Jamal Murray made a leap in the 2019 postseason. Now, it’s time to make THE leap.

An underwhelming 2018-19 regular season underscored the feelings of Denver Nuggets fans heading into the 2019 playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs. The Nuggets were the better team, but a lack of experience and questions about the rest of the roster behind Nikola Jokic peppered the minds of doubters everywhere. They were justified in their beliefs as Denver struggled through the first three games of the Spurs series, eking out a win in Game 2 on a miracle scoring run by Murray. Jokic was consistently good, but it was Murray who made the difference in the series win against San Antonio, hitting the Game 7 clinching floater that touched the sky before sinking gracefully through the bottom of the net.

It’s moments like these that Nuggets fans can point to throughout Murray’s first three seasons and see the cold-blooded scorer waiting to emerge. The step-back threes, the dribble moves, and the crazy finishes all paint a similar picture: if the 22-year-old can put it all together, he will be a special player.

A dice roll: rewarded or misplaced?

The Nuggets wasted no time this offseason to bet on consistent greatness from the young guard, inking Murray to 5-year, $170 million max contract extension on the first day of free agency. This was surprising, as most teams wait out free agency before committing to young players in order to negotiate for smaller deals. Denver decided not to wait, having seen enough from Murray to believe that faith in his skill set would pay off over the next several seasons. After all, the Nuggets nearly made the Conference Finals with a young Jamal Murray. Imagine what they could do with Murray in the prime years of his career?

But it’s that kind of faith that punished the Minnesota Timberwolves when they signed Andrew Wiggins to his extension in the summer of 2017. According to Jon Krawczynski of the Associated Press, Glen Taylor was willing to give Wiggins a max contract if Wiggins was willing to offer a “commitment to be a better player than you are today.” Wiggins was offered and signed a max contract extension at that point and has since failed to improve, leaving the former number one pick in 2014 with an albatross contract figure that prevented the Timberwolves from signing point guard D’Angelo Russell in free agency this offseason.

To be clear, Murray is already a better player than Wiggins, having proven himself at the highest levels of competition. And yet, despite Denver’s faith in Murray to achieve star status, he isn’t quite there yet. Murray’s per game averages of 18.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 4.2 rebounds during the 2018-19 season were solid, but they don’t reflect the production of a true star. This is the drawback with extensions. If Murray were to top out at this level of player for the length of his extension, the Nuggets would regret inking the deal.

But the Nuggets expect Murray to improve beyond his current level, and frankly, I agree with them. Entering the league at such a young age and changing positions in his second season certainly impacted his numbers in a negative way. There are many reasons why the Nuggets should be rewarded with their faith in their young point guard, perhaps to the point of changing the league wide power structure.

This is where the Kobe Bryant comparison comes in.

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Star tandems of different eras

The Shaquille O’Neal – Kobe Bryant duo will be remembered for many reasons. Two Hall of Famers, certainly Top 15 players of all-time, dominant in their time together that included three straight championships.

Bryant was overqualified to be the second star on a championship team by the time the two parted ways, but during the eight seasons the two shared the court together, the Lakers were absolutely dominant. Eight straight playoff runs, the aforementioned championships, and Shaq solidifying his claim as the top player in the NBA for that stretch. Not to be outdone, Kobe started taking his star turn during their fourth season together, averaging over 26.0 points per game during the final five seasons those two were together, making All-NBA first team three times and second team twice.

Eventually, Shaq and Kobe separated. Shaq won a ring operating as the second star behind a young Dwyane Wade, and Kobe won two rings after the Lakers added a second star in Pau Gasol. They were never as dominant after going their separate ways, but together? The Lakers were nearly unbeatable at the turn of the century, only ever stopped by their noted disdain for each other’s superstardom and Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and David Robinson of the Spurs.

As today’s NBA begins an era formulated around superstar duos, the Nuggets are betting they have this era’s Shaq and Kobe. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray are Denver’s duo of the present and future, and the Nuggets are locked into both for the long haul. Jokic is well on his way to making his comparison a reality, not necessarily in scoring volume, but in total points generated by a star center.

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The defense is at drastically different levels between Joker and Shaq, but offensively, there’s a case to be made that Jokic can be equal or better throughout his career. With Jokic operating as primary playmaker in addition to primary scorer, he shares a similar load offensively.

The real crux of the comparison for these duos is Murray in the role of Kobe Bryant. To be clear, Murray isn’t close to the Hall of Famer as he is perceived today, but back before the turn of the century, neither was Kobe. Before assuming his position as one of the greatest to ever play, Bryant came off the bench for two seasons, adjusting to NBA life before truly taking off in his fourth year.

Through the first three years of their respective careers, Bryant and Murray share a similar statistical profile. Not identical, and like Shaq/Jokic, Murray leaves something to be desired on the defensive end. And yet, the numbers speak for themselves.

