Today is Jamal Murray’s 24th birthday.
It’s a good day to talk about the Denver Nuggets scoring guard, coming off a road trip that saw Murray average 35.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. The shooting percentages? 62.8% from the field, 55.6% from three-point range, and 85.7% from the free throw line. Those numbers are simply incredible, and they underscore Murray’s breakout. Three of Murray’s top five performances this season have happened on this road trip.
It’s easy to forget that Murray is just now turning 24. This is his fifth season, his fourth year as the full-time Nuggets starter at point guard. He had a solid showing in the 2018-19 playoffs in his first time on the big stage. He had a star caliber performance in the bubble just a few months ago, helping lead the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals over the Los Angeles Clippers, the presumptive favorites for the NBA title.
As Murray continues to age, he continues to add consistency to his game in a variety of ways outside of his normal half court game.
Attacking early on pull-up threes
There are times where Murray is hesitant to shoot pull-up threes relatively early in the clock, but on this road trip, Murray left that hesitancy back in Denver. Against Cleveland, it was a thing of beauty to watch the shot attempts grow more and more ambitious.
When Murray starts to get into that zone, very few players are more fun to watch than him, if any. He generally tones down his shot selection for most games, but when he gets hot, the shots become more insane.
Here’s my favorite shot of his 50-point evening: a pull-up three off the dribble from outside of 30 feet fading toward the sideline.
This is what happens when Murray finds that extra gear: the court extends vertically to match his range, and opponents are forced to guard him higher and higher up the floor to prevent him from getting bad shots off that they know will go in anyway.
On the season, Murray is shooting 36.8% on 3.8 pull up three-point attempts per game, a modest number that has improved on this road trip. In the last four games, Murray shot 47.8% from three on 5.8 attempts per game, showing that he still has a level to reach when he gets fully locked in. The Nuggets saw him reach that level of consistency and impact in the bubble. There’s no reason to think he can’t reach that level against regular season opponents.
Simple spot ups
So much of Murray’s game has always been about the difficult stuff. He takes and makes tough shots with consistency which has always made him a good playoff player. The easy shots are few and far between in a playoff environment, and those that don’t excel at making difficult shots look easy can be exposed.
Murray’s problem had always been the easy shots not going in. Not any longer. Murray is currently shooting 1.40 points per possession on spot ups according to Second Spectrum, which are primarily comprised of catch-and-shoot jumpers. Last year, Murray was at 1.07 PPP, which was good, but not an elite number like this season.
Murray has become more comfortable with simply letting outside shots fly, averaging a career high 6.5 threes attempted per game after three straight seasons closer to 5.5 per game. When teams leave him open, he’s willing to take the shot, which can sometimes be half the battle.
These shots aren’t truly highlight worthy. They aren’t the dribble jump shots that Murray was chucking up there against the Cavaliers on the way to a 50-point performance; however, they count for three points just the same. Murray averages 2.1 spot up possessions per game, averaging 3.0 points per game on spot ups. If Murray was down closer to the 1.07 PPP number from the previous season, he would be losing over 0.5 points every game. Those are the margins that aren’t fully appreciated until after the season, but they showcase just how difficult it can be to improve a point per game average without significantly more possessions. Murray’s making more of his possessions this season than he ever has before, and it can mean the difference from being average to solid to star.
A developing post game
One of Murray’s basketball inspirations was Kobe Bryant, who perfected post footwork in the 1-on-1 game to generate an efficient shot from an inefficient situation. Murray seems to be adapting much of the same mentality. Despite being only 6’4” himself, Murray has frequently taken smaller defenders (and sometimes like-sized defenders) to the block so that Murray can go to work.
The result? 1.00 PPP on post ups so far this season, good for the third best efficiency among guards behind only Devin Booker and Jrue Holiday.
Murray has used his post game on smaller defenders before, but on this road trip, finding himself matched up with players like Darius Garland, Trae Young, Kemba Walker, and others, Murray went to the post more frequently and found consistent success. On this possession, he baits Young into going for a contest before stepping through and converting an and-1 opportunity with relative ease.
Often, teams will put their big, athletic wing defender on Murray in an attempt to disrupt his offense, but the Nuggets should like how Murray handles his matchup when he has the physical advantage over a smaller player. He abuses the matchup, forcing help in the process, and then makes the right play when that happens, similar to how Nikola Jokić can dictate certain outcomes from the post position. This is more of a matchup based option for Murray, but if the right option presents itself, Murray has shown he can take advantage.
On the season, Murray is averaging a career high 20.9 points per game on 58.0% true shooting, a solid combination of production and efficiency. For most of his career in the regular season, Murray’s production was understated. He struggled to get his shots off cleanly, and when he did, he rarely made the most of his easiest opportunities.
Now, he’s learning to maximize his possessions well. He will always find the opportunities to run pick and rolls, DHOs, and back cuts with Jokić, but in situations where Murray needs to create for himself (pull-up threes, post ups) or do the exact opposite (spot up around teammates) Murray is becoming a more complete player that can be relied upon for good offense in every situation.
So, on his birthday facing Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers tonight, the Nuggets could use a complete performance from Murray. The Blazers don’t have the personnel to stop him offensively, and Murray is capable of getting himself into the zone he had against Cleveland against a Portland defense that is really bad.
Here’s to the prime of Murray’s career, a zone of time that he’s just now entering at 24 years old. Murray is going to continue to do great things, and the Nuggets are lucky to have him.