At 21-years old, the pressure to decide what type of life you hope to lead hits you like a truck. You have all the time in the world, you’re told. Your entire life is still ahead of you. But it doesn’t quite feel that way. You’re still learning who you are, what makes you tick, and what you’re capable of—yet someone seems to have hit start on the proverbial clock. The pressure can be unbearable.
I don’t think Jamal Murray feels any pressure.
At 21-years old, Murray spent his Monday night dropping 48 points on what is perhaps the very best defense in the NBA. The Boston Celtics came to play that night, too. They punished the Denver Nuggets with ruthless execution on the offensive end, and a relentless, tenacious effort on the other in the first quarter. It was enough to open up an 18 point lead, and the game seemed all but lost as virtually nothing was going Denver’s way. Nothing except for Murray finally finding his stroke.
Murray entered this season tabbed by many as an early favorite for the Most Improved Player award. He has two seasons under his belt already and he’s an integral part of one of the league’s most exciting offenses. There are plenty of reasons to expect a breakout season from the young guard—but he’s still a kid in NBA years. And like all kids, he’s experienced some growing pains.
As Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris led the way, Denver opened the season at 8-1. Their impressive start could be traced back to several things: their continuity, their revamped second unit, their unexpected ability to defend at a high level. Plenty was going the Nuggets’ way. But the play of Jamal Murray wasn’t on that list.
Through nine games, Murray was averaging 15.7 points per game on just 43 percent from the floor, and 28 percent from deep. The bar he has set for himself sits much higher than that statistical production, and the eye test has revealed more warts than just numerical ones. His youth has been on display at times when the traditional skill set of a point guard has been required of him.
Scoring comes naturally to Murray, but making the correct reads in a pick-and-roll, clean entry passes to the post, and responsible decision making do not. It was getting worrisome—at least for this author. But I was in the building on Monday night when Murray became the first Nugget since Carmelo Anthony, and just the seventh ever, to score 48 or more points in a basketball game. My doubts were erased, and I was reminded once again of what so many in Denver know about Murray. The sky is the limit. And the challenge of satisfying these mile high expectations won’t intimidate him. Nothing seems to.
“He’s ultra-competitive,” Head Coach Michael Malone told the media following the game. “He knows that Kyrie Irving is one of the best players in the world, and you always want to measure yourself against the best players. Tonight he had one of those nights. Hell of a performance.”
Irving, who finished with 31 points, and himself dazzled with an electrifying shot-making display, represented more than a talented counter part for Murray—more than the type of challenge that leaves the most competitive of players salivating. Irving represented Denver’s faith in Murray.
During the offseason of 2017, the Nuggets were involved in rumors regarding a possible trade with Cleveland. The deal required Denver to give up Gary Harris and Jamal Murray. Reportedly, the Nuggets refused to include both players. If those reports are accurate, it makes it that much sweeter that Murray went right at Irving and out-dueled one of the league’s offensive wizards.
We’ve seen glimpses of this Jamal Murray before. Last season, he out-closed one of the league’s elite closers in Damian Lillard, not once, but twice, as he led the Nuggets to crucial victories in the fourth quarter. Against Milwaukee, Murray stole the inbounds pass in the final seconds of a game while trailing by three. He put up a three-pointer, drew a foul, and knocked down all three free throws. That killer instinct lives inside of him, and it was on display again on Monday night as Murray put the cherry on top of a delicious performance with an incredible fourth quarter.
“He knows he’s a killer,” Juancho Hernangomez told the media in the locker room after the game. “When he smells blood, he goes in to kill them.”
When it came time to go in for the kill, Murray was well into his zone. It seemed like everything he put up was going to find the bottom of the net. In that moment, it was hard to put all that’s brewing in Denver into perspective. Their 9-1 start, their bright future, their starting point guard, at just 21 years old, putting on a performance that few human beings on earth are capable of. With each shot that Murray put up and in, it felt less like something special, and more like something Murray expects of himself—more like something that we should come to expect.
48 won’t happen every night. It might not happen again. But at 21-years old, it feels silly to apply any ceilings or restrictions to a young man with his whole life in front of him.
The closest thing to a mistake from Murray in this game came in its final moment. As the clock approached zero, and the final buzzer was about to sound, Murray launched a three point attempt at the behest of the crowd. It clanged off the rim. There would be no 50 point game for Murray, but that was hardly the point. He had broken one of sports’ unwritten rules by putting up a shot in an already decided game. Irving and the Celtics didn’t take kindly to it. Kyrie had some words for Jamal, and he launched the basketball into the crowd as he stormed off the court.
“The basketball deserves to go into the crowd after a bullshit move like that,” Irving told reporters after the game. “So I threw it in the crowd.”
Kyrie threw the ball into the crowd after Jamal Murray's attempt to make 50-points as the game ended pic.twitter.com/Vbx3oNxmaf— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) November 6, 2018
The real significance of breaking this “rule” aside, it wasn’t the first time that Murray got himself into some trouble at the end of a game. Nuggets fans remember well when he spent the final seconds of a game against the Lakers in December of 2017 dribbling the ball through the legs of Lonzo Ball. It drew the ire of Lakers fans, as I’m sure this shot attempt did for those in Boston.
As Murray continues to grow as a player, he’ll face this kind of criticism. Performances like this one can make a player subject to increased expectations and subsequent criticism should they fail to be met. If this isn’t the last of his end-of-game antics, he’ll become villainized by opposing fanbases. And with good reason.
Something tells me none of that bothers Murray, though. The pressure to deliver at such a young age has bounced right off of him. The idea of pissing off another team, and its fans, doesn’t seem to deter him.
Jamal Murray is just 21-years old. But Jamal Murray fears nothing and no one.