In Colorado, these Nuggets are feeling like a masterpiece

One of the things that stood out after the Nuggets’ loss to Minnesota last Friday was that point guard Trey Lyles had a rough night and Josh Jablonski — who covers Denver sports for The Athletic — described him thusly:

Lyles finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 43 minutes. It was, in other words, a typically volatile night for the third-year player.

Friday’s bizarre loss notwithstanding, there’s been a transformation in Lyles’ role this season. It’s certainly not as pronounced as it is for Jokic. Lyles remains primarily a spot-up shooter. In the Nuggets’ four games before that blowout loss in Minnesota, Lyles attempted just 13 shots. And that was after he ditched the butterfly in favor of something more three-dimensional:

He’s also averaging 15.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in December, the best December in the Nuggets’ history. Lyles is developing into a reliable contributor for one of the league’s most talented young teams, thanks in part to a crowded rotation that allows him to flourish.

One reason is that Lyles’ considerable deficiencies in the passing game are masking what could be a growing trust in him as a facilitator. And the Nuggets are a much better team when Lyles does, too.

Yes, Denver is still the best offensive team in the NBA. But it is averaging an absurd six fewer assists than it did in December last year. Lyles has just 24 assists on 122 total attempts this month, or 2.0 assists per game.

Compare that to Jokic (with a similar usage rate), whose passes lead the Nuggets by four.

That is alarming for two reasons. One is that Jokic’s being more assertive and coming more into games has improved Denver’s jump-shot defense, so Lyles’ passing essentially negates much of what he’s doing. Second, it suggests that perhaps Lyles could turn out to be more valuable if he spends more time in the gym.

Indeed, Lyles has indeed been playing better over the last couple of weeks, averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds over the past seven games. Still, this has mostly been a slog of a season thus far. In the greater scheme of things, these stats aren’t terribly significant, since Lyles — who is still an unpolished piece — is not going to force many passes. But clearly Jokic’s range of vision and comfort are great assets that Lyles could capitalize on.

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