The Nuggets took a big hit at center Sunday with the announcement that starter JaVale McGee will be out indefinitely because of a stress fracture in his left tibia.

McGee played in Denver's first five games. Friday night's game at Phoenix, however, was the tipping point. When Nuggets coach Brian Shaw removed him with 9:34 left in the third quarter, McGee said he was in pain. He didn't return to the game.

McGee's X-ray Sunday revealed the stress fracture.

"I have no idea on a timetable," Shaw said of McGee's return to the lineup. "It's unfortunate, but injuries are part of the game. Hopefully we can hold the fort down until he gets back."

Timofey Mozgov has been McGee's backup, but Shaw said he will decide at Monday's shootaround session whether Mozgov or J.J. Hickson will start in McGee's place. Hickson, a power forward, has extensive experience playing center. He played there all of last season with Portland.

Whoever starts for McGee at Utah on Monday night won't necessarily be guaranteed to be the starter every game until McGee returns. Shaw said he will determine the Nuggets' starting center based on matchups.

"Now (there will be) more minutes for J.J., more minutes for Timo, more minutes for Darrell Arthur and possibly Anthony Randolph in the mix there somewhere as well," Shaw said. "That's one of the positions we have the most depth at, so I'm confident that the guys who have to fill in will be able to carry their load."

Still, in McGee, the Nuggets lose arguably their most athletic big man and a player the new coaching staff wanted to develop.

"You never want to see one of your teammates go down, especially a guy like that," said guard Randy Foye. "JaVale, people try to make jokes or make fun. But that's like one of the best teammates you can have. He's a really good guy, caring. He was out there playing on it, and you could kind of tell something was wrong.

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"He was getting killed for certain things — not completely contesting, letting people push him. But now you know the reason why. You can't replace that; somebody that athletic, that explosive — still was that explosive with the stress fracture. It's just amazing what he was doing on one leg."

McGee was entrenched as the starting center after the Nuggets traded last year's starter, Kosta Koufos, to Memphis on the night of this year's NBA draft. In Shaw's system, McGee is being asked to be more of a focal point in the Denver offense than he was under previous coach George Karl. The results have been mixed.

McGee is averaging 15.8 minutes, 7.0 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots per game.

"It's been a rough start for him, to start the season," Shaw said. "We talked about early on just wanting the focus to be inside play. I think for him and Kenneth (Faried), they've kind of taken that as they need to score inside as opposed to being a presence inside and making themselves accountable inside.

"With JaVale, I want him, when he does come back, to concentrate on just doing one thing extremely well first and then building on that. That one thing may be defensive rebounding — get every defensive rebound. I've said to him in conversations, I look at box scores nightly of (Knicks center) Tyson Chandler, (Cavaliers center) Anderson Varejao, guys you wouldn't consider polished offensive players, but they still impact the game with their energy, they rebound, they defend and they command that presence in the paint. So, use that as a starting point and then build off that."

Christopher Dempsey: cdempsey@denverpost.com or twitter.com/dempseypost


DENVER AT UTAH 

7 p.m. Monday, ALT; 950 AM

Spotlight on Gordon Hayward: The former Butler star is growing into the lead player Utah thought he would be when the Jazz drafted him ninth overall in 2010. Hayward has raised his scoring average every season he has been in the NBA and leads Utah this season with an average of 19.1 points. He also is averaging 6.6 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

NOTEBOOK

Nuggets: Wilson Chandler could make his season debut Monday against the Jazz. Dating to training camp, he has missed more than a month of action because of an injured hamstring. "He's making progress," said coach Brian Shaw. "He's looked good in his individual workouts." Jordan Hamilton will continue to start at small forward for now. "(Chandler) hasn't practiced enough or gone up and down (the court) enough," Shaw said. "I want to be cautious with him."

Jazz: Former Colorado star Alec Burks is playing a lot more this season with Utah. Despite not starting, he's averaging the fourth-most minutes (28.4) among Jazz players. He's also averaging 14.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.6 steals. ... The Jazz is allowing an average of 12 points more per game (100.7) than it scores (88.7).  

Christopher Dempsey, The Denver Post