The Denver Nuggets fell one game short of the playoffs, and it may have hit Jamal Murray the hardest of anyone.
Going back and listening to his exit interview (which I will link right here) it’s evident that underneath a calm demeanor, Murray is seething with a controlled rage. When asked the question of how he’s feeling after a loss in the season finale to the Minnesota Timberwolves for a playoff spot, Murray simply said, “I’m just ready to get back to work.”
I have no doubt that Murray has put in a ton of work already, and for the Nuggets to take the next step as a team, they need their point guard to take big leaps this year. After averaging 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on 57.6% True Shooting in his second season, the 21-year-old product of Kitchener, Ontario is in a great place to learn, evaluate, and improve going into year three. As far as players Murray’s age go, he’s in a great place; however, that doesn’t mean he can settle. Judging by how he reacted to Denver’s final loss of the season, I’d say he won’t be settling for a long time.
Still, it matters what exactly Murray’s working on at this stage. There are different ways to become a star in the NBA, but there’s a general path Murray can take to reach that threshold. Here are five things I believe Murray must accomplish to set up his path to stardom in a Nuggets uniform.
Improve overall shooting efficiency
Asked what the next step is in growing his individual game, Murray said that being more consistent and efficient were two things he’s thinking about. Beyond getting in the gym and simply “working hard” or “getting better”, Murray told the media that it’s his goal to be able to shoot 90% from the three-point line. Ninety percent. He was dead serious too.
Murray is starting from a good place as a second year player. In terms of his overall efficiency, Murray posted a 57.6 TS%. Among guards under the age of 21 this past season, that mark leads the pack.
Murray was third in minutes per game behind Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, second in points behind Mitchell, and lead the entire league of 21-and-under guards while doing so.
Historically? Among 21-and-under guards that have played 30 minutes per game or more, the results are encouraging.
(By the way, I see Gary Harris at 8th on this list. If he keeps improving in many of these same areas, he may well be a star too.)
It’s hard to hate on being the fifth-most efficient guard of all-time. Sitting behind Magic Johnson, Eric Gordon pre-injury, Michael Jordan, and a low-volume Andre Iguodala as the only players in his way is a reasonable quartet: two of the top players of an entire generation, a star before he was injured, and a Finals MVP.
The rest of the list ain’t bad either. Stephen Curry sits at 7. Kobe Bryant pops in at 12 and 15. Chris Paul, Tony Parker, and Ray Allen are shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame. The one thing most of these players did was get better and learn how to improve. Many of the players on this list are considered tough shot makers. Others are considered smart shot takers. If Murray wants to be the former, he has to improve in three different areas:
- Three-point shots off the dribble
- Pick-and-roll and isolation scoring efficiency
- Short clock scenarios
Shooting from a live dribble
As far as shooters off the dribble go, Murray wasn’t great. Among the 38 players to attempt at least two three-pointers per game after dribbling, Murray posted the 24th best efficiency mark at 32.0%. This isn’t he be-all-end-all as far as star scorers go: Kevin Durant shot 33.3% this past year. Still, the top 12 players were current or previous All-Stars, Tyreke Evans, Gerald Green, and Austin Rivers. To reach the top 12, Murray would have to cross the 36% threshold, not a major leap, but a nice improvement.
The more defenses have to respect his jumper, the more the floor opens up for other players, making Denver a better team overall.
The next factor is pick-and-roll and isolation efficiency. Neither play-type is efficient overall, but the more Murray can improve on the margins, the more chances Denver has to win games late. According to NBA.com, Murray posted a mark of 0.86 points per possession as the pick-and-roll handler, putting him in the 63rd percentile. By comparison, here’s how other up-and-coming stars and current stars fared:
Murray’s clearly in a good place here. After a performance in the 62nd percentile in his rookie season, Murray maintained his efficiency as a starter at point guard rather than a backup combo guard. The next step for him is to cross the James Harden threshold at the 75th percentile and reach 80th percentile or higher. Playing next to Jokic, it shouldn’t be much of a problem, but finishing better in the midrange area off the dribble and behind the arc (as previously noted) will help bump up his efficiency greatly.
Next up is isolation efficiency, in which Murray wasn’t quite as impressive.
While Westbrook isn’t a glowing example of efficiency in any way, shape, or form, the other four stars are. James Harden, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, and Damian Lillard are who I would consider the top four scoring guards in the NBA right now, and for good reason. When the team needs a basket, they can turn to their leading guard scorers in either a pick and roll or isolation capacity.
All five of the young guards I listed should look to those players as an example, especially Murray. Each of the four create isolation baskets from behind the arc and at the rim, depending on the matchup. Murray excelled as an isolation player in bench units during his rookie year, finishing in the 73rd percentile with a 0.94 PPP. He clearly has the capability to be a solid isolation player, but in order to do so, shooting off the dribble must become a lethal weapon for him.
