In the moments before his November 5 breakout game against the Boston Celtics, Jamal Murray cobbled together a mental checklist.
The masses, from basketball analysts to their grandparents, had been singing Boston’s praises, and Murray had been keeping note of the chatter. The Celtics are the best defense in basketball. They’re one of the few legitimate threats to a Warriors three-peat. When Kyrie takes the floor, he is the best scorer on the court.
Murray wasn’t buying into the hype just yet. Boston was only 6-3, his Nuggets had leaped out to an 8-1 start. Denver’s buzz, Murray felt, didn’t match the team’s performance or its potential. “Fuck that. We get no respect over here,” he would say later, adding: “There was a combination of different stuff that pissed me off that day.”
He was accustomed to feeling overlooked, especially by the media. Despite being a top prospect from Canada (he grew up in Ontario), a star at Kentucky and a lottery pick, Murray attracted less media attention than he thought he deserved. “I’ve always had to show an edge, always had to be tougher than everybody else,” Murray said. “The problem was everybody in America had a lot of hype, even if they weren’t expected to do much. I came from Canada, so I had to come here and bust their ass to prove that it’s all talk. Everybody can put lights on here and there, but if you can’t back it up, it’s a much different story.”
When he took the floor against Boston, he channeled that energy like Thanos using the Infinity Gauntlet: with purpose and fire. Murray dropped 48 points on an array of floaters, pick-and-pop threes and step-back jumpers. He did it with youthful abandon and full-throttled aggression. He also showed that he had a bit of troll in him. At the end of the game, Murray took a last-second three, hoping to make the 50-point mark. Boston didn’t take kindly to the gesture. But it was as if Murray couldn’t help himself.
“Once I get on the court, once I get in a certain zone, I really have no consciousness in terms of emotion,” he said. “I don’t look at the petty stuff that everybody else is talking about.”
After the performance, national audiences and media people took notice. Irving called the last-second attempt a “bullshit move.” Some pundits took shots at Murray. Others wondered: Was Denver for real? Could it really make a run in the Western Conference?
Murray’s performance signaled a new phase in the Nuggets experiment: They’ve gone from pleasant surprise to growing threat, from underdog to target. Murray believes he can lead Denver through this crucial transition, but to do that he must navigate his own ascent in addition to his team’s.
When you walk into the Nuggets locker room, it is there staring at you: a smiling portrait of Murray. His face is not the only one that immediately makes its presence known; each player’s youthful face adorns the top of their locker and points toward the middle of the room. The voice of Travis Scott and those of other mumble rappers blare over the loudspeakers—a fitting soundtrack for the team with the second-youngest roster in the NBA (average age: 24.6 years old).
Murray is 21. Nikola Jokic, a top-20 NBA star and certified triple-double machine, is 23. Gary Harris—the defensive stalwart, versatile offensive wing and longest-tenured Nugget—is 24. There are also emerging role players like Monte Morris (“one of the most underrated all-around guards in the NBA,” said a rival scout), who is 23; Malik Beasley, 22; and Juancho Hernangomez, 23.
Jokic is the primary playmaker but is inherently unselfish and prefers creating shots for others. Murray, on the other hand, is more of an X-factor—a man still settling into his role.
“My second year getting a starting spot, I’m earning some respect,” Murray said. “Now, this is our shit. We gotta take over, we gotta know where shots are coming from, we gotta get organized. We gotta know who to listen to and what we're actually gonna do on the court.”
Last season, the Nuggets missed the playoffs—the past two years by one-game margins. But already, they have shown signs of growth: They’ve drastically improved defensively, allowing 104 points per 100 possessions (fifth in the NBA) versus the 109.9-point mark from last season, which ranked eighth-worst in basketball. The team is pulling in more defensive rebounds, too, grabbing 75.6 percent (3rd in the NBA) of opportunities compared to 77.5 last season (15th in the NBA). Denver also measures similarly offensively, scoring 111.3 points per 100 possessions in 2018-19 (eighth in the NBA) compared to the 111.3 mark (6th in the NBA) from last year.
“When you play defense at a high level, that allows for playing our brand of basketball because you can get out and run and not play against a set defense,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said.
Offense is another story.
Denver’s identity is very much a work in progress. Multiple NBA scouts said the team lacks a go-to scoring threat in crucial, late-game moments. It’s the difference between a long-term contender or pretender, they said. Denver’s three best players—Jokic, Murray and Harris—are similar in terms of scoring. Jokic averages 16.5 points, 9.6 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. Harris is dropping 16.6 points per night while locking down the perimeter. And don’t forget about Murray, who is averaging 17.9 points per game, 4.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds.
