Jamal Murray's Development Poises Him for Breakout Season
It was a peculiar start to Jamal Murray’s career as a Denver Nugget. Even with a young backcourt of high first-round draft picks in point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and shooting guard Gary Harris, Tim Connelly and his front office didn’t think twice about drafting the shooter from Kentucky and selected him with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. Despite not taking a pre-draft visit with Denver, the 6-foot 4-inch guard from Canada was simply too good to pass up, even at a perceived area of strength for the team.
Getting off to a slower than expected start during his rookie season, it bore some resemblance to his only season with the Wildcats. A highly-touted prospect who had taken an unremarkable Canadian national team to a silver medal finish at the 2015 Pan American games, Murray was initially pegged by John Calipari to be the team-starting point guard; instead, Murray slid over to his off-the-ball spot to accommodate another NBA draft pick in Tyler Ulis. In a season that saw Murray playing out of position, the youngster still appeared in 36 games for Kentucky, averaging 20 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. Even more impressive, Murray finished his one season in the college ranks shooting 40.8 percent from the three-point range and was an All-SEC First team selection.
With Mudiay and Harris entrenched at both guard spots, and dependable veterans in Jameer Nelson and Will Barton ahead of him providing quality minutes off the bench, Murray found inconsistent court time for the first part of 2016. It wasn’t until after that first month of the season that Murray finally found minutes in coach Mike Malone’s rotation, after inconsistent play from Mudiay and injuries to Harris gave Murray his opportunity to contribute. In finally earning his time on the court, Murray did little to disappoint.
The later part of November rolled on and the young guard started to find his legs for the Nuggets. During that time, Murray would record his season high in points, with 19, in a 112-105 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. Not stopping there, Murray would top that mark again in the same month, dropping 24 points in a road win versus the Chicago Bulls a week later. In becoming a solid member of the rotation and filling in at both guard spots, Murray earned the Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors for November for his efforts.
Still flying somewhat under the radar, Murray would participate in the Rising Stars Challenge over the All-Star Weekend. In what amounted to a coming-out party, Murray was one of the top performers in the showcase game between some of the league’s top young players. In scoring a game-high 36 points to go along with 11 assists and shooting 9-14 from three-point land, Murray snagged MVP honors for the game, giving him momentum in finishing out his first NBA season.
Coming on strong in the last months of the campaign, Murray put together a solid body of work that should propel him to the starting point guard spot for this upcoming season. With Mudiay firmly entrenched at the end of the bench and with Jameer Nelson injured, the Nuggets turned to Murray to close out the end of the year. Murray responded by averaging 15.1 points and 5 assists per games, showing enough in his seven-game audition last year to confirm the upside the Nuggets believe Murray has. An effective long-range shooter, as well as flashing the ability to attack the rim and distribute the basketball, Murray has the beginnings of a top-10 NBA point guard.
The fact that Murray is still a Nugget for this upcoming season is a testament to how much the team is committed to him going forward. It’s not a secret, that Denver actively looked for ways to upgrade the team through trades in the days leading up to the draft and were mentioned in some circles to be close to landing either Jimmy Butler from Chicago or Paul George from Indiana. The only hang up in either of those deals was the inclusion of Murray, which were instantly rebuffed by Denver. It speaks to how high of ceiling the team believes he has, when it turns down the possibility of landing a premier player like Butler or George and, instead, banks on the upside of the perimeter player who won’t turn 21 until next February.
Another reason to be excited about what Murray can do with starter’s minutes for 2017 is he will finally be at full health. Unknown until the end of the season, Murray played his first year in the NBA with a sports hernia that wasn’t repaired till this summer. Now, in seeing some of the explosive plays he had last year, and combining that with the knowledge that he was only operating at about 75 percent for most of the season at best, puts those plays in impressive perspective. With a full offseason to heal up, along with putting on more muscle from last year, this season holds the possibility that Murray will continue to trend upward after a year that ended with him being named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
With a budding star in center, Nikola Jokic, and a reliable low-post presence in free-agent signee, Paul Millsap, the Nuggets are going the homegrown route in unearthing their next star to complete the trio. In Jamal Murray, the Nuggets feel they have a player who will be at the ground level for a franchise that figures to be in the conversation for a playoff berth this season, with an eye towards bigger aspirations in the future.