Jamal Murray has never been short on confidence.
When he and the Denver Nuggets visited Toronto last March, the 21-year-old guard was asked who he thought was Canada’s best basketball player.
He replied with one word: “Me.”
Murray’s willingness to talk himself up stems from his roots north of the border. The Kitchener, Ont., native didn’t get the kind of hype that many teenage American prospects receive, and he took that to heart.
Whenever he stepped onto the court, Murray felt he had something to prove. Through that, he realized that his game wasn’t only enough to hang with anybody — it was better than most.
“When I was six years old, I was always playing with the 10-year-olds. When I was 10, I was always playing with the 14-year-olds,” says Murray, who would go on to star for the University of Kentucky before the Nuggets drafted him seventh overall in 2016. “Coming from Canada and going to the States [for college], everybody always had me as an underdog — [they] never really knew who I was.
“I’ve always worked toward being the best and I’m starting to show it.”
In two NBA seasons, the 6-foot-4 Murray has established himself as one of the league’s rising stars. And this summer, he may try to help Canada earn that same kind of respect on the world stage.
Murray headlines a list of 18 invitees to Team Canada’s training camp ahead of the next window of qualifying for the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Camp opens June 20.
The roster includes seven other NBA players — including Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kelly Olynyk of the Miami Heat and Cory Joseph of the Indiana Pacers — to make up one of Canada’s deepest squads in recent years.
Murray says he remains unsure if he’ll play in Canada’s two qualification games, but the importance of suiting up for his country isn’t lost on him. He remembers feeling helpless as he watched Canada fall 79-78 to Venezuela in the semifinal of the 2015 FIBA Americas tournament — a win short of qualifying for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I was in awe that they lost. I couldn’t believe it,” Murray recalls. “I should’ve been there. [If] I could’ve been there, we easily would’ve won.”
Coach Cal to the rescue
After making the NBA’s all-rookie second team, Murray thrived in his sophomore season and improved in most major statistical categories, including scoring (16.7 points per game), assists (3.4), and three-point shooting (37.8 per cent).
Murray started the season slowly and found himself mired in a shooting slump. But a visit from his old college coach at Kentucky, John Calipari, proved timely in turning Murray’s fortunes around.
Calipari was in Charlotte, N.C., to support Murray and the Hornets’ Malik Monk — another Kentucky product — and simply reminded Murray what got him to where he is now.
“He just told me to shoot the ball. At Kentucky, that was my job — coming off screens, catch and shoot, spacing the floor — no hesitations. Just go right into my shot — don’t focus on the defender,” Murray says.
Murray’s new role as Denver’s starting point guard also contributed to his early struggles. The position wasn’t completely unknown to him as he played it in high school and split time at both guard positions at Kentucky, but he admits it was difficult juggling the roles of scoring and facilitating in the pros.
When it comes to those skills, there are few better dual threats than Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.
Murray told fans in a Q&A session during a recent visit to Toronto that matching up alongside the two-time NBA MVP has been the proudest accomplishment of his young career and he often watches video of Curry — emulating parts of his game into his own.
“I try not to just come down and put up shots. I try to balance the ball movement and pick my spots but I just struggled at the beginning of the season just finding my shot. I was imbalanced and always second-guessed myself,” Murray said.
As the season progressed, Murray no longer doubted himself as he found his comfort zone. In his first 21 games, he averaged just over two assists per contest, but he almost doubled that mark for the remaining 61 games.
In the process, Murray developed into the alpha dog the Nuggets needed, demanding the ball in late-game situations. As a kid, Murray says he never shied away from the moment, and that hasn’t changed as he “lives and dies” for the opportunities to take the big shot.
Yet the Nuggets fell short of the post-season by one game for the second straight season and Murray shoulders some of that responsibility. He knows he can be more consistent on both ends of the court and that his energy as the team’s floor general sets the tone. If Denver is going to get over the hump, Murray knows he and his teammates need to be more focused from day one.
“It’s just [about] coming in with that mentality [in] the third year where there’s no excuses,” he says. “We can’t get down on one loss or one bad defensive play. We gotta play through it.”