Jamal Murray Overcoming Rough Start for Denver Nuggets

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 22, 2016

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 20: Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Utah Jazz on November 20, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
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DENVER — Four games into his Denver Nuggets tenure, Jamal Murray had launched 16 shots from the field. Every single one—even the seven coming without a defender within four feet, per NBA.com—failed to find twine.

After he missed his first look against the Detroit Pistons on Nov. 5, he had officially begun his NBA career 0-of-17 and could have hung his head. He could have allowed his shooting woes to sink his confidence and plague him throughout his rookie season. 

Instead, he's begun to break out, compartmentalizing his poor performances and refusing to dwell on the not-so-distant past. 

"When you look at the play of Jamal Murray of late, it's really exciting," Denver head coach Mike Malone said before a Nov. 16 contest with the Phoenix Suns. "You look at his numbers ever since he got over that 0-for-17 start ... he's been really good." 

How could it not be exciting? At that point, the first-year guard was coming off an impressive 18-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers, in which he'd managed to drill a quartet of three-pointers during the game's final 32 seconds: 

Since then, he's only continued to carve out a larger spot in the rotation, most recently torching the Utah Jazz's much-ballyhooed defense for 18 points on only eight shots. Excluding his first four outings, Murray is averaging 11.1 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.6 steals and 0.2 blocks while shooting 44.4 percent from the field, 45.2 percent from downtown and 75.0 percent from the charity stripe. 

But nobody should be all that surprised; this guard is a sharpshooter. 

During his lone season at Kentucky, he took 7.7 triples per game and drilled them at a 40.8 percent clip. He flashed his trademark bow-and-arrow celebration quite frequently while scoring 20 points per contest, and he's now starting to fire away at imaginary NBA archery targets.  

"I saw in his last game, he went 5-of-8 from three," Devin Booker told Bleacher Report about his fellow Wildcat before the two went head-to-head. "Watched a couple of games. Watched him a lot in summer league. I'm really excited to see what he has in store for the rest of his career."

But Booker might not be quite so excited after he was on the receiving end of this particular catch-and-shoot triple:

By any measure, that's a difficult shot.

Murray was forced to catch the ball outside the normal shooting slot, gather and fire away with his typical quick release as a defender charged. That's not nearly as easy as catching an on-target feed and using your natural rhythm to convert the trey. Surely it must be something he's practiced frequently.

"I just shoot the ball," he said when asked about his training habits. "I don't really need...I just put the ball in." 

The Nuggets won't complain about that natural talent. Neither will they gripe about his improvements in other areas. Per numbers obtained from NBA Math, his all-around game has grown week-by-week: 

"His biggest area of improvement is going to be on the defensive end," Malone said. "Offensively, I'm not too worried about him—he over-dribbles at times, but every time he shoots that thing, it's going in. I have that kind of confidence in him...he's just gotta be able to guard his position, contain the ball, make people feel him. And he will get there. I have no doubt in my mind." 

Murray's already settling in as a slightly below-average defender. He's overmatched in some one-on-one situations and has trouble navigating screens, but his instincts in passing lanes allow him to wreak havoc. He's by no means a glaring negative for a first-year guard.

Better still, he can initiate fast-break opportunities when successfully jumping a lane.

Even with the defensive strides, offense remains Murray's primary calling card. And plays like this indicate he's working with a stacked deck:

He's consistently improved his output by becoming a more confident facilitator and remaining a dangerous creator in any situation. When the shots really start to fall, his value will become even more apparent. You won't find Murray in any Rookie of the Year conversations yet, but his presence has been integral in Denver's ability to survive the absences of wings Will Barton and Gary Harris.

Now, it doesn't look like Murray is willing to cede playing time when the rotation grows more crowded; he still logged nearly 23 minutes against the Jazz—more than any bench player other than Wilson Chandler—even with Barton back in the fold.

"Yeah, I'm getting in a rhythm," he said. 

Denver Nuggets Insider Notebook

Wilson Chandler-Led Depth

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 6: Wilson Chandler #21 of the Denver Nuggets shoots the ball against the Boston Celtics on November 6, 2016 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

"The strength of our roster is the depth that we have and the versatility that we have," Malone explained. "So while Gary [Harris] is out, while Will [Barton] is out, we have Emmanuel [Mudiay], Jameer [Nelson], Malik [Beasley] and Jamal Murray to step up and take advantage of the minutes that are given to them."

That depth doesn't end in the backcourt, even as Jameer Nelson has thrived in the starting lineup, while Murray improves off the bench. Nikola Jokic has thrown up strong per-minute numbers up front, where Juancho Hernangomez is also blossoming (ahead of schedule) into a rotation player and Wilson Chandler is flat-out thriving.

