With 1.4 seconds left in a tie game between the Nuggets and the Thunder on Thursday night, Nikola Jokic first looked Jamal Murray’s way. Jokic’s thinking was sound — you want to feed the guy who has 33 points in 34 minutes. But with Paul George draped all over Murray, Jokic, the inbounder on the sideline, went to his second read and channeled John Elway:
Nikola Jokic would probably be like the fifth best QB in the NFL. pic.twitter.com/b7lVae26u1— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) February 2, 2018
Gary Harris finished the 127–124 Nuggets victory with 25 points and the game-winner. But even in the afterglow of Harris’s big shot, Murray’s night was hard to ignore. You can say that a lot lately. Murray has scored 30 points or more three times in the past six games. He had scored 30 points or more only three times in his career before that. In other words, the former Kentucky star appears to be making a leap in his second season in Denver.
Murray’s rookie season didn’t go as smoothly. The no. 7 overall pick averaged 9.9 points per game, 40 percent from the field, 33 percent from 3, and less than three rebounds and three assists. But Murray was only 19 years old, and the Nuggets, despite Jokic’s rise to prominence ahead of schedule, were still reliant on young up-and-comers. Even after adding Paul Millsap in free agency over the summer, Denver needed someone like Murray to ascend to put it over the top. The Nuggets may have found that person.
Since the start of December, Murray is averaging 18.8 points per game on 47 percent shooting. Perhaps more impressively, the sharpshooter with the bow-and-arrow celebration has been money from behind the arc: 45.3 percent from 3 on 5.7 attempts per game in that span. Murray was 5-for-8 from 3 on Thursday.
But the key to Murray’s offense is his versatility. He’s not a unicorn, but he’s no one-trick pony, either. It’s taken some time, but Murray’s chemistry with Jokic, especially in pick-and-roll situations, has become a seamless ballet that’s as delightful to watch as a high-flying dunk from Russell Westbrook. Murray can flare out to the corners and become a spot-up shooter for one of Jokic’s own dazzling passes, or just as easily drive to the hoop with a quickness that eludes even the best rim protectors. He also has the handle to do some damage in isolation:
Murray was able to score all 33 of his points against OKC without getting to the line a single time. Imagine when he starts learning how to draw contact or getting superstar calls. Overall, Murray simply looks more comfortable on the attack this season. It’s like he’s unpacked all the boxes in his new house and can finally settle in.
“All I can do is break more ankles and score more points,” he told reporters Thursday night. “I’m not going to stop, and I don’t see no one else stopping me.”
Where can I sign up for the rest of Murray’s motivational newsletter?
Denver has been aching for a point guard since it released veteran Jameer Nelson in October. Emmanuel Mudiay continues to struggle with consistency. Trading down in last year’s draft instead of taking Donovan Mitchell looks like a mistake. But watching Murray run the high pick-and-roll with Jokic makes you quickly forget all of that:
Wow. I know I downloaded & organized the footage ahead of time but watching the Murray-Jokic PnR is like discovering basketball for the first time, every time. It's just beautiful to watch & you know it's only going to get deadlier as time goes on pic.twitter.com/hs325TQZ1s— The Charity Stripe (@_charitystripe) February 2, 2018
He’s also dangerous on the receiving end of a Jokic pass:
Murray & Jokic are hot like NBA Jam at this point in the game. Murray has so much sauce to his game. Throws a behind the back pass to Jokic, then everyone forgets about Murray until it's too late. Jokic has already thrown him a lead pass into an open 3 pic.twitter.com/DyP5O89HyN— The Charity Stripe (@_charitystripe) February 2, 2018
Sign me up for watching these two together for the next 10 years. We already know Jokic is going to be damn good. But Murray is showing he has all the tools to be a star, too.