Nene finds his niche

When you’re 6-foot-11, it’s simple anatomy that your face — and thus, your smile — is going to be big. But Nene’s big smile Wednesday afternoon wasn’t just anatomically big. No, this smile was tug-of-war stretched, dimples holding on for dear life, pushed gleefully by sheer joy, relief, satisfaction and comfort. It was, if you will, a $67 million smile. “I want to be in Denver,” Nene said.

Well, he’s been in Denver all summer and fall, but his mind had wandered to Indianapolis, to Houston, to Newark, N.J., anywhere but coming back to play for the Nuggets. The unrestricted free agent considered numerous destinations, only to determine his address would stay the same.

“We had our fingers and legs crossed,” Nuggets president Josh Kroenke said. “And toes.”

The Nuggets held a formal news conference to introduce, as Kroenke described him, “Our newest, oldest Nugget.”

Indeed, Nene has been a Nugget since 2002-03, and with his five-year contract, which can top out at $67 million, he might retire a Nugget too.

“I’ll always do my best to represent this organization, this city, the name of the Nuggets,” said Nene, who averaged 14.5 points per game and 7.6 rebounds last season. “… I have dreams to go to the championship. To win the championship, you need to work hard, together. If we are on the same page, we’re going to be successful. I can’t promise a championship but I hope that is the goal, the mentality — to get the dream, to get that big trophy.”

It was a process, to be sure, to get back on the team. Nene told The Denver Post in May that the Nuggets “don’t realize all of the sacrifices I made. When you don’t feel appreciated, it’s hard.”

But on Wednesday, sitting at the Pepsi Center in between Kroenke and team executive Masai Ujiri, Nene expressed reassurance that there was trust and respect coming from the top.

“They make a big effect on my decision,” said Nene, 29. “What they mentioned to me was — friends, family, trust, care. You’re not going to find that in another place. Sometimes, you need to trust the people who have been with you. I trust these guys.”

It didn’t hurt that Denver was the only team that could offer the big Brazilian a fifth contractual year. Also, Nene’s wife is from Colorado, and Nene himself has become a Denverite.

“When I came here, I was so young, and now I’m a grown man,” he said. “I have a son, a wife, a family and solid friends who give support in a good and bad moment.”

The signing means the Nuggets not only locked up their top free-agent target, but arguably the top free agent on the market. Nene will start at power forward, alongside Timofey Mozgov in the low post. And, although coach George Karl made it clear Wednesday that the positions of center and power forward are intertwined, there is some belief that having a sturdier 7-footer in Mozgov next to him could help Nene play more freely in and around the paint. Nene also admitted that “everybody know I can be better” in regards to rebounding, something that many fans gripe about.

At Nuggets practice on Wednesday, prior to Nene signing, Karl inserted some new low-post plays, anticipating his arrival.

“I’m excited — I still want Arron (Afflalo, a restricted free agent) but I think it slots our frontline people and gives us confidence that we can repeat what happened at the end of last year,” said Karl, whose team went 18-7 with a post-Carmelo Anthony trade lineup that will look similar to this season’s lineup. “He’s one of your best players and we’ve won 50 games four years in a row.”

As for Afflalo, the Nuggets continue to talk with his representatives, trying to work out a contract to have the shooting guard return to Denver.

But Wednesday was about Nene, the big man with the big contract, and the big smile.

“A very underrated big man,” Nuggets guard Andre Miller. “He can finish. He’s a man down there in the paint. He can play both ends of the floor. And he can do a lot of things that go unnoticed, that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Especially for this team, it brings a lot of toughness, a guy who can finish around the rim and a guy who can guard.”

Benjamin Hochman: 303-954-1294 or [email protected]

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