What to make of Jamal Murray’s performance at NBA summer league

A lot of people seem to have a lot of opinions on Jamal Murray.

Over the course of the past week, the 19-year-old combo guard out of Kitchener, Ontario, has been painted as a bust, anointed a future star and just about everything in-between. When he struggled in his first couple games, some were quick to trot out the told-you-sos. After he came on strong in his final three appearances, others wondered how he could have possibly been left off both Samsung All-NBA Summer League teams.

Officially, Murray hasn’t played a single NBA game yet. As much as we tend to get wrapped up in the comings and goings of the Las Vegas Summer League, none of the games actually count towards career totals. Heck, Murray hasn’t even actually signed his contract to officially transition from ethereal ‘draft rights’ status to actual member of the Denver Nuggets’ 15-man roster. [UPDATE: Now, he has.] Still, despite having played approximately as many NBA minutes as you or I, Murray has already begun to establish himself as one of the more divisive young players in the league.

Leading up to the draft, some were bullish on how Murray projects as a scorer, while others voiced their concerns as to how much his athletic deficiencies would hinder him at the next level. His performance in Vegas — famously a lightning rod for confirmation bias — is unlikely to disabuse either side of its respective notions. Especially given how up-and-down the past week has gone for the young Canadian.

Initially splitting time with the Nuggets’ 2015 starting backcourt of Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris, Murray seemed to find himself largely marginalized in the Nuggets’ Summer League opener against Minnesota. The next day, while Mudiay and Harris both sat, Murray struggled mightily in a blowout win over Memphis, converting only twice on 11 shots, while turning the ball over five times in his debut stint as primary ball-handler. After the Memphis game, Denver Summer League coach Micah Nori told BSN Denver that Murray’s struggles fell on the coaching staff, vowing to do a better job of finding ways to get Murray open in future games. Whether Nori was just paying lip service or not, something clicked for Murray. After averaging 10 points with an eFG% of .326 in his first two games, Murray exploded for 29, 20 and 29 at a cumulative .523 eFG% over his final three games.

For Murray, both the good and the bad were on full display in Las Vegas. If you liked him before, you probably still do. If you didn’t, it’s hard to imagine you were swayed. But regardless of what you think about Murray’s future, it’s clear that the Nuggets have seen varying levels of success in the different ways they’ve utilized him this week. And by highlighting where they found success versus where things got a bit dicier, we may be able to gain some insight into how the rookie combo guard will best fit into Denver’s plans this season.

Pick-and-Roll Spacing

Much ink has been spilled on Murray’s relative lack of quickness, especially for someone who fancies himself a point guard. But while Murray is probably not going to be a point guard at the NBA level — and he seems to have backed off that sentiment lately, saying after the Utah game: “It’s basketball. I don’t get into positions too much.” — he does possess a fairly tantalizing skill set as a playmaker, to go along with his ability to seemingly hit from just about anywhere on the floor. And when Murray has the ball with space to operate, he has been every bit as deadly as advertised. But for a player who at this stage lacks the quickness to really create a ton of space on his own, Denver has to lend Murray a helping hand to get him the kind of looks that have helped unlock his game.

This has, perhaps unsurprisingly, caused Denver to utilize a variety of high screen actions to free up Murray. However, simply springing him with a screen hasn’t been enough. One of the biggest things Murray struggled with as a slasher at Kentucky was finding ways to be effective against compact defensive looks, which he saw a lot of due to the Wildcats’ lack of spacing. That seems like it will continue to be an issue for Murray for the time being, as he had minimal luck in the two-man game early on when Denver failed to clear out additional help defenders.

At this stage in his development, Murray just isn’t a player who can fight his way out of traps on a consistent basis. His handle isn’t tight enough to give himself more breathing room, and without an excess of quickness or length, it can become difficult for him to find an escape route once he starts getting smothered.

Where Denver has really helped open things up for Murray is by surrounding him with the shooters he never had at Kentucky, effectively isolating the two-man set from the rest of the defense under penalty of an easy kickout. Note Denver’s spacing in each of the following clips.

Almost every single play features some variation of a Nugget in each corner and one along the weakside wing. Occasionally, Denver will hit the opposition with a double high screen or clear out the side of the court where they’re running the two-man action, but the intent is the same. Get potential help defenders the hell out of the way and let Murray do his thing.

