Sophomore point guard Julyan Stone comes in at No. 13 in Roundball Mining Company’s #NuggetsRank series, rounding out the trio of players most likely to be on the inactive list to start the season.
Although Stone is entering into his second year with the Nuggets, his future in the NBA remains largely unclear. After Denver signed him as an undrafted rookie prior to the start of the 2011-12 season, Stone spent the vast majority of his time on the bench. He played in only 22 games, averaging 8.8 minutes per game, and playing 10 minutes or more only seven times. Even when he did get the opportunity to play, he had a team low usage rate of only 11.7 percent, and the bulk of his minutes were played in garbage time. In short, we simply don’t have a whole lot of data to get a very meaningful read from yet.
On paper, Stone makes a great deal of sense for this Nuggets team. At six foot six, he has great height and length for a point guard, which compliments the slightly undersized Ty Lawson quite nicely. And with his penchant for putting two point guards on the floor, George Karl can deploy Stone alongside Lawson and run with two playmakers while not giving up size at the shooting guard position
For his part, Stone has a considerably long way to go to establish himself as a legitimate NBA rotation player, especially in terms of shooting. In evaluating where his shooting game is at, however, we need to exercise caution in leaning too heavily on his NBA statistics. In his single season with Denver, he attempted only 31 field goals, and no statistically significant conclusions can be drawn from such a small sample size. But in looking at his four year college career at UTEP, it is clear not only that he struggled as a shooter, but also that he didn’t make the kind of encouraging improvements over time that would be preferred for a player embarking on an NBA career:
In his rookie season with the Nuggets, his percentages were very similar to those of Andre Miller, but that belies the reality that he basically did not demonstrate the capability to create much offensively on his own. If there is a silver lining to this, it’s that he does seem to have a fairly high basketball IQ. He rarely forced any shots, and when he did shoot it was usually at moments when he was left wide open or the option to dish it out to one of his teammates was cut off. In effect, he was able to mask this weakness by limiting himself to smart or necessary shot selections.
And as a playmaker he is a genuine asset. He displays solid court vision, perhaps helped by his ability to see over his defender, and definitely has a knack for finding players in good spots for easy baskets. Remembering again to take these stats with a grain of salt, he had an elite assist rate (“rate of assists against possessions used”) of 78.99, good for second best among all NBA guards. (By comparison, Steve Nash was at 78.44, Andre Miller 55.02, Chris Paul 47.30, and Ty Lawson 39.54). Granted, we should expect this number to drop if he assumes a larger share of ball handling duties against higher tiered players on defense. But the bottom line is that he is indeed a competent distributor. And in the flow of the offense, he’s a good and quick decision maker, usually making the fast pass to the right guy when the ball comes to him in the middle of the play.
But as most Nuggets fans know, it is really on his defense that Julyan Stone’s future will hinge, and where his natural abilities are strongest. He has good lateral quickness to stay in front of his man, and the length to bother shots and get his hands into passing lanes. And when it comes to hands, Stone’s are quick. Last season, he had the second highest steal rate after Corey Brewer, and like Brewer, he was very proficient at chasing down loose balls to save or take away possessions. In what may be somewhat a product of playing in college for four years and developing solid fundamentals, Stone also has surprisingly good communicative skill on defense, working well with his teammates as they go through the complicated switches and rotations of Karl’s defense.
There were times last season when mentally, he just looked like a rookie. More tentative and less tenacious than Brewer, more excitable (and thus mistake-prone) and less calm, cool and collected than Miller. At times too quick to defer and too hesitant to initiate.
But Stone does have a toughness to his game. He doesn’t mind getting into the paint to battle for rebounds, and he showed a tendency at times to play with his back to the basket in the low post when he had the ball (an area of his game in which he could learn much from Miller). At times he seems to lack the physical strength to fight through screens, so it will be nice if we see him show up to training camp with a little more muscle.
Although we don’t really know yet how good of a player Julyan Stone can ultimately become, he certainly possesses some physicality and skills which are unique to him on this Nuggets roster. If he can make the most of these, and improve his shooting at least enough so as not to be an offensive liability (and encouragingly, it appears he’s working hard on this), he just might be able to eventually secure a role as Lawson’s primary backup. And the good news for now, being that he’s playing third fiddle behind Lawson and Miller, is that the Nuggets have plenty of time for working on his development without putting any pressure on him.