As far as underdog stories go, DaRon Holmes II has a contender for the best one in Denver.

Consider this: The 6-foot-9 center was cut from his sixth-grade basketball team. “It’s crazy,” says Holmes II, 21, whom the Nuggets acquired last week in a draft-night trade with the Phoenix Suns. “Now, here I am.”

The first-round pick was standing in a hallway at the Arthur E. Johnson Boys & Girls Club near downtown Monday afternoon, part of a city tour that included a press conference and a meet-and-greet with Nuggets employees. He’d just watched some children playing in the club’s gymnasium, which got the NBA rookie thinking about his path to this moment and what his past can mean for his future.

“I have to embrace the adversity I’m about to experience,” Holmes II says as children breeze past him. “I know I’m a great player, and I know the value I’ll bring [to the team], but I have to learn. I have work hard. I have to keep my nose down and my feet down and be humble.”

Without a spot on the middle-school squad in Nashville, Tennessee, Holmes II volunteered as the team’s manager—a moment in which his mother takes great pride. “Getting cut hurt him to his core,” Tomika Holmes says. “But he took it in stride, he took it as a challenge, that, ‘I need to get better.’ He didn’t go into his room and sulk and cry. He grew from it.”

That’s both figuratively and literally. The Holmes family moved from Nashville to Arizona the next year. “I barely made that team,” says Holmes II, whose family now lives near Phoenix. He made the next team and then the next. Then, in the words of his mother, “he hit that growth spurt.” And suddenly, Holmes II says, “That’s when I figured out I could make a little money in this game.”

This past season, Holmes II—known as “Deuce” to his University of Dayton teammates and coaches—was named a second-team Associated Press All-American and was the Atlantic 10 Conference’s Co-Player of the Year. He led the Flyers to the NCAA Tournament (Dayton lost in the second round to the University of Arizona), and averaged 20.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocked shots during the regular season.

The draft-and-trade deal with Phoenix so far is widely seen as a win for the Nuggets, which got a player who team officials say can mix into virtually any lineup. Holmes II already looks up to Aaron Gordon, the forward whose game he admires. He’s also forever grateful for Julian Strawther, the first Denver teammate who contacted Holmes II after draft night. And, of course, he’ll play with (and, most often, behind) Nikola Jokić, a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player.

DaRon Holmes drives to the basket in a red Dayton jersey
DaRon Holmes II (#15) of the University of Dayton Flyers drives to the basket during the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on March 23, 2024 in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

“I’m still trying to figure everything out,” Holmes II says. Jokić’s ascent to the sport’s pinnacle—on a team that will look to win its second title in three years next season—is clearly a motivational factor. “Jokić was a second-round pick, so it’s about who’s willing to put in the work,” he says. “It’s cool to be a first-round pick, but in 10 years from now, no one’s going to remember. They’re going to remember how I performed, how I produced.”

For now, Holmes II wants to remember draft night and how his family grabbed pizza afterward to celebrate. His mother wants to remember the week before the draft, when her son learned the Nuggets were interested. The call came while Holmes II and his family were returning from one of his workouts. “I started screaming,” says Tomika, who coached her son in a Nashville YMCA league. “DaRon was like, ‘Mom, mom, calm down!’ ”

This week, Holmes II will begin looking at apartments. His arrival over the weekend was his first trip to Denver. “This is a beautiful city, and it seems very unique,” he says. “It’s not too fast, it’s not too slow. I think it’s the perfect place for me.” He also wants to get a new car (“no Subarus”). “But I don’t need too much,” Holmes II says. “I’m on my first contract, so I shouldn’t be buying crazy stuff.”

And something for his parents? “Oh, they know stuff is coming,” he says.

Earlier that morning, his father watched the introductory press conference from a seat near the front row. Holmes II repeatedly called Nuggets’ assistant general manager, Tommy Balcetis, “Mr. Tommy” as he expressed his excitement that the team liked him enough to swap a first-round pick and several second-round selections to get him.

“He’s just a good, good kid,” DaRon Sr. says. There’s a photo of his son, he adds, “From when he was about five or six years old. It’s his grandmother’s favorite.” In it, there’s Deuce at the edge of a basketball court, looking dejected while watching the older, bigger kids play. DaRon Sr. has been thinking a lot about that photo.

“You look back at that moment, and I really believe that fueled him,” he says. “Even then, he believed in himself. All he wanted was to show he could play.”