance to be pretty good,” Kroenke said.
NOTES: The Nuggets will retire Dikembe Mutombo’s No. 55 jersey in a ceremony on Oct. 29, even wearing the Rainbow Skyline throwback jerseys for the occasion. Mutombo was drafted fourth overall by Denver in 1991 and played for the Nuggets before leaving after the 1995-96 season.
– By PAT GRAHAM, AP Sports Writer
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