At his zenith in college, Jamal Murray was a scoring maven, especially from the perimeter and off screens; as such, he was projected to occupy the same niche in the NBA. He was selected 7th in last June’s NBA Draft by the Denver Nuggets to shoulder that offensive responsibility.
Yet he didn’t make his first field goal until his fifth game; so, role...unfulfilled, thus far.
17.8 minutes per game in 6 games (2 starts in place of injured starter Gary Harris). 7-33 FG (21%), 3-14 3FG (21%), and 3-4 FT (75%). 2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.2 turnovers per game.
While I slotted the former ‘Cat sharpshooter in at #6 on my 2016 NBA Draft Big Board, my concerns about his offensive prospects are holding true:
“Murray consistently struggles to create his own offense and will need an instinctive and pass-first backcourt partner (like Tyler Ulis was) to reach his NBA potential. He'll also need to work on elevating his shot release, as the ball tends to travel more of a straight line to the rim than an arc.”
Murray’s first significant challenge thus far has been Denver-specific: backcourt fit.
Emmanuel Mudiay is Murray’s primary point guard. Mudiay’s first five instincts with the ball in his hand all involve scoring and he’s epitomized recklessness as a distributor so far this season, averaging 3.2 assists per game to go along with 4.8 turnovers. For context, he’s tied for 52nd in the league in assists (notably, behind non-guards such as Joakim Noah, Kevin Durant, and Paul Millsap), and has committed the second most turnovers in the NBA. Mudiay is essentially the anti-Ulis.
Jameer Nelson is Mudiay’s backup, and has begun to see more minutes, but it will be difficult for coach Mike Malone to justify extra time for the aging Nelson long-term when Mudiay is just 20 and the team’s most dynamic scorer. Mudiay scored 24 points against Boston in the first quarter last night as the Nuggets trounced the Celtics 123-107.
As for the challenges catalyzed by his shot trajectory, it simply appears that the shot hasn’t changed much since he left Lexington. Needless to say, tinkering with a shot is not an easy task for a coaching staff or player development crew.
Murray — who didn’t have to facilitate others’ scoring at Kentucky (Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe combined for a whopping 353 assists last season) and also had more turnovers (84) than assists (79) — has exhibited occasional flashes of a penchant for distribution as a Nugget.
In his first start (November 3 at Minnesota), Murray recorded four SportsCenter-worthy dimes.
FOR COMPARISON’S SAKE & THE EFFECT OF YOUTHFUL INEXPERIENCE
I offer the following mostly as context and a FYI; below are the ranked numbers (by me) for the first 6 games of other top 7 (NBA Draft) SGs’ careers from the last 5 years, as well as their respective ages at the time.
The only (non-scientific and unsurprising) conclusion I ask you to draw is that age affects production. Generally speaking (ignore Buddy Hield!), the older players are at the top of the list and the younger players are at the bottom.
I excluded combo guards (D’Angelo Russell, Dante Exum) and swings (Mario Hezonja and Andrew Wiggins). I added Devin Booker, for fun, and to show that early season failures do not spell inevitable doom for a rookie season (or career, as it were).
Leaders in each number are emboldened.
(MPG / FG+% / 3FG+% / FT+% / RPG / APG / TPG)
1. Dion Waiters (CLE, 2012; 20 years old)
29 / 38-78 49% / 16-30 53% / 9-13 69% / 1.7 / 2.5 / 1.7
2. Victor Oladipo (ORL, 2013; 21 years old)
26 / 28-56 50% / 5-16 31% / 14-21 67% / 4.5 / 3.5 / 4.2
3. Ben McLemore (SAC, 2013; 20 years old)
20 / 20-46 43% / 10-24 42% / 6-6 50% / 2.3 / .7 / .8
4. Bradley Beal (WAS, 2012; 19 years old)
29 / 22-64 34% / 9-26 35% / 20-21 95% / 3.5 / 1.8 / 1.8
5. Hield (NO, 2016; 22 years old)
20 / 20-63 32% / 7-33 21% / 5/5 100% / 2.5 / 1 / 1.5
6. Devin Booker* (PHX, 2015; 19 years old)
9 / 10-22 45% / 4-6 67% / 1/3 33% / .8 / .3 / .7
*He was a DNP - Coach’s Decision for 3 of his first 6 games, so these numbers are the first 6 games in which he played; that’s also why he’s ranked 6th here.
7. Murray (DEN, 2016; 19 years old)
18 / 7-33 21% / 3-14 21% / 3-4 75% / 2 / 1.8 / 1.2
WHY I’M NOT WORRIED
First, Murray needed a sustained transition to the college game; therefore, I’m not surprised that he’s undergoing an adjustment period to the NBA game as a 19 year-old rookie.
Looking back to last season in Lexington, he was best described as an inefficient and inconsistent volume shooter for the first three months of the season.
It wasn’t until his February 2 breakout performance against Florida in Rupp (62/80(!) shooting percentages on 21 shots; and looked at those advanced numbers!) that he started to appear comfortable as a steady, methodical, and comprehensively effective shooter.
With the exception of a pair of excusable mediocre performances (no volume perimeter shooter shoots 60% every night), he was one of the most reliable, unshakable, and efficient scorers in the country during the last two months of the season.
If his adjustment to the college game took a few months, no one should be alarmed if his NBA transition spans 30-40 games.
Second, as previously noted, Murray is extremely young.
He will not turn 20 until late February and is the 7th youngest player in the NBA.
Thirdly, though it may be because of necessity at this point (injuries), the organization is practicing patience with Murray and providing him with opportunities to shed the slump.
He’s played at least 12 minutes in every game, and logged 27+ in both of his starts, with a season high of 29 on November 3.
Additionally, Murray’s sixth game was his best scoring performance, by far, even in limited (13) minutes.
He finished with 9 points (43%FG, 50%3FG, 100%FT) backing up oft-injured Gary Harris last night in the victory over the Celtics. The figurative arrow is currently pointing up, especially relative to his prior offensive outings.
Finally, the Nuggets are just a bad team right now.
They’re 3-3. All they do well is score. Otherwise, they’re 25th in the league in assists, tied for the league lead in turnovers per game (and A/TO Ratio), and 20th in offensive efficiency. No Nugget is playing overly well at this point.
LOOKING FORWARD AND WHEN/HOW TO WATCH
Despite a substandard start to his rookie season, I expect Murray to show out sooner rather than later as a scorer off the bench as he gains experience and adjusts to the game.
Gary Harris, when healthy, is firmly entrenched as the starter. Murray will compete with Will Barton, who’s currently dealing with a bad ankle, for primary backup minutes. Fellow rookie Malik Beasley (FSU) is also in the mix, but he’s played just 7 minutes this season.
Denver plays tomorrow night in Memphis at 8 p.m. EST on regional television. For those of us without League Pass or NBATV, the next time you’ll be able to catch Murray on cable will be Friday, December 2 at 10:30 p.m. EST against Houston on ESPN.