There is a sweet-shooting combo guard from Kentucky lighting it up on each side of the playoff bracket. Jamal Murray and Tyler Herro aren’t on the same level yet. The former is a battle-tested veteran averaging Steph Curry–like numbers (26.9 points on 51 percent shooting and 6.6 assists per game) in the playoffs. The latter is a rookie coming off the bench in Miami. But Herro’s historically great postseason production for his age suggests that he could have a Murray-like rise.
The similarities are eerie. Murray (no. 7 in 2016) and Herro (no. 13 in 2019) are the latest in a long line of John Calipari players undervalued by NBA teams after one season of college. Both are also elite shooters with similar size (Murray is 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds; Herro is 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds) who can play either guard position but don’t have great athleticism. Instead, their games are built around their jumpers. They are part of the next generation of big-time scorers who can compete in the 3-point shootout on All-Star Weekend: Murray is shooting 46.6 percent from 3 on 7.4 attempts per game in the playoffs; Herro is at 37.8 percent on 6.9 attempts.
The types of 3s they take are even more important than the number they take. There’s more to being an elite shooter than knocking down open shots, especially in the playoffs. Murray and Herro can shoot off the dribble, off the catch, and off movement. There’s no one way to guard them.
Play a step off and they can pull up from well behind the 3-point line:
Press up on them and they put the ball on the floor and still create an open 3 with a stepback:
Try to suffocate them with multiple defenders and they can give up the ball and then move without it, sprinting around off-ball screens before catching and firing:
That versatility allows their teams to run many different types of plays for them. Here’s what their shot selection looks like in comparison to that of Luka Doncic, one of the most ball-dominant guards in the NBA:
Percentage of Shots in the Regular Season
|Player||Pick-and-roll||Spot up||Off-ball screens|
|Player||Pick-and-roll||Spot up||Off-ball screens|
Scoring is only half the equation. No NBA team is running many plays for a one-dimensional offensive player. Both Murray and Herro can leverage the defensive attention they draw to create shots for their teammates. Each is averaging around four assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio higher than 2:1 in the playoffs—marks of an above-average playmaker.
Finishing at the rim is the big edge that Murray has on Herro right now. The former is shooting 72.2 percent within 3 feet of the basket on four attempts per game in the playoffs, while the latter is only shooting 58.3 percent on 1.85 attempts. It’s easier for Murray, an older player who has been in an NBA weight-training program for four years, to score through contact. He believes gaining 14 pounds of muscle during the NBA’s hiatus is why he’s been so much better in the bubble.
The most important similarity, though, isn’t how they play. It’s how they are used by their respective teams. Murray is the starting point guard for the Nuggets, and Herro will likely take over at the position for the Heat next season, with Goran Dragic (34) getting older and set to become an unrestricted free agent. But they aren’t traditional floor generals like Chris Paul who run the offense and only shoot when they have to, or one-man offenses like Doncic who hold the ball the entire game. Murray and Herro are spiritual disciples of Steph Curry, elite shooters who can play on and off the ball at a high level.
The flip side of being able to play off the ball is that someone else has to set them up when they do. That’s where a frontcourt player who can share some of the playmaking responsibilities becomes so important. Steph needed Draymond Green. Herro needs Bam Adebayo. And Murray needs Jokic. The sweet-shooting combo guard and the playmaking big man are like peanut butter and jelly. Something is missing when it’s only one or the other.
The foundation of all three pairings is the pick-and-roll. In their hands, the play is essentially unstoppable for traditional defenses. Sending the defender on the ball either under or over the screen creates a window for the ball handler to shoot a pull-up 3. The goal of that coverage is conceding long 2s, the least efficient shot in basketball. But set the screen higher up the floor and you are giving up open 3s, which has been the quickest way to get a flight home from the bubble. Milwaukee found that out in a second-round loss to Miami that was more of a courtesy flush than a gentleman’s sweep.
