TORONTO – Jamal Murray doesn’t care what you – or anyone else, for that matter – thinks about him or his game or his three-point celebration or his penchant for living rent-free in the minds of Los Angeles Lakers fans.
The NBA is beginning to discover this; Canadian hoops fans should cherish it.
This quality alone might make the third-year point guard for the Denver Nuggets by way of Kitchener, Ont., special among Canada’s seemingly ever-swelling pool of NBA talent.
The 22-year-old isn’t burdened by the need to be liked – although he’s certainly likeable. And he’s not all that concerned about fitting in to any pre-conceived notions of what he should be. This is a kid who was practising meditation during high school, cites Bruce Lee as a role model and didn’t get his first cell phone until he was a freshman at the University of Kentucky.
As almost every Canadian hoops prospect of note went to the U.S. for all or part of their high school development, Murray chose to attend Orangeville prep on the outskirts of Toronto; close enough that his friends and family could see him play, and he could keep in touch with his brother, 10 years younger.
“It was my path, that was my path to the NBA, that was the way I wanted to handle my business and I don’t regret one bit of it,” he said Monday before tipping off at Scotiabank Arena for just the third time in his career and playing a central role in the visitors’ 106-103 win, improving the Nuggets to 16-7 while halting the 20-5 Raptors’ winning streak at eight.
Regrets? He’s got few.
Depending on how you categorize it, Murray is the best Canadian-born basketball player in the world. Amidst a sea of role players, Murray is one of few Canadians with star qualities now that Andrew Wiggins seems to have lost interest in the job and before R.J. Barrett arrives as a rookie next season – although Los Angeles Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander looks like he’ll be filling out an application.
For now it’s Murray. He’s starting at point guard for the team that arrived in Toronto with the best record in the Western Conference and as the leading scorer and leading playmaker (17.1 points and 4.6 assists, respectively) among the 12 Canadians in the NBA to start the season. But perhaps most importantly, Murray is the one who is the most determined to be heard – by any means necessary.
Against the Raptors, Murray was smart and contained, delivering 21 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in a team-high 41 minutes, although his line was overshadowed by seven turnovers that indicate his game still has some growing to do. Teammate Nikola Jokic’s 23 points, 11 rebounds and 15 assists carried the play, prompting Murray’s keeper post-game quote about his gifted if soft-bellied teammate: “Nikola can do everything but jump.”
But Murray showed his poise with a gorgeous pick-and-roll feed to Jokic that gave Nuggets a lead with 45 seconds left as Denver was able to hang on down the stretch after controlling most of the game. As good a shooter as Murray is he’s been struggling from deep so far this season, connecting on just 31.2 per cent so far this year. He was 2-of-7 against Toronto, continuing a trend, but he was in a similar funk this time last year and shot 41.2 per cent from deep from Dec. 1 on.
“A jump shot is a jump shot, you know, I shouldn’t be making excuses for it or anything like that. I’m always going to get on myself,” he said. “One of my best qualities is being honest with myself about what I can do better. … Everyone knows I can shoot, I just have to find my rhythm.”
And when he gets his rhythm, look out. Even this year he’s put up some gaudy numbers, including a 48-point explosion against the Boston Celtics in early November as he out-duelled Kyrie Irving down the stretch. It was the ninth 30-point game of his career and (more) evidence that when Murray is feeling it he can take over games.
But it never quite ends there with Murray which makes him a Canadian basketball treasure.
Murray’s big night against Boston was punctuated by his last second, casual deep three launched with an eye towards scoring 50, a career milestone few ever achieve. But doing it when leading by eight is a no-no according to unwritten NBA protocol (even if LeBron James did the same thing a few weeks later) and an enraged Irving let Murray know it by launching his game ball into the 50th row.
Murray’s heave sparked an NBA ethics debate, somewhat obscuring that Murray had just set a Canadian regular-season scoring record.
The thing is, Murray’s move was hardly a one-off. In the early stages of his third NBA season he’s proven adept at running an offence and working his way under opponents’ thin skin.
He was subdued in front of friends and family at home on Monday night but he has singlehandedly lit a fire under what was an otherwise non-existent Nuggets-Lakers rivalry. Last season it was some end-of-game showmanship as he cheekily dribbled the ball around Lonzo Ball in the closing seconds of a Nuggets win that set things off. Mild-mannered Lakers head coach Luke Walton almost lost his mind screaming at Murray after another meeting. Just last week he poked the bear again when he waved “bye-bye” as Lakers guard Kantavious Caldwell-Pope went flying into the crowd after biting on a Murray head fake. He’ll draw his bow and launch an arrow after a triple or lick his fingers after a tasty drive to rim.
He’s a troll or a heel or flat-out entertaining, depending your perspective, but Murray isn’t stopping to ask anyone’s opinion.
“It’s kind of weird because they call Canadians soft and they always harp on that and now they call me evil, so pick one, you can’t have both, man,” he said. “I just go out there and compete. That’s the biggest thing. I love to challenge people. You get to see who the real people are when you challenge people, they take it with grain of salt and challenge you back or they just get frustrated, so you see the real people when they get challenged.
“… I don’t try and play any role, good or bad,” he said. “I’ve always had that edge growing up, especially coming from here and not having the attention that we’ve had, but now we do. I really don’t care.”
Do his teammates feel the need to rein him in a little bit sometimes lest he write cheques he can’t cash?
“They love it. They’re watching a movie right now of everything that goes on,” he said. “It’s fun, you gotta have fun with it, man … and everything that comes with it comes with it. You have to deal with it and move on to the next game.”
Says Nuggets veteran Mason Plumlee: “We support him. I wouldn’t say it’s like watching a movie, but as long as he can back it up, I have no problem with it. And for the most part he does.”
The question is always whether Murray will bring the same “just watch me” confidence to international basketball. He starred for Canada in age-group hoops and electrified a home crowd in the Pan Am Games when he came off the bench to score 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime in an upset semifinal win over Team USA.
“He’s … got such balls and he’s not afraid of the moment,” men’s national team general manager Steve Nash said at the time. “He embraces the moment and that’s why he’s very, very special.”
Even as Murray’s NBA star is rising with the Nuggets, Canada’s basketball moment is nigh. After years of false starts for the “Golden Age” of Canadian hoops, Canada qualified for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China next year with a blowout win in Brazil on Monday.
Murray plans to take his game to the international stage where he’ll very likely be counted on to be the team’s leading scorer. Men’s national team head coach Jay Triano has said that Murray has always been enthusiastic about playing internationally even if injuries and concern about injuries ruled him out for the past two summers, and Murray wasn’t hedging much on Monday.
“It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be great,” he said. “We’ll talk more when the time comes, but hopefully I’ll be there, hopefully they’ll want me on the roster, so I’ll prepare for that during the summer.”
And count on Murray bringing his unique version of his “eh” game if – when – he suits up. Along with his talent, his ability to raise the temperature and thrive when things get heated will be a badly needed ingredient among a group of young professionals who don’t otherwise have an official pot-stirrer among them. Murray is more than willing to take on the task of outraging fans from all over the world if it comes to that, in whatever language.
The kid from Kitchener welcomes it.
“It just comes out naturally,” he said. “I love to play competitively, I love people to challenge me, that’s what makes the game fun. Back in the day you’d watch Charles Barkley and Chris Webber do it, now there’s none of that, everyone takes it personal now.
“But every team is going to need that and that’s what I’m going to do the rest of my career.”