Bones Highland will tell you that he is the best shooter in the Nuggets.
Just a few months into his NBA career, the precocious rookie has no shortage of confidence. His self-confidence shows in both his slippery dribbling combinations and his shots. To Bones, anything within five feet of the three-point line is fair game.
But even a fun-loving rookie is not immune to the bumps in the NBA, especially this season. There’s a lot to do in Bones, from rugged travel to adapting to complex defenses and navigating through unprecedented COVID protocols. Three times this season, Highland flew commercial flights on game day only after morning COVID tests confirmed it. It’s had false positives, no results, extended quarantines, and everything in between.
And while Highland’s stresses from COVID have been challenging, his rookie fights have not. Prior to Thursday’s 17-point shot against the Blazers, who had 14 points and four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, Hyland was in a rut.
In the seven games leading up to his outbreak, Hyland only shot 26% from the field and less than 19% from three-point range. His performance dropped and Nuggets coach Michael Malone thought he was pushing.
“I said, ‘Let’s get together after the shootout[Thursday]and just sit down and talk,” Malone said. “I want to talk and talk about what I see. I want you to tell me what you think, and most importantly, how can I help you?”
Malone told him that he thought Bones was forcing things offensively by trying too hard to score and overlooking his other strengths. They start, as anyone who has seen Highland frying a defender can attest, with his speed and agility. He urged him to play downhill, bring down the defense and attack the paint, which would help create a scoring chance for him or a teammate.
On Malone’s first remark, Highland was electric. His three assists on Thursday were great examples of basketball play. In the first, he infiltrated the alley, attracted attention, and then hit the ball to Zika Nnaji for an open corner 3. He did this two more times, first to Fak Campazzo and then to Marcus Howard. Aside from Will Burton, Highland is currently the Nuggets’ top pick when they’re trying to crack defenses.
“I was so proud of him,” Malone said. “…He went there and did everything we talked about. Play basketball not only for yourself but also for your teammates, involve guys, drive and kick, compete in defense, fight.”
His value increases when Denver’s offense falters, as they did in the second half of the Clippers’ 25-point game on Tuesday. Hyland didn’t play the second half of that game, due in large part to his recent problems. But make no mistake, the Highlands are an invaluable piece of the puzzle as the Nuggets struggle to stay afloat in the West.
One of Malone’s greatest strengths as a coach is his ability to connect with his players and establish a level of trust. Once that trust is established, his criticism becomes constructive rather than personal.
In addition to criticism on offense, Malone urged the hardy rookie to compete more on defense. He told him that teams were exploiting him and targeting him in off-site games. Malone struck a very specific chord, knowing how competitive his budding quarterback was.
“You’ll never earn a reputation for being that kind of guy,” he told Hyland. “You are not like that. You’re a tough guy who’s been through a lot in Wilmington and you have to show it on the court.”
A few hours later, the message went out. The Highland spark is back.