It’s hard for a Nuggets fan not to be excited about the start of this NBA season. The team is being touted as one that could make a serious run at the top spot in the Western Conference, which is worth about as much as a preseason touting is usually worth. Much more certain, and much more promising, is the projection that this team will be incredibly fun to watch. This year’s Nuggets are a team tailor-made to melt faces with a barrage of fast-break dunks, alley-oops, and holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-he-just-tried-to-do-that moments; in JaVale McGee, Denver has the NBA’s most eminent specialist inithat last category.
It’s no wonder, then, that so many NBA writers and fans have pegged the Nuggets as a must follow on League Pass, or that Reggie Miller doesn’t buy into their potential to enter into the NBA’s elite class. The former is because NBA people know a good time when they see it, and the latter is because Reggie Miller is the worst and always stands opposed to everything that is good.
And yet, despite all this hype and optimism, the Nuggets are seen as a team with one major stumbling block to overcome: they don’t have a True Star. This is a problem because conventional wisdom states that a True Championship Contender needs to have that True Star that can put the team on his back, create his own shot, enforce his will and, actually, why not just insert your own sportswriter cliché here. There's room for debate on this—there were, for instance, the 2004 Detroit Pistons—but the observation that the Nuggets are without a True Star, or even the non-sarcasmo-capitals true star, is correct enough. But they may have one very soon, and his name will be—already is, in fact—Danilo Gallinari.
As things stand right now, Gallinari is simply one talented cog amongst the many that make up the Nuggets’ weird, fast machine. Gallinari's numbers don’t do much to raise his profile above those of his teammates—since coming to Denver in the Carmelo Anthony trade, Gallinari has played 57 games for the Nuggets and averaged 14.6 points, five rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game; his PER of 16.5 ranked behind four teammates—five, if you count McGee in his 20 games with the team, with Kosta Koufos and Chris Andersen among that number. This is not too shabby, but also not anything that screams “potential superstar.” What’s worse, Gallinari never got his three-point shot smoothed out last season, and missed a large chunk of time with a foot injury, and so he wasn’t exactly in the forefront of the collective Nuggets consciousness during the offseason.
Aside from his numbers, there is something about Gallinari’s physical profile that makes him seem pedestrian. He’s somehow doughy and gangly at the same time, he sweats exuberantly, and when he runs—mouth agape and hair flopping—he often looks like the kid who took gym class only because it was required. In short, Gallinari doesn’t carry the same aura of athleticism that so many other players in the league do. It’s easy to look at Gallinari and see just another stereotypical European big—tall as a power forward but as dedicated to long-distance chuckery and as loath to mix it up in the paint as any heave-happy DeShawn Stevenson type.
Here’s the thing about Danilo Gallinari, though: Despite his lack of eye-popping numbers and goof-o physical presence, he can ball the fuck out. So much so, in fact, that a YouTube search for “Danilo Gallinari crossover” reveals a surprising amount of surprisingly jaw-dropping results. None are better than this one:
That’s Danilo Gallinari, the guy who looks more like an overdeveloped eighth grader than he does an NBA player, throwing a left-to-right crossover at the top of the key, going behind the back, and then whipping a no-look pass to a cutting teammate for an easy layup. There may be other players Gallinari’s size capable of handling and create like that, but that's a different thing than actually doing it.
It takes a certain amount of fearlessness to step out on an island, size up your opponent, and know that you aren’t the one who will end up a puddle of twisted joints. The NBA is full of quick guards who make a living playing that sort of willful isolation basketball, but aside from Kevin Durant, it’s hard to think of any 6-10 guys who have the combination of chops and courage to play the game in those terms, and in that way.
Therein lies Gallinari’s biggest asset, bigger even than that handle or that jumpshot—his fearlessness. In his short time with the Nuggets, I’ve watched countless instances in which Gallinari has received the ball on the wing, lulled his defender into thinking that he is about to launch another three-pointer—another Euro lobbing another pretty, contested long-distance attempt—and then barreled right into the paint with a quickness and aggression that he didn’t seem to possess mere moments earlier. Being as good at basketball as he is has gotten Gallinari this far; the guile and guts are the things that suggest he could go much further than this, and be something much more and much more interesting than what he is now.
Of all of those crossovers and drives to the rim, none are more impressive or indicative of Gallinari’s potential than this play:
That 32-second sequence perfectly captures Gallinari as a player, and as a potential force that hasn't yet found its fullest expression. When Gallinari first corrals the errant pass from Andre Miller, he looks just as awkward and Italo-putzy as you’d expect, what with his left arm out there helicoptering through the air as he attempts to keep his balance through two loping, ungainly strides.
But then, in an instant, all the doughiness of Gallinari’s body hardens, steels up; the graceless tilt of his movements evaporate. In their place is a new, languid athleticism and a startling precision of movement. The most important thing missing in Gallinari at that moment—and it's suddenly very palpable as he whips the ball behind his back—is fear. All kinds of things—League Pass subscriptions for starters, and wins after that—can come from that particular absence.
Illustration by J.O. Applegate.