Among that 38 player list of guys shooting threes off the dribble I mentioned earlier, Curry ranked 3rd, Harden ranked 6th, Paul ranked 10th, and Lillard ranked 12th in 3P%. Having a three-point jumper that’s a threat even during a live dribble just makes guards better on offense, and it’s a big factor in Murray’s stardom.
“I’m just really excited to get stronger, bigger, faster.” Murray also said this at his end-of-season press conference, and it makes a lot of sense.
Another way for Murray’s stardom to receive a boost is for him to improve his body. After using last offseason to recover from surgery on two sports hernias, and using the previous offseason to play for Team Canada, this is the first offseason Murray has had to himself. Honing his craft and getting back into the gym is something Murray mentions all the time, but beyond shooting every day and working on his basketball skill set, working on his physical abilities and athleticism will make some things easier for him.
Also, shooting 58% at the rim like he did last year won’t cut it. Crossing the 60% threshold is important for Murray to draw defenders to him and either finish over them strongly or create opportunities for others. If he gets stronger, he should improve there.
Improving as an athlete not only helps Murray reach the ceiling of his potential, but it also allows him to become more consistent. He wore down over the course of the year, with his shooting efficiency dropping as he received more wear and tear.
|Pre-ASB TS%||Post-ASB TS%||Pre-ASB 3P%||Post ASB 3P%|
This isn’t really a surprise for a younger player, but it should help Murray understand how much he needs to work on his body. Gary Harris is a great role model in this regard, as a player who transformed his body and became a better, more consistent player because of it. If Murray goes down the same road, expect a more consistent performance out of him.
Commit to Defense
This needs no explanation. The Nuggets aren’t going to be a great defensive team as currently constructed. With the current version of Murray and the current version of Jokic, they’re unlikely to ever be a good defensive team. However, players aren’t always the same players that they are at 21 years old.
Murray has a real opportunity to change the narrative about him as someone who teams should never fear defensively. While Murray’s advantages will always occur on the offensive end, Denver needs another reliable backcourt defender. Gary Harris is good, but not great, and it would be a shame to have to move one of those two for a defensive upgrade down the line and risk compromising a perennial top 5 offense.
As Murray improves athletically, some of his defensive improvement should occur naturally; however, in order for the Nuggets to be more than just a fun offensive show, they need their core pieces to take pride in stopping teams defensively in key moments. For Murray, that means learning to match up with the likes of Curry, Lillard, and Harden now as well as Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, and other young guards in the future. Becoming an asset on defense would help his stardom tremendously, even if it’s a less glamorous factor.
Become equally comfortable with open and contested shots at all three zones
This past year, Murray posted the following effective field goal percentages based on the closest defender:
|Closest Defender||FGAs per game||eFG%|
|6+ feet away (wide open)||3.8||63.5|
|4-6 feet away (open)||3.8||51.3|
|2-4 feet away (contested)||3.7||53.5|
|0-2 feet away (very contested)||1.1||53.3|
Murray demonstrated great efficiency when he was wide open, making teams pay for making a mistake in their coverage. He also did a nice job at staying efficient when the defense was close and bothering him. 51% is around average for eFG%, and Murray is above average in all four zones.
Where he can improve is making teams pay even more for leaving him open. In the 4-6 foot range, he shot just 32.7% from behind the arc last year. This segment comes from when Murray catches the ball off a screen with a defender trailing, or a defender going under the screen in pick and roll, or a midrange pull-up (where Murray shot 41.5% this year). For reference, Steph Curry shot 60% in the same zone. Damian Lillard shot 47.9%. Chris Paul shot 53.9%.
Midrange shots aren’t the most efficient by nature, but they open up the floor for other actions. Murray dribbling into an open midrange attempt, or getting to his midrange spot and hesitating, only to blow by his defender for an easy layup, or even taking and making a contested jump shot when it’s the best option in late clock situations. It’s important to understand that Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson take a lot of midrange jumpers, but only because they make a lot of them. If Denver has a desire to emulate the Warriors (which they should given their personnel) then finding areas of advantage in the midrange zone is extremely important.
I firmly believe in Murray’s star power. He has accomplished things in his first two seasons that very few guards in history have, and in Denver, he’s positioned well to make a big leap from year 2 to year 3. Incorporating each of the five things discussed above will certainly help him on that path:
- Overall efficiency improvement
- Shooting off a live dribble improvement
- Physical and Athletic improvement
- Defensive improvement
- Comfort level improvement shooting open and contested shots
This past season, he averaged 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.4 assists on a 57.6 TS%. If he stays committed and follows through on the above improvements, I expect him to approach 20.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists on close to a 60.0 TS%. The only four players to exceed those thresholds: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden, my personal top 4 players in the NBA.
Even if he doesn’t reach that efficiency threshold, maintaining a 55.0 TS% or higher on that production adds eight other players: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Victor Oladipo, Bradley Beal, Khris Middleton, DeMarcus Cousins, and Devin Booker. It’s safe to say that if Murray can cross that threshold, he will be on the verge of star status in his early twenties.
If Murray accomplishes that, he will officially join Jokic as young, star players who will be around Denver for a long, long time.