Nit’picking: Jordan Hamilton may be squandering his best opportunity to crack the rotation

[Nit’picking is a new feature at Roundball Mining Company where the writers take the opportunity to go off on a rant about something that is grinding our gears, rubbing us the wrong way, or otherwise sticking in our craw.]

As the 2013-14 Nuggets training camp and preseason began with both Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler decommissioned by injuries, a tremendous opportunity opened up for Jordan Hamilton to prove himself. Buried for his first two seasons at the bottom of George Karl’s depth chart (and perhaps in his dog house at times), Hamilton has seen very little daylight outside of garbage time up to this point in his career.

It seemed that while Chandler was still recovering from his hamstring injury that Hamilton would be the clear favorite to start and make an impact at the small forward position. But things have not played out quite as expected. His shot has not been falling, and aside from a decent outing in the first preseason game he has not shown many encouraging signs.

To make things worse, Brian Shaw surprisingly selected Quincy Miller to start the first two games at the three, and Anthony Randolph the second two, leaving Hamilton to come off the bench despite what most would have presumed to be his preferred position in the pecking order. He did finally get the start against the Clippers in the fifth preseason game, but wasn’t able to make any hay with it and played just 12 unproductive minutes.

J-Ham is seeking to fill the shooter niche for Denver, and the team’s offense would greatly benefit if he were to become a reliable perimeter threat who could provide desperately needed floor spacing. He’s also one of the only two wings (along with Chandler) who is truly adept at rebounding – he had 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last season, the most among players who weren’t power forwards or centers – and ostensibly this could help him earn more minutes if other aspects of his game fall into place.

But Hamilton has not yet proven very capable of translating his raw skills to reliable production on the court in real game situations. The flashes of talent he’s shown at times have pointed to the hopeful possibility of his becoming a very good NBA player in the future. But that upside has always seemed to reside on the horizon, just out of reach.

Now is the time for Hamilton to prove that his potential is not just a mirage. Despite the fact he hasn’t been starting, with Gallo and Chandler out he’s been getting the playing time necessary to showcase his game and prove to Shaw that he’s worthy of a place in the rotation. It’s the best chance he’s had to make his mark thus far in his career, and if he doesn’t capitalize on it he may not get many more.

Unfortunately, however, it appears that he may be well on his way to squandering this opportunity.

One concern is his shooting. Though the usual caveats about the insignificance of small sample sizes and preseason games do apply here (and so his numbers should be taken with grains of salt), Hamilton’s shooting through the first four games has been, to be blunt, atrocious. His 3-point shooting should ostensibly be one of his greater strengths, one that could earn him minutes. So far he has shot a dismal 2-20 (.100) on all his attempts outside of five feet, including 2-16 (.125) from the arc. Again, grains of salt, but Shaw will be looking for the players who he can best rely on for consistency during this transitional period, and this isn’t the picture Hamilton wants to be painting.

However, J-Ham’s poor shooting is in fact secondary to a larger problem. Shaw has indicated he wants to be patient with his younger players and allow them to develop at their own pace. I think it can be assumed (though admittedly I’m speculating) that Shaw won’t crucify anyone over a few bad shooting performances. Provided that the players are buying into and playing within the flow of his system, that the shots the players are taking are the right shots, there is probably a good amount of slack allowed for growing pains. Those are misses that Shaw can live with, at least for now, with hopes that they’ll start falling more regularly as his players develop more confidence and comfort in the new system.

And so as bad as his shooting has been, the bigger issue for Hamilton is actually  the frequency with which he has made some poorly thought out (and fairly selfish) plays like the following:

When unflattering comparisons have been drawn between Hamilton and J.R. Smith in the past, it has been precisely because of this kind of faulty decision making.

In this play, when J-Ham corrals the rebound, instead of immediately passing it to Lawson as he should, he takes the ball up the court himself. As Lawson approaches the half court line he turns back in anticipation that Hamilton will take this second opportunity to give him the ball, but this goes ignored. J-Ham dribbles up to the top of the arc, where the Lakers defense isn’t about to give him an easy lane to drive to the basket (though he clearly wants to do so).

