Why no stage is too big for the Nuggets' Jamal Murray
By Jackie MacMullan
Nuggets guard Jamal Murray on the rigors of today's NBA: "After everything I've done to get here, this is easy."
IT IS A gray mid-December afternoon at the Nuggets' practice facility, and Jamal Murray spanks the basketball, punishing it as another shot rolls off. In 36 hours, Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook will swagger into the Pepsi Center intending to impose his will on Denver's 21-year-old point guard. Murray craves games against players of Westbrook's caliber: MVP, triple-double virtuoso, a household name considered among the game's elite.
But today the coaching staff ushers Murray off the court because he's battling a sore shin. Murray hates sitting out of practice. He's not good at it, either; he squirms impatiently, legs jangling, ball bouncing, foot tapping, hands flexing. Once the team workout ends, Murray ambles out to hoist some extra shots that Nuggets coach Mike Malone would prefer he not take.
Murray winces as his first offering clangs short. He misses again, his annoyance blooming into a bouquet of irritated expletives. After a third errant jumper, Murray clutches his head as if he's just misfired on the shot to clinch the championship. "That's because," friend and Nuggets teammate Malik Beasley explains, "Jamal thinks every one of his shots should go in."
He has trained his entire life to bury these shots in conditions far more adverse than a well-lit, state-of-the-art gymnasium with pristine regulation balls and rebounders to feed you.
Try shooting 3-pointers outside, in the snow, with a bitter Ontario wind ripping through you, after you've just held a deep-knee squat for 12 minutes, a cup of piping hot tea carefully balanced on your thigh to make sure you do not waver -- all this executed under the watchful eye of your father, a martial arts enthusiast and basketball junkie who has been honing your skills since you were an infant.
That father, Roger Murray, is bound together with his son Jamal on a quest: to prove not only that this Canadian talent can thrive but also that he could someday emerge as one of the best -- if not the best -- in the NBA.
"It's funny -- his rookie year he couldn't make a shot," Clippers coach Doc Rivers says. "I told Lawrence Frank, 'That kid is going to lead the league in scoring one year.' Lawrence looked at me like I was crazy. He said, 'Why would you make that comment?' I said, 'Because he's fearless. He's going to give himself a chance because believes he's the best scorer out here.'"
At the moment Murray, who averages 18.8 points per game and 4.9 assists per game for a young Denver team that is jockeying with Golden State for supremacy in the Western Conference, isn't even the best player on his team. That's Nikola Jokic, an amiable 7-foot Serbian who is, in some ways, the antithesis of Murray. Jokic's physique was so squishy during the 2014 NBA draft he slipped all the way to the 41st pick, yet his natural talent quickly emerged. While Murray actively hunts open looks, Jokic, a gifted playmaker who shoots 51 percent from the floor, remains a reluctant scorer. "Jamal wants to fight me when I don't shoot the ball," Jokic says, grinning.
That's because Murray never stops shooting, often surfacing at the practice facility multiple times a day. One night he drilled pull-ups late into the midnight hour, then watched film in the players' lounge. Nuggets staff members found him curled up asleep on the couch the following morning.
Eight weeks ago, Murray toiled in the gym until after two o'clock one morning, trying to perfect a skill -- the 3 -- that's considered exceptional when you connect 45 percent of the time. Afterward, Murray was so gassed, he flopped into bed and slept through his alarm. He was late for the team shootaround before the Nov. 17 game against Atlanta and sat while Monte Morris occupied his starting spot.
"Like I told Jamal, '"A" for effort, but c'mon,'" Denver president of basketball operations Tim Connelly says. "We talk with Jamal about getting out of the gym, taking care of his body, the grind of 82 games. More is not always better."
Murray disagrees. His kung fu training taught him that a disciplined mind can take a person beyond what he believes to be his physical limits. He concedes the team urges him to cut down on his midnight sojourns but responds, "I don't care. They can't stop me."
Denver's young core is constructed mostly from a bevy of Connelly's savvy late-round picks and undrafted gems -- with Murray, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2016 draft, the exception. Murray says he feels a responsibility to his franchise -- and to his father, whose dreams are in lockstep with his own. It's not enough for the Nuggets to be a plucky Western Conference upstart, or for the kid to be willing to stand up to anyone, as evidenced by Murray's late-game tussle with Westbrook in a December win after the Thunder veteran tried to bully him off the jump-ball circle.
Murray wants more. Every shot he takes, no matter how difficult, is one he and his father have crafted and practiced and refined.
"Fatigue is one thing," Murray explains. "Injuries are another. But if you are just tired because you just practiced -- well, I'm not having that."
