A chat with Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets rookie guard

Jamal Murray has been one of if not the most promising rookie from the 2016 draft class. Drafted seventh overall by the Denver Nuggets, Murray has seen his minutes fluctuate on one of the NBA’s deepest and most decentralized teams (the Nuggets’ 107.5 points per game places them 7th in the league, but their leading scorer averages only 17). But in the minutes he’s gotten, the 6’4″ Canadian darts around rather gleefully—seriously, he’s always smiling—and shows off the range and intelligence that made him a lottery pick. He’s putting in 8.7 ppg in 21 minutes off the bench and took home Rookie of the Month honors for November.

One thing I love about Murray’s game is he always seems to know where he should be on the court. This play starts with Murray’s drive towards the middle getting cut off. After he kicks it out to Jameer Nelson, he shuttles back behind the arc and gets ready to receive a pass. This isn’t some massive breakthrough—it’s just a little thing that shows that someone knows how to play. A rookie who gets it, gets minutes.

The crazy thing is he’s been playing out of position most of this time. Though Murray considers himself a point guard—and he’s certainly better sized to defend that position, Coach Mike Malone has slotted him mostly as a 2 in their lineups. That’s partly to get Murray on the court—they’re still developing Emmanuel Mudiay, who was last year’s first-rounder, and veteran Jameer Nelson has probably been their most reliable option at the position. And it may also be to stave off the inevitable tension over which young floor general will lead the team in the long term.

“I’m used to playing the point—still learning at the 2,” Murray told me. “It’s not the same. But it’s definitely helping me as a point guard, learning from Jameer, telling me where he needs me to be on the floor. Whenever I do go back to point guard, hopefully in the future, I can be able to say that to my 2 guard.”

He’s not a pass-first point guard by any means, but those aren’t in vogue anymore anyway; what teams need at the position is someone who can space the floor and, ideally, create his own shot. But also defend. That’s why a player like Patrick Beverley is more valuable than his numbers indicate: he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective and he is an absolute hyena defensively. (In a good way.)  Murray acknowledged that’s one thing he’s committed to improving as the year goes on.

Caught in a shooting slump and playing out of position hasn’t been nearly enough to dampen Murray’s joie de vivre.

“Basketball is the reason I started playing—because I liked it,” he said. “I just try to be serious but at the same time give a smile wherever I can and just know that I’m playing the game because I love it, and not because it’s work.

“There’s only how many players in the NBA? 450? I’m just happy to be one of those. So I try to go out there and have fun, and take advantage of every opportunity.”

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