Beside the Point: Jamal Murray Is Everything the Nuggets Need

Jamal Murray is a high-scoring lead guard who cedes playmaking duties to a 7-footer. How he continues to grow into that unique role will determine the Nuggets’ fortunes.
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Jamal Murray

The Nuggets are built on an anomaly. Even in the NBA’s grand tradition of centers, none has dominated the game quite like Nikola Jokić, a 7-foot virtuoso who could find the passing angles in a hedge maze. Once Jokić started flinging no-look, cross-traffic bounce passes with perfect precision, there was no going back. After just his first season it was clear he would be the face—and fulcrum—of the team. Everything else would have to fit accordingly. 

Of course, the trouble in building around one anomaly is that it all but demands others. If Jokić runs the offense, where does that leave Denver’s nominal point guard? Creative enterprise in basketball is a zero-sum game: To give the ball to one playmaker is to take it away from another. So in a golden age of point guard play, the Nuggets began their search for a young player unconcerned with the usual trappings of his position. “We didn’t think we needed a ball-dominant, walk-the-ball-up guy who’s going to play pick-and-roll and have the ball in his hands 10, 15 seconds a possession,” says team president Tim Connelly. So with the No. 7 pick in 2016, Denver drafted Jamal Murray.

With his selection, Murray became the first true addition of the Jokić era. Denver had already begun to frame its business around this curiously talented center just a year into his NBA career. Scouting Murray wasn’t only a matter of understanding his game, but also of how it might align. Where some teams may have been torn by the fact that Murray ran the offense for the Canadian national team but played off the ball in his one season at Kentucky, the Nuggets saw their future. 

“It’s just basketball, at the end of the day,” Murray says. “I know how to come off a handoff and a pin down. I played the two guard in college, and playing point guard is what I’ve done all my life. It’s a simple game.”

Still, playing with Jokić requires that the top basketball players in the world relearn what it means to be open. “There’s nobody like him,” Murray says. “Nobody like Joker.” Their first season together was, for Murray, an effort in understanding all the ways the ball could be delivered. By the next year he had won the starting job and last season their synergy drove Denver to the second seed in the Western Conference. “I think the best pick-and-roll combo in the whole NBA last year was Nikola and Jamal—but it was Nikola handling and Jamal screening,” says Nuggets coach Michael Malone. “How many teams can say their starting point guard is their best screener?” Deploying Murray in this way gave him the time he needed to develop at his own pace, free from carrying the weight of an entire offense. Only now, as the Nuggets ramp toward title contention, are they finding what that patience is worth.

*****

Back before the 2018–19 season, NBA.com surveyed the league’s 30 general managers for their input on an assortment of topics. When asked which player was the most likely to have a breakout season, they chose Murray. With the benefit of hindsight, Murray respectfully disagrees with the panel’s conclusion. “Hell no,” he says when asked if last year—-featuring career highs in points (18.2 per game), rebounds (4.2) and assists (4.8)—qualified as a breakout campaign. “I appreciate the GMs thinking about me in that way. I also saw it myself. It didn’t happen last year.”

Part of the reason: inconsistency, that plague of youth. It’s challenging for a promising scorer to shoot steady percentages when every matchup in the NBA varies so dramatically. A 22-year-old guard will have a hard time working as a playmaker when he’s only just begun to understand the reads behind those plays. “I’ve just got to be disciplined,” Murray says. There is both a wild, impulsive streak to Murray and a clear desire to calm it. Structure is what he knows; his father, Roger, who manages his son’s career, trained him to be free of distractions. No cellphone. No television.

Murray says that one of his earliest memories was learning to meditate—to find the focus and intention buried in daily life. When a teenage Murray would feel his mind wander during an exam, he meditated. Before Murray would run track, he meditated. Even now, when Murray feels his game start to drift, he meditates. “I get to be honest with myself, without having anybody’s opinions or worries on my back,” he says. “Just kind of look at myself, look at what I can do to get better, and go out there and do it.”

Jamal Murray

Putting those adjustments into practice will always be easier said than done. Denver has accepted the fluctuations in Murray’s game as a fact of life, illustrated most clearly last April, in the first two games of his playoff career. In his debut against the Spurs, Murray shot just 8 of 23, buckled on defense and back-rimmed a wide-open jumper that would have given the Nuggets the lead with nine seconds left. For the first time ever a team’s starting center handed out at least 14 assists while its starting point guard finished with none. It was a gutting loss, in part because it seemed to corroborate a prevailing skepticism: Maybe Denver, the youngest team in the playoffs, wasn’t ready for all this. After the final buzzer Murray stormed up to the practice court at the Pepsi Center to try his hand at time travel. Now he would make the go-ahead jumper, the catch-and-shoot three, the uncontested 19-footer. The universe would be brought to order.

“I’m used to rough starts,” Murray said after his postgame shootaround, still agitated. “So I’ll bounce back.” 

