DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19: Jamal Murray #27 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Phoenix Suns on January 19, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Analysis: Why Jamal Murray is Hitting his Stride

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

This version of Jamal Murray first showed up last season in the final game.

In Oklahoma City, on April 12, on Russell Westbrook’s night to celebrate his triple-double record, it was Murray who was putting on a clinic. He read pick-and-roll situations like they were children’s books. He split defenders when the big was too far out on the hedge. He turned the corner on screens and found the soft spot in the defense for a short jumper or floater. He got to the spots he wanted. He did not allow the defense to dictate his shots to him.

It was a prelude to what the Nuggets are seeing now.

Murray has never been in more control of his game than he is now. He’s never seen the court and navigated his way around it with more precision than now. Murray has been on a scoring binge in the last two games, averaging 34.0 points on 66.7 percent shooting from the field overall, and 64.3 percent from the 3-point line.

“For a 20-year old who is still learning and improving and getting better, to see what he’s done the last two games is encouraging and exciting,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “You ask yourself, what’s this kid’s ceiling? Who knows? I know if he continues to work, continues to accept coaching, he’s just going to be a special player for us.”

There is a reason for all of it.

All of the pieces of the pie are coming together. Markedly-improved ball handling, which allows him to get anywhere on the court, escape traps, get away from sticky defense and get into a wide array of shots. An improved shot selection, which has featured attempts coming in the flow of the offense – very rarely breaking from the system to hunt a shot down. An enhanced understanding of pick-and-roll offense, how to use the screens, when to split the defense, when to hit the roll man, and how to use his body to create space in the midrange to get off an uncontested jump shot or floater. Health, which allows him to explode to the rim for dunks and fight through contact for finishes at the rim in a way he couldn’t last season.

And an ever-evolving understanding of his teammates – when and where to get them the ball, cutting to the rim when he gives it up, and creating the pace Malone is looking for out of the offense.

“The point guard thing was I had to figure out how to score when I’m hot, and how to distribute and make sure everybody is happy,” Murray told Nuggets.com. “Because I can be happy scoring the ball. But when everybody isn’t touching the ball, and we’re not making the defense move, it’s kind of pointless. So, I’ve got to find a way to keep everybody in the loop.”

He’s doing just that.

“I have control,” Murray said. “I mean, when a guy is hot, he’s hot. That was me for the last couple of games. But I’ve just got to make sure I’m not forcing shots. I’ve got to make sure I’m getting the ball to Joker, Wilson (Chandler’s) got to get his shots, not to mention Will (Barton) is going to be handling the ball a lot. So, it’s kind of adjusting to who has the ball and what our offense is going through.”

A little over halfway through his first full season as a full-time point guard, Murray is settling in. He had a solid month of December, and he’s finishing January with a flourish.

And yet, this isn’t just confined to his last two games.

His shooting percentages this season overall? Significantly higher in these four actions...

- As the pick-and-roll ball handler: 44.7 percent this season. Last season: 41.2 percent.

- In spot-up shooting: 45.5 percent this season. Last season: 32.2 percent.

- In transition: 45.6 percent this season. Last season: 42.7 percent.

- Off screens: 51.4 percent this season. Last season: 38.2 percent.

“He’s doing a little bit of everything right now,” Malone said. “Playing at a very high level. I love the pace at which he’s playing with because we have to get back to that.”

And then there are the intangibles. Flexing when he made a big layup, plus one, late in Monday night’s win over Portland. Dribbling around Lonzo Ball in a Nuggets win over the Lakers earlier in the season after he’d been challenged not to allow the rookie to put up another triple-double against him. And the countless “Blue Arrow” celebrations after making 3-pointers.

Murray has six 30-point games this season, the most of any Nuggets player and most in the NBA among players who are under 21.

“He’s a competitor,” guard Gary Harris told Nuggets.com. “He competes all the time. He’s a fun-loving dude off the court, but once he’s between those lines he’s a competitor and he goes out there and gives it his all.”

Murray’s competitiveness was evident from the minute he first walked in the gym, Harris said. Confidence has never been in short supply.

“Confidence is always there,” Murray said. “If I miss one I’m shooting the next one. I have confidence in this team and the way we play and coach. I think we’re a great team, we’ve just got to stay consistent.”

Murray’s growth at point guard also allows him to be more versatile. Murray has always had the ability to play off the ball, and in fact has had assists on 16 of his 24 made field goals in his last two games. Nuggets big men, Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee, have the most assists on Murray’s makes with five apiece.

“It’s different playing Team Canada point guard, playing high school point guard, and then playing two-guard at Kentucky and then coming here playing two-guard, then (point) guard,” Murray said. “It’s kind of like, I’m just a guard. I play the one right now and I can just as easily go out there, no questions and slide to the two-guard.”

Malone is comforted by the fact Murray isn’t satisfied.

“He has a great self-belief from many years of hard work,” Malone said. “He knows that he has to put work in. He’s played well of late, but it’s not like it’s been easy for him. There have been some real struggles for Jamal Murray, and I think it’s great. Only by going through those struggles do you get to the next level.”

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.

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