Has Jamal Murray reclaimed his spot as the Denver Nuggets second star?
The cruelest part of basketball, besides the t-shirt cannon in the arena only reaching the lower decks, is a sudden catastrophic injury. Tears and breaks ended the title ambitions of teams like the Penny-Shaq Magic, the Oden-Roy Blazers, and the Rose-era Bulls. After Jamal Murray tore his ACL in 2021, many have wondered whether the same fate would befall the Nikola Jokic-led Denver Nuggets.
It took Murray over a year to come back from injury, which has helped some people forget how close he was to breaking through into the mainstream stratosphere of the league when he got hurt. After blowing up in the NBA’s bubble with one of the best playoff scoring runs of all time, Murray and the Nuggets were 34-19 when he went down with his injury. At the time, he was putting up career-best numbers in scoring, assists, and shooting percentage for a season.
Now that he’s played half of an NBA season after sitting out the entirety of 2021-2022, it’s fair to ask whether Jamal Murray, reliant on his quick-twitch athleticism and strong lower body for his scoring, is anywhere close to his former borderline All-Star self.
So what’s the answer?
How has Jamal Murray played since returning?
In 42 games, including an early portion where he was working his way back into shape and comfortability on the court, Murray’s averaged 19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists, and 1.0 steals per game on 45/38/83 shooting percentages. Those numbers are good enough to place him high on the Nuggets after Jokic.
He’s first in shots per game, 3rd in threes taken per game, 3rd in free throw attempts per game, 2nd in points per game, and 2nd in assists per game for Denver. It’s not surprising that he trails a potential back-to-back-to-back MVP in those categories, but given the buzz for Aaron Gordon as an All-Star, it’s worth looking at how impactful Murray’s output has been.
It’s his best season for assists ever, which represents a diversification of his role. No longer is Murray just a play finisher, as he was in his early career as Jokic swelled into his starring role. Now, he’s averaging a career-high in usage, due to his increased ability to set up teammates. Take a look at some of his most recent dimes and observe how he’s refined his passing angles and timing:
He’s also reasserted himself as the most dangerous pull-up threat on the Nuggets, taking 8 pull-up jumpers per game off of picks, isolations, and in transition. He’s also 13th in the league in field goal percentage on pull-ups, over stars like Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic, and James Harden:
With so much attention rightfully focused on Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets need players who can hit shots from all over the floor and make plays for others against a bent defense. In just half a season, Murray has shown he can do both of those things at a high level for Denver.
What’s been most encouraging about Murray’s return?
For as great as his passing and pull-up shooting have been, there were a few elements of Jamal Murray’s game that many, including myself, were rightfully worried would take more time to get back. It brings me a lot of joy to note that, despite worries, Murray appears to be well on his way to being back to his stellar self.
One of the more explicit examples of Murray returning to his former glory is that he’s attacking the rim with ferocity and fury. He was always ready to detonate at the rim, something that inspired awe and got him easy points. It was reasonable to wonder if Murray would need more time to regain confidence after tearing his ACL in his jumping leg, but after dunks like these, those concerns have been answered.
These sorts of rim attacks fit right in with Denver’s offensive identity. Nine Nuggets already have more than 10 dunks on the year, with Murray clocking in at 15 on his own. Whether off of his dribble penetration or a slick Jokic feed, Murray has displayed the same fearlessness at the rim that made him a deadly scoring threat.
A more subtle area has been the swift return of Murray’s craftiness with the ball in isolation situations. Outside of just pull-up shooting, one of the hallmarks of his game was his ability to find tough angles, use delicate footwork, and shake defenders just enough to get into the lane. Across the first half of the season, it’s clear that Jamal Murray is playing with his trademark pizzazz with the ball and making defenders look foolish along the way:
Come playoff time, the Nuggets must have a secondary scorer who can create with the ball in his hands and get to the rim to generate easier offense. With few hitches left in his game, it looks like Jamal Murray has stepped right back into that role, boosting Denver’s prospects as a legitimate title contender.
What’s the verdict on Jamal Murray?
You’d be (mildly) forgiven for forgetting how essential Murray was for the Nuggets, but now that we’ve seen half of a season, there’s no room for excuses.
Last year, the Nuggets were just 28-23 entering the month of February. This year, they’re both 1st in the West and are 35-16. That massive jump, as evidenced by Murray leading the team in scoring against the 7th-best defensive team in the NBA, has a clear origin.
Despite all of the earned praise for Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr., Jamal Murray has returned and thunderously reminded the NBA that he is unquestionably Denver’s second star. With another half-season to play, along with a prospective playoff run, Murray looks like he can only get better for a team that dearly missed him last year.