Mark Warkentein treated Nuggets nation to a deep breath and moment of repose yesterday afternoon. The Nuggets upgraded and filled out their roster by acquiring SG Arron Afflalo and PF Walter Sharpe from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for a second-round draft pick. This trade is yet another savvy basketball and financial move by Mr. Warkentein, especially in the wake of Dahntay Jones’s departure to Indiana.
Due to the emergence of Rodney Stuckey and Will Bynum, Afflalo flew under the radar in Detroit. Expect him to be front and center in Denver. Afflalo, a defensive specialist, immediately becomes the Nuggets’ back-up shooting guard. Coach Karl will likely depend on him to slow down an opposing team’s most offensively potent guard. He is also an effective three-point shooter, who possesses a serious upside at 23 years of age.
Most importantly, Afflalo uses his head. He respects the game and understands that playing in the NBA is a privilege and not a right. Riding the bench behind Hamilton, Iverson, Stuckey, and Bynum taught him how to earn his minutes. He plays with desire at both ends of the court, and the Nuggets are markedly better for acquiring him. Wait a second. This 23-year-old sounds a little too good to be true. Upon further inspection, he kind of is.
Afflalo is an intelligent young man. As a freshman at UCLA, Afflalo made the Athletic Director’s Honor Roll during his spring semester. Even as he spent countless hours in the gym and on the road pursuing an NCAA tournament bid, Afflalo maintained the discipline to go above and beyond in the classroom. Qualifying for the Honor Roll at UCLA is not easy. Making the Honor Roll at UCLA while simultaneously committing oneself to an elite Division I sports team is an incredible achievement.
Arron Afflalo’s story only gets better.
Afflalo improved drastically during his sophomore season at UCLA. He grew into the team’s leading scorer by averaging 15.8 points per contest, but he also led the Bruins’ defensive charge. Afflalo’s scoring and defensive prowess drove the Bruins all the way to the Final Four in 2006.
Afflalo put on a show during the 2006 NCAA Tourney, as he constantly came through on offense and defense in clutch situations. The sophomore shooting guard hit the game-winning three-point shot against Alabama, advancing the Bruins to the Sweet Sixteen. Yet, it was Afflalo’s tight defense down the stretch that turned his own shot into the game-winner. Alabama held the ball during the game’s final seconds, but Afflalo refused to back down and forced point guard Ronald Steele into missing the potential game-winning shot for the Crimson Tide. Afflalo demonstrated his two-way abilities again during UCLA’s upset over Memphis in the Elite Eight. He shut down Tigers leading scorer Rodney Carney, a player the Nuggets briefly considered acquiring this summer, and added 15 points as the Bruins reached the Final Four. I’d bet my season tickets that Mark Warkentein dissected that game tape in the past two weeks…
Afflalo’s most significant performance of the tournament came against Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen. Afflalo scored 15 points and matched up well against 2006 Player of the Year Adam Morrison (remember him?) during the Bruins’ comeback victory. However, it was not Afflalo’s athletic abilities that set him apart during this particular night in Oakland. It was his head and heart.
The Bruins trailed the Bulldogs by 9 points with three minutes remaining in the game, but Afflalo’s team successfully rallied to reach the Elite Eight. The defeat crushed Morrison. He had played his heart out the entire season, and I’m fairly certain he left his soul on the court against UCLA that evening (Note: Morrison has never been the same since this game ended). After the final horn sounded, Morrison remained face down and inconsolable at center court. Before celebrating his first trip to the Final Four, Afflalo joined teammate Ryan Hollis, picked up the Gonzaga captain, and helped him off the floor. This act remains a defining display of NCAA sportsmanship.
For the record, Afflalo accomplished all of this before turning 21. His instincts seem to grow better with age. The following season Afflalo averaged 17.4 points per game and was voted Pac-10 Player of the Year. On winning the award, Afflalo stated, “It is good that contributions on both ends of the floor are recognized … If you truly have a love and passion for the game, then you should work at every aspect of it, not just the part that gives you (attention), that being scoring.” These words have to be music to George Karl’s ears, and it is easy to see why Chauncey emphatically endorsed Afflalo when the front office consulted him on the trade.
As Joe Sakic walks away from the Denver sports stage, it is comforting to see that the Nuggets are hiring quality personnel. The team already possessed a gentleman in Nene, but acquiring Chauncey gave the Nuggets a new identity. The Nuggets have grown into a classy bunch on the whole. I hope they build off of last season’s success not only by continuing to win, but also by accepting the challenge of acting as the full-time face of pro sports in Colorado. They are currently Denver’s most talented pro team, after all. Afflalo’s defense and three-point range will undoubtedly help the Nuggets rack up victories next season, and his small salary looks great on the team’s financial ledger. But I’m also confident that his presence will have a positive effect on his teammates, as well as the city’s perception of the franchise.
One thing remains certain. Afflalo is clearly a student of the game.