Denver Nuggets

Most NBA teams have played between eight and 10 games so far this season — about 12 percent of the 82-game schedule. Here’s a look at how some former Texas Longhorns are faring so far. This is part one of a three-part series. 

Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder forward)

Durant is having yet another MVP caliber season so far. He’s leading the league in scoring at 29.6 points per game. To put that into perspective, LeBron James, who is on pace for another historically great season, is trailing Durant in scoring by 3.6 points a night. Durant is also averaging seven rebounds and 5.2 assists per game — evidence that he really has improved his overall offensive performance. 

If there is one minor flaw in Durant’s performance so far, it has been his field goal percentage. He’s taking about 18 shots per game, which is his career average, but his shooting percentage this season is down just over 2 percent from his career 47.4 percent. This miniscule setback shouldn’t offset Durant’s otherwise superb start. His Thunder is 7-3, all while he’s had to shoulder a much heavier load with the absence of winger Kevin Martin from last season.

Grade: A+

Jordan Hamilton (Denver Nuggets forward)

Playing with limited minutes, at just over 18 a night, Hamilton has been a solid scoring punch off the Nuggets’ bench, averaging 8.5 points per game. With another year of experience in the association, Hamilton has clearly gotten more comfortable playing in Denver’s rotation, and his role and importance in the team have increased. His versatility is on display so far. He isn’t shooting lights out — only 45.6 percent inside the arc and 33 percent from the three — but he’s scoring from all areas at a decent rate.  

Hamilton has also been a respectable force on the boards so far for Denver. The production of nearly four rebounds per 18 minutes is a stat any team in the league would love to have off the bench. Even though the Nuggets are struggling right now at 4-6, don’t put much, if any, of that blame on Hamilton. For what he’s being asked to do, he’s more than delivering.

Grade: B+

The Denver Nuggets and Toronto Raptors are also home to former Texas Longhorns: forward Jordan Hamilton and guard D.J. Augustin, respectively. Let’s take a look at their upcoming seasons.

Denver Nuggets

Last season: 57-25, third seed in Western Conference, lost in first round to Golden State Warriors 4-2

According to Zach Lowe’s season preview on Grantland, Denver is one of the western teams on the fringe of the playoffs.  

“The Nuggets are firmly in the mix for one of the last two playoff spots, but they’re in that mix — not above it,” Lowe said. “It’s going to be very tough again this season, though it’s unclear how many wins it will take to slide into the No. 7 or No. 8 spots.” 

The Nuggets are in flux heading into this season. The team lost versatile forward Andre Iguodala to the Warriors in the off-season. To help counter this loss, it signed journeymen guards Randy Foye and Nate Robinson, as well as interior scoring threat J.J. Hickson. These two guards contribute to an already strong backcourt featuring Ty Lawson and Andre Miller. Hickson will boost Denver’s offensive attack on the block.  

The Nuggets are dealing with the loss of longtime coach George Karl. Lowe said that new coach Brian Shaw, although quite an experienced NBA coach, is already beginning to tinker with long-entrenched philosophies on both sides of the ball. Denver’s defense ranked 23rd in the league last season, so maybe a base defensive change is a healthy option. Regardless, this team needs to improve its on-the-ball defense and rely less on forcing turnovers.  

The Nuggets’ second-best player, Danilo Gallinari, will also miss the first portion of the season as he works his way back from knee surgery. Former Longhorn Hamilton will be one of the players replacing Gallinari. He is slowly coming into his own in the league. Last season he averaged 5.2 points per game in just under 9.9 minutes. He provides an instant scoring punch off the bench from all areas of the court. He’ll get important minutes and has quite an opportunity to prove himself early this season.

Bottom line: There are a few moving parts here. The Nuggets added some nice pieces in the free agency, but still haven’t addressed their glaring defensive needs. They’ll score in bunches, but will also allow points in bunches.  Denver will win 45 games and miss the playoffs — getting edged out by the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trailblazers.