What came next was distressing: 25 minutes of hell to start Game 2, in which Murray compromised Denver on both ends and failed to hit a single shot. Two losses at home and the Nuggets’ season would effectively be over. Their roster’s viability would be called into question. Down seven entering the fourth quarter, it would have been reasonable for Malone to consider his alternatives. “But I knew full well it wasn’t just about that moment,” the coach says. “If I would have taken him out then, that would have been really detrimental to his growth as a player—and to us as an organization. Sometimes you have to take a step back and think big picture.” 

After three of the worst quarters of Murray’s professional career, Malone told Murray that he loved him. That he believed in him. That he trusted him. 

“And he goes out there and wins us that game,” Malone says. Murray climbed his way out of the gutter for a near-perfect frame: 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting in what would be a series-saving 39-point quarter for the Nuggets. There were the rhythm jumpers, where Murray seemed to almost skip up and into his shooting form. There were the heat checks, like the series of increasingly elaborate step-backs that Murray converted over Derrick White. Then there was the coup de grâce: a daring three in transition, for which Murray was so eager he could barely set his feet before firing away.

“He made me look like I knew what I was doing,” Malone says through a smirk. We can’t know what would have happened if Murray had been benched. We can only assess what happened: a gutsy first-round win over the veteran Spurs, followed by a series against Damian Lillard and the Blazers that went the distance, bringing Denver within a possession or two of the conference finals. Murray proved to be up for the moment, though perhaps not yet for every moment.

The Nuggets understand that to take his next step, Murray must first find his equilibrium. To that end they could offer no stronger vote of confidence than the five-year, $170 million extension struck with Murray last summer. No deal of that magnitude could be justified on ebb and flow alone.

“With that contract,” Connelly says, “comes more responsibility.”

*****

Deep in the Pepsi Center, there is a long banquet table sardined with memorabilia, every piece awaiting a signature. Murray is multitasking. As his pen bobs and weaves down the line, across basketball after basketball and jersey after jersey, Murray explains the delicate balance of the dribble handoff—at least in part. “I don’t want to give away all my secrets,” he says. Murray then compares the reads out of a handoff to the reads of a pick-and-roll, and contrasts the way opponents will often defend them. Because a handoff entrusts the decision-making power to Jokić up front, the enter sequence has a different punch; if any defender anywhere decides to help, Jokić will sling a pass to the open man he left behind. With the pick-and-roll, on the other hand. . . .

Murray moves to sign a glossy photograph that stops him in his tracks: a shot of him, in Denver’s dark blues, rising up to the rim over LeBron James. There’s a catch. When Murray soared early last season for what could have been the throwdown of his career, he clanged the ball off the back rim instead. “I should’ve dunked that s---!” Murray says through a laugh. He pauses to admire the photo and a moment that could have been. “Damn.” A few seconds pass before Murray snaps back to our universe. “What was I saying?”

It’s no coincidence that Denver’s rise has aligned with Murray’s, considering that he can’t help but aim high. “I’m not just here to get a paycheck and leave,” he says. “I’m here to be one of the greatest basketball players to ever play.” Going after LeBron was exactly the sort of thing he would do: make a bold play against the King, and with it declare his intent.

“He’s a no-ego guy until he gets between the lines,” Connelly says. “And then he has a lot of ego.” 

Denver needs that. Jokić sometimes needs to be coaxed toward dominance. Forward Paul Millsap has made a career of highly effective but unassuming basketball. It’s often Murray who supplies the Nuggets their nerve, for better or worse. NBA defenses are far too stifling for a contending team to survive on sound play alone. There will always come a time for players to press, to do more than they should. To attempt the imprudent. To step beyond themselves. Murray is suited for just that, in part because of the way his game fits the elastic needs of a moment.

“You don’t want to be the selfish point guard,” Murray says. “You want to be the guy that gets everybody open, that makes plays, and see the ball move before it goes in. That’s kind of our team. That’s how we play. But I could be a much better scorer. I’ve got a lot of stuff that I haven’t been able to show yet, just because of where we’re at.”

*****

There is a tension in the heart of every basketball player, pulling them—with varying intensity—toward either shooting or passing. Many with the Nuggets prefer that Murray lean toward the former, even if it eventually takes him around to the latter. “I always tell him to come off looking to score,” says Denver director of player development John Beckett. “I feel like a lot of guys, when they come off looking to pass, they look hesitant and they’re not really reading the defense as they should.” The risk in running a fluid, pass-heavy offense lies in that sort of hesitation. If Murray receives a handoff from Jokić and then wavers on a play he should make, it costs the Nuggets one opportunity and, by draining time off the shot clock, shortchanges another.

