25-under-25: Jamal Murray at No. 25

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over the next two days. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.

Last season’s rookie class was, collectively, an enormous disappointment. Ben Simmons, the No. 1 overall pick, missed the entire season because of injury. Dragan Bender and Jaylen Brown were, as to be expected, projects of some complexity. And players who were supposed to be dynamic scorers, fizzled. Brandon Ingram and Buddy Hield (at least in the first half of the season) headlined that group but Jamal Murray was another example.

Taken with the No. 7 pick by the Denver Nuggets, Murray was supposed to be able to split time between both guard spots, create a little for himself and teammates out of the pick-and-roll and, most importantly, hit outside shots. It was on the last point that he underwhelmed most significantly.

Murray finished the season having shot 40.4 percent from the field and 33.4 percent on 3-pointers. In the aggregate, there was nothing in his statistical performance that screamed “game-changing shot-maker.” Rookie season sample aside, that’s still the kind of player Murray projects to be, and that’s precisely why he’s one of the most valuable young players in the league.

Murray made a respectable 36.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last season. Where he really struggled was on pull-ups, of which he made just 28.3 percent of his 3-point attempts and 38.9 percent of his 2-point attempts. That shortcoming is an issue that dates back to his lone season at Kentucky, where Murray made just 32 percent of his pull-up attempts.

At his idealized ceiling, Murray is capable of hurting a defense from all three levels, and in myriad ways. In this hypothetical future he is a robotically reliable spot-up shooter, someone who can attack in the pick-and-roll either getting to the rim, hitting a pull-up or finding his teammates for open shots. And lastly, he’s a moving off-ball weapon, capable of bending the defense with baseline cuts, and curls to the middle of the floor.

This off-screen game was a big part of his offense in college, although it wasn’t used nearly as frequently or successfully as a rookie — he averaged 1.2 off-screen possessions per game last season, finishing in the 58th percentile in scoring efficiency. Growing into this aspect of his skill set seems like the biggest potential payoff. Nikola Jokic has become one of the best big man facilitators in the NBA and the more effective movement the Nuggets can spin around his elbow touches, the better off the team will be.

Because Murray has shown, at least in college, that he could be extremely efficient in those settings, and because he’s a willing and capable passer, getting Murray moving off-the-ball can open things up for Jokic’s passing and scoring and for the slightly less dynamic spot-up shooters on the roster like Gary Harris and Jameer Nelson.

Developing his off-ball game is probably the difference between Murray being an average player and a very good one. Becoming as good a pull-up shooter as he is a catch-and-shoot one is probably the threshold to move from very good to a star. Somewhere in that morass of as-yet-untapped potential is a CJ McCollum-type game (with perhaps a little more creation ability) waiting to step out of the shadows.

Murray doesn’t turn 21 until this February, and there is plenty of time for potential to become production. He has the benefit of playing on an up-and-coming offense that will feature two of the best passing big men in the league in Jokic and Paul Millsap. The talent around him should make Murray’s job easier this season. When he’s ready to really start making things easier for everyone else around him, the Nuggets can really start scraping up against their ceiling.