25-under-25, Denver Nuggets

25-under-25: Jamal Murray at No. 7

Jamal Murray was explosive in the NBA bubble, now he’s ready to bring that version of himself to every game.

Jamal Murray is 23, and the biggest moment in his NBA career took place inside the NBA Bubble. If you blinked, maybe you missed it. If you changed the channel to check on a baseball score, maybe you didn’t notice. If you were too busy wondering how Nikola Jokić is good at basketball, maybe you didn’t see it. But Jamal Murray is consistently lobbying for a place among the game’s elite, and on a given night, he looks exactly like a man with a legitimate argument.

Guarded by the likes of Patrick Beverly, Paul George, and Kawhi Leonard, the point guard who played one season for John Calipari at the University of Kentucky dropped 40 points in a Game 7 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers were awful that night in ways that no words can explain, not even the T.S. Eliot cliché about how worlds end not with bangs but sad dog sounds.

Jamal Murray is something of an antithesis to Eliot’s “Hollow Men.” His origin story is almost all whimper. It exhales and expands, but it never pops with the magnitude that draws sustained focus and respect.

When thinking about the long list of lottery picks that have walked through Calipari’s coaching turnstile, Jamal Murray isn’t exactly the first name to register. The big men in the list include Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Bam Adebayo, and Willie Cauley-Stein. The guards include John Wall, Devin Booker, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. Only one or two of these players are clearly better than Jamal Murray, but most of them are probably not as good at basketball as he is.  Murray is the only freshman to put up twenty points per game during Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. However, much like his time in the Bubble, Murray’s time in Lexington was all highlights and extremely brief (because, in hindsight, everything inside the Bubble was extremely brief). His Kentucky team failed to make the Sweet Sixteen, and it’s almost as if he never lived in the Bluegrass State and was only passing through the limestone on his way out west.

When the Denver Nuggets drafted Jamal Murray No. 7 overall in the 2016 NBA Draft, his ranking on the rookie totem pole was somewhere in the pack behind the likes of Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. He was in with the likes of Jaylen Brown and Buddy Hield. Hield was the biggest star at the time, having drawn comparisons to Steph Curry from his college days at Oklahoma, and Jaylen Brown would soon be elevated by wearing the green and white of the Boston Celtics and being sucked into the orbits of Kyrie Irving and Danny Ainge. Being teamed with Nikola Jokić in Denver didn’t exactly place Jamal Murray in the center of the NBA universe, at least not right away.

That first year Murray played mostly from the bench. The team was still splitting starts and minutes at the guard positions among a contingent of players that included two players long past potential in Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson. By his second year with the team, those starts and minutes would clearly belong to Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton, and while questions circulated as to which player might be Jokić’s true running mate, the clear answer was always Murray. He was the youngest of the three, and he was clearly improving at desirable rates.

Jamal Murray was on another level in the 2020 NBA Playoffs

In the 2020 Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Jamal Murray led all Denver players with 25 points per game. Jokić put up solid numbers, but he was clearly plagued by Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and foul trouble. This offseason the Lakers appear to have improved their depth while the Nuggets watched Jerami Grant (the team’s third most important player this past postseason) sign with Detroit. This move appears devastating to Denver’s hopes for improvement specifically because Grant was the team’s best defender. The departure could also be a catalyst for Murray and Jokić to stretch their games even more.

Every team has a ceiling, but no team or athlete can admit that truth. Murray and Jokić appear bent on denial for the time being, and the league is all the better for it.

To this day TNT analyst Kenny Smith still describes Jamal Murray as a guy whose athleticism catches you off guard. When questioned about this judgment, Smith said something along the lines of you just wouldn’t expect that dude to do what he does to you. Smith said all this sometime during the Nuggets series with the Clippers, which occurred sometime after Murray had already dropped two fifty-point games on the Utah Jazz in the first round.

Maybe everything is a whimper inside the Bubble. Maybe the bang is in the ear of the beholder. Maybe the points of the point guard are written on the subway walls. And maybe words don’t tell us anything at all that a deadly mid-range game hasn’t already: Rankings are meaningless as long as they underrate Jamal Murray.

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