Nuggets giving rookie duo big roles down the stretch
Jamal Murray rose up and buried his sweet jump shot into the bottom of the net to open the fourth quarter Saturday night, pulling the Nuggets to within four points of the Rockets.
Less than two minutes later, the rookie guard had thrown two head-scratching, off-target passes that resulted in turnovers. The Rockets scored after both, pushing their lead back to seven points.
Meanwhile, rookie forward Juancho Hernangomez — starting for the second consecutive game — had energy on both ends of the floor Saturday and scored 13 first-half points to help stake Denver to a 56-51 halftime lead.
But with 4:52 left in the game and the Nuggets having cut Houston’s lead to 95-93, Hernangomez fouled Rockets star James Harden on the arm as the heady guard hoisted a 3-point attempt. It was the second time in the game the rookie committed the same foul on Harden, whose ability to draw those fouls is listed in bold on every opponent’s scouting report.
The two rookies have had a big impact as the Nuggets chase a playoff berth. But their learning curve will inevitably have consequences as the pressure mounts and games against quality opponents over Denver’s final 13 games take on added significance.
It’s a reality the Nuggets are willing to live with.
“That’s a very good (Houston) team over there and we have rookies playing meaningful minutes in the fourth quarter and making mistakes, which is what rookies do,” coach Michael Malone said after the 109-105 loss to the Rockets. “They are going to be better off for it, hopefully next game and definitely in the future.”
Injuries have created more playing time for Hernangomez, whom the Nuggets weren’t even planning to use this season until he impressed during preseason camp.
Murray earned the backup point guard job over Emmanuel Mudiay coming out of the all-star break and has provided good scoring punch during Denver’s overall strong play in the past month. Murray’s confidence is such that he rarely has the look of a rookie, but costly turnovers like the ones Saturday are a snapshot of the onthe-job growth left to be made.
Even if the mistakes make Malone cringe, the coach is taking a long-lens view of the experience his young players are gaining in a playoff race, which for the Nuggets (33-36) continues with a rematch against the Rockets in Houston on Monday night.
“That experience for them to be in those situations is so invaluable for their development,” Malone said. “Allowing them to play through mistakes is not always easy, but in the long run — not just this year, but in the big picture, which is what we always think — it’s going to be phenomenal for these guys.”
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray drives on Dallas Mavericks guard Devin Harris this season.