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Denver Nuggets

NBA Rookie Preview: Jamal Murray

Denver Nuggets guard Jamal Murray, left, is defended by Golden State Warriors guard Phil Pressey during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Friday, Oct. 14, 2016, in Denver. The Warriors won 129-128 in overtime. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Jamal Murray’s value is vastly different than the other lottery prospects the Denver Nuggets could have picked. He has arguably the best combination of youth, combo-guard skills and three-point prowess of any 2016 draftee.

After his sweet-shooting freshman campaign at Kentucky, the 6’5″ Ontario native seeks to establish a role in Denver’s crowded backcourt. Murray’s only 19 years old and is far from a complete player, but several of his talents will quickly translate to the big leagues.

Where does Murray fit into coach Michael Malone’s system and the Nuggets’ rotation in the immediate future? Let’s examine his strengths and weaknesses to gauge the production and progress we should expect from his rookie year.

Offensive role, expectations and limitations

The Nuggets finished 20th in total three-pointers and 25th in three-point percentage last season. Their lack of long-range firepower is part of the reason they were in the league’s bottom half in points per game and offensive rating. Murray is a huge part of the solution, thanks to terrific mechanics and a knack for shot-making at all angles.

He shot 41 percent from distance at Kentucky, an excellent mark considering his youth and shooting volume. He took 7.7 three-point attempts per game, constantly bombarding SEC opponents as an off-ball weapon coming off screens. Murray’s 113 triples were second all-time for an NCAA freshman behind Stephen Curry.

While Murray has spent some time at point guard between Summer League and preseason play, Malone will find ways to utilize his shooting. Murray will be the primary ball handler sometimes, but he’ll also be the off-guard when Emmanuel Mudiay or Jameer Nelson are on the floor.

Murray gives Malone flexibility because he can shoot smoothly off the dribble or catch. He’ll create his own shot in many situations via crossovers, hesitations and step-backs:

 

His catch-and-shoot instincts are also superb. Murray knows how to lose opponents around screens, quickly get his feet planted and score. And when defenders do a good job of going over screens to deter three-pointers, he curls toward the hoop as a threat to attack the basket.

The only noteworthy weakness in Murray’s shooting arsenal right now is shot selection. He forced a bunch of shots in the preseason, which is part of the reason he shot just 33 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-range. It’s not necessarily bad if he’s overaggressive this season — Denver’s not a title contender and there are benefits to trial by error — but it would behoove him to get into the habit of being more selective.

Murray will create a bunch of mid-range buckets as well. He exhibited a smooth in-between game during preseason play, whether on 15-foot step-backs, 12-foot bank shots or 8-foot runners. Here’s a sampling of his mid-range command:

 

He won’t emphatically score around the rim too often, but he will score in the paint with crafty layups, scoop shots and floaters. Murray has also showcased a promising playmaking repertoire this preseason. Even though he was almost exclusively a 2-guard at Kentucky, he was a point guard for much of his prep career and clearly has blossoming ball-handling skills.

When he attacks the middle, his hesitation moves freeze defenders and enable him to toss well-timed floaters and crisp bounce-passes to rolling big men. Murray averaged 3.4 assists per game and 4.6 assists per 36 minutes in the preseason. Don’t expect him to spend a ton of time as a pass-first floor general, but he’ll initiate some plays and create for teammates in spurts.

My predictions for Murray’s per-game stats in 2016-17: 23-26 minutes, 10-12 points, 2.5-3 assists, 43 percent on field goals and 37 percent on three-pointers.

Defensive outlook

Murray wasn’t drafted for his defense, and his preseason exploits have proved that he has miles of room for improvement. He’ll have difficulty stopping the Western Conference’s shiftier guards.

The consistency just isn’t there yet. Murray doesn’t spend every possession down in a stance, and he’s prone to bite on pump-fakes and change-of-direction moves from opposing wings. He has noticeably improved his foot speed since the spring, but his footwork and discipline still need loads of work.

Sometimes all it takes is one jab to get him out of position, and he often takes circuitous recovery routes. Check out a few preseason examples of his defensive missteps:

 

Daniel C. Lewis of Denver Stiffs explains how Murray’s inconsistency will manifest itself during his rookie campaign:

Murray wasn’t relied on for his defense while at Kentucky, and struggled at times to prevent penetration against more athletic players. There are going to be moments where he gets caught with his hands in his pockets, watching plays unfold rather than reacting to plays as they unfold. With time, he’ll have to learn how to take the best angle on defense and how to rotate as part of a unit.

Fans shouldn’t get too discouraged. For the most part, he’s shown energy and alertness on the defensive side. Murray won’t be Denver’s most effective or talented defender this season, yet his energy will yield quality stops against the right matchups.

When he thwarts the initial move, Murray can stick with drivers and finish possessions. Here’s evidence of him stymieing slashers. It at least shows that he can fight through screens when he’s locked in:

 

Murray will spend much of his rookie year at the Michael Malone School of Defense. Malone emphasizes defensive positioning and cohesion more than most head coaches, and Murray will improve via tough love and on-the-job training. Gary Harris is a far superior defender right now; Murray should view him as a model for how to combat slashers on each possession.

He’ll make a newbie-sized portion of mistakes on both ends this season, but overall, the pros will outweigh the cons. Murray will boost the Nuggets’ perimeter attack and his combo-guard versatility will bring lineup flexibility.

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