“Every year, [Murray] just gets better,” Beasley said. “And more teams are starting to notice that, so he’s getting more pressure and getting more notice when we play on the offensive end. He keeps showing up on film.”
Jamal Murray always wanted to be that guy.
He thought about it a lot as a kid. He learned discipline from his father, Roger. Each morning before school, Jamal jogged around the block 10 times. After school, he ran hills and did chin-ups on a soccer goal frame. Roger wouldn’t let Jamal spend his time with kids at the mall. From time to time, he would take Jamal to the local stadium, where they would run laps and do stairs. Other times, Jamal would do pushups in the snow. To build pain tolerance, he said. Jamal learned not to complain about anything. “If it’s too cold in the room, I don’t need to turn up the heat,” he said. “I just have that mindset.”
Roger’s influence extended onto the court, too. Before Jamal reached kindergarten, Roger brought him to the courts and put him through dribbling and shooting drills. He had Jamal practice free throws blindfolded to ingrain the motion into his muscle memory.
Whenever Roger played pickup games at the local gym, he made sure six-year-old Jamal played as well, so when his son later competed against boys four years older, the challenge wouldn’t seem so insurmountable—like a hitter practicing a swing with a weighted donut. The longest days started at 7 a.m. on the basketball court before school and then continued with an hour shootaround during lunch, team practice after classes and more drills until midnight, when he’d go to sleep. Breaks came when he needed to do homework, eat dinner or take care of his younger brother, Lamar.
Father and son often spent hours watching VHS tapes of martial arts legend Bruce Lee. Roger hoped his son could learn a lesson or two from watching Lee, one of his biggest spiritual inspirations. The father and son revered how the 5’7” movie star never backed down from a challenge despite his stature. It taught him the value of patience, that not everything would happen immediately or the way he expected.
Jamal soon brought that same energy to the court.
As both a Canadian and shooting guard, Jamal naturally looked up to Vince Carter and Michael Jordan, but Lee became Murray’s biggest on-court inspiration. Roger passed along any information he read about Lee to Jamal. The latter tore through book after book on kung fu, and in time learned to use a number of techniques to his advantage.
Prior to games, Murray showers before finding a quiet place to meditate (which he’s done since he was four years old), visualizing the contest in front of him as he slowly feels his heart rate slow. He tries to channel the mindset his dad instilled in him. The confidence, the aura, the presence. And while other NBA stars claim inspiration from Lee, Murray tries to walk the walk, just like his dad taught him.
“Everybody can come up with kicks and call it Bruce Lee. You color something yellow and black, it’s all you have to do,” Murray said. “You have to really understand where the inspiration is coming from. If you’re gonna be sleeping or hanging out with friends the night before and then try and go fight Mike Tyson the next night, are you going to prepare and study your opponent, learn from him, go to the gym, eat properly? If you don’t, you’re gonna get knocked out. That’s the mentality.”
Last summer, Murray took steps to work on his leadership and hone his skill set. He had played most of his life as a shooting guard and hoped to learn the nuances of being a distributor, so he attended Chris Paul’s CP3 Elite Guard Camp. The experience of hanging around Paul created a new source of inspiration.
“The amount of things you can learn from just watching somebody, just the way they talk, the way they communicate, the way they carry themselves, what they work on, how they making adjustments,” Murray said. “I just kept staring at him, really staring at him, learning as much as I could.”
Paul was impressed by what he saw. “Ceiling? I don’t think he has one,” Paul said. “I think that’s completely up to him.”
When the season rolled around, Malone challenged his young players to see how much they had grown. He dialed back his play-calling, handing over the brunt of the offensive decision-making to his guards.
“I have to continue to trust and let them play,” Malone said. “That’s the only way Jamal and Monte are going to get better.”
Malone didn’t want to lock his players into a single play call. Rather, he wanted them to work together and play off their strengths. The tactic amounted to organized, purpose-driven chaos. The offense became less predictable and, thus, harder to scout.
“That’s hard to defend because you don’t know what’s going to happen,” Malone said. “Trust is something we speak a lot about, and I don’t want it to be a hollow word, something that’s up on on the wall. I actually want to live it and allow our guys to run their team and learn from mistakes.”
As the season progressed, Jokic showed he could create shots in unexpected moments, whether it was a pass out of the paint or a dish from the perimeter toward a slashing wing. Murray grew more decisive and aggressive on offense. He also proved an uncanny ability to get into his opponents’ heads.
The Nuggets are best when they are on the court together, outscoring opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. “Our two-man game, me and Joker, we both don’t really know what exactly we’re going to do, and that’s the best part,” Murray said. “We are late in games, close game, and it’ll become me and Joker trying to read defenses and play off each other.”
