Direct flights are available between Denver and Grand Rapids, Michigan, on a daily basis. It’s one of the reasons Ben Tenzer and the Nuggets were attracted two years ago to the minor league basketball team that calls Grand Rapids home.
Tenzer, who has spent 14 years with the Nuggets dating back to his days as an intern, had been trying to “build bridges” for some time between Colorado’s NBA team and a G League franchise. So when the Detroit Pistons dropped the Grand Rapids Drive for a new affiliate in 2020, the Nuggets saw an opening. Soon Grand Rapids had a new NBA partner. The team was renamed the Gold. Those convenient flights were a cross-country bridge.
Tenzer is the Gold’s new general manager entering the 2023-24 season after having established himself as a key member of the front office that helped guide the Nuggets to their first NBA title. He spoke with The Post about his background with Denver, his passion for the G League and his thoughts on the on the Nuggets’ young two-way players.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
What made you want to take on a new role as a G League general manager on top of your Nuggets front office position?
Tenzer: “It’s funny because when I first started with the Nuggets, it was the 2005-06 season. I was an intern. I was in school in Boulder, my junior year, and it was the D League at the time. … I wanted to grow more and learn about scouting. So they actually sent me to the Colorado 14ers games (the former D League affiliate) at the Broomfield Event Center. That was my first kind of entry into scouting and the Nuggets front office and the NBA in general. So this is kind of a unique full-circle moment for me. … I was with the Nuggets for four years, ’05 to ’09, and then left to go to law school. And then I came back when Josh (Kroenke) hired Tim Connelly in 2013. So when I came back, we didn’t have a G League team at the time, but I was always kind of passionate about us getting a team. … I was the internal person looking at different sites. Went to countless different places to look at different sites for our own team. And then I believe it was seven years later when I met Steve Jbara in 2020, right before COVID shut down the league, and we kept in touch throughout the pandemic. And then Detroit announced they were moving back the (new affiliate) team to Detroit and there was an opportunity there. When we got the Gold, I had the title of vice president of the Gold as well, in addition to my Nuggets title, so I was around. And then when Calvin (Booth) offered me the opportunity, I jumped at it.”
What do you expect this year will be like for you, considering that you’re keeping your previous responsibilities along with the new GM role?
Tenzer: “I’m not too overwhelmed with what’s going to come with it. I am really excited to essentially manage, help manage the staff there, and utilize the people at the Nuggets to help me. And I’ve learned from great mentors throughout my career how to utilize your staff properly and manage. … We have a great staff and I feel like I’ll be able to rely on them heavily for the things we need as well.”
How frequently will you be in Grand Rapids or traveling back and forth between being with the Nuggets and the Gold?
Tenzer: “In the beginning it’ll be often for sure. Training camp starts at the end of October, and I’ll be there for a good chunk of that. And probably the first couple months of the season, I’ll be there often. One guy that has been very helpful is our assistant GM Scott Schroeder. He has to be one of the longest-tenured front office people in the G League. So for someone like me coming in new to the job, having someone like him that’s seen every possible scenario helps a lot, in terms of just having him as a sounding board. … I’m sure Ill be there a lot, but when I’m not there, I feel good about the people that will be on the ground.”
Do you have a roster-building philosophy as a general manager that you’re hoping to bring to the Gold?
Tenzer: “I’m honestly learning a lot as I go, but I guess the biggest thing is character, work ethic and toughness. Shooting is a big part of it, especially at the G League level. But I think learning from what we’ve built with the Nuggets, culture is a huge thing. And that word gets thrown around a lot, but I see it every day in Denver, how important it is having great veterans on the team. … And then players that have positional size in general, two-way ability, skill, toughness.”
Having already worked with the Gold a lot, was there anything that stood out to you about Peyton Watson last year when he was playing G League games?
Tenzer: “I think Peyton is an unbelievable player and an unbelievable person. Has all the potential in the world. I think it starts with his defense and his energy. He’s such a unique player with his size and his ability to cover the court. His shot-blocking ability. I think we were able to see it a little bit when he played with the Nuggets toward the end of the season, how good he can be. So I think for him it starts with the defensive side. The offensive side will come because of his natural ability to be able to handle and attack the rim. But he just covered so much ground out there, and he’s so big. It’s easy to see why he has a high ceiling.”
The organization has been bullish about him. Do you think he’s still at a stage where he can benefit from being in Grand Rapids occasionally?
Tenzer: “We’ll see. I don’t want to put barometers on him and his game because I think he has the ability to be in the NBA sooner rather than later. And especially for him, his work ethic is at a very high level. He’s a wonderful person. He has great self-awareness, so as long as he keeps growing, which I know he will, he’ll be impactful in the NBA.”
How much do you envision the Nuggets’ draft picks being in Michigan this season? What do you hope to see in their development whenever they might have a chance to be in Grand Rapids?
“I’m going to let Calvin and Coach (Michael) Malone navigate those guys first. We’re ready when they are, and I don’t know from their perspective if decisions have been made on how much time they’ll be with the Nuggets and not. We obviously have three young players we got in the draft who we’re excited about, and part of the reason our (Grand Rapids) staff is coming to Denver for the open tryout is to kind of learn the philosophy of the Nuggets coaches — in terms of, when those players on the Nuggets are with the Gold, we can maximize their development to the best of our ability.”
There’s no way to know when you draft a player in the 40s that he’s going to be what Nikola Jokic turned out to be. But having been in the front office then, does it give you any different perspective on this GM role, considering that part of the job is to evaluate and work with second-round draft picks, late first-round draft picks and undrafted players at the G League level?
Tenzer: “Absolutely. There’s plenty of examples around the league where players that have been drafted in the second round, or undrafted, have had successful careers and had an impact on winning. So I never felt like there wasn’t a good opportunity for that. But obviously seeing Nikola’s journey and how unique it was, from second-round pick to MVP, it gives you confidence that there are players like that all around the league. … There are plenty of players that are really talented that are free agents from an NBA standpoint, playing in the G League. Especially with the Nuggets and how much we emphasize player development and guys getting better, there’s a massive opportunity for being able to find players, and growing them in your own system.”
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What has been your favorite moment with the Nuggets organization so far in 14 years?
Tenzer: “Obviously nothing beats the feeling of actually winning a championship and experiencing that. When we beat the Lakers and advanced to the Finals, that was a pretty special moment as well, because we’d never been on the court celebrating in that capacity with a trophy, wearing the hats and shirts, that kind of thing.
“I was in the bubble for the majority of the playoffs. That’s always a unique thing to go back to, being in the bubble when Jamal scored 50. With very few people in the crowd, it was a unique thing being there, especially where the country was in COVID. And where the world was. … I think back about when we went to the Western Conference Finals in 2009. Was a very special time to experience that. And probably the summer that we drafted Nikola, looking back on that, was pretty special. … I’ve always felt like it’s a dream job. And I’ve always enjoyed going to work and feeling very excited to do so. But the championship is a different level of all that with success. There were some years that were tough, and it was still really enjoyable going to work. Just being able to learn from (Stan) Kroenke and Josh has been very cool.”