Rookies are rarely effective players. The higher draft picks put up solid counting stats but are usually on a team where wins don’t matter. This is what makes the late-first-round pick, Bones Hyland, and his playoff run for the Denver Nuggets exceptional.
Especially in the second half of the season, after Michael Malone started trusting him more, he became an invaluable spark off the bench that turned one of the worst benches in the league into a much more formidable one.
If he can continue his progression into his sophomore season and blossom even more into one of Denver’s most productive players, the Nuggets’ championship aspirations become much more feasible.
After trading away Monte Morris, Hyland is the default first guard off the bench next season, meaning minutes are coming his way. What can Bones do to grow into a more consistent player next season?
Bones Hyland keys to the 2022-23 season: Finding elite shooting consistency
As a rookie, Hyland was one of the best and most efficient shooters for the Denver Nuggets. Despite this, he was often also one of the streakiest players they had.
His 3-point shooting will always be volatile, but the truly great players find ways to overcome this. Hyland’s best 20-game stretch of shooting in his rookie season came from 8 Feb. 2022 to 24 Mar., as he shot an elite 45 percent from deep on 5.5 attempts per game. This shooting contribution helped lead the Nuggets to a 14-6 record, with key victories over the Philadelphia 76ers, LA Clippers, and Golden State Warriors (twice).
On the flip side, Hyland’s worst 20-game stretch of 3-point shooting came toward the beginning of the season from 14 Nov. 2021 to 11 Jan. 2022. While still not awful, Hyland shot an unsightly 30.1 percent from deep during this stretch as he was finding his footing, and the Nuggets went an abysmal 5-15 in that stretch.
As only a bench player, his production wasn’t a direct cause and effect of Denver’s record but it didn’t help, especially with Malone looking for other options off the bench outside of Facundo Campazzo.
If Bones can continue his late-season form off of the bench, the Nuggets could turn their second unit production, which was often a major weak point last season, into a well-functioning unit.
Bones Hyland keys to the 2022-23 season: Improve defensively
Bones Hyland was never drafted to be a defensive force, but he can immensely improve his value if he becomes a consistently average to above-average defender as a guard. With such a small frame, the guard will struggle to hang with stronger veterans, but there are ways he can improve.
He showed flashes of great defensive ability, especially in blocking shots, not a common skill for a guard. Bones Hyland ranked 12th in the NBA in blocks per 75 possessions among guards off the bench. His 6’9″ wingspan gives him a much higher defensive ceiling than his thin frame would otherwise suggest, and his early ability to block shots shows he may fulfil some of that potential.
In 2021-22, Hyland graded out as a mostly average defender. He had a slightly negative Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DBPM) at negative seven, but the Nuggets in general were a below-average defensive team. He was in the middle of the pack among the team in DBPM and defensive rating, but behind many of his teammates on the bench.
This offseason the bench has been reshaped to focus on defense, shown by the acquisition of Bruce Brown and drafting Christian Braun and Peyton Watson, and this should help Hyland be better on both ends of the floor. He will have more help around him on the defensive end, but will have to exert himself less and leave more energy to use on offense.
If he can bulk up and gain more ability from many of the defensive guards the Nuggets brought in this offseason, he can help solidify himself as one of the best sixth men in the league. He will have less load to carry with Bruce Brown likely to share many minutes with him, and they should be leading a fantastic bench that is a key to the Nuggets’ championship aspirations.
Tyrese Maxey, a model for Bones Hyland’s improvement
Maxey came in as a worse shooter than Hyland, shooting just 30.1 percent as a late first-round pick, but in his second year jumped all the way up to 42.7 percent. This made him one of the best volume 3-point shooters in the league and often the second scoring option for the 76ers. He even elevated his game further in the playoffs, going from 17.5 points per game to 20.8.
Hyland played better than Maxey in his rookie year, and while he likely won’t have the same starting opportunities that Maxey did last year, he could be just as important to the Denver Nuggets off the bench. A Maxey-like jump for Hyland would set the Nuggets up to worry much less about their secondary unit.
Bones has been handed the keys to the Nuggets bench, and with them, he can elevate it to an elite bench unit for a team that is seen as one of the true championship contenders. Hyland will be one of the most important players for the Nuggets in the upcoming season, and if he improves in these key ways, the sky is the limit for Denver.