Mike Meeks remembers the first time he saw Jamal Murray play basketball.
It was 2013 and Murray, then an upstart guard from Kitchener, Ont., was playing for Canada’s bronze medal-winning under-16 team at the FIBA Americas championship. It was three years before the Denver Nuggets would take him seventh overall in the NBA Draft.
“The stuff that you’re seeing now in the games, you could see him kick things into another gear,” Meeks, an Olympian in 2000 and the manager of men’s youth development at Canada Basketball said.
“You’ll hear the phrase that he’s a competitor. It’s another level. They talk about the wall, you build a wall and you get strong enough to climb over it and then you build a higher wall. He embraces that wall.
“This duel with him and Donovan Mitchell, it’s kind of like, ‘OK, you’re going to go for 50? I’m going to go for 51.’ He’s comfortable with scoring 40 and winning but now he’s having to score 50-plus to win. That’s what he lives for, [testing] what his limits are and how high he can actually ascend.”
It’s been easy to watch Murray trying to shred record books in the Nuggets’ first-round series with the Utah Jazz and forget that he’s just 23. His combined 92 points in the Nuggets’ last two games – including a 42-point, eight-rebound, eight-assist effort in a season-saving win on Tuesday night – cozied him up to Michael Jordan as the only player in NBA history to follow up a 50-point game with a 40-point game in the playoffs. As good as he’s been through his four years as a pro, it feels like his ascent is just beginning.
“I love the fact that you see such a young player who in this environment is embracing the opportunity; he’s not running from it. He’s all-in and his emotion is fantastic,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone told reporters on Wednesday.
“He lives for big moments. Some guys, when the game is on the line, you can’t find them. Jamal is front and centre, he wants the ball, he wants to make the play and the last couple of games he’s done that at a very high level.
“The young man is growing up and turning into a superstar on the biggest stage.”
About that stage. Murray has his fingers on the outer edges of superstardom while the league may be pulling the United States into its most significant civil rights push in almost 60 years. The Bucks sparked the first of three boycotted NBA playoff games on Wednesday night, taking a stand against the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Thursday’s games could be postponed next and the fate of the entire bubbled playoff project could pop if enough players feel the statements they’ve made and actions they’ve taken in Florida aren’t accomplishing what they’d wanted.
Murray has been clear how he feels on the action that the players took on Wednesday.
— Jamal Murray (@BeMore27) August 26, 2020
If it comes to it, if the bubble is broken and everyone goes home to focus on tackling systemic racism, it will be a tremendous sacrifice. It’s bigger than basketball, certainly, but what’s surrendered would be sizeable. Especially for someone like Murray, it’s put to Meeks.
“It’s not just him,” he said. “It’s this entire generation of players. They’ve been criticized for being entitled, they’ve been criticized as being pampered. They’ve been criticized for not being tough enough and here they are willing to put the brakes on everything they’ve been working towards their entire lives to say, ‘This agenda, this situation is bigger than me personally.’ I wouldn’t say it’s characteristic of what the perception is of this current generation.”
Meeks finds himself torn. He feels the platform the bubble has given NBA players is powerful and it can reach millions. He also sees the significance of stopping, of what a statement it would be.
“Either way they go I think I’ll be OK with it but I really hope they can leverage it to make the changes they want to see happen,” he said.
The lost season, first thrown off kilter by the pandemic and now in flux because of a societal illness, wouldn’t shake Meeks’ confidence in Murray. He’s still a kid, really. He has plenty of magnificent seasons in front of him, so much time to get that grasp of superstardom. There’s a fire that burns inside of Murray, one that Meeks saw in the under-16 tournament and one that burned underneath Murray’s uniform at Kentucky. It only burns stronger with the Nuggets.
Meeks thinks back to growing up with Steve Nash, his teammate in Sydney 20 years ago and the time Nash willingly put in at the gym, smiling through a 10-hour day of work. He mentions Jordan and Kobe Bryant, the mamba mentality.
“You have to be born with a certain level of talent but you also have to love the work. You have to embrace the suck,” he said. “You’re dead tired, your lungs are burning, your legs are on fire. You have to love to put yourself through that. A lot of people don’t.”
Murray, you can guess, does.
“We had to change the rules for how we did our cooldowns after practice,” Meeks said of that under-16 team.
“You could choose whether you go and stretch, or you take a couple shots. His couple of shots, we were in the gym for another hour. In our environment, you needed as much rest as possible because it was 10 days’ training to play seven games in 10 days.
“So we made a rule where OK, no more shooting. You had to take your shoes off after practice and stretch. He was literally shooting barefoot. That’s Jamal.”