Toronto Raptors

Last season: 34-48, missed playoffs

Toronto is an intriguing squad. The Raptors generally possess a nice stockpile of talent, yet have a reputation of underperforming. Things haven’t changed much this year. Offseason acquisitions Steve Novak, Austin Daye and Aaron Gray will provide some much-needed depth. Novak is always among the league’s leaders in three-point percentages. Add those pieces to the core of forwards Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields and explosive guard Terrence Ross, and that’s a nice offensive group. The only offensive setback is the lack of three-point shooting outside of Novak and Gay.

The bench should be fantastic this season. Kyle Lowry, Novak, Tyler Hansbrough, Daye, Gray and former Longhorn D.J. Augustin will make up a complete and competitive second unit. Depth is no longer an issue with this club.

But rebounding and defense remain two glaring issues in Toronto. The Raptors ranked third to last in the league in rebounding last season. Defensively, they allowed 98.7 points per game, good for 17th in the NBA. Length and athleticism aren’t the problem — the problem is that those athletes aren’t particularly good defenders. The offense will hide these problems to an extent, but it has to rebound and defend better to climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Bottom line: Toronto will miss the playoffs again — barely. It will win a few more games but its division is still difficult with the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets miles ahead of the team. I’ll give the Raptors 39 wins this season — a steady improvement, but they’ll miss the playoffs by a game or two.

Hamilton plays against Kansas in 2011 Big 12 Championship game. Hamilton hopes to have a breakout second season in NBA.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

DENVER — The difference between Jordan Hamilton’s freshman and sophomore years at Texas was stark.

The former Longhorn swingman is hoping for the same kind of improvement as he enters his second year with the Denver Nuggets.

“That jump,” Hamilton said, “is a learning experience.”

As a freshman, Hamilton was behind Justin Mason in the Longhorns’ rotation. Hamilton, who would not beat out a senior for a starting spot, carved a role for himself as an offensive sparkplug off the bench. Every so often, though, Hamilton would force shots, perhaps in an effort to compensate for a lack of playing time.

“A couple of guys played my position, you couldn’t take away from what Justin had accomplished in his [college] career,” Hamilton said. “I wasn’t going to come in and start right off the bat just because I was highly recruited.”

It wasn’t the easiest season, but Hamilton learned a lot. That much was evident when, as a sophomore, he led Texas in scoring with nearly 19 points per game, earned a spot on the All-Big 12 First Team and came off as a smarter, more mature player.

Now, it’s deja vu all over again. Though he was drafted in the first round of the 2011 NBA Draft, Hamilton sat on the bench for most of his rookie year with the Nuggets, playing in just 26 games. He was surrounded by players of his mold — score-first wingmen — and last summer’s lockout, which prevented Hamilton from working out with the Nuggets’ staff, didn’t help.

Head coach George Karl wasn’t especially familiar with Hamilton’s game, so he played the veterans he knew.

“In the shortened season, Coach played the guys who he believed in, the guys he knew,” Hamilton said. “There was no training camp, the rookies didn’t have much preparation time to show the coaching staff what we could do.”

Hamilton has turned himself into a gym rat this summer. He’s working out at the Nuggets’ facilities Monday through Friday and has trimmed down from 238 to 220 lbs., with designs to get to 215 before the summer ends. Offense has always come naturally to Hamilton, so he’s working on the other aspects of his game.

“I get hands-on treatment with the coaching staff now,” Hamilton said.

Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri privately believes Hamilton would have been drafted within the top 10 picks if he had come out this season, and the coaching staff expects Hamilton to get much bigger minutes this season.

That luxury has allowed the Nuggets to sleep peacefully as shooting guard Rudy Fernandez heads back to Spain and take their time with the draft process, selecting French project Evan Fournier. The Nuggets are also reportedly considering trades for swingmen Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler.

“We thought, as George [Karl] has said, Jordan Hamilton is our rookie for next year,” said Nuggets president Josh Kroenke at this year’s draft night press conference. “We’re trying to stack them now where we develop them.”

The Nuggets are encouraged by Hamilton’s productivity despite little playing time. He averaged 4.4 points in 9.9 minutes per game. But in prorating Hamilton’s numbers to 48 minutes per game, he would have averaged about 22 points a contest.

“You’ll see more of me this upcoming year,” Hamilton said. “The second year was better for me in college, and it’ll be better for me in the NBA.”