When Jarnell Stokes agreed to join the Denver Nuggets, it didn't look like he had much of a chance to make the final roster. Featuring a slew newcomers, like Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley, Robbie Hummel, and Nate Wolters, and a strong crop of returning players, the roster looked pretty settled entering preseason.
Given how much the Nuggets valued their rookies, the experience of returning players Axel Toupane and JaKarr Sampson, and the apparent long-jam at Stokes’ natural position of power forward; it didn't look like Stokes had much of a chance. But in six preseason games played, Stokes has played well and given a realistic look at what he would contribute during the regular season.
Getting most of his minutes at backup center, Stokes has averaged 5.17 points and 4.17 rebounds in 13.2 minutes per game. In those 13.2 minutes, he gives the perfect snapshot of what he will contribute to the squad. He is a rebounding specialist that plays within himself and the system.
He has shot 50 percent from the floor on four attempts per game, and has yet to attempt a three-pointer this preseason. He knows what good shots look like and limits himself to them, which might not sound revolutionary but it is what coaches look for in reserve players. On a team that will have at least three rookies getting minutes in the rotation, Stokes’ discipline and efficiency will be appreciated.
In addition to that, Stokes has been very effective rebounding the ball. Averaging 4.17 rebounds, two of which are offensive, his skills are undeniably valuable. This team features players like Murray, Beasley, Emmanuel Mudiay, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris, and Mike Miller; shots are going to go up and rebounders are going to be needed.
Before he was fighting for this roster spot, Stokes was the creme de la creme of the D-League. Last season, he averaged 20.6 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, and 1.1 steals per game while shooting 66.5 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from deep en route to a championship and MVP with the Sioux Falls Skyforce.
As the Nuggets solidify the starting frontcourt of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, there aren't a lot of rebounders. Hernangomez shows promise, but as a rookie he is still a question mark. Kenneth Faried is a rebounding specialist, but his role going forward is also in the air.
The former first round pick has gone from cornerstone of the future to almost an afterthought following the emergence of Jokic/Nurkic and his own troubles on the court. Regardless of how things shake out, having a player as good as Stokes on such an inexpensive deal is a steal.
Given who is left competing for the final spot, Stokes looks like the best choice on both fit and performance. Nate Wolters has averaged 3.5 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 1.5 assists in 13.8 minutes played and Robbie Hummel averages three points and one rebound in 9.9 minutes of action.
Wolters was taken in the second round of the 2013 NBA draft and has spent time with the Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, Grand Rapids Drive, and finally overseas in Turkey before signing with the Nuggets for training camp. In almost 14 minutes of action, he has shot a decent 42.9 percent from the floor but has yet to hit a three all preseason. With a plethora of young and versatile guards that all need minutes, having Wolters doesn't make sense.
Hummel has been a bit of a journeyman in his professional career. Following a long college career with Purdue, he was taken in the second round by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2012. After not making the final roster, he spent two years overseas before coming over and making little impact with the Timberwolves. This preseason he has shot 33.3 percent from the floor, 30 percent from deep, and failed to impact the game further than that.
If the Nuggets are going all in on the frontcourt of Jokic and Nurkic, Stokes would be a serviceable backup to either player. He could come in and play 10-15 minutes, bring energy, reliability, and rebounding to a bench unit that will need it. In comparison to Wolters and Hummel, Stokes looks like the only logical option for the Nuggets.
He is a hard worker that’stalented and a team player; head coach Mike Malone will be looking for that kind of personality going forward. With so much youth on the roster, having the quite leadership and consistent play of Stokes could go far.
His time in the D-League and NBA has taught him how to accept a role, to not need to be the guy that scores 20 points to be effective or the focal point of the team. This is something rookies struggle with every year. Maybe seeing someone like Stokes live the example daily will help or inspire them to follow suit. Regardless, Denver would be foolish to look the gift horse that is Jarnell Stokes in the mouth.