During the next six years of Bryant’s career (the length of Murray’s remaining time locked in with the Nuggets) the Lakers star averaged 24.0 points, 4.9 assists, and 5.5 rebounds per 36 minutes, making an All-Defensive team in five of the six years. Murray won’t be achieving that level of defensive impact during his tenure in Denver. Maybe not ever. But can Murray produce offensively at the level that Bryant achieved next to a prime Shaquille O’Neal all those years ago? That will determine whether Murray earns his next contract or not.

The steps to stardom for Jamal Murray

In order to improve as an offensive player, Murray has to take several steps to raise both his volume and efficiency as a scorer and playmaker.

Shoot the hell out of all the three-pointers

While this wasn’t necessarily a Kobe Bryant specialty, the NBA has changed enough since Stephen Curry entered the NBA that threes are the most valuable weapon in a scoring guard’s arsenal. For Murray, the three-pointer is his key to success. Figure out the right combination of volume and efficiency, and Murray can quickly enter a new threshold of scoring guards. As it stands, the 22-year-old has some work to do.

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For much of the past season, Murray was hesitant to let three-pointers fly whenever he had space to shoot. Some of this stemmed from shaky efficiency to open the season, but as Murray converted from shooting guard to point guard, his willingness to space the floor with his jump shot wavered, dropping from 9.5 threes attempted per 100 possessions in his rookie year to 8.4 and 8.3 3PAs/100 in subsequent seasons. While shooting an efficient percentage is key to a healthy offense, it is the threat of the three-pointer that truly contorts the defense. The top shooters in the NBA are the ones a defense will sell out for to prevent the shot. Take these defenses guarding James Harden and Stephen Curry:

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Harden and Curry are both scheme busters with the degree to which they space the floor, and this is the level Murray should aspire to reach. He may never get there, but pushing the boundaries of what he can do within the flow (and in addition) of Denver’s offense will help Murray change for the better. Murray averaged 5.5 three-point attempts per game in 2018-19. If I were the Nuggets, I’d push him to crack seven attempts per game, a level only 12 guards/wings reached last year. Seven made the All-Star game, four are off-ball shooting guards, and the other is Luka Doncic.

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Either play “Moreyball” or max out mid-range efficiency

I don’t have a problem with Jamal Murray utilizing the mid-range to diversify his scoring profile. Most scorers aren’t Curry or Harden and therefore must use the entire floor to get the shots they can get. The problem with Murray is when these open three-pointers turn into mid-range attempts with limited return on investment.

Murray has an opportunity to let shots fly when running the two-man game with Jokic but occasionally chooses to dribble into traffic instead, uncomfortable with taking the quick threes and preferring the ball in his hands for a longer period of time.

This is the inverse of “Moreyball,” coined from Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey who has pushed the valuation of shot location to its extreme. Shots at the rim, behind the three-point line, and free throws are an efficient means to offense, while the “in-between” shots waste an opportunity for a more valuable possession.

To illustrate this, here’s a look at Murray’s points per possession chart in 2017-18 versus 2018-19:

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Murray’s efficiency went down in many cases, but the real reason for Murray’s efficiency drop was the larger proportion of “in-between” shots rather than stopping to shoot from behind the three-point line or driving all the way to the restricted area. Morey and Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni would frown at this shot location chart and tell Murray to eliminate the in-between game as much as he can. James Harden did it and does an excellent job of focusing on these valuable shots, one of the many reasons why Harden is currently the best offensive player in the NBA.

And yet, I’m not here to demean Murray’s shot selection. I’d rather focus on the improvement in efficiency he made in the mid-range area this past year. 0.862 points per shot isn’t a great number, but pushing it up higher than 0.900 PPS makes it palatable, as long as Murray showcases scoring versatility.

Take noted mid-range specialists in Kevin Durant and CJ McCollum: in 2018-19, those two averaged 1.102 and 1.003 PPS respectively, moderately higher than what Murray achieved. In Durant’s case, the versatile scorer focuses on other avenues and gets to the rim frequently, allowing his True Shooting percentage to reach 63.1%. In McCollum’s case, the mid-range assassin doesn’t utilize the other avenues quite as well, and despite averaging a higher three-point percentage than Durant, McCollum’s True Shooting percentage last year reached just 55.3%.

Murray can still shoot mid-range jumpers, but he has to be competent to elite at every level, and the more he attacks the rim and learns to pull-up from behind the three-point line, the better he will be. With a True Shooting percentage of just 53.7% in 2018-19, Murray has a long way to go to improve that mark, the most important for elite scorers, before reaching a level suitable for the contract he just signed. Topping out at McCollum’s 55.3 TS% isn’t going to cut it, but he doesn’t need to reach Durant’s 63.1 TS% either. The two easiest ways to improve are to simply hit more shots or to change the proportion of his attempts to include more layups, threes, and frees. My best guess? This upcoming season will feature both strategies in moderation.

