DENVER — Jameer Nelson did not intend to be a mentor. He made that clear on day one of this season.
“My job is to compete and play,” Nelson said in September. “If a guy has a question for me or needs to ask me something or wants to learn something I’ll help, but I’m not the coach. I’m not the GM. I’m the player. I’m not a guidance counselor. I’m not a sports psychologist. I’m a player. My job is to go out there and play no matter who is out there on the court in front of me or next to me.”
Yet, despite his hesitation, Nelson has somehow become the best veteran leader the Nuggets have. He’s become a sounding board for the mountain of young players in the Nuggets’ locker room.
Whether it’s helping teach 20-year-old Jamal Murray how to run an NBA offense, joking with rookie Juancho Hernangomez about how often the Spaniard asks to borrow his shampoo, or telling frequent D-league visitor Malik Beasley to keep his head up, Nelson has firmly established himself as the team’s veteran force. He’s become a teacher, a mentor, and a coach in a jersey—whether he intended to be or not.
“He leads by example, first and foremost,” head coach Michael Malone said. “He leads with his voice and his wisdom and his experience.”
That experience includes 13 seasons in the NBA, an All-Star selection, and an appearance in the NBA finals against Kobe’s Lakers in 2009. With that track record comes a certain attitude about who you are and what you expect out of yourself.
At 35, Nelson isn’t the player he once was. He struggles at times to defend against larger, more athletic guards, and he is still prone to take bad shots from long range early in possessions.
For all those reasons, the Nuggets had no intention of making him their starting point guard when the season began. That role, of course, was supposed to belong to 2015 No. 7 overall pick Emmanuel Mudiay. However, Mudiay was ineffective early in the season—to put it mildly. He shot just 37 percent from the field and averaged almost one turnover for every two assists. A back injury gave Malone and the Nuggets a chance to see this team with Nelson at the helm. They haven’t looked back.
“When Emmanuel went down, Jameer stepped up and played very well for us and closed a lot of key games and made big plays down the stretch,” Malone said. “That is what you want your veterans to do.”
Before Jameer Nelson became Denver’s starting point guard the Nuggets were 18-24. They’re 17-15 with him at the helm. Furthermore, their offensive efficiency has skyrocketed since Nelson became a starter. It’s 109.9, good enough for fifth in the NBA. Nelson really isn’t being asked to do what he’s best at, either.
“He’s really kind of sacrificed his game,” Malone said. “He’s a scoring guard. He’s a pick and roll player, but he understands with this team he needs to be more of a facilitator; to get us organized, cut, guard on the other end and, when he can, step up and make plays for his teammates or for himself.”
As his place in the lineup has evolved, so has his role in the locker room. Nelson has embraced being a coach on the court. He works with Malone on developing game plans and is regularly spending extra time with his teammates.
When the Nuggets made a trade one week ahead of the deadline, sending a sulking and overweight Jusuf Nurkic to Portland for Blazers’ big man Mason Plumlee, it was Nelson who made sure the newest Nugget was up to speed.
He pulled Plumlee to the side in huddles and in practice to work with him on different offensive sets and describe how best to navigate space while center Nikola Jokic performed his near-magical passing feats. As Malone sees it, Nelson has done everything that’s been asked of him this season whether coming off the bench or in the starting lineup.
“I think his role has changed throughout the season,” Malone said. “I think Jameer has sacrificed for the betterment of the team in terms of how he’s played. His job is to get everybody involved, get us organized, and make the right play. I think he does that most nights at a very high level.”
He’s still reluctant to call himself a mentor to his much younger teammates. Yet, he most certainly is one. You can see it in the self-assured way he answers questions about them.
Nelson refuses to call players like Murray, Jokic, Hernangomez, Mudiay, and guard Gary Harris “kids,” despite the fact that none of them have even turned 23-years-old.
“They’re not kids,” Nelson said sharply. “They’re men. We’re all men.”
He holds them to a higher standard—especially after losses., Nelson wouldn’t make excuses when Denver got their doors blown off in a critical game at home to the very beatable New Orleans Pelicans. Being the veteran he is, however, he didn’t overact either.
“We’ve just got to bounce back,” Nelson said after that loss. “We’re a good team. We believe in ourselves. We believe in each other. We just have to play for ourselves and each other and be accountable, like coach said. We have to do a better job.”
The Nuggets have failed to do that since the New Orleans loss. In the sole game since then, Denver lost perhaps the most important contest they’ll play all year, losing in Portland to a Trailblazers team that now controls the No. 8 overall seed in the Western Conference playoffs, a spot the Nuggets had held for more than 50 days prior.
If they’re to reclaim that playoff spot, every single one of their eight remaining games will be critical. They’ll need Nelson at his best down the stretch. For his part, the veteran is ready to compete.
“When you’re fighting for a spot every game is a big game no matter who you’re playing,” he said. “We shouldn’t get over-hyped up. We’ve just to see who we are and play our game.”
Leading by example, the former All-Star has become exactly what he explicitly said he didn’t want to become at the beginning of the season: a mentor. Nelson has even taken a special interest in helping share his knowledge of the NBA with Jamal Murray, despite the fact the Nuggets may look for the former Kentucky standout to take Nelson’s job next season.
“I think he’s done a great job with Jamal Murray at times taking him under his wing, giving him lessons—things that he needs to learn from,” Malone said. “I think that’s so valuable.”
Jameer Nelson is not a part of the Nuggets’ long-term future. He’ll be 36 next season. Yet, there’s little doubt among coaches and players Nelson’s impact will be felt years down the road as the team continues to develop their plethora of young talent and rebuild in the Post-Brian Shaw era.
“We were a young team last year that got younger when we drafted Jamal, Juancho, and Malik,” Malone said. “So, having a veteran like a Jameer Nelson has been phenomenal for all of our young players. I think that’s so important when you talk about culture and building the right culture, he’s definitely a big part of that.”