When Jamal Murray agreed to a maximum contract extension on July 1st, he did not only gain $170 million over the next five years. He also inherited the extreme expectations that come with being labeled as a ‘max player’.
Now, the pressure has been placed squarely on Murray’s shoulders for better or for worse and his ability — or lack thereof — to grow under that pressure will become a defining moment for this iteration of the Denver Nuggets franchise.
It is safe to say that the Nuggets $170 million investment in Murray means that they see him as a significant piece of the puzzle that could eventually lead to the first NBA championship for the Mile High City. For Murray, who is still just 22-years-old, that is an immense amount of stress to deal with. Yes, Nikola Jokic is the engine that allows the Nuggets to function, but he alone is not enough to carry Denver to the NBA Finals. He needs a superstar sidekick and Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly is betting the house on Murray being the perfect Robin to Jokic’s Batman.
So how has Murray handled the pressure of being Denver’s defining signing?
“I feel like he is definitely embracing it,” Monte Morris explained. “He has always been a big-time competitor, but now he is out to show everybody that he is that guy. He has been playing good and putting in work. I mean everyone has, but he is ready to show everyone that we are still top in the west like ain’t nothing changed.”
While Morris may feel like nothing has changed for the Nuggets as a team, it is impossible to look at Murray’s upcoming 2019-20 season through the same lens as last year. Murray needs to step up in a drastic way, become Denver’s second star, and he needs to do it quickly.
So what is step number one?
“I think (Malone) touches on it quite often – consistency,” Connelly said on media day. “(Murray) is a guy who is traditionally a slow starter. How can we avoid those slow starts? How can his teammates know who he is every night? As you guys all know, Jamal is a big-time worker and a very mentally-strong kid. Sometimes the bright lights and the biggest moments; he craves them the most, but what is he like on a Tuesday night in February? I think that consistency is something that we expect him to improve upon, but as I say that we have to realize how young he is. He is still a kid. We have been very impressed by how he has progressed, as evidenced by the contract, but I think (Malone) has done a great job of challenging him — ‘consistency, consistency, consistency’ — to be a special player, you need that in your game and I think it is something that we have talked about quite often this summer.”
As Connelly alluded to, Malone feels the same about Murray’s struggles with consistency and knows the Nuggets will never reach the best version of themselves so long as Murray continues to fade in and out of each season, game, and even quarter.
To further explain exactly what Malone means when he talks about Murray’s struggles with consistency, he provided a detailed example during the 2019-20 preseason.
“The Phoenix game was a great example of Jamal Murray in my opinion,” Malone explained. “The first half, Jamal Murray was one of the best players on the floor; he was outstanding. He was scoring, rebounding, and playmaking. In the second half, he was inefficient. He had two points, a bunch of turnovers, and he was not nearly the same player. So how do you challenge yourself as an individual to be great every night? Not to settle and be satisfied. By no means is Jamal Murray saying at halftime, ‘I am done for the night,’ but he has to challenge himself to be better for longer stretches; for as close to 48 minutes as possible and for as close to as 82 games as possible.”
While Murray’s erratic production manifests itself in many different ways, the one issue that both Malone and Connelly have challenged him to work on is how he starts the season. Historically, Murray has started each and every year slowly.
To begin his rookie year, Murray missed his first 16 shots before finishing October and November shooting 39% from the field. In 2017-18, Murray shot 42.4% from the field and 25.3% from three-point range in November and December. In 2018-19, Murray started out by shooting 41.9% from the field and 31.2% from three-point distance in the first two months of the season.
“He has to be a lot more consistent than he has been,” Malone stated. “The funny thing is that — it has been like three years in a row where it has been the same thing — October and early November he really struggles and as the season goes along, he picks it up and he has a couple months where he goes crazy to bring it back up to a respectable level.”
The good news is that Murray, Malone, and the Nuggets organization know exactly what needs to change in order for Murray to take the next step towards stardom. Now that the issue has been identified, the hard part is finding a solution.
“We spoke about that right when the season ended; Jamal and I,” Malone explained. “I had gone out and printed out his last three Octobers. He wants to be an All-Star. I told him, ‘All-Stars don’t play this poorly in October and into November; they bring it every night and they produce every night’ and that it comes down to Jamal being consistent. I said, ‘something has to change; it cannot be the same offseason it has been the past couple years because something is not working’. I think he made a concious effort to change his offseason regiment — working a little harder and being a little bit more focused. Obviously — us giving him that contract that we are all aware of — we are showing him a great commitment. On the other side of that coin, he has to show us the same type of commitment and he is ready for that. He is aware of that, he wants that and he is not going to run from it.”
