Youthful Nuggets among the top contenders in West


Youthful Nuggets among the top contenders in West

DENVER (AP) George Karl just doesn't get the sudden infatuation with his young team.

The Denver Nuggets have turned into a trendy pick this season to be a top contender in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. But the fascination with his squad has the longtime coach a bit mystified.

Because really, what's changed since last season when the Nuggets were once again knocked out of the playoffs in the first round?

Sure, they added defensive stopper Andre Iguodala as part of the blockbuster deal that landed Dwight Howard with the Los Angeles Lakers. And granted, athletic big man JaVale McGee will have a full year on board. But other than that, this is largely the same core of players - the one lacking a bona fide ``star.''

Still, prognosticators are predicting Denver will accomplish great things. Some even have them winning the West.

``Why did we come from nowhere to onto the radar?'' Karl said after a recent practice. ``Why all these other people have jumped onto our bandwagon, I have no idea.''

Karl's explosive point guard understands the enchantment with the team in sky blue and yellow. About time, too.

Ty Lawson has been stumping for more respect all preseason, even crowing that the Nuggets are indeed the ones to beat in the West. He drew quite a bit of flak in social media circles for that recent assertion, but he's not budging from his boast. It wasn't meant to needle or irritate anyone, either, just draw some attention toward his team.

The Oklahoma City Thunder may have Kevin Durant and the Lakers an All-Star crew led by Kobe Bryant, but the Nuggets have strength in numbers and a defensive presence with Iguodala, who can lock down the opposition's top offensive threat.

``We are one of the best in the West,'' Lawson recently reiterated.

Karl just rolled his eyes. The Nuggets are still young for this kind of conversation and still trying to blend all the pieces to find just the right mix.

``We've got to learn how to be good,'' said Karl, whose team lost to the Lakers in Game 7 last season. ``There's a process of being more professional, more prepared, more focused, more disciplined, to be a really good team.''

The most intriguing player for the Nuggets could be McGee, whom Denver acquired late last season. The team made a commitment to McGee by re-signing the versatile center to a four-year, $44 million deal in the offseason.

In turn, McGee rewarded their commitment by stepping up his game in the gym. He traveled to Houston over the summer to work with Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon on some low-post moves. Now, the player known more as a shot blocker may just provide a scoring presence in the paint.

Another element for teams to deal with.

``You just can't have a game plan to guard just two people with us,'' Lawson said. ``Teams have to pick their poison.''

It all starts with Lawson, the revved-up engine that powers this squad. He averaged 16 points and nearly seven assists a game last season - numbers the Nuggets are hoping to see soar in 2012-13.

``It's a big year for him,'' executive vice president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri said. ``We're going to ask more of him.''

Iguodala, too.

These days, the All-Star is spending extra time in the gym, working on his jumper. The longtime Philadelphia 76er standout is the closest thing the Nuggets have to a marquee player since trading away Carmelo Anthony.

So far, Iguodala likes what he sees.

``We have a lot of weapons,'' said Iguodala, who won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA over the summer in London. ``If we use those weapons to our advantage - if everyone can explode in their area - that makes us a very dangerous team.''

That said, there remain some questions surrounding this squad:

- Can Danilo Gallinari and Corey Brewer become the long-range shooters the Nuggets are searching for?

- Will Wilson Chandler's surgically repaired hip hold up to the grind?

- Can Kenneth Faried, a rebounding beast on the boards in his rookie season, take another next step forward?

- Will the trio of McGee, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos be able to contain the likes of Howard and Tim Duncan in the middle?

- And maybe the biggest one of all: How will the team handle the increased pressure as a favorite in the West?

``As a coach, I'm always nervous about all the hype,'' Karl said. ``We're young and so you worry a little bit. ... We haven't proven anything. We're a team that played good in the first round (of the playoffs) and lost.

``It doesn't seem we should be getting as much love.''

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, May 23, 65 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

What to look for at OTAs

Redskins OTAs started yesterday. The no-contact drills are the first time during the offseason program that the offense and defense are permitted to line up against each other. The-no pads aspect of it does take off a lot of the edge but the reality is that this will be the closest thing to football we will see until training camp starts in late July. 

Here are some things that I will be looking for during today’s practice.

Who’s in? Jay Gruden told us earlier that we should expect to see some injured key players not participating as they continue to recover from 2017 injuries. Specifically, OT Trent Williams (knee), OT Morgan Moses (ankles), and TE Jordan Reed (hamstring/toe) will only be spectators if they are at Redskins Park at all. Other players who may sit out or participate only in light drills are RB Chris Thompson (leg), and ILB Mason Foster (shoulder). The Redskins have been relatively healthy the past few offseasons so we will see how they deal with the aftermath of the injury scourge that hit the team last year. 

