There are any number of words to describe what was a winding, complex rookie season for Nuggets guard Jamal Murray. Intriguing, might be the most accurate way to put a first-year campaign that is likely to end in an all-rookie selection and definitely left a Nuggets franchise salivating, wanting to see more.
The ultra-confident Murray no doubt feels he put together one of the best seasons of any player in this year’s rookie class and hopes it ends with an all-rookie team nod.
“Hopefully I get it,” Murray said. “If not, it’s whatever. But I feel like I’m one of the better rookies in the class and got a chance to prove it. I was focused on the team and what the team wanted me to do, so I wasn’t trying to force anything.”
Murray ranked sixth among rookies in scoring (9.9), made the second-most 3-pointers (115) and led all rookies in free throw percentage (88.3). Murray made 30 of his last 33 free throws and didn’t miss a single one of his 15 attempts in the Nuggets’ seven games in April. He played in all 82 games, making him the only Nugget to do so.
He shook off an 0-for-17 shooting start to the season to grab the NBA’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month for games played in October and November anyway. The season also featured his first significant time playing point guard since he was in high school. Murray was a shooting guard in college at Kentucky, and was drafted by the Nuggets in 2016 with an eye on improving their shooting profile.
But as the season went on, it appeared more and more that Murray’s future is at the position he says is his favorite: Point guard. And with the rise of Gary Harris, who with a solid season of his own has nailed down the starting shooting guard position for years to come with the Nuggets, if Murray starts next season or any season in the near future, it has to be at point guard.
And as a point guard Murray was effective, averaging 11.5 points, 2.6 assists and 2.5 rebounds when playing that position, according to Hoopsstats.com. Murray ended up starting seven games at point guard, including each of the last four games of the season, where he averaged 18.3 points and 6.5 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from the 3-point line.
Offense. Diving into Murray’s total offensive season is a review that might not necessarily foreshadow things to come. But this one will – the time he spent handling the ball in pick-and-roll situations.
It was by far his most-used action, accounting for a full quarter (25.9 percent) of his total offensive possessions. And, by all rights, it he performed well with the ball in his hands. As a scorer, Murray averaged 0.839 points per possession, a good mark for any player, but even better for a rookie. One of Murray’s biggest improvements seems simple but it was huge – ball-handling. In particular, Murray’s ability to handle, and pass, the ball with his left hand. A better handle allowed Murray to get anywhere on the court he wanted and when he wanted, or needed, to get there. As he got more and more comfortable playing point guard, it resulted in him making some veteran-savvy plays in coming off the initial screen to get into the teeth of the defense and then decipher whether a short jumper, further penetration to the rim, or keeping his dribble alive to move the ball via the pass was needed.
Being able to deliver the ball with his left hand unlocked a whole host of passes that simply weren’t available to him early in the season. And Murray whipped a couple of highlight-worthy left hand cross-court bullets to players that they were able to turn into high quality shot attempts. Murray read situations better, which was to be expected as he gained experience. The game slowed down a lot for him as he progressed, and it showed in his production individually and in the offense’s production as a whole with him at the helm.
Spot-up shooting was Murray’s second-most used action, but this figures to move down the list in years to come as he plays more point guard. Transition offense – his third-most used action at 17 percent – figures to move up the list in subsequent seasons. That’s why it’s inaccurate to blindly use his season as a total roadmap of things to come. Murray’s role will continue to evolve into one that profiles more as a point guard. As far as turnovers are concerned, Murray was most susceptible to bad passes, mostly trying things that worked on the college, high school and AAU levels, but don’t work against the best athletes in the world in the NBA.
Defense. Defensively, a lot more from his season can be used. He guarded the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations 44.5 percent of the time, according to Synergy stats, and that hefty chunk is not going to change…maybe ever as he continues on defending other point guards and primary ball-handlers. He was decent, not great at it this season, which, again, is to be expected out of rookies.
Adding strength will help a lot. Murray was not lacking in effort; he regularly pressed up on ball handlers and did all he could to disrupt them. But he wasn’t strong enough to consistently keep offensive players from getting to their spots on the court. His closeouts to spot-up shooters will improve as well.
Overall, Murray put a very solid rookie year on the court. The Nuggets graded him third on their draft board and got him with the seventh pick. He more than validated their faith in him.
Asked what he’ll look to improve on in the summer, Murray was succinct.
“My whole game,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff I need to work on. My body, my first step defense and all of that stuff. So I’m just going to get in the gym and work on it.”