The first 18 years of Jamal Murray’s life were a mostly cable-less existence. Jamal’s father, Roger, didn’t want his son spending his free time plopped down in front of a TV. So instead of watching cartoons, Murray honed his jump shot and did push ups in the snow. Because of his unusual upbringing, Murray missed out on Millennial staples such as “Dragon Ball Z,” which means he’s only vaguely familiar with what it means to go Super Saiyan, a concept that applied to characters in the show who underwent a physical transformation and became invincible, and coincidentally explains what happens to the Nuggets any time their starting point guard has it going.
When Murray plays well, the Nuggets go to a different level. They’re 17-4 this season when he shoots 50 percent or better compared to 24-17 when he shoots 49 percent or worse. They’re also 6-0 in games Murray scores 30 or more but just 4-3 when he finishes in single digits. Murray is Denver’s biggest X-factor, capable of elevating his team to a higher plane of existence one night and dragging it down to sea level the next.
“Murray is perhaps the league’s most important swing player over the next three seasons,” ESPN’s Zach Lowe wrote in January. “If he becomes an All-Star, the Nuggets could contend for a long time. If he tops out below that, Denver has more work to do.”
So far, streakiness is as much a part of Murray’s identity as durability and toughness. Murray has had games with 48, 46 and 36 points this year, but he’s also had games with seven, four and three. He sometimes vacillates between scorching and freezing in a single game. Take March 4 in San Antonio: Murray scuffled through the first three quarters, hitting 3 of 11 shots as Denver fell into a 21-point hole. Then in the fourth, Murray came alive, drilling four 3s as the Nuggets nearly clawed all the way back in a 104-103 defeat.
“When Jamal gets it going, he’s one of those guys where he can catch fire in a hurry,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “When he sees that ball go in, he all of a sudden gets very aggressive, and he can hit tough shots. … Even if I don’t like it at times, that gets him going in other areas. I’m constantly telling him, ‘Don’t let your jump shot affect all the other parts of your game.’ When he’s making shots, he’s a better defender, he’s a better rebounder, he’s a better playmaker.”
Right now, it’s too early to tell if inconsistency is a defining feature or something Murray will grow out of. Murray turned 22 less a month ago, the same age Damian Lillard was as a rookie. Lillard made his first All-NBA Team at 23, and it took Stephen Curry until 25 to get there.
Before the season, NBA GMs voted Murray the player “most likely to have a breakout season” in an anonymous poll. Murray might not have leveled up to that degree, but he’s improved in subtler ways like playmaking. He’s averaging 4.9 assists per game — up from 3.4 a year ago. Zoom out some more and you’ll notice Murray is first is minutes (33.1 mpg) and second in scoring (18.3 ppg) on the second-best team in the Western Conference.
“He’s done a way better job this year than the previous two,” Will Barton said. “My third year, I was just trying to figure out how to make a way for myself, and he’s already becoming a young star.”
On Nov. 5, Barton, still recovering from core surgery, watched in street clothes as Murray torched the Boston Celtics for 48 points. Murray converted 19 of 30 shots that night, out-dueling Kyrie Irving, who holds the unofficial title as the NBA’s best tough shotmaker. The reason why so much is expected of Murray, Barton said, is because of nights like that.
“It comes with the territory of being real good, and showing that he’s real good and having big games,” Barton said. “Once you start doing that, now everyone wants more. He can handle it. He wants it, so he’ll be fine.”
With the fourth-youngest roster in the NBA, the Nuggets are positioned to be competitive for a long time. They will finally break through to the playoffs — they can clinch a postseason berth with a win tonight in Boston — after falling one game short in Murray’s first two seasons.
“I don’t wanna be fighting (for a playoff spot),” Murray said after the Game 82 disappointment in Minnesota last year. “I want to be locked into the playoffs. That’s the goal.”
The Nuggets have taken the next step. They’ve accomplished that. How far they go once they’re in the postseason hinges on which Murray they get: The player who hung nearly half a 100 on the Celtics or the guy who shot 6 of 21 two nights later in Memphis.
When he’s on, the Nuggets look like world destroyers. When he’s not, they’re merely mortal.