It’s been four years since the Denver Nuggets have made the NBA playoffs. The last time the Nuggets were playing in the postseason, they were eliminated in six games by an upstart Golden State Warriors team who were just showing flashes of the dominance they would put on display a few years later. But now, heading into the 2017–18 season, optimism is high that this is the year they make it back.
The Nuggets have quietly assembled a bright young core. With the centerpiece being star big Nikola Jokic, Denver has put together some good pieces to compliment the Serbian. Most of their growth has been through the draft but this year they landed a big time free agent in Paul Millsap. With the All-Star now slotted alongside Jokic, the Nuggets can take the next step towards contention. There are still some questions about this team though, particularly surrounding the much talked about young core. It will be interesting to see which player out of the group (excluding Jokic) stands out. One of the names to watch for will be shooting guard Jamal Murray. The rookie had a good initial season and showed he can be a bright piece in Denver’s future. He has a lot to work on, especially defensively, but at the same time there are a lot of things to like about him.
Last season was a solid one for the rookie from Kentucky. Murray showed his offensive potential, averaging 9.9 points per game while shooting an effective field goal percentage of 48.3. Sitting behind Gary Harris in the shooting guard depth chart, Murray made the most of his opportunities coming off the bench. He made a leap in his play after the All-Star break, averaging 12.1 points per game and improved his overall field goal percentage from 39.4 to 42.3 percent. All of this took place while he saw an uptick in minutes as well. It’s always a positive for any team to see a player, especially a rookie, not only maintain but improve in production when given more minutes. Down the stretch of the season, Murray gave a glimpse of some of the offensive firepower which made him such a highly touted draft prospect.
One of the numerous skills Murray displayed in his rookie season was an ability to break his opponents down when given space to create. He thrived in isolation situations and Denver also used the pick and roll, along with a number of dribble handoff plays, to help get him in mismatches he could take advantage of. Given space, Murray would also usually take advantage by playing well off the ball. Whether it was coming off screens or just a simple backdoor cut, Murray was able to read the floor very well and get to spots the defense left vacant.
Getting into specifics, there is one particular area which is very underrated about his game—one Murray should look to solidify: his pick and roll game.
Murray averaged 2.8 pick and roll plays per game and was decent when it came to scoring on those plays (0.84 PPP). Although it would be ideal if the number was higher, it’s a very good start. He was excellent in reading the game and used his craftiness to find open spots on the floor.
Here this play begins with Murray in a standing dribble at the top of the key. He quickly receives a screen from Nikola Jokic and begins to break down the Thunder defense. Taj Gibson, who is guarding Jokic on this play, doesn’t elect to pressure Murray coming off the screen and instead chooses to fall back. This opens up space for Murray to come down into the lane with his man, Victor Oladipo, trailing him and giving him the upper hand. As Jokic rolls to the basket, a space vacates near the left side of the paint. Murray sees it and weaves his way towards that spot, all the while with Oladipo trailing him. With his man a step behind, Murray uses a side step move to get to the spot he wants and knocks down a comfortable mid-range jumper.
His threat of a three-point shot also came in handy in pick and roll situations. Despite shooting only 33.4 percent last year, Murray was still able to force defenders to think twice about going under screens when the Nuggets ran plays involving that kind of action.
In this play, Murray is being guarded by the best player in the NBA in LeBron James. Murray receives a pass from Mason Plumlee at the top of the right wing and immediately goes into a pick and roll action with the big man. James makes the mistake of going underneath the screen, and with Channing Frye falling back there is nobody near Murray when he goes around the screen from Plumlee. He has plenty of time to rise up and knock down a very easy three-point shot.
This is something Murray should look to continue to refine. He’s very good shooting off the catch, with 71.3 percent of three-point attempts being assisted, but being able to make the three-point shot more consistently in pick and roll situations would make him an even bigger offensive threat. It would also do wonders for the Denver offense as Murray would force defenders to always go over screens and open space for the roll man to score.
Murray still has a long way to go in terms of becoming a complete player. There are questions about his playmaking skills (2.6 assists per game last year) and his defense needs to be worked on for him not to be a negative on that end of the court. He’s also in a unique position in which he is fighting for minutes with Harris. Mike Malone and his staff have already explored the possibility of Harris and Murray in the backcourt, running the latter at point guard. With his handles, quickness, and good grasp of running the pick and roll, Murray looks the part of being a part-time point guard. However, Denver could also opt for other options such as Emmanuel Mudiay or veteran Jameer Nelson.
It could be argued Murray is the second-most important player behind Jokic when it comes to Denver’s future. As long as he continues to improve on both sides of the court, especially offensively, the future is bright for Jamal Murray.