Rookie guard Bones Hyland and sophomore forward Zeke Nnaji are making breakthroughs this season, and in the process helping to boost the performance of a Denver Nuggets bench which has struggled to find its footing.
On the season, Denver’s bench is getting beaten by opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions (pp100p) per NBA.com, for the second-worst differential in the league ahead of the Orlando Magic at minus-8.3. When their bench has outscored its opposing counterpart, the Nuggets have a perfect record of six wins and zero losses, but that drops to a 31.3% winning percentage with five wins and 11 losses when Denver has tied or lost the battle of the bench.
In large part, this is simply a function of the Nuggets hemorrhaging points whenever their reigning MVP center Nikola Jokic steps off the court. According to Cleaning the Glass, Denver lineups when Jokic is on the court have cooked opponents by 13.3 pp100p, but have been drubbed even more badly by 17.0 when Joker is taking a rest and the bench unit takes over.
It’s been a chronic problem for the Nuggets this season, a pattern which has become all too familiar – and dreaded – to their fans: Jokic and the starters build an early lead, he leaves the game late in the first quarter, and by the time he returns in the second that advantage has evaporated to a draw or deficit, and it’s back to square one – or worse, having to dig out of a hole.
Enter Hyland and Nnaji.
After an impressive preseason, Bones Hyland (who is now looking, as I previously wrote for Forbes, like a bigtime draft steal) made his first big regular season splashes during Denver’s five-game home stand in early November, capping off that stretch with three consecutive career highs of 12, 15, then 18 points, featuring some huge shots from long range that electrified the Ball Arena crowd. Unfortunately for both Hyland and the Nuggets, ankle injuries and his entry into the NBA’s health and safety protocols have since caused him to effectively miss five of Denver’s last six games.
Zeke Nnaji’s moments have been more sporadic, as his opportunities to crack the rotation have been fewer given all of Denver’s bigs who started the season ahead of him on the depth chart. But with season-ending injuries to Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier shaking up the rotations, Nnaji has stepped into a larger role, showing in his most recent performance that he can and will make the most of it, as he logged a career high of his own, with a statement career high of his own against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, scoring 21 points with an eye-popping five made three-pointers which took his total from beyond the arc this season to 17 of 27, a blistering 63%.
The Nuggets’ bench has performed remarkably better when it has featured either or both of Hyland and Nnaji Through December 3 (not including the most recent Knicks game, which is true of all charts below), Denver’s bench had a cumulative plus-minus of minus-56 when neither Hyland or Nnaji played at least five minutes, but were well in the plus when one or both were in the game.
As we are still dealing with relatively small sample sizes this early in the season, especially considering the sporadic playing time for both players, these figures seem likely to come down to earth a little as the season progresses.
Even so, at least thus far, there has been a clear, positive correlation between increased playing time for Nnaji and Hyland, and improved Nuggets bench performance.
But what stands out even more than either player’s individual contributions is what has happened when both have shared the court together.
In order to check my own potential confirmation bias and make sure I wasn’t just cherry-picking the data which conveniently fit into the framework of the “Bones and Zeke are making the bench better” narrative I’m spinning here, I searched the Nuggets lineups when Nikola Jokic was off the court, going through player-by-player, and through two-man units pair-by-pair, of all Denver’s reserves who have gotten significant playing time.
In doing so, literally only one two-man combo had a positive pp100p differential: Hyland and Nnaji, at +8.7. And while it should be noted that every bench player was in the negative individually, only Nnaji and Hyland fared better than all non-Jokic lineups on average.
Again, it should be reiterated here that, at just 67 possessions with Jokic off, and both Hyland and Nnaji on the court, the small sample size must be taken with a non-trivial grain of salt.
That said, for a Nuggets bench which has been desperate to find answers to the problem of how to stop completely giving away leads when Joker sits, the trend established up to this point at the very least warrants giving both players more time, and specifically more time alongside each other going forward.
In Denver’s culture of player development, everything must be earned, and nothing is granted. Jokic had to earn it. Jamal Murray had to earn it. Some Nuggets fans have been frustrated at seeing the likes of veterans Austin Rivers, Jeff Green and JaMychal Green ahead of Hyland and Nnaji on the depth chart, but they should take some solace in knowing that both youngsters are, in fact, earning it, and have by all indications (including head coach Michael Malone’s express words) that they are now fully integrated into the regular rotation.
It’s hard to overstate how highly it speaks of both Hyland and Nnaji, the 26th and 22nd picks of their respective draft classes, that they are making this big of an impact at such an early stage of their careers, both above expectations and ahead of schedule.
And by all appearances, if the Nuggets are going to successfully weather the storm of their many injuries, they will be calling upon both to step up with even bigger contributions as the season progresses, and into the playoffs.