After missing all of last season with a lingering hip injury, Chandler has been vital to the growth of these Nuggets. He's averaging a team-high 17.1 points to go along with 7.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists, and those numbers still don't come close to approximating his true value. 

That stems from his versatility. 

"We put him out there at shooting guard to guard DeMar DeRozan," Malone said after Denver's overtime loss to the Toronto Raptors. "We felt he was our best matchup on him defensively so we didn't have to double. We're asking him to do a little of everything right now. He plays the 2, the 3, the 4. He scores for us, rebounds. We went to him down the stretch; he made a couple of big plays, got to the foul line."

"Wilson is always a mismatch nightmare," Emmanuel Mudiay said. "So every time we see that he has a mismatch, we're going to keep feeding him."

That willingness to capitalize on matchups has helped Chandler score at least 17 points in four consecutive games, making him one of just 11 reserves to do so since the start of 2015-16. It's how he was able to follow up a 28-point showing against the Suns with 25 off the bench versus Toronto. But that doesn't mean he wants the team to rely on him at the expense of ball movement. 

"[Depth] matters a lot when we share the ball," he told Bleacher Report. "When the ball is stagnant and not moving around the court, it's tough. But if we're sharing the ball, the depth matters a lot. We've got a lot of weapons and a lot of guys who can do different things. When we play the right way, we're a good team." 

Kenneth Faried's Improving Defense

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 12: Kenneth Faried #35 of the Denver Nuggets gets introduced before the game against the Detroit Pistons on November 12, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by down
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Since he left Morehead State, Kenneth Faried's defense has been under constant NBA scrutiny, with a focus on his struggles against stretch 4s and the difficulties presented by his 6'8" frame. 

And he's tired of it, as he made clear after a standout display of energy and intensity against the Suns: 

"A lot of people in this league, and a lot in the media has been disrespecting me—even past coaches saying, 'Oh, your defense is suspect.' And that's what I predicate myself on. That's how I got into this league. So I find that it's disrespect, and I just want to shut everybody up. Not by saying it, but by doing it."

Faried has always graded out as a fairly average defender by most advanced metrics, but NBA Math's defensive points saved shows he's indeed leaving mediocrity behind: 

For perspective, only a dozen players saved more than 130 points in 2015-16. That's the level Faried is reaching with his newfound discipline and enduring athleticism.

"I call them game-changing plays, winning plays—whether it's a blocked shot in New Orleans on Anthony Davis, whether it's getting on the floor for a loose ball, whether it's being in his stance and knowing who you're guarding. I think his discipline is catching up with his athleticism," Malone asserted.

"And that's scary, because I think he has all the tools necessary to be a multidimensional, versatile defender if he commits to doing that. And I think his discipline has gotten better in that regard."

The Game is Slowing Down for Emmanuel Mudiay

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 18: Emmanuel Mudiay #0 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Toronto Raptors on November 18, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

"One thing I've learned from being in the league over the years is that each year, you just get more comfortable. You get more confident and the game slows down a little more," Damian Lillard explained before a matchup with Mudiay, also claiming everything seemed to click for him just a few months into his rookie season. 

The game moved at full speed throughout Mudiay's initial campaign, and that's remained true during the opening portion of his sophomore go-round.

But it's possible things are now moving toward slow motion. All of a sudden, he's working within the flow of the game and making far fewer bad decisions:

Is it Clicking for Emmanuel Mudiay?
GamePointsFG-FGAReboundsAssistsTurnovers
Nov. 16 vs. Phoenix157-17560
Nov. 18 vs. Toronto2510-18695
Nov. 20 vs. Utah105-13880

"I did alright. Thank the Lord, man. It's about time I had no turnovers," Mudiay said after his outing against Phoenix, and his coach agreed:

"I thought he let the game come to him. Made some big plays down the stretch. Didn't try to force things. He's moving the ball and making plays for his teammates."

Mudiay is still far from perfect: He falls into a habit of shooting on his way down, relies on fadeaway mid-range jumpers too often and can lose control of his handles in the face of intense defensive pressure. He's also missed all 12 three-point attempts he's taken during his last three outings.

But the Nuggets are looking for progress, not perfection. 

It's undeniably encouraging that he's stringing together impressive individual performances more frequently. His ability to squeeze the ball into tight spaces—the play above serves as one of many examples—gives the Denver offense a new element, especially when those assists aren't coupled with too many mental mistakes. 

Mudiay has a long way to go in the never-ending quest to justify his lottery selection, but at least he's now moving in the right direction. 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from Basketball-Reference.comNBA.com or NBA Math and are current heading into games on Nov. 21, and all quotes obtained firsthand.