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Which player established himself as a legit NBA star inside the bubble?
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Steve Aschburner: Jamal Murray. Heading into this season, right up to the playoffs, Murray was considered a potential star for Denver. A guy who, someday, might chase a scoring title. But after a slow bubble start, Murray took flight. He thrived in a first-round duel with Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, twice scoring 50 points to lead the Denver Nuggets’ comeback from a 3-1 series hole. He outplayed Paul George, if not Kawhi Leonard, when they did it again against the LA Clippers. Then he averaged 25 points while making 52 percent of his shots in the Western Conference finals against the Lakers. The 23-year-old Canadian, who had boosted his scoring from 2018-19 to the 2019 playoffs by 3.1 ppg, topped himself by morphing from an 18.5 ppg guy to 26.5 ppg in Denver’s three rounds this time. The respect and expectations for Murray will be jacked higher whenever 2020-21 begins.
Shaun Powell: While Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell and Luka Doncic certainly had their moments, Jamal Murray leaps to mind. He emerged as a certified offensive force. The Nuggets had been waiting for this to happen and it did, suddenly and spectacularly. His ability to shoot from distance, hit from mid range, attack the rim, command the double team and gain respect was very vivid and real. His defense needs to come around. However, he’ll be on the preseason Kia MVP watch list for 2020-21. LeBron James didn’t have a poor game or terrible moment or any lapse from the steep level he built for himself. It seems like an easy answer, choosing the Finals MVP for this question, but he simply outlasted all other bubble MVP candidates (Murray, Damian Lillard), and that must stand for something.
John Schuhmann: Jamal Murray established himself as a real off-the-dribble threat, the type that will challenge the way most of the league defends pick-and-rolls. With Nikola Jokic, Murray and Michael Porter Jr. (25, 23 and 22 years old), the Nuggets have three complementary talents who should have them playing top-five offense for years to come. Donovan Mitchell’s star turn, though it came with a smaller sample size, was similarly intriguing. The talent has always been there, but there was a whole new level of efficiency in his postseason performance. His effective field goal percentage of 61.9% on pull-up jumpers was the best mark among 23 players who attempted at least 50 in the playoffs. He also shot 95% on 8.3 free throw attempts per game. Those numbers aren’t sustainable, but if Mitchell has taken a step forward in regard to both his off-the-dribble shooting and his ability to get to the line, he is a star at just 23 years old.
Sekou Smith: I don’t even know if he was in the conversation before the bubble, but no one did more for his Q rating in Orlando than Denver’s Jamal Murray. He went from blazing hot scorer against Utah to a man on a mission in that upset of the Clippers to a full-blown performance artist in the Western Conference finals against the eventual-champion Lakers. We knew Murray was talented, but we had never seen him prove it on the playoff stage as he did for the Nuggets in the bubble. Nikola Jokic was already a legit star, a first team All-NBA center and one of the most difficult individual matchups in the league. Murray’s rise, however, turns the Nuggets into a legitimate contender for the foreseeable future, especially with younger talents like Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol in the same player development program. What this playoff run has done for Murray’s confidence won’t be clear until the next season starts. But I’ll have my popcorn ready to watch that show.
Michael C. Wright: Honestly, he was a star before the NBA bubble, but Jamal Murray showed everybody why the Denver Nuggets will be in the mix to win titles for years to come. Suiting up in the playoffs for just the second time in his career, Murray, 23, cooked up 50-pieces twice in the postseason and made it a point to continue speaking up for social justice causes in the wake of a signature performance in Game 6 against the Utah Jazz. When Denver stunned the Clippers in the West semifinals, Murray racked up 40 points in the deciding Game 7. The Lakers took out the Nuggets in five games in the conference finals with Murray struggling to perform due to a bone bruise in his foot. But there’s no way Denver gets there without Murray carrying the Nuggets in the playoffs when needed.