Bruno Fernando is fouled as he drives to the basket against Bol Bol, Zeke Nnaji of the Denver Nuggets during the 2021 NBA Summer League on 10 Aug. 2021. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Bruno Fernando is fouled as he drives to the basket against Bol Bol, Zeke Nnaji of the Denver Nuggets during the 2021 NBA Summer League on 10 Aug. 2021. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The Denver Nuggets are in the middle of their 2021 Summer League campaign but with no significant free agency movement at the backup center spot, the race has already started to see who gets minutes in 2021-22.

After JaVale McGee signed with the Phoenix Suns this free agency, there was going to be an opening behind Nikola Jokic in the rotation.

The only established bench players with experience at the center spot are JaMychal Green and Jeff Green. The issue here is that both players are slightly undersized, unable to take the beating at that spot night-to-night.

Michael Malone hasn’t shown much interest in playing JaMychal at the five as well, with only 12 percent of his minutes coming as the nominal center this past season per Basketball-Reference.

This makes the Summer League battle even more interesting. Heading into Las Vegas, many assumed Zeke Nnaji would grow into the backup big man role, but he has been vastly outplayed in a limited SL run.

Denver Nuggets: Zeke Nnaji’s case for backup center

The best-case scenario for Zeke Nnaji next season is a backup big man who can defend his position and space the floor on offense. His ability to shoot the ball should even give him the ability to play alongside Jokic as a shooting four.

As Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly put it when speaking at his postseason press conference:

“I think Zeke’s ability to guard and make shots is really unique for a 20-year-old big. Even though he’s 6-foot-10, he’s going to be a heck of a three-and-D guy.”

It’s great that Connelly believes in him but Malone didn’t see enough last year to warrant playing him more than ten minutes a night in only 42 games. To be fair, Malone hasn’t given many minutes to rookies since Denver came back into the playoff picture.

If next season is his opportunity to shine, he has started off poorly with this Summer League showing. In the third game against the Phoenix Suns, Nnaji played nearly 30 minutes and finished the game with six points, nine rebounds, and five fouls while shooting 2-10 from the floor.

It wasn’t much better in his first game against the Boston Celtics as Nnaji scored two points on 0-9 from the floor paired with a team-worst -26 in 24 minutes.

While Connelly might see the ‘3’ in 3-and-D, it hasn’t been falling in Summer League.

But that’s the best part about Summer League, fans can take everything with a grain of salt. Nnaji missed the first game after entering the league’s health & safety protocols which looks like it really disrupted the team’s momentum heading into the tournament.

If Nnaji can turn it around by training camp and secure some backup center minutes, Denver will have three more years of cost-control on their backup big man as he plays on his extremely affordable rookie contract.

Denver Nuggets: Bol Bol’s case for backup center

If Bol Bol was on the outside of the race looking in, his play in Summer League has helped him edge ahead of Zeke Nnaji.

Bol might just be the ideal player for Summer League: draft pedigree, big name in amateur basketball, and a physical anomaly. Maybe this run will go down alongside some of the other Summer League greats like Archie Goodwin and Tyler Ulis…

All jokes aside, Bol is playing much better than the competition. In the team’s first game, I wrote that he looked aggressive but average. He has only gotten better since then, maintaining that aggression but pairing it with solid counting stats and more importantly: getting to the charity stripe.

In three Summer League appearances, Bol Bol has taken 31 free throws and is causing serious trouble for opposing defenders. Yes, these players aren’t the best of the best, but he’s getting into solid spots and making plays.

The issue with Bol in the past has been his inability to make an impact against NBA defenses while getting bullied around on defense. If he can carry this aggression and scoring acqumen into the regular season, he’ll be a very, very interesting backup to Nikola Jokic.

Unlike Zeke, Bol needs to have some urgency about him in terms of cracking into the rotation. Bol played on a guaranteed contract this past season, a guaranteed contract he received for not really showing all too much the prior year.

After the 2021-22 season, Bol will be an unrestricted free agent and if he can’t prove that he can play at an NBA level, the Denver Nuggets might have to let him walk, prioritizing the roster spot for a championship run in 2022-23.

Through three Summer League games, it looks as though Bol Bol is the favorite to steal some backup center minutes, but we’ll find out much more at training camp. Can Bol carry over this momentum, will Nnaji prevail, or will Connelly find another option late in free agency?

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