How the Nuggets’ draft-night haul impacts Denver’s free-agent outlook

Nuggets president Tim Connelly swore he drafted for talent, not need,  Wednesday night.

Lucky for the Nuggets, those two roads converged with the No. 22 pick.

Connelly and his staff, including coach Michael Malone, waited patiently inside their war room before it became obvious that at least one of their targets was going to slip. After that, it was just a matter of selecting the right one.

Yet with a frontcourt facing myriad question marks as free agency opens Friday, that decision was almost made for them. At No. 22, Denver took Zeke Nnaji, a 6-foot-11, high-octane post player out of Arizona. The pick offered immediate insurance with Jerami Grant, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee all on the doorstep of free agency.

“It certainly helps that Zeke can play both frontcourt positions,” Connelly said Thursday morning. “It was both talent, and it doesn’t hurt that we’re pretty thin in the frontcourt as we enter free agency.”

If Nnaji plugged one hole, potentially making Millsap or Plumlee more expendable, then their swift, decisive stroke two picks later offered another intriguing element.

Denver’s draft board wasn’t necessarily aligned with how the draft played out. As former blue-chip prospect R.J. Hampton dropped further than anyone predicted, the Nuggets, as they tend to do when they see opportunity, pounced. By trading a future lottery-protected first-round pick to New Orleans, the Nuggets were in position to make yet another value play. It turned into a breakneck 6-foot-5 combo guard who spent last season in New Zealand.

Nnaji was the necessity; Hampton was the ace in the hole. His injection of athleticism and speed will be a welcome addition to a backcourt sorely in need of playmakers. It was also the third consecutive year Connelly bet on premium talent after draft night heists of Michael Porter Jr. (2018) and Bol Bol (2019).

By now, you’d think the rest of the league would start to catch on.

And as if Connelly hadn’t already put his trademark stamp on Denver’s draft class, he underscored his strategy once the second round concluded. The Nuggets planned to sign Marquette’s Markus Howard to a two-way contract, a league source told The Denver Post, topping off a night where Connelly assembled as much talent as possible. Howard, despite his 5-foot-11 frame, led the NCAA in scoring last season at over 27 points per game.

Following the fireworks, and with at least two roster spots still available, there remains a pressing question: How much will Wednesday’s haul impact Denver’s plans moving forward?

If you take Connelly’s word for it, not much at all.

“When you’re a team that had the success we had, it’s dangerous to expect too much from first-year players,” Connelly said. “We saw some opportunities to add talent last night and we went for it. We view those guys as certainly long-term plays. I don’t think it’ll have a huge bearing on what we do in free agency.”

If that’s the case, then more frontcourt help could be on the way. Nnaji profiles as an ideal backup four or five, but it might take time before he gets on the court. His addition could mean the end of either Plumlee or Millsap in Denver, depending on their preferred salaries.

Most of Denver’s offseason flexibility hinges on Grant’s free agency. The 26-year-old opted out of his player option last week in search of more money and security. Having prioritized the versatile forward, Grant is widely expected to remain in Denver. A 4-year, $64 million deal could be a realistic range, which would put the Nuggets well over the salary cap ($109 million) but safely below the luxury tax line ($132 million).

“We have several of our own free agents that we want to take care of and have to take care of, and then certainly, see what else is out there,” Connelly said.

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