MILWAUKEE — Juancho Hernangomez wasn't supposed to check in during the first quarter of a game in the thick of a playoff race in March and immediately bury a big 3-pointer.
The rookie forward for the Nuggets wasn't supposed to finish that quarter with an emphatic dunk in transition either.
Yet, there Hernangomez was Wednesday night against Milwaukee, making a tangible impact on a team pushing toward the postseason. He's made similar splashes recently during a rookie year that began ahead of schedule.
“People have to remember we drafted Juancho (15th overall last June) and took him to summer league, and at that point we weren't sure we were going to keep him,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after Hernangomez scored eight points, grabbed three rebounds and provided strong defensive energy in 14 minutes. “We thought we might keep him in Europe another year. He played so well in summer league that we wanted to have him around, really not expecting to play him at all. What I love about Juancho Hernangomez is that when he has the opportunity to play, he maxes out.”
The Nuggets likely didn't think Jamal Murray, the seventh pick in last year's draft, would be where he was Wednesday night either. The rookie had already supplanted Emmanuel Mudiay as the backup point guard, and against the Bucks he made his first career start at the position with veteran Jameer Nelson sidelined by illness.
Murray finished with 10 points, five assists and two steals in the victory, and had a plus 15 in his 30 minutes on the court. Murray shot just 4-of-13 from the field, but his attempts were “really quality looks that we want him shooting,” Malone said.
“I felt good,” Murray said after his first start at point guard. “I wanted to go in there and get the energy up and get everyone involved and keep the pace up.”
Malone speaks often about how excited he is for the future of a Nuggets team that has six players under the age of 23. But the impact being made by its two rookies continues to bolster their playoff chances. The Nuggets had a three-game lead entering Thursday night's action for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The two rookies have each seen a steady uptick in their minutes played and points scored since the start of the new year. Hernangomez has gone from averaging 3.5 points in 10.6 minutes per game during the month of January to averaging 6.5 points in 16.3 minutes since Feb. 1.
A lengthy list of injuries have played a part in more playing time for Hernangomez, and Malone has been most impressed by how the 6-foot-9 forward has taken advantage of his opportunities. In his second start of the season on Feb. 13 against Golden State, Hernangomez played 43 minutes and scored a career-high 27 points on 6-of-10 shooting from 3-point range.
“One thing I know about Juancho is that I don't know if he's going to make a shot, but he's going to play hard,” Malone said. “He's going to compete and he has a motor. He fits the kind of culture that we're trying to create.”
Hernangomez figures to keep getting key minutes with veteran forward Kenneth Faried likely out at least another week with a back issue. And Murray continues to make a case for getting more playing time at the point guard spot with each imaginary arrow he slings after nailing a big 3-pointer, like the one he hit in the fourth quarter Wednesday that stopped Milwaukee's final rally.
“I was really impressed by the poise with which he played,” Malone said.
It appears the future is arriving ahead of schedule for the Nuggets.
A closer look at the recent uptick in averages by rookies Juancho Hernangomez and Jamal Murray:
Month … Min. … Pts. .. Reb. … FG pct.
Dec. … 8.5 … 3.1 … 2.0 … 38.1
Jan. … 10.6 … 3.5 … 2.1 … 55.6
*Feb. … 16.3 … 6.5 … 4.0 … 45.3
Month … Min. … Pts. … Ast. … FG pct.
Dec. … 18.9 … 6.1 … 1.5 … 35.4
Jan. … 17.0 … 7.7 … 1.8 … 40.6
*Feb. … 21.7 … 11.1 … 1.8 … 38.4
*includes Nuggets' March 1 game