Jokić will look to pass first. It’s the way he makes sense of the game. Murray, then, was drafted, promoted and groomed as a counterbalance. When he weaves his way past multiple defenders and lofts a runner, Murray has the air of a natural. It’s quite a trick—finesse as a disguise for untold hours spent in the backyard of his childhood home in Kitchener, Ont., dribbling on grass until it became dirt, and dirt until it became hard ground. Every shot that Murray takes for the Nuggets is a casual repackaging of one his father drilled him on years ago, and that he replicates by the hundreds on the practice court of the Pepsi Center. “I’ve worked on every shot,” Murray says. “I’ve worked off bad passes. I’ve worked off-balance. Eyes closed. Backwards. Around the paint. Half-court. I’ve worked on every shot possible. That’s why every shot is a good shot.” Murray winks. 

Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray

Even when he was still a teenager Murray impressed his Nuggets teammates with his ability to convert tough, contested looks. What steadied Murray was the sureness of preparation. These were shots he had already taken. These were shots he had already made. “You’ve got to shoot with an understanding of how to get the ball and how to be lethal when you do,” Murray says. “I could put up a half-court shot and have the belief that it will most likely go in, or I could just put it up and know it’s a bad shot. It’s belief in my game, belief in what I can do.”

That belief is all that a shooter really has. Murray seems to have an easier time believing he should make every shot than accepting the fact that he didn’t. “If he’s missing shots, he just gets mad at himself,” Nuggets guard Malik Beasley says. “But that’s what I’m here for, and other teammates—to remind him that you’re not going to hit every shot.” Therein lies the paradox of the shooter: the commitment to an idea everyone knows to be false, coupled with the frustration of it being proven so. And yet, a 22-year-old like Murray has to make rational decisions from deep within this confidence-distorting headspace, all while managing the logistics of an offense and the engagement of his teammates. Sometimes it’s a wonder that cogent, high-level basketball is possible at all.

*****

The overwhelming swell of a playoff run can bring a young player’s attention to middle distance: too broad for the granular details and too narrow for the big picture. Malone helped his developing point guard to bring it all into focus. “I look to him for everything,” Murray says. “Look to him for play calls, who to get touches to. Maybe not just for the play call, but to see where his brain is at. See what he’s looking at.”

It was a healthy dynamic for the player Murray was, if not for the player Malone wants him to be. “Your next step,” Malone told Murray when they met after the season, “is going to be to stop looking at me.”

“I want you thinking the game,” Malone said. “I want you to think of the time, score, situation. We’re in the bonus. Who’s in foul trouble? Are we in a late clock or a ‘bingo’—two-for-one—situation? What plays are we thinking about? Who’s got a matchup? I want it to get to the point where if I’m yelling something and you feel [something different], Jamal, you call it. If you’re on the floor and you feel it, I want you to run your team.”

Their partnership, like any between player and coach, isn’t without its points of friction. After a blowout loss to the Warriors last March, Malone voiced his displeasure with Murray’s play by praising Monté Morris, his backup, for “actually getting us into an offense, which is a novel concept for a point guard to do.”

“Run your team,” Malone echoed then in a harsher tone. “Make a play for somebody else.” Murray has gone out of his way to ask for this: to be coached hard and to be held accountable. Months later, in their postseason debrief, Murray would reiterate his preference to Malone: “If you’ve gotta yell at me like you did some times this year—if you’ve gotta do that more to wake me up—then do that.”

The letdown against Golden State was notable in part because Murray had come such a long way. After ranking in the bottom third of point guards in assist rate over the previous two seasons (per Cleaning the Glass), Murray had climbed toward playmaking respectability. Everything still worked through Jokić—“No one knows I can dribble,” Murray laments—though with so many other creators in and out of the lineup due to injuries, Murray had become a lifeline for an offense in need.

“When we were injured, there was a lot of pressure on us,” Murray says. “I was one of the only ballhandlers out there. I had to find guys, and my guys like cutting.” Of course, it’s one thing to cut and another to be seen. Playmaking literacy comes in layers. The first read is understanding the intentions of the primary defenders. Next is the rotation a defense makes, and at what cost. Then comes a grasp of how defenses recover, and how they might be exploited. “I think you’ve seen him make the initial pass,” Beckett says. “He has that. Now we’re trying to get the rest of those reads there.”

The only real education is a practical one. Film study can show Murray what he should do and drilling can simulate what a scenario might look like. There’s just no substitute for the randomness of actual play or the instructive toll of making mistakes in games that matter.

“When I go home and play with my friends and all that, you’re thinking about things that other guys aren’t even looking at,” Murray says. “Where the ball’s supposed to go. Cuts. Defensive rotations—especially defensive rotations. Knowing when to switch, who to switch on, how to guard it. The score. Fouls. Bonus. All the little stuff that can make up a game. All the little details matter.” It’s as if there were an entirely different world hidden inside basketball all along, quietly dictating its outcomes. Murray sees that now, even if he’s only beginning to understand it.