Throughout the offseason we're rolling out a "Summer Workout Plan" series that takes a look at young players with star potential and dives into one specific area for improvement in order to take the next step. Players we've profiled so far include Pascal Siakam, Ben Simmons and Jayson Tatum.
The Denver Nuggets are betting big on Jamal Murray.
Following a career year in which he averaged 18.2 points, 4.8 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, the Nuggets offered Murray a five-year, $170 million extension this offseason, making him the highest-paid player on the roster and the highest-paid Canadian athlete of all-time.
It's not a surprise that the Nuggets signed Murray to the contract they did - he's shown a lot of promise since being selected with the No. 8 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and he played a key role in them finishing with the second-best record in the Western Conference last season - but he still has a long way to go to be the max-level player the franchise is now paying him to be.
The biggest thing holding the 22-year-old back from living up to his full potential? Consistency.
MORE: Where do Nuggets now rank in Northwest Division?
There's a statistic created by former ESPN analyst John Hollinger called Game Score that gives a "rough measure" of a player's productivity for a single game. It includes everything you'd see on a traditional box score, combining them in a way that often spits out a number ranging between zero and 40, 10 being considered an average performance and 40 being considered outstanding.
Through that lense, it becomes clear how much Murray's game fluctuated last season, especially when compared to All-Star point guards such as Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry and even D'Angelo Russell. His peaks were similar to theirs - an encouraging sign for both him and the Nuggets moving forward - but Murray had more average and below average showings, with him often struggling to string together multiple big games.
The best example of Murray's inconsistent play came early in the season. After exploding for a career-best 48 points in a win over the Boston Celtics in the first week of November, he went nine straight games of scoring fewer than 20 points. He shot 39.3 percent from the field and 30.2 percent from the field during that stretch for an average Game Score of 9.8.
With Murray struggling, the Nuggets lost six of those nine games.
Murray did something similar a couple of months later. After scoring 46 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the perimeter in a win over the Phoenix Suns - a performance that earned him his highest Game Score of the season (37.5) - he scored single digits in two of his next three games.
Sandwiched in between was a 36-point outburst against the Sacramento Kings. Ironically, Murray was even inconsistent in that game. Whereas he was almost invisible in the first half, he couldn't be stopped in the second half, scoring 34 of his 36 points in the final two quarters on 12-for-21 shooting from the field.
It was the best and worst of Murray on full display.
"Jamal went into the phone booth and came out like Superman in the second half," Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said after the game.
The Nuggets have the depth to overcome the occasional an off-night from Murray, but they are a different team when he has it rolling. While Nikola Jokic led Denver with 20.1 points per game last season, it's not in his nature to be a volume scorer.
Murray, on the other hand, has always been known for his scoring ability.
The Nuggets have been a perfect landing spot for Murray in that regard because pairing him with arguably the greatest passing big men the league has ever seen allows him to operate more as a shooting guard as opposed to a traditional point guard.
The two have already established great chemistry in their three years together. According to NBA.com, 39.0 percent of Jokic's passes last season went to Murray. That was significantly more than Monte Morris, who was on the receiving end of 13.3 percent of Jokic's passes last season, the second-most on the team.
Those passes led to high percentage looks for Murray, as he connected on close to half of the shots (47.3 percent) Jokic set him up for.
MORE: Where does Jokic rank on best players list?
It's clear that Murray and Jokic have the potential to establish themselves as a formidable one-two punch moving forward. They have already carried the Nuggets to a 50-win season, as well as an appearance in the Western Conference Semifinals, where they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers in seven hard-fought games. For the team to improve upon that second round showing, they need Murray's best more often.
In the postseason, Denver's fate often ran hand-in-hand with Murray's play. The Nuggets were 7-2 when he scored at least 18 points and 0-5 when he scored fewer than 18. That's probably an oversimplification but goes to show just how vital his performance correlates with team success.
Take Game 2 of the first round against San Antonio. After dropping Game 1, the Nuggets stared down the prospects of a 2-0 deficit as they trailed by seven entering the fourth quarter. At that point, Murray was 0-for-8 from the field and in the midst of perhaps his worst game of the season. Once again, he emerged from the phone booth wearing a cape to deliver 21 points over the final period to even the season and save Denver's season.
Yes, Murray played the role of Superman. But with the season on the line he also played the role of Clark Kent, digging a hole that easily could have been too deep. Lose that game and there's a chance Denver goes down in four or five games to a 7-seed and enters a long offseason loaded with more questions than answers. The margin for error in this league can be razor thin and as Murray grows as a foundational piece for a team dreaming big, it's on his shoulders to assume the responsibility of consistently showing up.
The more consistent Murray can become, the higher this team's chances are at becoming a legitimate title contender. That's perhaps never more apparent than now on the eve of a season that's more wide open than it's been in over a decade with Denver in pouncing position in the Western Conference.
"For Jamal, it's continuing to develop how he approaches the game and the offseason," Malone said in his exit interview. "It's about, 'How do I become a better player, a more consistent player?' And these are conversations I've had with him.
"That is what Jamal has to mature to, and I have no doubt that he will."
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