Jamal Murray is Denver's Secret Weapon

The Denver Nuggets have been the surprise team of the NBA season. While Nikola Jokic is the team's best player, third-year point guard Jamal Murray could be the secret to taking them to the next level.

After narrowly missing out on postseason play a year ago, the Denver Nuggets have been among the league’s best this season. After entering the All-Star Break as the Western Conference’s second-place team, the Nuggets are in prime position to make a run in the playoffs. Jamal Murray might be the best reason why.

Sure, Nikola Jokic is the team’s best player. The All-Star center is a legitimate triple-double threat that has made the team competitive. But he can’t do it by himself, especially in the postseason.

That’s where Murray comes in. The dynamic guard has the potential to bring this team to the next level. If Jokic’s play has significantly raised Denver’s floor, Murray represents its ceiling; when the third-year guard is playing well, the Nuggets are hard to beat: the team is 22-4 across the last three years when Murray scores 25 or more points. The Blue Arrow is more than capable of having a big night and carrying his team, and that shouldn’t be a surprise. While Denver’s success might be something of a surprise, we’ve known for a long time that Murray is a star.

Not-So-Humble Beginnings

It’s easy to contrast Murray’s career arc from that of Jokic, his All-Star teammate. The latter was an unheralded prospect - a Serbian big man taken in the draft’s second round. Murray, on the other hand, was a top-ranked recruit that was part of Kentucky’s stacked 2015 class, joining forces with five-star recruits Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe. In his lone season in Lexington, Murray played a starring role for the Wildcats averaging 20 points per game. That’s still the most by any Kentucky freshman in program history and any Kentucky player under John Calipari, topping an impressive list of one-and-dones in the Calipari era.

Kentucky Freshman PPG Leaders, John Calipari Era

Year Name PPG
2015-16 Jamal Murray 20.0
2016-17 Malik Monk 19.8
2010-11 Brandon Knight 17.3
2016-17 De'Aaron Fox 16.7
2009-10 John Wall 16.6
2010-11 Terrence Jones 15.7
2017-18 Kevin Knox 15.6
2009-10 DeMarcus Cousins 15.1
2013-14 Julius Randle 15
2017-18 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander 14.4

Murray earned third-team AP All-American honors and a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team for his work on the season and declared for the draft after a second-round exit in the NCAA tournament. He went seventh overall to the Nuggets with a pick that originally belonged to the New York Knicks acquired in the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade.

His first season in the NBA wasn’t anything spectacular, but it was productive: the Ontario native averaged just over 21 minutes per game, but managed to break the 20-point barrier eight times, including a late-season 30-point outburst in a win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Just two years removed from his time dominating the Canadian high school basketball circuit, Jamal Murray had established himself as a dangerous scorer on the game’s highest level. 

“Maple Curry” Rises

After joining Denver’s starting lineup in his second season, Murray continued to establish his reputation as a dynamic, if inconsistent, scorer. Since the beginning of the 2017-18 season, he's scored 25 or more in 24 games, including two 40+ point performances this season; in 25 games, he finished with single-digit points.

He has a tendency to keep chucking, even when he’s missing shots: he’s 16-for-87 (.184) from deep in those 25 games with under 10 points. But when he gets hot, he’s hard to stop. Ask the Celtics, who Murray dropped 48 points on earlier this season, cooking their defenders in a variety of ways. 

Plays like this are hard to defend. Murray’s step back jumpers are lethal enough that he gets a good defender in Jaylen Brown to leave his feet. One step-through after the fake and Murray’s got an easy look at the basket.

Murray’s ability to score in bunches and his shooting range has led to some fans affectionately nicknaming him “Maple Curry”. That’s flattering, but it’s not exactly a great comparison; even setting aside Steph Curry’s superiority as a player, the two aren’t actually that much alike. Curry lives behind the three-point line, with over half of his shots coming from beyond the arc. Murray, on the other hand, spends much more time in the mid-range area, where he can use his shiftiness in plays like the above clip to find a good look.

Murray is even deadlier when he gets matched up against a big man. Denver often uses him as a screener for Jokic, and that occasionally results in the defense switching and creating a mismatch, like in this clip from that same Celtics game in November:

Horford ends up guarding Murray one-on-one and gets crossed up, giving the Denver guard an open shot. While mid-range jumpers are falling out of fashion, Murray makes the most of them, with a shooting percentage from mid-range in the 82nd percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass. The end result is 18.1 points per game at the tender age of 21. 

The bottom line here is that even if Murray isn’t Curry, he’s still a dangerous scorer. That could come in handy in the postseason, when a hot streak could easily translate to a series win. Think back to 2014, when Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 25.5 and 29.8 points respectively to upset the Houston Rockets in the first round. That was a star-making performance for Lillard, who was in his second season and immortalized himself with this series-clinching shot:

Denver winning their first-round series shouldn’t be an upset the way that Blazers win was. But the Nuggets aren’t held in particularly high regard among the NBA at large. If Murray and Jokic can emulate Lillard and Aldridge, they can make a Conference Finals run that would certainly legitimize them as a dangerous team.  And a Lillard-esque performance from Murray would demand the entire league’s attention. 

Defensive Woes

Of course, as capable as Murray might be of changing the course of a series with his offense, he’s just as capable of doing the opposite. The team as a whole isn’t particularly strong on the defensive end, ranking 12th in defensive rating (14th after adjusting for strength of opponent offense). That rating gets even worse when Murray plays, which could very well present an issue in the postseason.

The Western Conference playoff picture isn’t friendly for opposing point guards, either: Curry, Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden all spend significant time as the primary ballhandler for their respective teams. A bad matchup for Murray could easily sink Denver’s chances of making a run.

Bad defense means less room for error on the offensive end. The Nuggets have a top-five offensive rating, but everything gets harder when the playoffs roll around. When other teams start tightening things up and plugging leaks on the defensive end, Mike Malone will need all hands on deck. Murray will have to work hard on both ends to not allow easy looks to the opposition and to keep Denver’s offense running smoothly. If the team wants to live up to its seeding, they’ll need Murray to show up on both ends. If they want to push the Warriors? They need more than that.

This season isn’t make-or-break for Denver. Their core is still young, and there’s plenty of time to grow and improve. That said, a deep run would do wonders for their reputation among both fans and players; a run to the conference finals and a win or two against Golden State could be enough to make the Mile High City a more attractive free agent destination moving forward. If not, postseason experience is still invaluable to the team’s young core, including Murray. No matter what happens, this season is still a success.

To make this season truly memorable and transform the Nuggets into a full-fledged title contender? That might just be up to Jamal Murray.

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