At this point his best course of action would be to swing the ball either to Hickson or Lawson to get a little ball movement going and let the offense get set. Instead he keeps the ball and dribbles around the right side of the key. At the same time, JaVale McGee is working to get into a good low post position – precisely where Shaw wants the ball to go. But instead of pulling up his dribble and trying either to get the ball to JaVale or pass it back out to the perimeter for someone else to make the entry pass, Hamilton sets his course directly for the no-man’s land of the baseline, and gets in so deep that his only remaining option is to jump out of bounds and, while in mid-air, fling a wildly errant pass in Evan Fournier’s general direction. All too predictably, this results in a turnover and a wasted possession.

Many of us at Roundball Mining Company have been vocal about wanting J-Ham to get more playing time over the last two seasons, but in fairness to the Nuggets’ former coach, Karl may have had a point. Plays like this don’t just indicate a tendency to slip up now and then. They’re exhibitions of bad decision-making on a grand scale. In this case, Hamilton throws this possession onto the scrapheap by making unwise choices four or five times in rapid succession, as he embarks on an ill-conceived one-man coast-to-coast mission to nowhere.

It seems reasonable to presume that Shaw’s tolerance for players missing shots or otherwise making mistakes while at least trying to play their proper role within the system will not be matched by the same level of patience for players just disregarding (or perhaps simply not understanding) the system altogether.

In the Denver Post, Chris Dempsey recently reported on how important Shaw considers it for the players to be team-oriented:

“I’m going to demand it,” Shaw said. “And those who buy into it will be rewarded. And those who continue to fight it will kind of have to take a back seat to those who buy in. But it’s very important. We talk about togetherness every day – everything we do as a team we do together, win or lose. And part of doing things together is, it doesn’t look together when you’re arguing out there on the floor about who should take this shot or who should be handling the ball.”

Shaw was referring specifically to getting the players to stop bickering at each other on the court, but the overriding message is clear: He wants selflessness, good teamwork, and dedication to the team’s system and culture from his players.

To Hamilton’s credit, although he missed all four of his 3-pointers in the fourth preseason game, he did do a better job of playing in the flow of the offense. Hopefully such signs of progress along his learning curve will begin appearing with greater frequency.

I for one would love to see him succeed, not only for his own sake but for the team’s success as well. If Hamilton can achieve the level of play that his pure talent suggests he could be capable of, he should have a considerably positive impact on the Nuggets’ success.

But for that to happen, he’s going to have to buy in and learn how to play within the parameters of Shaw’s system, and execute when given the chance. And with Chandler on the verge of coming back, he may not have much more time before his opportunity to prove he can do so runs dry.

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Joel is a long time Denver Nuggets (and Broncos) fan from Colorado who's been living in Japan since the mid-90s, and blogging about the Nuggets since 2008. You can contact and follow him on Twitter: @denbutsu.
  • Scott

    Sell high.

    • Russell Hamilton

      Wouldn’t he have to have been high at some point to sell high?

  • Kody R

    Hamilton has left me extremely disappointed so far this pre-season. This was his moment to shine, prove he belonged and earn minutes. I’ve been a huge JHam fan since he arrived here but i’m beginning to think he’s never going to become the player that people think he can be. Guess my custom Hamilton Nuggets hoodie will be useless soon..

  • dagus1976

    I also was hoping for much more playing time for Jham the last 2 seasons. But sometimes you just have to shake your head when you see someone with such a great natural talent like him, and they fail to live up to their potential.
    It makes me sad that someone like him has apparently not taken this golden opportunity seriously. The talent is there…but is the work ethic?

  • alex47666

    I have been saying for the last 2 years Jham needs to go, he was a bust its time to move on. People said with shaw he gets his chance, well Fours outplayed him last year to get the job. Shaw has given Jham chances, and he hasnt done anything with them. Jham is a streaky shooter than needs to work on D, that has JR characteristics.

  • CD Pascual

    How about let Ham take a year off from the NBA and play overseas?

  • Cullen

    As disappointing as he has been this preseason, I think we do not have the proper data set to be like: naw, dude is garbage. He has played limited regular season minutes and select preseason minutes. Sure, when he has played he has struggled, but I think selling off a player this early in the season is not smart. Lets give him some minutes over a season and if he plays like garbage, by all means bench him and toss him… but lets remember all these “chances” are the preseason. Hardly enough chances to prove ability.