DENVER — In many ways, Denver Nuggets rookie Tyler Lydon is a victim of circumstance.
A projected late first-round pick who was selected within a few spots of his likely draft slot in June, the 21-year-old is a byproduct of a "weird" and "bizarre" draft night. As described by Denver's president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, the Nuggets nearly acquired Kevin Love, according to multiple reports, and traded back from No. 14 overall to 24 where Denver drafted Lydon.
It didn't help Lydon's cause that Donovan Mitchell, whose rights were traded to the Jazz in that draft night deal, blew up during the Summer League circuit and looks primed to be a significant contributor in Utah's rotation, while Lydon scuffled in Vegas. It's unfair to the 6-foot-9 wing because he and Mitchell graded out much differently as prospects (Mitchell was a projected lottery pick). But because of the swap, which also netted Denver Trey Lyles, the two will be tied to each other for their respective careers.
Fast forward through the dog days of the NBA offseason, and although the Nuggets' draft night still has a sour taste to it, Denver rebounded by securing Paul Millsap in free agency. While they'll likely enter the 2017-18 campaign with some uncertainty around their power forward position behind Millsap, the Nuggets find themselves as a trendy Western Conference riser with opening night just a few days away. Denver is satisfied with their roster and the group they're wrapping training camp with this week, as they go full speed ahead into the regular season and begin to install a game plan for their opening night opponent.
Also comfortable these days is Lydon, who's now fully immersed in the Nuggets' culture a full four months after the Hudson, N.Y., native learned he would make his first NBA home in Denver.
"I feel like a totally different player than I was at Summer League," Lydon told BSN Denver from the Nuggets' practice floor, as Denver finished up what coach Michael Malone called one of his team's best practices of the season. "I think that goes back to getting in the gym and putting in as much work as I have. There's a comfort level playing with guys for a little while and now I've been playing with them for a while. The more you play with them the more comfortable you get."
Lydon had a disappointing stint in Vegas — countless members of the Nuggets' brain trust would agree. Across five games Lydon scored just 12 points. He shot just 4-20 from the field, 2-15 from three, and looked hesitant and unsure of himself.
"He really struggled at Summer League and I think as he struggled he got really down on himself," Malone said. "But you see a different kid (now). He's a lot more confident. He's not hesitating. He's shooting it and even when he misses, I love the fact that he's just letting it go, no hesitation. He's playing a lot more aggressive as well. He's improved. He's a different player from the player that showed up in Vegas back in July."
"I'm getting on him for not shooting the ball. I wasn't yelling at him for missing shots, I was yelling at him for not taking shots," Malone continued. "I said 'Tyler, we drafted you, we believe in you, and we think you have a very good chance to be a very good basketball player.' And you have to learn in this business, you have to have short-term memory. Don't worry about that last shot, think about your next shot and I think once he started getting stronger and the more he played against NBA players, the game started to slow down for him."
Echoing Malone's words, Lydon has looked like a different guy than the one who donned Nuggets threads for the first time at Cox Pavilion in July.
Although he's only seen sparse garbage time minutes this preseason, Lydon has looked more comfortable on the floor. He's not exactly letting it fly from three and has just four attempts in 26 minutes but he doesn't look afraid to pull the trigger like he was in Vegas.
"I feel like I've gotten a lot better in a short amount of time," Lydon said.
Lydon's best sequence so far as a Nugget came against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Denver's final preseason game last week. The swingman, who's been playing a lot of small forward, came over from the weakside for a well-timed rejection of a Dakari Johnson post-up, then found some space on the wing where he got his feet set and converted a catch-and-shoot three in transition. On the Thunder's next possession, Lydon nearly gave himself up when he tried to go around Josh Huestis' high side for a steal, but recovered from behind to block his dunk attempt at the rim a few moments later.
Lydon's not in Denver's projected nine or ten man rotation and will seldom see important minutes this season unless injuries hit the Nuggets' roster. He'll spend time in the D-League potentially with the Sioux Falls Skyforce — an affiliate Denver used last season when they were looking to get Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez more minutes — something Lydon says he'll take in stride and look at as an opportunity to improve, develop and expand his game.
The next step for Lydon is working on his body. He weighed in at a spry 215 pounds at May's draft Combine and needs to put on more muscle if he wants to stand much of a chance on the defensive end. He's in the weight room nearly every day, recently hired a nutritionist, and says he's starting to put on muscle and is getting stronger and leaner.
Drafting Lydon was a long-term play for Denver but he has one skill that's incredibly valuable in today's NBA: shooting. Lydon's stroke looks like it's getting more consistent as he gets more comfortable shooting at the professional level. In the Nuggets' Friday night scrimmage at Fort Carson, Lydon was constantly in motion, running his man off pin-downs and drained a couple threes. He was one of the bright spots from Denver's open practice.
The Nuggets don't need any contribution from Lydon this year but over the next few seasons — they're hoping he joins Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Hernangomez as a potential 40 percent marksman from distance. That would constitute a success for Denver.