Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone described Denver's point guard situation as "an open competition" between Jameer Nelson, Jamal Murray, and Emmanuel Mudiay Monday, predicting that he'll know who his starter is prior to Denver's opening night tilt in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz on Oct. 18.
"It's an open competition and one thing I've learned is I don't want to give things away," Malone said on Altitude Radio. "I'm constantly learning as a young head coach I want to make players earn what they're getting. And Gary Harris is our starting two-guard. Wilson Chandler will be our starting small forward. Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic round out our frontcourt. But that point guard position, I want to see those guys battle, compete for it and who earns it, we'll see in a few weeks."
Nelson, who is likely looked at as Denver's incumbent, started 40 games at point guard for Denver last season and steadied the team enough to bring them into contention for last year's eighth seed and final playoff spot.
The 35-year-old averaged 9.2 points per game on 44.4 percent shooting from the field and 38.8 percent from three last season and could get the first crack at locking up Denver's starting point guard duties. The Nuggets begin the season with five of their first seven games on the road and can't afford a lackluster start to last season when Denver limped out to a 3-7 record through their first ten games.
"I'm going to go out, be who I am, continue to play the way I play, continue to try and help the team win games," Nelson said. "I'm not coming into training camp trying to be someone I'm not."
Malone said on Monday when he addressed the assembled media that he's looking for three specific characteristics from his starter.
First off, the player needs to play with great pace. Denver was at its best last season in transition and when they got out in the open floor — not when they were forced to execute in the halfcourt. Secondly, that player needs to be able to mesh well with the Nuggets' starting frontcourt of Millsap and Jokic. Lastly, the starter must show they can play effective defense, both in 1-on-1 situations and in the pick-and-roll.
"I think we're a team that plays with great pace. I think last year we were second in pace of play so which guard is going to push the ball, create pace for us, get the ball up the court," Malone said describing his ideal point guard. "We have two great passing bigs and playmaking bigs. Which guard plays off of Paul (Millsap) and Nikola (Jokic) the best in terms of moving without the ball, finishing, making open shots and then a big one is if I'm talking about defense. It has to be which one has shown they can guard their man one-on-one, which point guard has shown they can guard pick-and-roll defense the way we want. Those will be all the things we look at."
Perhaps Malone's choice will be Murray, the crafty 19-year-old who's electric with the ball in his hands. Malone says Murray, who underwent double-hernia surgery this summer, feels most comfortable at the point and that's likely where he'll play the majority of his minutes, but the 6-foot-4 guard who only started seven games at point guard for Denver last season will play off the ball at times too.
Murray likely showed the Nuggets what their future at the point guard position looked like in spurts last season, but he's still raw and inexperienced for a team that has lofty playoffs aspirations.
"I'm not worried about it," Murray said of the point guard competition. "We can start three different guys as long as we're winning and doing what we need to do. Defense is our priority. We should be focusing on stopping others rather than scoring. We've got enough scorers on the team."
The final piece to Denver's point guard puzzle is Mudiay, who wasn't at Monday's media day due to a pre-scheduled medical appointment but will be at training camp Tuesday. Mudiay began last year as the Nuggets' starter at the one before injuries and ultimately bad play forced him out of the rotation. He's had another great summer from all accounts and was playing some of the best basketball of his career late last season, but for now, is regarded as a long-shot for the starting gig.
Denver's three point guards will battle it out during this week's training camp and the Nuggets will likely switch up their backcourt rotation over the course of the preseason — which begins Saturday in Golden State — and continue to seek out combinations that work.
The Nuggets won't have the luxury of an eight-game preseason slate to determine who their starting point guard is like they did last season either. The league made it a point to cut down on the number of preseason games this year in an effort to reduce injuries and the toll that an 82-game regular season takes on the body. However, after Denver's five preseason games, Malone is confident he'll have his guy.
"We'll be able to see after five preseason games who that starter is and who has earned those backup minutes," Malone said.