Herro and Murray have been making a killing against drop defenses in the playoffs. Kevin Durant explained the dynamic on the Old Man and the Three podcast: “You sit in a drop coverage against [an elite scorer] and you will get them going. We see space and you pull up in the midrange, and you get a good screen and there are guys all the way in the paint, and you are shooting an open jumper or a floater. I see that in the playoffs and I’m seeing all these scorers getting 40 and 50 [points].”
The problem is that the obvious adjustment—moving the big man defending the screener up the court in order to corral the ball handler—plays right into the hands of the screener in the two-man game. The big man slips to the basket with two defenders behind him, and the defense is in even more trouble. Draymond made those types of passes in four-on-three situations famous. That one-two punch is why the rest of the league was drawing dead as the Warriors won their first title in 2015 and set a record for most regular-season wins in 2016.
No one found an answer until the 2016 Western Conference finals, when the Thunder put Durant on Draymond so that he could switch the screen and guard Steph. Draymond had an edge against slower big men but couldn’t do much on offense against a wing with as much speed as him. That weakness was Golden State’s Achilles’ heel. Oklahoma City ultimately imploded in the West finals, but Cleveland finished the job in the NBA Finals with LeBron James in Durant’s role. The big wing had cracked the new age pick-and-roll by guarding both sides of it.
It’s like Goldilocks and the three bears: Dropping is too cold; blitzing or hedging is too hot; switching is just right. Not many teams in the NBA have big wings with the defensive versatility to make those switches. But you will eventually run into them as you advance deeper in the playoffs.
Herro has been lucky in the East finals. Brad Stevens has kept a nonswitchable defender on Bam (center Daniel Theis) rather than going small up front with some combination of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Grant Williams. Those three players can match up with Herro on the perimeter while exposing Bam’s inability to create his own shot. Having that adjustment in their back pocket is the biggest reason why the Celtics still could come back from their 3-1 deficit.
What makes the pick-and-roll between Jokic and Murray so special is that switching may not work against them. They are the next step in the evolution of the play. Jokic is such a great post scorer that even the biggest wings can’t match up with him in the way they can with Draymond and Bam. The Clippers found that out the hard way in the second round, when they never felt comfortable putting Kawhi Leonard on him, which meant they could never switch Kawhi on Murray in the two-man game. The Clippers were always bleeding points on those plays, which gave the Nuggets an opening to pull off the upset.
It’s also why Denver still has a chance down 3-1 against the Lakers. The most switchable pair of defenders for Jokic and Murray in the NBA is LeBron and Anthony Davis, but Los Angeles has been reluctant to put them on Denver’s stars too much, although Davis has taken turns on Jokic and LeBron guarded Murray down the stretch of Game 4.
The issue for the Nuggets in the series has been defense, not offense. They can’t stop Davis. That’s where Jokic comes up short in comparison to Draymond. He can’t guard elite frontcourt players, which means the Nuggets have to find someone who can. Jerami Grant is a good start. But they need at least one more guy. The Heat match up better with the Lakers in a potential Finals because they could put Bam on Davis and Jimmy Butler on LeBron and switch the screen between them.
Teams that don’t have the players to switch pick-and-rolls between two elite scorers are at a massive disadvantage in the playoffs. Giving guys like Murray and Herro the space to shoot will just not work. They are too skilled. That’s been the biggest change over the last generation. Murray is 23. Herro is 20. They shouldn’t be this good this quickly. But they came into the NBA with the polished offensive skill sets of 10-year veterans. Plug them into the right role with the right kind of players around them and they can contribute immediately.
I interviewed Seth Curry for a profile in 2017, during his first stint with the Mavs. The trends that have now taken over the league were starting to pick up steam, and Curry dismissed the idea that the game would ever go away from small ball and 3s: “The game is about putting the ball in the hole and getting buckets,” he said. “If you can shoot the ball and score, there’s a spot for you in the league. There’s less banging and throwing it in the post now. It’s about having basketball skill.”
Herro and Murray are thriving in “a hooper’s gym” in Orlando. It’s going to be a hooper’s league by the time the bubble is over.