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NBA Saturday: Jamal Murray is Better than People Realize

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The Denver Nuggets have won seven of their last 10 games and still hold the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff race. The Nuggets have picked up their play recently and have benefitted from the improved play of rookie Jamal Murray.

Murray, drafted seventh overall in the 2016 NBA draft, hasn’t garnered the attention that Joel Embiid did earlier this season. This is understandable considering that Embiid was putting up historically good numbers for a rookie. However, as Murray’s role and playing time has increased over the course of the season, he has proven himself to be a productive role player with the potential to be much more in the future.

Emmanuel Mudiay has struggled to establish himself as a starting point guard for the Nuggets and has struggled with injuries this season, which opened the door for Murray to step in and show what he can do as the lead guard. Murray has taken advantage of the opportunity and is proving to have a strong feel for the game as both a scorer, shooter and playmaker.

Murray is shooting just 33.9 percent from three-point range this season, but his mechanics are smooth and there’s plenty of reason to believe he could develop into a near 40 percent shooter moving forward. Murray is shooting well above league average from the top of the arc and in the left corner, hitting on a variety of catch-and-shoot opportunities and shots off the dribble.

Unfortunately, Murray is struggling with his three-point shooting outside of those two areas, as shown in this shot chart (courtesy of StatMuse).

Beyond his three-point shooting, Murray has shown an advanced ability to score at the rim. Murray isn’t a particularly explosive athlete, but he has a series of moves that help him create space and he does a good job protecting the ball as he attacks the rim.

Considering that Murray isn’t the biggest or quickest guard in the league, and is still only a rookie, it is very encouraging to see that he already has the moves and body control to successfully slice through defenses and finish at the rim.

Where Murray stands to improve significantly is in the mid-range. The majority of Murray’s shots come from beyond the arc and at the rim, which offsets this limitation somewhat. However, Murray is shooting below league average in every mid-range zone and hasn’t been a real threat to hurt teams from those areas of the court. Whether it’s a pull-up jumper or a floater in the lane, Murray has struggled to hurt opponents from the mid-range.

Beyond his scoring abilities, Murray has shown a strong natural feel for the game. Though he can play either guard position, Murray may be best equipped to play mostly at the point guard position. He has a great sense of timing and is a strong passer in the pick-and-roll.

Murray has developed a nice chemistry with teammate Nikola Jokic. Jokic is an extremely good passer and gifted offensive player, so opposing defenses have consistently been sending extra defenders to guard this duo in pick-and-roll sets.

As we can see in this clip, the Charlotte Hornets’ defenders send additional help to contain the Murray-Jokic pick-and-roll, which leaves Will Barton wide open for a three-pointer above the arc.

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Even when a pick-and-roll isn’t going to plan, Murray often maintains patience and keeps his head on a swivel, looking for a teammate to get open. He often will spot someone and quickly responds by whipping a one-handed pass to his teammate.

Murray has also displayed aggressiveness in transition, often looking to attack the rim to draw in defenders to open up his teammates. Murray frequently checks his options like a quarterback before deciding on taking the shot himself, resetting the offense or kicking the ball out to a teammate.

In this clip, Murray checks the corner for Wilson Chandler, checks the defenders at the rim and opts to attack the rim and kick the ball out to Danilo Gallinari, who is wide open above the arc. Most rookies would put their head down and attack the rim hoping to draw a foul. Murray has more patience that that and often finds open teammates for easy points, which is a big part of Denver’s high-powered offense.

The downside right now is that Murray is limited in how much he can control the game as the lead guard since so much of the offense is run through Jokic. The result is that Murray often goes entire games without registering an assist and generally maxes out at about five in any single game. This isn’t a huge problem considering Murray’s age, role and the fact that Jokic acts as the team’s main facilitator for long stretches. However, it is a little concerning that Murray doesn’t log at least a few more assists, especially considering that he often benefits from some very generous scorekeeping, as many players do in the NBA (especially during home games).

Yes, this was registered as an assist for Murray. Do better, scorekeepers.

Another issue for Murray is his one-on-one defense. He doesn’t have the size or athleticism to stay in front of guys like Damian Lillard, John Wall and other dynamic guards, though he does have a strong sense of his team’s defensive schemes. Murray seems to understand his limitations and puts a lot of attention and effort into making the right switches, funneling his opponents into his help-side defenders and doesn’t get burned on back cuts as often as other young guards do.

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With Embiid out for the season and Murray helping the Nuggets maintain the eighth seed, he should be getting more attention as a possible Rookie of the Year candidate. Other rookies like Dario Saric and Jaylen Brown are making strong cases for themselves, but Murray has been better than many people expected or realize.

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.