The NBA, he insists, is a respite from the program he and Roger have been fastidiously following for more than a decade.
"After everything I've done to get here," Murray says, "this is easy."
One is a 23-year-old center. The other is a 21-year-old guard. Together, Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray form perhaps the most dynamic young duo in basketball.
WHEN JAMAL MURRAY was a baby, his father steered his stroller to the sidelines so he could absorb the sights and sounds of the game as Roger played pickup on the public courts of Kitchener, Ontario. As Jamal grew older, Roger would set up a portable plastic Fisher-Price hoop so he could drain his own game winners during his father's games.
By the time Jamal was 7, he was required to drain 30 consecutive free throws before he could stop for the day. Roger limited distractions, disconnecting the television and forbidding cellphones, video games and frivolous trips to the mall. Roger fell in love with the game by watching clips of Michael Jordan and incorporated the teachings of Bruce Lee and kung fu into his vision for his son. He stressed physical strength, mental fortitude and inner calm.
Jamal learned to meditate daily, eliminating outside noise by focusing on his breathing and lowering his heart rate below 40 beats a minute. It became a non-negotiable component of his workout, no interruptions -- not even a recruiting visit in 2015 from Kentucky assistant Kenny Payne, who approached Murray one day as he finished his workout, only to be instructed by Roger to wait while Jamal sat cross-legged, eyes blissfully shut, in a corner of the gym.
Roger's training workouts were taxing, many of them outside in the winter months: Pushups in the snow. Laps before school, conditioning routes straight uphill that were run sideways or backward. Murray took all lefty shots so he would be ambidextrous, did pullups using the crossbar of the local soccer goal in the park. When the outdoor basketball courts were flooded to create makeshift hockey rinks, Roger instructed his son to dribble his ball on a sheet of ice. "I have excellent balance," Murray says. "That's a learned behavior."
Can a father mold a son into an elite NBA star? What are the physical limits of a professional athlete? And what is Jamal Murray's ceiling?
"We put limits on ourselves as human beings physically and mentally -- to each his own," Roger says. "But why not do more?"
Jamal, for his part, says he welcomed his father's grueling workouts, ones that Roger concedes some in their Kitchener community felt were excessive.
"What you need to understand is I did it with love, and I did it with passion," Jamal says. "It wasn't work for me."
That's not to say it was easy. There were days when Jamal was tired, cold or hurt and didn't feel like running uphill backward.
"I was very disciplined growing up," Murray says. "If I didn't want to run hills, I ran hills; if I didn't want to jog around the block, I jogged around the block.
"We didn't have time for emotions. Getting it done is what matters. If we're going to have a two-hour practice and you're going to pout for 30 minutes about running, that's just a waste of time."
Murray enrolled at Orangeville Prep, a basketball academy in Ontario designed to prepare players for the next level, as a high school junior. He played with Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander and later Thon Maker, and was the undisputed crowd favorite, executing high-flying dunks one minute and crossover spin-move shots flicked in underhand off the glass the next.
After everything I've done to get here, this is easy.
”- Jamal Murray, comparing the NBA to the training he went through as a youngster.
Alexander, who became one of Murray's closest friends, remembers walking back from study hall one evening and noticing the light on in the gymnasium. He poked his head in to witness Roger feeding Jamal passes for a shot at the far corner of the court, near the exit, from behind the backboard. "And he couldn't leave until he hit 10 of them," Alexander says. "I know people think it's a lot, but you can't say it's bad or crazy if it's working."
Rowan Barrett, the assistant GM of Team Canada and the father of Duke sensation RJ Barrett, has been tracking Murray since he was a teenager. Barrett says that while the father started the son on this path, it's the player who continues to push himself to the limits. When Murray was participating in two-a-days with Team Canada before the world championships in 2015, he logged two additional individual hours of training per day. Barrett, concerned Murray would get injured or burn out, confiscated his basketball shoes.
"I came back later," Barrett says, "and Jamal was playing barefoot."
ROGER MURRAY UNDERSTANDS that the course he and Jamal have chosen is not for everyone. But he sees the results. When Jamal missed a free throw, the consequence was running the hills. "Nobody likes to run," Roger says, "so you become invested in that shot. And by the time you get to the NBA you are committed to making that shot." (Murray is an 88 percent career free throw shooter.)
The Nuggets say Roger Murray, whose full-time job is now managing Jamal's career (in addition to training his younger son Lamar), has been a supportive parent who has never demanded more shots or more time for his son, nor has he launched a Murray baller shoe brand or fed inflammatory quotes to the media. He is ever-present, yet ever-respectful.