Seven-on-seven—Sure, it’s fun to watch the full team drills with 11 on each side but since blocking and tackling is limited by the rules about contact, there isn’t much to be gleaned from watching an off-tackle run. But when they eliminate the guards, tackles, and interior defensive linemen it’s all passing and then we can watch how well Alex Smith and his receivers are connecting. One thing I’ll keep in mind is that Smith decided not to get the receivers together for a “passing camp” before the offseason activities started. He said that he wanted to get to know the playbook first. Because of that they can be forgiven if they are not quite as sharp as they might be. Also, how natural does Derrius Guice look coming out of the backfield to catch passes? His primary job will be to carry the ball, but if he is a legitimate pass-catching threat, the whole offense will be harder to defend.

Rookies vs. pros—In rookie camp two weeks ago we saw Trey Quinn putting defensive backs on the ground with some moves and Troy Apke showing great makeup speed on some long passes. But those tryout defensive backs and quarterbacks are no longer around. How will Quinn look against veteran Orlando Scandrick or second-year corner Josh Holsey? Will Smith’s ball placement negate Apke’s speed? In the one-on-one pass blocking drills, which emphasize technique over power, can Daron Payne get past Brandon Scherff?

The big guys—With Williams and Moses out, who will line up along the offensive line? Does Payne line up at nose tackle or is he used more as an end with Tim Settle in the middle? Is Ziggy Hood in the middle or will he work outside? How is Phil Taylor looking after a quad injury ended his season in training camp? As noted, the rules make it hard to tell much about linemen before Richmond but we try to glean what we can. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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My reaction to this tweet from the NFL illustrating the changes to the kickoff rules:


Today’s schedule:Redskins OTA practice 11:30; Jay Gruden and Alex Smith press conferences, players available coming off the field, after practice, approx. 1:30

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 20
—Training camp starts (7/26) 65
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 79

The Redskins last played a game 143 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 109 days. 

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New pieces on offense lead to plenty of questions for Redskins at OTAs

New pieces on offense lead to plenty of questions for Redskins at OTAs

Alex Smith in, Kirk Cousins out.

That's certainly the headline, but there are plenty of other questions for the Redskins, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

For the last two seasons, most of the questions going into OTAs for Washington came from the defensive side of the ball. After consecutive drafts with a first-round defensive lineman selection, the defense should be much improved. 

On offense, however, there are a lot of new parts. 

  1. The headliner - No position in sports is as important as NFL quarterback. This will be Alex Smith's first action in a Redskins uniform with media present. The 34-year-old veteran is coming off the best season of his career, and if he can continue that level of accuracy and play-making, the Redskins could be poised for an explosive year.
  2. The speedster - Washington's wideouts lacked separation in 2017. It was apparent through much of the year, and likely played a roll in some of Kirk Cousins' reluctance to make tough throws. Free agent addition Paul Richardson is supposed to help, immediately. He has elite deep speed and the 'Skins brass hopes he can bring a similar element to the offense that DeSean Jackson provided a few years back. Time to prove it Paul. 
  3. The injuries - There are big reasons for concern, namely two very large men in Jordan Reed and Trent Williams. Reed will not participate in OTAs, and has been dealing with a foot/toe injury for the better part of a year. Williams, who seems highly unlikely to attend OTAs, underwent knee surgery in January. Beyond Smith, Reed and Williams are probably the two most important offensive players on the Redskins. OTAs aren't important, Reed and Williams participating, or even attending, OTAs is not important. Both men being healthy and ready to go in September is quite important. 
  4. The Rookie - Has Derrius Guice become the most popular player on the Redskins? Maybe. The dynamic rookie running back, with an interesting draft weekend slide, has the charisma and ability to be a star. The "off-field concerns" that hurt his draft status seem like myths at this point, but there was some injury concern his junior season at LSU (see video above). Guice has an opportunity to be a huge part of the Redskins offense, and all eyes will be watching the rookie. 
  5. The leap? - In 2017, Josh Doctson showed flashes of the player that warranted a first-round pick in 2016. Will 2018 be the year he proves it, week after week, game after game? Getting off to a good start with Smith should help, and even more important would be an injury-free offseason. 

There are questions for the defense too, particularly at cornerback after Josh Norman, but this year, the offense has more new parts. 


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