Jamal Murray built off a promising rookie campaign by skyrocketing his stock in year two.
The former one-and-done Kentucky guard has established himself as an up-and-coming star and the Denver Nuggets de facto number one point guard, despite not being a “traditional” NBA lead guard. Murray’s stats took a gigantic jump from year one to year two, so much so that he’ll likely earn a few votes for the league’s Most Improved Player of 2018. Only 21 years old, Murray has unlimited potential as an elite sharpshooting marksman on a young and insanely talented Nuggets team.
Murray headlines the Canadian men’s basketball training camp invitee list that was recently released. Canada is hoping to have their most talented roster in decades and Murray will surely be their lead guard as they gear up for the World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020 (A notable player left off the list? One-time Kentucky prospect, Andrew Wiggins, was reportedly left off the team because of a rift between him and Canada’s head coach Jay Triano). Murray also represented the Nuggets during the NBA draft lottery as he witnessed his team land the number 14 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Let’s take a look back at how Murray performed throughout his sophomore season in the NBA.
On the season, Murray averaged 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 45.1 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from deep. Those numbers are all massive improvements from his first season, where he averaged only 9.9 points in 10 fewer minutes per game. After starting only 10 games last year, Murray started 80 of them for the Nuggets this season. One of the two games he didn’t start was because he was forced to sit out after being entered into the NBA’s concussion protocol back in January. It is also the only game that Murray has not played in through his first two seasons.
Murray didn’t truly begin to hit his stride until right around the All-Star break, but there was still a clear sign of immense improvement. In his rookie season, he didn’t appear comfortable as a primary or secondary ball handler and would go through week-long stretches of shooting well under 50 percent from the field. Too often would he pick up his dribble well-beyond the three-point line, effectively destroying any momentum or rhythm he had gained prior. He clearly worked on becoming more confident with running the offense in the offseason and it paid obvious dividends. He’s still not 100 percent poised with the ball constantly being in his hands, but he’s on the fast track to get there. Credit to Nuggets head coach Mike Malone – who has received an unnecessary amount of criticism (some fair, but mostly unjust) – for trusting Murray in this situation. With how quickly the NBA is changing and it’s overall transition to positionless basketball, giving Murray a long leash at point guard allowed him to build and learn from his mistakes throughout the course of the season, which is exactly what he did.
Murray is built to play the two-guard, especially with how well he can shoot from deep, but when he was handed over the duties of running the show, he figured out his calling as a modern day NBA point guard. Alongside Gary Harris, who is also an excellent shooter and a better overall shot creator than Murray, the two formed a devastatingly quick and lethal backcourt duo. Murray may not be an elite playmaker, such as his fellow teammate Nikola Jokic, but he knows how to work in the pick-and-roll and showed plenty of potential as an above average passer. Murray averaged 4.4 assists per game following the All-Star break as opposed to 2.9 assists per game before the break, all without turning the ball over at an increased rate. The key to him for this was building confidence.
What makes Murray so special is that he’s not afraid of the moment. He could miss wide open five threes in a row just to come down the court and splash one in the eye of his opponent. He thrives on hitting tough shots, it almost appears like it’s a drug to him. He wants to embarrass people. You can see it in his eyes and his emotions after he drops opponents, or even that time when he dribbled around Lonzo Ball at the end of an already decided game (something Los Angeles Lakers forward Julius Randle was not a fan of). He wants to show everyone just how talented and in love with the game of basketball he truly is.
Murray has become one of the most acrobatic finishers in the game and his style is similar to how Steph Curry can make ridiculous shots at the rim despite being undersized. Curry is a smaller guard who avoids contact in favor of contorting his body for nearly impossible shots at the rim. He’s become elite in this area and Murray is trying (and succeeding) to follow suit. Something Murray was well-known for during his one season at Kentucky was his innate ability to hit shots (both at the rim and from deep) that had absolutely no business of even touching the rim, and it has followed him into the NBA. He finished in the 90th percentile among NBA guards in terms of finishing on potential and-ones., hitting on 30.8 percent of shots that he was fouled on. For comparison, LeBron James connected on 33.3 percent of his and-one opportunities while Curry connected on only 16.3 percent. Also of note, Murray is as automatic as they come from the charity stripe as he made 90.4 percent of his free throws last season, which landed him in the 98th percentile among guards.
Time for a few under-the-radar stats I found interesting. Murray hit at least four threes on 15 different occasions last season and shot at least eight threes 16 different times. To continue off that and to showcase just how hot he can get when he’s in his groove, when Murray shot at least eight threes (which again, was 16 times), only in FOUR of those games did he shoot below 50 percent. When he’s hot, he burns down cities. He was an elite spot-up shooter, ranking in the 88th percentile among all players with an effective field goal percentage of 60.7 percent.
Here’s another stat one I personally love. Murray isn’t known as an average rebounder. In fact, the numbers indicate that he’s a below average rebounder for a guard, but, interestingly enough, he has a knack for reading misses off his own team. Murray rebounded 3.5 percent of the shots that either he or his teammates missed, which may seem low, but it actually ranked in the 85th percentile among guards. He’s incredibly shifty, to say the least, and his ability to quickly dart around taller players and into open space should not be understated. It connects to why he’s such an efficient finisher despite hardly weighing over 200 pounds. He has great basketball IQ in terms of knowing where his body needs to be in order for him to snag rebounds out of the air or sneakily slip around defenders.
Murray aided the Nuggets in winning 46 games, the most for the franchise since 2013, and just barely missing the NBA playoffs. The team won six straight before the very last game of the season to give them a chance to make the playoffs but lost to Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime of game 82. The winner of that game advanced to the playoffs while the loser was sent home and the Nuggets just couldn’t pull it off in the end. But they’ll be back next season with (hopefully) a similar roster and should be even better than the 2018 version that finished with the sixth best offense in the league.
What they (and Murray, specifically) need to improve upon in an egregious way is their defense. The Nuggets finished as the 25th worst team in terms of defensive rating for a multitude of reasons. Whether it be Jokic not being able to hold strong when defending the ball in the post, Paul Millsap missing over half the season with a wrist injury, or the team’s overall inconsistency, they struggled all season and Murray didn’t do them any favors. The Nuggets had a defensive rating of 109.7 when Murray was on the floor last season (bad), compared to 107.3 when he was on the bench (better, although still bad). On the flip side, however, Murray’s offensive contribution clearly outweighed any hinderance his defense caused the team. With Murray on the floor, the Nuggets offensive rating was 113.0 but fell off a cliff, all the way to 103.5, when he sat. Murray’s 7.1 net rating was the second highest on the Nuggets behind Jokic’s 9.9.
Murray had several clutch moments for the Nuggets this season and shot considerably well in fourth quarters, more specifically in fourth quarters after the All-Star break. There was the game against the Milwaukee Bucks on April 1 where he hit three free throws to send the game into overtime before the Nuggets ultimately won, a game that would prove to be necessary to give them a shot at the postseason. There was his 15-point fourth quarter against the New York Knicks in late October that kept the Nuggets in the game after trailing by 20-plus points for much of it. Then there was his 38-point explosion, including two insanely clutch shots, against the Portland Trail Blazers in January that was his official coming out party as an elite NBA scorer.
There aren’t many players in the NBA that are as emotional and expressive on the court as Murray. He wants to win more than anyone else and he’s never afraid to let that show. It’s what has made him into a fan favorite for Nuggets fans and a personal favorite of mine and many others who enjoy watching someone who just goes out, hoops, and has as much fun as possible. His third year in the NBA should be a special one and there’s a good chance he’ll be in the running for Most Improved Player once again, but this time as a frontrunner.