Nuggets’ Jamal Murray is more than a shooting star: He’s a leader
Seven years after leaving New Orleans as an assistant, Michael Malone connected his former point guard there with the burgeoning lead guard of his new team in Denver during the summer of 2018.
Malone wanted Jamal Murray to visit Chris Paul at his summer camp in Winston-Salem, N.C., for several reasons. As a teenage star from Toronto’s suburbs, an All-SEC freshman during his lone season at Kentucky, and a rookie NBA season in 2016-17 during which he backed up Denver’s off-guard, Gary Harris, Murray primarily played around the perimeter but off the ball.
Paul, regarded as one of the NBA’s great point guards, could teach the mechanics of the position like few others. Yet learning how to read the pick-and-roll play was just step one.
The hope, Malone said, was for Murray to return understanding better how to read his teammates.
“The best leader I’ve ever been around is Chris Paul,” said Malone, who had coached LeBron James for five years as a Cleveland assistant. “Chris was willing to do whatever he could do to help.”
Murray proved a willing student. That August, he posted a picture of himself listening to Paul. “One of the best to ever do it,” he wrote on Instagram, “tellin me how he did it.”
How the Lakers and Nuggets match up in the Western Conference finals that begin on Friday night in Orlando, Fla.
Two years after attending Paul’s point-guard finishing school, Murray has helped Denver reach its first Western Conference finals since 2009 by finishing off both Utah and the Clippers despite trailing 3-1 in each best-of-seven series.
Murray, 23, devastated the Jazz with his scoring, averaging 31.6 points a game. He was held in check by Clippers guards for most of the second round until exploding for 40 points in Game 7, outscoring Kawhi Leonard and Paul George combined, to secure a matchup against the Lakers.
“Jamal has stepped up in every way possible,” rookie wing Michael Porter Jr. said. “Vocally, on the floor, picking guys up. I’m really proud of him.”
The 6-foot-4 Canadian’s ability to score was never really the question; it was part of why the Nuggets pegged him as the third-best draft prospect in his class, and were elated he fell to them at No. 7 in the draft.
As the Jazz and Clippers crumbled, Malone saw something more.
“Jamal has grown up, he has become more of a leader, more vocal,” Malone said. “What he did in that Utah series was incredible with his play but also the emotional leadership that he showed for our team and that was contagious.
“He took his whole team with him, which you don’t see very often for such a young player.”
Murray was an all-rookie selection in 2017 while playing all but 10 of his 80 games off the bench and started 80 of 81 games the following season while increasing his scoring from 9.9 points to 16.7.
“Ceiling?” Paul said in November 2018, days after Murray scored a career-high 48 points. “I don’t think he has one.”
The Lakers’ LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the only two All-NBA first-team players remaining inside the NBA bubble.
Behind Murray and All-NBA center Nikola Jokic, Denver secured the West’s second-best record last season but the breakout was bittersweet. Portland won Game 7 of its conference semifinal on Denver’s home court. When the Nuggets gave Murray a five-year contract extension worth $170 million weeks later, the organization made sure he understood that came with being a franchise pillar.
“This something that you have to understand, take responsibility for,” Malone said. “You’ve got to be better. On the court, your preparation, your professionalism, your work ethic and your leadership. He’s taken all those things into account and tried to be better in every one of those areas, which is all you want.”
The NBA restart has tested each of those areas.
Positive tests among players and staff for the novel coronavirus forced Denver to shut down its training in Colorado in July and left only half the roster available to play at the start of the bubble near Orlando, Fla. Murray missed four games during the seeding round because of a hamstring injury, and by mid-August said that the Nuggets’ defense had been too quiet. Harris, Denver’s best defender, didn’t return from a hip injury until the first round. The Nuggets are still down one starter as Will Barton continues to rehab a hurt knee in Miami.
As players spent Aug. 26 debating whether to continue the season following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, Murray implored teammates that finishing out the season would provide the widest-reaching platform for their messaging, a person with knowledge of the situation said.
When games restarted, Murray scored 50 points while wearing custom Adidas sneakers featuring the face of Breonna Taylor to lead a Game 6 victory over the Jazz. Denver became the first team in NBA history to win multiple series in the same postseason when trailing 3-1 by eliminating the Clippers.
“All y’all better start giving this team some damn respect,” Murray said after the Game 7 rout of the Clippers.
Murray already has his team’s.
Greif reported from Los Angeles.
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