Photo via: Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
We are less than six hours away from Denver Nuggets basketball officially returning for the 2018-19 season. Over the summer Jamal Murray has become a popular prediction to win the league’s Most Improved Player award. While it wouldn’t be surprising to see Murray accomplish this, there’s something of far greater importance that Nuggets fans should expect from the Blue Arrow in making his third-year leap.
Background for the 2018-19 Nuggets
Nikola Jokic will always be Denver’s face of the franchise and their team identity, but to consider Denver for championship contention talks they need more than a solid cast around him. They need another star, maybe one even more important to the team’s success, in certain aspects,than Jokic. Fortunately, they shouldn’t have to look far.
Jamal Murray is the perfect player to fill that void. The 6’4″ Canadian guard has already shown that he is one of the more talented and competitive players in the league at the age of 21. Murray was third in win shares among players 21 or younger who played 20 or more minutes per game in 2017-18 and Top 5 in points per 36 minutes and true shooting percentage among those players. That puts Murray in the conversation with names like Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, and Jayson Tatum for best young players in the game.
The Nuggets young core as a whole has begun to receive some notice around the league as well, even while still early in their development process. Gary Harris and Jokic were drafted in the same 2014 draft class, Murray was added to the mix two years later, as the 7th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Since drafting Murray the Nuggets have improved an average of 6.5 wins per season, yet have still narrowly missed the playoffs the last two seasons due to a combination of injuries and lack of experience.
This season, if healthy, the Nuggets have enough potential to compete, not only for the making playoffs, but contending among the top in the league. There are many ifs in that claim, particularly regarding just how ready players like Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. will be, but it ultimately could come down to just how big of a leap that Jamal Murray takes.
NBA Championship Players
Certain players are required to take a team to championship contention levels. In today’s NBA it seems to take three or more core stars surrounded by complementary players. Since the 2000 NBA Finals here’s the list of all of the teams’ key player to lead team to a finals appearance:
- Stephen Curry (7th overall pick)
- Kevin Durant (2nd overall pick)
- LeBron James (1st overall pick)
- Kobe Bryant (13th overall pick)
- Dirk Nowitzki (9th overall pick)
- Dwight Howard (1st overall pick)
- Dwyane Wade (5th overall pick)
- Paul Pierce (10th overall pick)
- Chauncey Billups (3rd overall pick)
- Jason Kidd (2nd overall pick)
- Shaquille O’Neal (1st overall pick)
- Tim Duncan (1st overall pick)
- Allen Iverson (1st overall pick)
In a few of these cases these players have played on the same team, but have also brought other teams to finals appearances separate from each other. There are also players like Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kevin Garnett, and others that have played key roles as star players and could just as easily be on this list, but this is the list in its simplest form.
Whether you believe Nikola Jokic or Jamal Murray is more likely to be listed among those names is ideally not a deal breaker to the Nuggets. As the NBA continues to evolve though, especially for contending against teams like the Warriors, it seems increasingly important to try to have two players who could fill this role.
This list also relies on having, in most cases, one of the top coaches in the league heading the team. Steve Kerr, Scott Brooks, Erik Spoelstra, Phil Jackson, Rick Carlisle, Stan Van Gundy, Pat Riley, Doc Rivers, Larry Brown, Byron Scott, and Greg Popovich are among those on the list. Is Michael Malone the coach to take the Nuggets and Murray to this level? He certainly has the relationships and track record of improvement to this point to suggest the potential, but that’s another discussion.
Jamal Murray and Michael Malone in the building for day 3 of Nuggets Summer League Mini-Camp. pic.twitter.com/aN6bX9St5y
— Patrick Arsenault (@parsenault19) July 3, 2018
For the time being let’s focus on Murray, because his leap to this caliber of player is something that would have a much larger impact on the Nuggets chances, rather than Jokic who is among the league’s Top 20 players already.
The Third-Year Leap
Of course all of the players on the list above share the commonality of being lottery picks in the NBA Draft, but in almost every case each player also made a significant leap in their performance into their third season.