Besides, the Game 7 clincher? That was a mid-range sky floater. Nice of Jamal to have that in the arsenal.

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Playmaking for others

Kobe Bryant was never really known as a facilitator, but playing next to Shaquille O’Neal, he didn’t have to be. This was the dead ball era, in which assists were less important and getting the ball to a dominant big man or isolation scorer on the wing were preferable choices.

Jokic creates an interesting wrinkle for Murray, who plays off of Jokic’s scoring and passing seamlessly right now. In order to take the next step though, Murray has to learn how to be a dominant offensive player with Jokic off the floor. That means becoming a better scorer of course, but also taking on added playmaking responsibilities and making life easier for the teammates around him.

In 2018-19, Murray averaged 7.28 assists per 100 possessions in minutes played with Jokic on the floor. In minutes with Jokic on the bench, Murray averaged 7.49 assists per 100 possessions, a slight improvement but certainly nothing to suggest that Murray’s passing truly improved with Jokic off the floor. The majority of Denver’s rotation players experienced upticks in assist volume when Jokic sat, so Murray staying relatively even is concerning.

As Bryant became more integrated as a focal point on the Lakers’ roster, his assist totals went up to mirror the added ball handling responsibility. In his third season, Bryant averaged 3.8 assists per game, less than Murray this past year. In the subsequent years though, that number rose to 4.9, then 5.0, then 5.5, then 5.9, before topping out at 6.0 assists per game the year before he decided to average 35.4 points per game for a season. Bryant was never an elite passer by any stretch of the word, but he was certainly capable, developing as the years went on. He would never qualify as a primary facilitator, but as a secondary option, he could create shots for others merely by being a threat himself.

This is where Murray can shine next to and without Nikola Jokic. During the playoffs, those two shared the floor together a lot, but in the moments that Jokic wasn’t on the floor, the Nuggets struggled on both ends. If Denver had Murray to consistently generate shots for himself and others, then surviving the non-Jokic minutes feels like a less arduous endeavor for the roster as a whole. In the playoffs this past year, Murray averaged 4.7 assists per game, a great step in the right direction but one way for Murray to push himself in the future.

In addition, Murray must find ways to get more players involved other than Jokic. The majority of Murray’s assists are setup passes to Jokic, some being excellent dimes but some within the normal flow of the offense and expected from any player. For Murray to take the next step as a playmaker, he must learn to see the floor and distribute the wealth. Finding Gary Harris and Will Barton on the perimeter is a great start, but identifying cutters, making cross court passes on the fly, and other complex reads aren’t in his wheelhouse right now. As he grows more comfortable with the ball in his hands, becoming a better passer will open up every aspect of his scoring game to help him become more dynamic.

I believe in Jamal Murray becoming a star. He sold me on his progression during the playoffs last season. He didn’t sell everyone though, which was why there was a lot of head scratching when he signed his extension.

But the Nuggets shot their shot. They committed to the guy they drafted, hoping he continues to improve to levels others don’t think he will ever reach in his career. It’s a major gamble, one that more likely than not won’t pay off. It’s hard to become a player like Kobe Bryant and take such a massive leap over the next couple of seasons to justify being a max player.

And yet, it’s not impossible. Those condoning the Murray extension before he ever plays are probably in for a shock too. At just 22 years old, Murray has a long way to go before he becomes the player he will be in his prime for several more seasons. The Nuggets are betting on that version of Murray being All-Star caliber, maybe even someone greater.

One last statistical tidbit: free throw percentage at a young age is a surprisingly good indicator for stardom, and Murray was one of the best free throw shooters among the young star guards. Here’s a list of the current day elite guards with three seasons of free throw data starting in their Age-19 seasons:

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Most tend to believe in Devin Booker as a future star (some see him at that level now) and everyone has accepted Kyrie Irving as a star (some say superstar) in today’s NBA. Murray was a better free throw shooter than both in his first two years and just barely fell under 85% from behind the line in year three.

Why this is important: young players that display elite free throw shooting at a young age tend to become All-Stars and even Hall of Fame level players. Only 19 players in the three-point era have averaged over 80% from the free throw line on over 400 attempts during their collective age-21 seasons and younger. Some of the names include definite Hall of Famers like Bryant, Durant, Michael Jordan, Dirk Nowitzki, and Chris Paul. Others include current day All-Stars like Harden, Irving, Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kevin Love, and Kristaps Porzingis. The rest of the list features either young players with All-Star potential today, Brook Lopez, and Brandon Jennings. Murray showing up on this list is a testament of his scoring skill, and he has the second best cumulative free throw percentage in the group, right between Durant and Irving.

I believe in Jamal Murray. It’s his time to take the leap. If he can, the Nuggets are set up nicely for a very long time. It’s fun to build a roster around a top 10 player. It’s easy to build a roster around two of them.

This is the Denver Nuggets gambit. Let’s see if it pays off.