Denver Nuggets

Jamal Murray, deconstructed

Jamal Murray’s jumpshot is his totem, his power object. He will score in other ways, he has layups, flips, little push shots and the occasional dunk. But the jumper is the spring from which his basketball id flows forth.

For modern jumpshooters with a modicum of ball-handling ability, Stephen Curry serves as an inevitable point of reference, even if it’s simply to point out the difference between him and them. For Murray, who was a prolific shooter in his one season at Kentucky and established his potential as an elite shooter off the dribble, off the screen and off the catch, the comparison came at him predraft like a barrage of Nerf darts. No one thought he was going to actually be the next Curry but, with his style of play and a certain jubilant looseness he projects, it was a common shorthand to put him in context.

Three years into his NBA career, the considerable space between him and Curry can be measured with a degree of precision. He can hit jumpers in any setting but consistency continues to elude him, accounting for the difference between his good shooting and Curry’s elite shooting. He is not the penetrator, finisher or playmaker that Curry is. If you want to understand Murray, you can’t stop at the most reductive of aesthetic analogies. Comparing him to Curry is only useful as a starting point, it’s everything else that matters.

Ben Gordon is one of those unfortunate players who will be remembered mostly for getting the bag. After five impressive seasons to begin his career with the Chicago Bulls, highlighted by winning Sixth Man of the Year as a rookie in 2004-05, Gordon signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Pistons in the summer of 2009. His 3-point shooting immediately dropped off. The offensive primacy he was lavished with in Chicago was new split with Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rodney Stuckey. His always shaky defense became more noticeable the fewer points he scored and, after making four postseason trips in five seasons with the Bulls, he never played a playoff game in a Pistons uniform.

Being paid tens of millions of dollars for mediocrity has a way of coloring the perception of a player, but Gordon, especially in his Chicago days, is probably a more meaningful comparison for Jamal Murray. Gordon scored a bit more, shot a bit better but Murray still plays like a ringing echo of him, circling the court in an endless loop of picking-and-rolling and curling off screens, hunting any space to launch a jumper.

The comparison breaks down on aesthetics. Gordon was all muscle, a coiled spring waiting to be released. His jumper was feathery but, somehow, still imbued with that upper body strength. I mean, listen as the ball hits the inside of the rim with an audible thud on at least half of his made jumpers in this 45-point masterpiece. If Gordon is elastic, then Murray is the waistband on your favorite sweatpants, stretched out for comfort. Where Gordon was compact, Murray plays long and loose.

That looseness, one of the reasons the Curry comparison will never fully die, is one of the things that makes Murray so fun but it may also turn out to be one of his greatest weaknesses. When you watch him play, you can’t help but get the sense he’s driven by feel. He has these tools — the jumper, the handle, the vision, but he’s still operating more on instinct than any particular measure of control. Curry is special because he’s able to ride that wave of chaos, but the most successful players with this skillset leverage it with precision. There is perhaps no better example of this than Kemba Walker.

Walker is charitably listed at 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, with an unremarkable wingspan. He is quick but not explosive. There are no physical tools for him to leverage an advantage with. All he has is the jumper, the handle, the vision and a brilliant sense of how and when to use each, individually or in concert. He has no margin for error, or the luxury of wasting anything  — space, energy or opportunity. Walker has made himself elite with discipline and calibration.

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Murray can’t play exactly like Walker does, there won’t be enough shots or on-ball creation opportunities available on a team that is increasingly focused on Nikola Jokic. But Murray doesn’t need the volume, he just needs to tighten the screws. Instinct, harnessed. Intentionality, expanded. A willingness to forgo some of the basketball plays that feel right but won’t work out that way.

A Ben Gordon career wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing — Gordon was very effective for several seasons and never had the chance to play with another partner as good Jokic in Detroit. But if Murray has designs on reaching another tier, of meeting Jokic where he’s at and giving the Nuggets more than just a wild card up their sleeves, it can’t come from chaos. It can’t come from channeling Curry’s blissed-out offensive escapades. It comes from taking in the slack.

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