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DENVER — Midway through Thursday’s second quarter, Jamal Murray found himself isolated against Steven Adams on the right wing. Murray took one hard dribble with his left hand, went between his legs twice, found his rhythm with a final crossover back to his right, jumped behind the three-point line, coiled his body and readied for a three.
Murray rose and fired as Adams crumbled to the hardwood. His three splashed through the nylon as the Pepsi Center crowd roared in approval. It was his 15th point of the first half. Twitter timelines exploded and national aggregators frantically started to type away.
“I kind of smirked when I shot it,” Murray said. “I shot the ball and looked down at the same time and I was like, ‘Damn.'”
“It’s not the first time I’ve done it.”
Murray finished with 33 points on 23 shots, five of which came from distance. A Gary Harris buzzer-buzzer lifted Denver to one of its most impressive win of the season — a 127-124 triumph over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The game-winner capped another memorable night from Murray, the 20-year-old who is emerging as Denver’s No. 1 option.
Over the past two months, Murray has upped his scoring average from around 13 to nearly 19 points per game. He’s taking roughly one more three per game than his season average, and in Denver’s last 30 games — which spans December, January and Friday night’s win — he’s shooting in the mid-40s from three.
His scoring and shooting pass the eye test, and a showcase on national television against the Thunder, where he went toe-to-toe with reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook, will direct more eyes in his direction across the league.
“I haven’t seen a 20-year-old do that on a national stage many times in my career,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said after the win.
But his offense isn’t the sole reason that Murray’s star is on the rise in Denver. It’s the confidence and poise he carries himself with. At just 20, Murray’s self-belief is rare, and his focus and dedication to his everyday craft are uncommon across the league for someone his age. It’s visible at practice, before and after games.
“I’ve been working to get here, coming from a small city in Canada, trying to get my looks, trying to get my attention,” Murray said. “All I can do is break more ankles and score more points to do that. I’m not going to stop and I don’t see no one else stopping me either.”
On a team without a “get in your face” type leader and one franchise cornerstone in Nikola Jokic, who’s not too vocal behind the scenes, there’s room for Murray to step into that role as well — one he’ll fully adopt in due time. He doesn’t speak up too often just two years removed from high school, but when he does, players say he has the full attention of the locker room.
“He has great belief in himself,” Malone said. “And I think one thing we’ve done around here is he also knows that this organization, from me to (Nuggets President of Basketball Operations) Tim (Connelly) to (Team Governor) Josh (Kroenke) believe in him and we’re building with him. There are a lot of things that we could have done this summer, but we wanted to keep our young core together. Because you think about Jamal, Gary (Harris), Nikola and build from there.”
Jokic might be Denver’s most important player as the Nuggets’ climb the Western Conference pantheon — a path that’s incredibly treacherous with many obstacles still to overcome — but Murray will be the team’s alpha. Jokic will go off for 30 points on occasion, or 20, or 15, or eight and he’ll still fill up the stat sheet with rebounds, assists and triple-doubles. Murray’s on a path to be the guy who scores 20 to 30 points night-in and night-out.
While Jokic differs when he’s not feeling it offensively, Murray stays with his shot.
“You’re either a gunfighter or you’re not. Some guys when they miss shots tend to become tentative,” Malone said. “Jamal doesn’t have that in him and that’s why he has a chance to become special.”
He’s also stepping in as Denver’s closer — something the Nuggets have missed since Paul Millsap’s injury in November — in his sophomore season. Murray scored 18 points in the first-half tonight, just five in the third but tallied 10 in the fourth. Those 10 came in a span of roughly three minutes — from the 3:46 mark of the fourth until there were 31.0 seconds remaining in regulation.
“His ability to create separation, even on that last shot he missed, that move he had? Come on, man,” a jovial Malone added.
The future in Denver involves Murray, Jokic and Harris, who Malone referred to as “the foundation” of the Nuggets’ core. Those three combined for 87 of Denver’s 127 points versus Oklahoma City. Sure, Millsap is a central figure in Denver’s immediate future and is the Nuggets’ defacto leader behind closed doors for now. Murray will be there to take that mantle from him when the time is right.
He also has a special relationship with Malone, who coaches him hard but is always in his corner 100 percent of the time. He preaches that consistency is the next step in Murray’s development — something he’s starting to show with seven-straight games scoring at least 14 points.
The Nuggets hit a bulls-eye with the “Blue Arrow,” but how far can he take them?
“The future,” Malone said, “Can’t come soon enough,”