"Getting in the middle of family dynamics is never easy, but I look at this way: Roger loves Jamal but also pushes him very hard," Malone says. "Jamal loves him and believes in him. His talents and his father got him here. Especially in today's NBA, to have a player with a father who is not only present but involved, I'm good with it."
"I'm jealous," Jokic says. "I wish I could see my father that often."
Roger recognizes that you may not agree with his rigorous approach. This is nothing new. Scrutiny has long dogged their wholly committed, all-encompassing alliance.
"When Jamal was coming up, everyone thought we were crazy," Roger says. "Everyone was doubting us. I never doubted myself. I don't listen to people. I can't listen to you. I have thick skin."
The same is true of his son. He won't hesitate to tangle with Westbrook, land in the crosshairs of Kyrie Irving or confront Lonzo Ball. Jamal insists he plays better when he's challenged, and nobody has done that more effectively than his father.
"My dad knows me better than anybody else," Murray says. "He probably knows me better than me."
At 18, Murray led Team Canada to an upset semifinal victory over Team USA at the 2015 Pan Am Games. In the victory, Murray scored 22 points in the final frame and overtime, including back-to-back 3s in OT to cement the win for Canada.
THE MOMENT JAMAL MURRAY knew that all the training was worth it came in 2014, when he was 17 years old and played in the Nike Hoop Summit alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Murray submitted a modest line of 10 points, five rebounds and five assists. Still, "After that game, I realized, 'All these great players got nothing on me,"' Murray says, "because I'm always going to have the mental edge."
A year later, at the 2015 Nike Hoop Summit, alongside teammates Ben Simmons and Maker, Murray scored 35 points, earned MVP honors and led the World Team to a 103-101 win over a U.S. squad that included highly touted prospects Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown. "There were bigger names, but Jamal was the best guy out there that day," Maker says.
Murray's true coming-out party was later that summer, when Team Canada upset the U.S. in the semifinals of the Pan Am Games. The U.S. team held an 80-74 lead heading into the final frame when Canada coach Jay Triano called Murray's number. Jamal poured in 22 points in the final quarter and overtime, sinking a deep 3 to tie the game in regulation, then hitting back-to-back 3s to clinch the win.
"We were in control of that game -- until this kid bounded off the bench, shooting 3s, and making shots out of his behind," says Warriors assistant Mike Brown, who was part of the U.S. coaching staff. "I knew he was good, but I didn't think he was that good."
"He dominated the game," says Bucks starter Malcolm Brogdon, who was on the U.S. roster. "I remember thinking, 'He has a chance to be a pro.'"
There were many illuminating moments from his scoring explosion, but the most memorable was when big man Anthony Randolph pinned Murray in the corner after he picked up his dribble. Murray tried a pump fake, but Randolph didn't bite.
"So Jamal reverse-pivots out of the lane and shoots over a 6-foot-11 guy for a 3," Barrett says. "It was Canada's first medal at the Pan Am Games ever, in over 70 years, and it was because of an 18-year-old kid."
In Jamal Murray's lone season at Kentucky, coach John Calipari urged his young star to make the right play more, to take the easier shot. Murray's response? "It went in, didn't it?"
AT EVERY STOP along the way, when Jamal Murray sinks an improbable shot, he feels compelled to explain that he's practiced it hundreds of times before. When he got to Kentucky, coach John Calipari wasn't sure he was buying it.
"I love guys who believe in themselves," Calipari says. "Jamal would make a play falling down, switching hands at the last second to his right, and I'm looking at him like, 'What are you doing?' He'd look right back at me and say, 'I can make that shot.' I'd say, 'Are you nuts?' and he'd answer, 'It went in, didn't it?"'
In his lone season at Kentucky, Murray averaged 20 points and 5.2 rebounds, shot 95 percent from the free throw line and 41 percent from 3. He also regularly infuriated Calipari by ratcheting up the basketball degree of difficulty.
"Coach Cal yelled at me a lot," Murray says. "It was, 'Jamal, why are you trying to thread the needle? Make a simple basketball play!'"
Calipari and Murray's sparring lives on via text. When Murray scores 25 points, Calipari purposely sends a message short-changing the accomplishment. When Calipari types "Nice 20-point game," he knows it will elicit an immediate competitive response: "I had 25, Coach, not 20!"
With one second left and the Nuggets leading by eight, Jamal Murray, who had already scored 48 points in this November game, launched a 31-footer, violating one of the NBA's oldest unwritten rules and drawing the ire of Kyrie Irving and the Celtics.
