If someone told you on good authority that sharpshooter Michael Porter Jr. and one-time NBA champion Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would shoot a combined 5-for-22 from the field—and just 2-for-14 from three-point range—over Games 2 and 3 of the NBA Finals, that would’ve been fair reason to suspect that the Nuggets would drop both games.
Instead, Denver came within a Jamal Murray three-point try of sending Game 2 to overtime and created an insurmountable lead midway in the third quarter of Game 3 in large part due to the efforts of rookie wing Christian Braun, who took over the contest at times Wednesday.
Braun repeatedly took advantage of a Heat defense preoccupied with stopping Murray and two-time MVP Nikola Jokić by sneaking undetected along the baseline for back cuts and duck-ins. He also had a pair of enormous plays in transition during the second half—one coming off an interception he took the other way for a dunk—that fed the Nuggets loads of momentum on the road, where Denver had struggled this postseason.
“He’s a winner, and he won us the game,” Nuggets superstar Jokić said after the win, which pushed Denver ahead two games to one in the best-of-seven series. “The focus, the mindset … even when he makes mistakes, it’s an aggressive mistake. So you can’t be mad at him. I always say that. He was really good tonight.”
The rookie’s 15 points on 7-for-8 shooting—particularly on a night when the starting wing players struggled again to make a positive impact in a swing game of the Finals—underscored how well the Nuggets have performed in the draft over the past decade.
Braun, a Kansas product, was widely expected to potentially fall into the second round of last year’s draft. Instead, GM Calvin Booth took a chance on him at No. 21, and the decision has paid off handsomely. Braun shot nearly 50% from the field as a rookie, including 35.4% from deep on 96 attempts, while serving as a highly active defender. The lights are often too bright for rookies this time of year, yet that hasn’t been the case for Braun. Among Denver’s rotation players this postseason, the 22-year-old has led the club in deflections on a per-minute basis.
Like most championship-caliber NBA teams you’ll come across, the Nuggets found their bona fide star through the draft. But to be clear: Jokić—an unconventional, somewhat doughy foreign prospect—was far from a sure thing. Then Nuggets executive Tim Connelly opted to take the Serbian big man in the second round with the 41st pick in 2014. He’s since not only become the greatest passing big ever, but also won back-to-back league MVPs in ’21 and ’22. On Wednesday night, he became the first player to log a 30-point, 20-rebound, 10-assist game in Finals history—a fact that further cements his status as the world’s best player.
Murray, the team’s second-best player and the floor general whose two-man game with Jokić accounted for 80% of Denver’s offense Wednesday (in terms of points and assists), was a more traditional selection at No. 7 back in 2016. Murray has never been named an All-Star but is as skilled a shotmaker as there is in the entire league. Perhaps most relevant for where the Nuggets are now, he developed a reputation during the ’20 bubble for raising his game in the postseason, even as defenses have a tendency to clamp down with more comprehensive game plans and game-to-game familiarity. (Murray had a pair of 50-point games during the first-round series against Utah that postseason.) His footwork is exquisite and has always been noteworthy, even when Murray had to work through the inevitable growing pains of returning from a ’21 ACL tear to begin this season. In Wednesday’s Game 3, Murray turned in a dominant 34 points, 10 boards and 10 assists, making he and Jokić the first pair of teammates ever to record triple doubles as a duo in the NBA Finals. “By far their greatest performance as a duo in their seven years together,” coach Michael Malone said.
This isn’t to say that every single player in Denver’s rotation was a Nuggets’ draft pick.
Difference-maker Bruce Brown was an incredible free-agent signing this past offseason who fits like a glove, due to his Swiss Army Knife–ability to not only defend, but also play on and off the ball. (He’s a devastating cutter and was always a perfect fit with Jokić for this reason). Starter Aaron Gordon, perhaps best known for his otherworldly performances in NBA dunk contests, came over via trade at the deadline back in 2021, and Caldwell-Pope joined the Nuggets after a swap last offseason. But even those two moves stemmed from solid picks Denver made. The Nuggets sent Gary Harris—who’d arguably been the league’s best role player for a time before struggling after an injury—to Orlando for Gordon, a lethal fourth option and a do-it-all player who can hold his own with big, physical wing players when necessary.
Denver got Caldwell-Pope after agreeing to deal Monte Morris, a starting-caliber backup guard, to Washington. (Even though he’s no longer a Nugget, Morris was at Game 3 in Miami, and was shown embracing his former teammates on the court following their victory.)
When it comes to the Nuggets’ drafting over the years, their choice to take Porter can’t be overstated. Once considered the top prospect in his 2018 draft class, Porter played just three games during his lone season at Missouri and slid down teams’ draft boards because of issues with his back. He had a microdiscectomy procedure to treat the herniated disks early during that season at Mizzou, then slid in the draft after having to bail on his pro-day workouts in front of lottery teams when he couldn’t get out of bed with back spasms.
The Nuggets, armed with talent and coming off a 46-win season that saw them fail to reach the playoffs in the final game of the campaign, rolled the dice on Porter’s upside. (Porter has required three back surgeries.) They essentially redshirted Porter during his first full season in the league, then watched him become one of the league’s great perimeter shooters shortly after getting clearance to play. The 6'10" Porter has drained better than 50% of his shot attempts as a professional—and has knocked down almost 42% of 1,031 tries from the arc—over 187 regular-season games in the league. His defensive awareness wavers (after a solid Game 1 defensively, he’s repeatedly been out of position during this Finals series), but he’s long enough to recover impact shots even when he’s been blown by.
Malone and the Nuggets look willing to continue to trust Porter to turn things around against Miami. But even if he isn’t able to, it speaks volumes about how well Denver has both drafted and developed that a rookie like Braun could seamlessly step in for him and make an impact on a stage like this.