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In the midst of a chaotic 2020, the Nuggets found a possible gem
As part of Denver Stiffs’ transition from Denver Nuggets postseason coverage to offseason coverage, staff members will be conducting End of Season Reviews for all 17 players on the roster. There will continue to be news, NBA draft, free agency, and trade articles, but over the next three weeks, an accompanying End of Season review (or two) will also post every week day.
Today’s review: PJ Dozier.
On August 12th, 2019, the Denver Nuggets took a flyer by adding a 21-year-old guard with high level athletic tools who had yet to latch onto an NBA roster through his first two seasons. PJ Dozier, a 23-year-old out of the University of South Carolina, has had a lot change for him since auditioning for the Nuggets in training camp in Colorado Springs.
Dozier made a strong impression with his physical tools and basketball IQ on both sides of the ball, earning a two-way contract and the third point guard spot on the Nuggets depth chart behind starter Jamal Murray and reserve Monte Morris.
As the Nuggets found out during the regular season and playoffs, it pays to have a competent third point guard, and Dozier proved he has the potential to be more than that fo the Nuggets going forward.
For the first three months of the regular season, Dozier’s place was not in the NBA but on the Windy City Bulls, the Chicago Bulls G League affiliate. As a two-way player the Nuggets had no need to utilize Dozier’s 45 days at the NBA level since he was out of the rotation. He excelled at the G League level, averaging 21.2 points, 7.3 assists, and 7.7 rebounds while staying moderately efficient in a high volume role.
In the middle of January, everything changed. On January 15th with Gary Harris and Paul Millsap already out, Jamal Murray sprained his ankle against the Charlotte Hornets and would be held out for roughly three weeks. With Monte Morris stepping into a starting role, the Nuggets needed a backup point guard. Dozier was more than happy to oblige, taking advantage of his opportunity and stabilizing Denver’s second unit. For the next month, Dozier had a positive individual plus-minus in eight of the 15 games he played, which was great to see. When a starter goes out, the goal is to mitigate the loss and hold the ship together, something Dozier was able to do while Nikola Jokić, Will Barton, and Michael Porter Jr. carried the scoring.
When the regular rotation returned to full strength, Dozier returned to a garbage time role. It wasn’t until the bubble when Dozier received a legitimate opportunity to showcase his abilities. With Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton all nursing injuries, Dozier played all eight bubble games and excelled off the bench, averaging 22.3 minutes, 10.1 points, 4.3 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game. His poise off the bench was very solid, he shot 47.6% from three in those eight games.
Though the consistent playing time didn’t continue into the playoffs, Dozier had several moments in the playoffs where he contributed to Denver winning the game on both ends. In the first round against the Utah Jazz, Dozier was part of Denver’s closing unit in both a Game 1 win and Game 5 win, standing in for Gary Harris who made his return in Game 6. Dozier’s team defense and secondary playmaking next to Murray’s excellent primary actions gave Denver just enough in the first round to survive. Dozier didn’t have many opportunities against the Los Angeles Clippers, but against the Los Angeles Lakers, Dozier received a big opportunity in Game 2 to help change the tide of the game. He was a defensive pest, converted attempts at the rim against the Lakers’ interior defense, and though he missed four free throws in a critical moment, he was a net positive coming off the bench. That’s all that could be asked of the young combo guard on such short notice.
Season Grade: A-
When the Nuggets added Dozier in training camp, they expected the 23-year-old to showcase his physical tools and add some length on the perimeter to the preseason roster. What they probably didn’t expect was for Dozier to earn the last two-way contract over forward Tyler Cook (who found his way back to the roster at the end) and subsequently earn a full-time contract with the Nuggets that will potentially have him in Denver through the 2021-22 season.
His individual numbers don’t scream “bargain” in terms of some of the players the Nuggets have added to the back end of their roster in the past, but he adds a skill set to the team that is difficult to replicate. Without him stepping into the backup role in January with Murray out, the Nuggets may not have gone 11-4 in the games Dozier played leading up to the All-Star break. Without his contributions down the stretch of Game 5 against the Jazz as an on-ball and help side defender, the Nuggets lose in the first round. Without his defensive boost in Game 2 against the Lakers, the Nuggets never get the game close enough to nearly steal a win.
Given the preseason expectations versus what actually happened, it’s fair to give Dozier a low ‘A’ for his contributions this year.
Season Highlight: Rejecting LeBron and an And-1 over Davis in Game 2
It’s difficult to say whether the block on LeBron James or the And-1 layup over Anthony Davis was the more impressive highlight. The block required good timing and the ability to not foul LeBron, who seriously wanted the call because he wants every call.
But the And-1 was gutsy going against possibly the best defender in the NBA. Davis often swats away shots like these when players challenge him, but Dozier getting into Davis’ body and converting the sot tear drop finish was impressive as well.
Let’s include both of them and have the comments decide which play was better.
What’s next for PJ Dozier
Immediate changes are likely coming to the Denver Nuggets rotation in some way, shape, or form. It would shock me if Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant weren’t the starting forwards next to Jokić at center, and because Murray is of course penciled in at point guard, one of Harris or Barton may be forced to move to the bench. If Porter is to play a significant role at small forward, that leaves Murray, Morris, Dozier, Harris, and Barton competing for limited time in the backcourt, and Murray won’t be relinquishing minutes. I wouldn’t expect at least one of the other four to be back on the roster going forward, even if the Nuggets plan to run it back.
If Dozier wants to justify a permanent spot in the rotation, he has to follow through on three offseason goals: becoming the best defender he can be, improving his shooting touch on drives, and convert spot up threes at a higher rate. It was Dozier’s defense that helped the Nuggets most in the playoffs this season, and with Murray, Porter, and Jokic mostly focused on the offense, surrounding them with quality defensive players will always be the goal. Dozier did a solid job against Mike Conley and Jordan Clarkson in the first round, and his next step is finding success against higher profile Western Conference guards like Donovan Mitchell, Damian Lillard, Devin Booker, and more.
On the shooting front, Dozier converted nearly 64% of his shots in the restricted are but just 25.7% on shots in the paint outside of the restricted area. Improving his handle, shot selection, and overall touch will go a long way in earning those points on the margins. In addition, Dozier shot 16-of-39 (41%) on above the break threes during the regular season but just 1-of-7 (14%) from the corners. There are reasons to believe he will develop into a good, consistent shooter going forward, but he has to work at it and improve his interior finishing for sure.
But overall, a really good showing from Dozier in his first season in Denver. I’m looking forward to seeing how he progresses and how the Nuggets utilize him going forward. He turns 24 in October but is still so young from an NBA mileage perspective. He isn’t done developing and could be an important piece of the Nuggets going forward.