The difference between these all-time greats and Murray, at least in their rookie seasons, comes down to opportunity. Aside from Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki in the late 1990’s each of these players played more than 32 minutes as rookies.
In Jamal’s 21.5 minutes per game he was competing with Emmanuel Mudiay as the Nuggets looked to find their point guard identity as a team. Murray eventually won the job into his second season after playing all 82 games as a rookie despite playing through a sports hernia injury.
In year two Murray made a big leap. His opportunity increased to the tune of 31.7 minutes per game, allowing him to shoot the ball more frequently and increase his scoring by nearly 7 points per game. Even though Murray battled some injuries and inconsistencies throughout the year again, there’s a certain feeling you get watching his game that seems to correlate to some of the greats.
Overall, these are fairly basic measures of performance that show opportunity translates to success, especially for the stars of the league, and that opportunity often reaches it’s peak around the third season.
This upcoming season will be telling for Murray. How will the Nuggets’ signing of Isaiah Thomas impact his opportunity? Perhaps his efficiency will be more telling than the minutes he receives leading to increased scoring. Regardless, it seems clear that Murray will take a significant leap of some sort just based off what he has done throughout the off-season to prepare for the 2018-19 campaign.
Of all the disappointment that filled the visitors locker room in Minnesota after their elimination game loss to the Timberwolves in April, Jamal Murray may have been the most motivated of the bunch.
It’s no secret to Nuggets fans that Murray’s competitive drive is on a level that rivals some of the great competitors in league history. Murray took that sting of defeat in Minnesota and got right back to work.
Murray’s competitiveness is right up there with Houston Rockets’ guard Chris Paul, who Murray worked out with in North Carolina this summer at CP3’s Elite Guard camp. If Murray is able to take what has already made him successful and incorporate some of Paul’s game into that, there’s no telling the player Murray could become.
With the Nuggets, Murray frequently attended Summer League practices and worked on his finishing around the rim in part of the time that he spent in Denver this summer. He also made an appearance in Las Vegas with several other Nuggets to continue to build team chemistry.
As far as the physical improvements that Murray has made to his body and game, it has been reported that Murray put on 15 pounds this summer. That will largely serve to improve his toughness on the defensive end and his ability to absorb more contact at the rim; one reason why it wouldn’t be surprising to see Murray get to the free throw line more this season where he has shot nearly 90 percent for his career.
Jamal Murray says he’s packed on 15 pounds this offseason. pic.twitter.com/c9vrZtb8vL
— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) September 24, 2018
Although Murray didn’t shoot well throughout training camp and in practices throughout the preseason, according to Michael Malone, he did have a solid start to preseason game action. Especially if you consider that Murray shot 8/12 in the first game against the Lakers while still recovering from an ankle injury, he looks ready to be a force in the league this year.
When it comes to Jamal Murray, Michael Malone wants him to be more committed on defense. In terms of his offense, Murray was nursing an ankle injury throughout training camp and didn’t shoot the ball well last week but went 8-12 from the field in Denver’s preseason opener Sunday. pic.twitter.com/QTc0V7FHKI
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) October 3, 2018
However, in the two games after his return from resting his ankle Murray made only two shots combined before he and the starters rebounded in extended minutes in the last preseason game against the Bulls. In that game Murray shot 5 of 13 from the field with three 3-pointers to finish with 17 points, 2 assists, and 5 steals in the win.
What to Expect This Season
The Nuggets, like almost any young team, have found ways to consistently start slow. Hopefully they got that out of the way in the preseason and are able to hit the ground running tonight in Los Angeles against the Clippers. A home-heavy schedule should only help the team, and Murray, get off to a fast start to the season; a season in which Nuggets fans should expect Murray to approach 20 points per game and have his hands all over clutch situations in big wins. His name should not only be in the conversation for most improved, but also for being one of the best point guards in the league, company that’s hard to crack. If the Nuggets want to contend at a higher level, it’s important that he does.