Every time Murray has been questioned by the media about the expectations that come with being one of Denver’s max contract players, he has answered confidently and directly. He is not shying away from his new set of responsibilities, as expected. Murray is as mentally impenetrable as any 22-year-old can be. That confidence has become the foundation in which Murray is building himself into the player the Nuggets need him to be.
Even if Murray finds a way to grow into a consistent threat for the Nuggets, there are still multiple other ways that the Nuggets need him to grow. One of the most glaring on-court issues is his defensive impact.
“The only thing I will add to that — and these are conversations that I have had with Jamal so it is nothing new between he and I or Tim; we speak about this a lot — consistency is number one like he spoke about — getting off to a great start — but number two is being more locked in on defense,” Malone stated. “Jamal has shown me that he has the ability to be a very good defender. It cannot be two out of every four games. It has to be every night. Give it the attention it deserves. He wants to be an All-Star; we want to win a championship and he wants to be an All-Star. You have to be consistent and bring it every night.”
In addition to Murray’s consistency and defensive impact, there is one last way that the Nuggets need him to grow and it has nothing to do with they way he plays and it is likely the most challenging obstacle standing between Murray and his goals.
“I know Isaiah Thomas only played nine games last year, but he was so impactful for our group,” Malone explained. “That voice and presence is gone. Who is going to fill that void? I really hope that it is going to be Nikola and Jamal who take that leadership mantle because it is going to be such a big part of our locker room this year.
“Step up and embrace being a leader. We need that desperately.”
Once again, Murray is meeting that challenge head on and his head coach has been right there to support him in anyway he can. Malone has given Murray the ability to stop practice and take on more ownership of the team which has empowered his starting point guard.
Murray is looking at his job as much more than getting wins and stuffing the stat sheet. Now, his job requirements also include leading the Nuggets — who are the second-youngest team in the league heading into the 2019-20 season — at 22-years-old.
“Yes…because it is my job,” Murray said when asked if he is trying to grow more as a leader. “I am supposed to go out there; everyone looks to me. I guess it didn’t realize how much guys really look to me on and off the court; the way act, the way I talk, what I do, and what I say. Just like when I watch (Millsap). I watch (Millsap) all the time just kind of studying what he does and his routine sometimes and just little stuff.
“I just have to be mindful that guys look up to me too.”
Leadership is not a foreign idea to Murray. He has always looked to lead by example and provide a blueprint for becoming an impactful player, but his leadership responsibilities have transcended beyond the hardwood. Now, Murray needs to be Denver’s catalyst vocally and statistically.
“I have always led by example so it is transitioning from not just going out there and playing, but talking,” Murray explained. “Talking in the huddles, talking during timeouts, and talking during practice and stopping practice which coach gives me permission to do. Just being more mindful of taking more ownership of the team.”
As Murray continues to learn the ropes of NBA leadership, he has been able to fall back on the wisdom of 14-year veteran Paul Millsap. So when Millsap was asked how Murray can handle all of this pressure, he expectedly had thoughts on the topic.
“For a guy who is just entering into his new contact like that, just play basketball,” Paul Millsap said when asked about Murray’s maximum contract extension. “At the end of the day, that is what it is all about. I think, us as players, can get caught up in the hype and people saying we need to do more, do this, or do that. At the end of the day, you are playing basketball and winning games. What more do you want? If you go out there and do that, there is no pressure. Just play basketball. We create problems for ourselves when we get stuck in our heads about what we think we need to do and what others think we need to do. Just go out there and play basketball.”
All eyes on are Murray to see if he can become the player the Nuggets need him to be to realistically compete for a championship this season. The 2019-20 season seems to be Denver’s best chance to win an NBA title since the 2009-10 season and Murray knows it, but the only way to realistically compete for the Larry O’Brian trophy is for Murray to become Denver’s second star to keep pace with the death gauntlet that i Js the Western Conference.
Now all that is left to do is wait and see if Murray can, “show everybody that he is that guy,” as Morris said.
“Everybody is talking about how we have a chance to go to the finals and this and that, but my mentality is I want to go have a chance to win,” Murray stated unflinchingly. “I don’t want to cut short or think that we just need to make it to the finals or get past the first round or the second round or whatever it is.
“We need to go and have a mentality that we are going to go and try win everything.”