It doesn’t hurt that everyone on the court with Murray is a reasonably credible threat to knock down an open 3 should an enterprising defender decide to abandon his post to help. Jimmer Fredette’s reputation speaks for itself, while guys like Josh Adams, Axel Toupane and Mateusz Ponitka shoot well enough to make helping off them a risky proposition. Even the screeners, rookies Juancho Hernangomez and Petr Cornelie, are threats to pop out and knock down a 3 in lieu of rolling hard to the rim for a thunderous dunk (though they chose the latter option quite frequently this week). This sort of configuration has allowed Murray to carve out plenty of space in the mid-range, where he’s been able to rain down an arsenal of lofty floaters and funky, off-kilter pull-up jumpers. It’s also gotten the defense scrambling on occasion, which is where Murray really thrives as a playmaker.

A handful of defenders have tried to ICE the pick-and-roll, but this has instead frequently worked to Murray’s advantage, as he has just enough burst to get the inside track on opposing defenders and either take it to the rim or use his size to muscle his recovering defender out of the way as he reaches into his bag of mid-range tricks.

It will be interesting to monitor how this translates to the regular season, as he’ll be joining a Nuggets team that ranked 26th in the league in 3-point percentage last year. However, much of that long-range inefficiency fell on a mediocre shooting backcourt and general dearth of true sharpshooters on the roster. Several of Denver’s rotation bigs have demonstrated the ability to hit from deep, which could lend Murray the kind of spacing he’ll need to thrive as a facilitator so he won’t have to be relegated to a role as a spot-up shooter in his rookie season. But it’ll likely take some careful lineup management, keeping sure to put Murray in units with guys like Danilo Gallinari, Darrell Arthur and Nikola Jokic and steering clear of non-shooters like Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Jusuf Nurkic.

Struggles From Deep

While many view Murray predominantly as a shooter, he only converted on 27.6 percent of his 3-pointers at Summer League, posting virtually identical rates on spot-up attempts versus off-the-bounce. The Nuggets didn’t seem to run much in the way of floppy sets, which Kentucky utilized to great effect to get Murray open looks from deep. And there is bound to be an adjustment period as Murray transitions to the longer NBA 3-point line.

A fair chunk of it can also probably be chalked up to the very liberal shot selection Murray displayed throughout the week. “I’ve always got ultimate confidence,” Murray said after the Utah game. “I believe I can hit any shot, and I’m very confident in my abilities.” The confidence is nice, but it would be even nicer if it was justified by the numbers.

Still, his form looks good, and when he actually set his feet, he showed off some pretty impressive range. There’s plenty of reason to believe that Murray will be an above-average shooter from NBA 3-point range, if not necessarily an elite marksman.

Running Him Off The Court

The biggest problem, as many have been quick to point out, is that basketball is a game that’s played on both ends of the floor. As much has Murray has excelled in the two-man game on offense, his pick-and-roll defense has largely been disastrous. Murray seems to have an almost unnatural penchant for getting hung up on screens. He’s a competitor, so he’s managed to do a pretty solid job of keeping teams from being able to post him up once they get the switch, but teams have been able to go at him consistently in order to force the Nuggets into unfavorable switches.

Worse yet, when Denver has had Murray try to ICE the screen, his lack of quickness has impeded him from sealing off the middle, meaning his man has enjoyed a fairly clear path to get right into the heart of the Nuggets’ defense. Watch how Memphis point guards Andrew Harrison and Wade Baldwin IV exploited this consistently.

Murray flashes high to force the ball-handler to the sideline, but Harrison and Baldwin simply drive straight at the lane he opens up and catch him flat-footed. By the time Murray is able to react, they’ve already gotten inside positioning on him, blowing the play wide open.

This is the kind of thing that could potentially render Murray unplayable for stretches at a time, and Denver’s going to have to come up with some answers for how to minimize the damage opposing teams are able to do by simply going straight at Murray. As much as Murray doesn’t really get his due as a team defender, the criticisms of his on-ball stopping power are completely warranted. He’ll almost assuredly get a bit stronger, quicker and more savvy as he develops, both physically and mentally. But this is almost certainly going to be a recurring issue throughout his rookie season.

And as the Nuggets take a look at the young pieces they have and start making determinations on which cornerstones they decide to build around, it’s one that will have to be kept in mind as they construct their roster for the long run.