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The joy of playing with Jamal

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The Nuggets rookie makes the game fun for his teammates, and fun basketball leads to wins.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jamal Murray scored 22 points Monday against the Sixers, breaking out of a shooting slump that had lowered his production the last couple of games, but it wasn’t his point total that made the biggest impression on me.

What impressed me about Murray was how much fun it looked like he and his teammates were having on the court together.

The former Kentucky guard won the December Rookie of the Month award for the Western Conference, scoring at least 18 points five times in a seven game stretch towards the end of the month. The 2016 draft class has been underwhelming, and Murray has easily been the best guard so far.

While he came into the league with questions regarding his ability to defend, few people questioned his ability to shoot, and sure enough, that kid can shoot the basketball. He exploded in the final minutes of a blowout against the Portland Trail Blazers, and it was then when he showed everyone that he belonged in the league. He’s been a great system defender, especially for a player with 21 games under his belt, staying active, fighting for rebounds, and doing his best to be aware at all times.

Monday gave him an opportunity to go against the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award, the Philadelphia 76ers big man Joel Embiid. The Nuggets won the game, and Jamal Murray had this sweet scoop shot against Embiid that had his teammates chuckling as they ran back down the court.

While Jamal Murray is trending up this season, his point guard partner, Emmanuel Mudiay, has been trending down. Mudiay had a strong finish to his rookie season, but hasn’t been able to carry that momentum into his sophomore season. He’s still struggling to shoot the basketball, shooting 35 percent on field goal attempts and 27 percent on 3-point attempts. He is turning the ball over three times a game, while maintaining a high usage rate. He’s struggling on the defensive end, having difficulty fighting over screens and failing to contain on the perimeter.

It’s such a gut-wrenching feeling for a team to have a ballhandler struggle with turnovers and their jumpshot. There’s just a sense of confidence that spreads across the court when you know that your point guard is going to help you get buckets when you’re out there, whether by beating his man off the dribble, pulling up for a 3-pointer, or setting you up for an open shot. Players set better screens, cut harder, and dive for loose balls when they know that if the ball ends up in the hands of their point guard, there’s a really good chance the ball is going in the hoop.

While watching Jamal Murray flit around the court, dropping the ball in the hoop with ease, it was just as easy to notice that Mudiay wasn’t doing that against Philadelphia. Mudiay didn’t see a minute of action in the fourth quarter, with Coach Malone electing to ride Murray’s hot hand before going to a veteran lineup to close out the game.

One play has stuck with me since the game Monday night - here it is, in video.

That’s what is being referenced nowadays as “Warriors basketball,” where the ball just flies across the court as defenders look like statues, unable to move or contest open field goal attempts.

Before the ball leaves Murray’s hands, Nelson is lifting his arms up to celebrate. Darrell Arthur is at the top of the key, and knows he doesn’t even have to consider crashing the offensive glass for a rebound. Wilson Chandler starts walking down the court, knowing that once the ball goes in, the 76ers are going to have to call a timeout. Will Barton turns around with his face light up with a smile, happy to see that the team scored as a direct result of his effort to get into the teeth of the defense and kick out to an open shooter.

They’re having fun.

The veteran players on the team are in a tough spot with the roster construction - they want to win games, and it’s frustrating to see young players make mistakes. Coach Malone has to put the young players on the court - their development is too important to play the veterans 40 minutes each every night.

But when Murray plays, the veterans are realizing that they can trust him not to make a mistake. When Gallinari posts up near the elbow, and doesn’t like what he sees, he knows he can shift the defense with a few dribbles and pass to Murray and he’s a good bet to knock down an open shot. When Faried sets a screen and rolls to the rim, he knows he isn’t going to see the ball bounce off someone’s foot and ricochet out of bounds.

Shortly after Murray was drafted by the Nuggets, he made some waves by saying that he was a point guard, and that’s the position he was going to play in the NBA. My reaction was, “Well, young fella, the Nuggets drafted a point guard last year, and that spot is taken.” But with the way the season is going, the team just seems to have more fun - and more success - when Murray is on the court.

I’m not at a point where I think Murray has overtaken Mudiay on the depth chart - that’d be rash - but it’s hard to not be excited about Murray at this point. He’s one of the best rookies in the league, and if he continues this kind of production, there’s a possibility he could challenge Joel Embiid for the Rookie of the Year award. I don’t see how the coaching staff can’t continue to play him 25 minutes a night, if not more.

He’s helping make Nuggets basketball fun.