THERE HAVE BEEN some heady moments for Jamal Murray in the NBA: There was the night he outdueled Damian Lillard last season in a big win over Portland. There was the time he stole an inbounds pass when his team was down three against the Bucks, drew a foul on a trey and sunk all three free throws.
And then there was last season's early-December victory over the Lakers when he drilled a 3 over Kyle Kuzma to break a 101-101 tie, took a charge on Ball and helped the Nuggets close the game on a 15-0 run. As the game clock wound down, Murray taunted Ball by dribbling around him in the final seconds. When the teams played again three months later (another Denver win), Murray spewed insults at Ball, prompting Lakers coach Luke Walton to brand him "disrespectful" and Ball to call his previous stunt "a punk move."
"Someone should have knocked in the mouth after he did that ," Rivers says. "I don't think he realized what he was doing. Some guys have intentions. I don't think that's the case with Jamal. He just gets carried away."
"It was nothing personal," Murray says. "That's just how I grew up. I'm just going at you. How you take it is how you take it. If you want to retaliate, then retaliate.'"
Calipari says you can trace Murray's actions back to a perceived lack of respect, both for his game and Canadian players in general.
"I think it's a little of, 'I want to show this guy and show the world that's it's B.S. that you think more of him than me," Calipari says. "Jamal's got a little chip on his shoulder."
Today, the incident with Ball has blown over. Walton says his team is past it. He calls Murray a "talented young player who is learning and growing through experience." And Irving, who lambasted Murray in November after he launched a 3 at the buzzer of a game Denver had well in hand -- leading Kyrie to sling the ball into the stands -- says there's no bad blood.
"That's over with," Irving says now. "I enjoy Coach Malone saying, 'Hey, Lakers fans and Celtics fans, take that L out of the door with you.' You like that kind of swag. Jamal has that kind of swag."
"Murray's not afraid to go after it, and I respect that," Golden State forward Draymond Green says. "That's half the battle in this league. Almost every night there's a good possibility you will go up against a star. You respect and appreciate someone who says, 'I'm not afraid of you. I'm going at you.'"
JAMAL MURRAY COULDN'T wait to join the NBA and show everyone what he could do. Instead, the unthinkable occurred: He missed the first 17 shots of his career, an embarrassing and confounding stretch that dragged on for five games.
Murray was flummoxed. He began aiming his shot, overthinking, passing up open looks. He turned to meditation to soothe his mind, but it wasn't helping. For a moment, Murray felt a hint of panic. What if this didn't work?
What if all his father's efforts were for naught?
"I don't want to ever let him down," Murray says. "If I miss a shot, it's like 'Oh, my dad is watching.' If I miss an assignment, it's like, 'Oh, my dad saw that.' Maybe no one else did, but I know he did."
During those first three stressful weeks, Jamal continued to meditate, but soon realized he was so fixated on the mechanical issues, such as creating a better arc for his shot, that he had forgotten the larger purpose of quieting his mind.
"I was focusing on all the wrong things," Murray says. "My attention should have been on better energy, more confidence, being a leader, instead of, 'Why isn't my shot going in?'"
When Murray became mired in another shooting slump earlier this season, Malone pulled him aside and reminded him he's a strong passer and an effective rebounder and can impact games defensively. "You're selling yourself short if you think all you are is a shooter," Malone scolded him.
Murray acknowledges his career is a work in progress. He recognizes the side pick-and-roll might no longer be there for him because teams now blitz or trap him, so he seeks the counsel of veteran Isaiah Thomas on how to maneuver that. He remains a streaky shooter, but, as Jokic points out, "He can go for 50 every night if things go his way."
"Forty-eight points one night is great, but the next night can't be six or eight points," Malone says. "Jamal needs to be more consistent. I forget sometimes how young he is and how much we've thrown at him."
While Roger Murray knows Jamal's basketball tendencies best, he's not an expert on the rigors of the NBA schedule, sleep habits, optimal nutrition or mental health. Jamal's world is expanding, and the voices who influence him are multiplying. And yet the man who raised him, coached him and challenged him remains his closest confidant.
"I have a right to teach my son how I want to teach him, as long as I don't harm him," Roger says. "If he grows up to be one of the best, then what will people say?"
When Murray was young, he studied Vince Carter, when Carter was playing for the Raptors, and dreamed of the day an NBA team would call his name. He worked on step-back 3s falling out of bounds in a snowstorm, and a turnaround jump shot with a grown man twice his body weight up in his grille. That, Jamal says, is how you bring your dreams to life.
"Anyone that knows me knows this: I'm going to take the last shot," he says. "I've always believed that, envisioned that, dreamed that, practiced that.
"And I am going to make it."