Because where the Murray-Jokic tandem goes, Denver goes.
“[Murray and Jokic] have been scoring the basketball, defending better, and when you see your guys like that, knowing they’re out there doing it, it just twinkles down like a domino effect to everybody else,” Morris said.
Ceiling? I don’t think he has one
—Chris Paul on Murray.
Recently, veteran forward Paul Millsap has noticed the young players have taken different approaches toward finding solutions. Some watch endless tape. Some try to figure it out themselves. Millsap offers advice when he can. “They don’t come to me as much as I would like, and as much as I think a lot of the coaches would like,” Millsap said. “A lot of guys want to pave their own way. They want to do things their way. I’m here whenever they need me.”
Chris Paul thinks Murray has responded well to the hands-off environment.
“I think he’s in a great situation, getting to play for a great coach who gives him freedom,” he said.
Beasley has noticed Murray’s been more vocal in practice as well. One time, the guard called out Jokic for not shooting a ball—something, Beasley said, Murray would not have done his first two years in the league.
“I have to be more vocal. It’s not necessarily doing things my way, but doing things the way we need to do it to get it done,” Murray said. “If that means taking six seconds off the shot clock to get everybody organized, then so be it. Don’t be a robot and be mechanical.”
Millsap said he sees the guard watching more film than in years past, often on plane rides home, and that the game is slowing down for Murray. “The biggest thing about Jamal is that he wants to learn,” Millsap said. “He wants to do better."
He’s learned a lot already this season. Murray tries to bring as much energy as possible every day to the court. He’s getting a better sense of how to get all of his teammates involved or how many touches everyone needs.
“When someone hasn’t seen the ball, I know what kind of play to run,” Murray said. “I’m learning the flow of the game and tempo. It’s all slowing down. I watch every single tape on every flight, good or bad. I’m trying to learn by getting as much information as possible.”
Denver stands atop the Western Conference, but it still reveals its youthful tendencies on a near-daily basis. Sometimes through high-energy victories, other times through gutting losses with preventable mistakes. Following the statement victory over Boston, Denver underwent a four-game losing streak. Against the Rockets in mid-November, the Nuggets let James Harden drive into the paint at will, coming up with no answers for Houston’s superstar, creating little defensive pressure in the paint. Come postseason, those gimmes will need to become stops.
During the skid, Malone reminded the guys to not get caught up in the moment. The sky wasn’t falling, he said. He pointed out that the team still possessed one of the best records in the Western Conference. The Nuggets ranked in the top 10 for team offense and defense. But he made sure to keep his players accountable and made it clear that development and complacency mix like oil and water.
“It’s on everybody because even if Jamal and Monte are pushing the ball, the guys aren’t running with them. Who do they have to make a play with? Nikola Jokic, he’s our leading defensive rebounder, and he should be leading the break more,” Malone said to the media. “He’s a fantastic player and a passer in the open court, and you’re hard-pressed even when Nikola is averaging seven assists, six assists, whatever it is. … It’s like we’re not getting the easy stuff we’ve gotten in the past. Somehow, we’ve got to get back to that.”
Denver rebounded and is on a seven-game winning streak that includes a victory over the Toronto Raptors, who have the league’s best record.
Malone still sees room for growth, particularly regarding pace. Denver’s possessions per game are up compared last season, from 97.8 (15th in the NBA) to 98.6. But with the rest of the league playing faster now, too, Denver is still comparatively one of the the slower-paced teams in the sport, ranking 27th overall.
“I feel all too often we’ve been walking it up, set offense and working too hard for everything,” Malone said. “We’re at our best when we’re just playing the game, freestyle, trusting each other, moving the basketball, moving bodies and doing everything with pace and purpose. It’s not just running up and down fast. It’s doing so with discipline and purpose, and I think we definitely need to do more of that.”
Murray acknowledges Denver’s future success and his continued development are inextricably tied, but the challenge doesn’t scare him. He’s ready for it all. To create plays as the clock winds down. To call guys out when he needs more from them. To be the guy everyone looks to for two points.
“I know I can become the best basketball player in the world. I’m not going to be satisfied with playing average,” Murray said. “Even if I have stretches where I haven't figured it out yet, I have no doubt in my mind that I will. The only reason I’m playing is to be the greatest.”
Many still doubt Denver’s ability to maintain this level of performance given its youth and inexperience, but Murray chooses to channel his inner Bruce Lee and keep the focus on the things directly in his control.
“We don’t need a message for the critics,” Murray said. “Look at the standings. That’s it.”