The Off-Ball Weaponry of Jamal Murray

In the Denver Nuggets’ offense, Nikola Jokic is the sun, with his teammates the planets orbiting around him. Jokic operates at the top of the key shipping out dimes or calling his own number while waves of cutting and screening seek to deliver openings.

Establishing Jokic as the primary facilitator has placed a premium on Denver’s ancillary talents to be off-ball weapons. Gary Harris and Jokic have developed a symbiotic relationship, one where Harris’s perimeter shooting and movement harmonize with Jokic’s passing flair. In a similar vein, Jamal Murray has proven to be one of the NBA’s best off-ball guards — a vital skill, given the hierarchy of the Nuggets’ offense.

Per the Bball Index’s player grades, Murray ranked in the 97th percentile in off-ball movement last season, marking a sharp increase from his rookie year, when he finished in the 82nd percentile. Furthermore, according to Bball Index’s projected growth curve, he should be in the 99.9th percentile by 2019-20. He’s a nomad in constant transit whose true home resides somewhere on the perimeter.

In head coach Mike Malone’s motion-heavy offense, Murray often finds himself both darting through picks and serving as a screener — a role tailored for his skill set, as he was in the 87th percentile (1.22 points per possession) in off-screen shooting last year, per Synergy. He also finished 15th among 271 guards in screen assists, highlighting his unconventional usage.

One of Malone’s patented sets is a screen-the-screener action in which Murray sets a flex screen then immediately beelines toward the perimeter as an elbow screen awaits his defender’s arrival.

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While that specific execution has become a frequented play type, the Nuggets throw in wrinkles to avoid predictability. Here, with Jeff Teague readying for a switch, Murray slips the flex screen and finds an open 3:

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On another occasion, Murray recognizes that Bryn Forbes ducks under the screen, trying to beat him to the spot. So, Murray reads the defense and flares out to the wing, leaving Forbes struggling to recover:

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This is a normal read that every team should expect their shooters to execute, but Murray’s ability to correctly make this kind of split-second decision is what differentiates him and enables him to be a dangerous off-screen weapon.

Other times, Denver diagrams distinct schemes that still involve screener-the-screener principles. Below, Barton and Jokic initiate a pick and roll while Murray sets a hammer action flare screen for Paul Millsap, who drifts to the weakside corner as a floor-spacer. This action removes the help defense on the drive, actually opening up a wide open lane to the rim.

If the help defense were there to stop the drive, the flare to the corner and this second action would have far greater chances to succeed. But on this play it doesn’t matter, as Jokic bludgeons Goran Dragic and Murray is left alone for the trey:

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Here, Murray sets a flex screen for Millsap to free him for a post touch and zooms to the arc, acting as though he’s going to screen for Wilson Chandler. His defender, Fred VanVleet, is expecting the pick and plans to switch with Kyle Lowry. The defensive miscommunication results in a wide open shot, but Murray slipping the screen has a good chance to create an advantage against either defender, had they stayed with him. Jakob Poeltl doesn’t hedge onto the perimeter and another 3 graces the bottom of the net:

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The mark of a truly elite off-ball player transcends simply excelling in set plays. It requires timing, awareness and high-level IQ — three characteristics Murray consistently embodies to ignite the Denver fleet.

Murray migrates along the perimeter unscripted — opening up easier passing angles for teammates — or stretches the floor by floating away from inattentive defenders. That extra 2-3 feet between him and the recovering defender can yield wide open shots, which are made ~4% more than shots categorized as “Open.” Murray flexes this awareness here:

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When possessions stall, Murray’s gift for manufacturing scoring chances even without the ball in his hands is invaluable, sometimes giving life to near-dead trips down the floor.

A poster boy for perpetual motion, rarely is Murray static, zipping inside when his presence slips a defender’s mind. He finished in the 71st percentile (1.35 PPP) as a cutter during his rookie season and while he regressed to the 50th percentile (1.26 PPP) last year, it’s often the unregistered cutting that pries open creases on the hardwood. When he bolts to the hoop with vigor, defenders gravitate toward him and the game becomes simpler, especially if a passing savant like Jokic is handling the ball.

Watch as Murray slices his way inside, forcing Justin Jackson to slide up as a help defender and abandon Millsap, leading to an easy dunk:

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Malone doesn’t always deploy Murray as a screener to feature his sniping credentials. With Jokic and Millsap both adroit ball-handlers and playmakers, Denver engineers inverted pick and rolls and capitalizes on today’s switch-heavy defensive philosophies to generate positional mismatches. Or, they’ll run guard-and-guard pick and rolls led by Harris or Will Barton.

Doing so leverages the novelty of these actions into tangible confusion for opponents, which can often spark open looks. Note the hesitancy from Darren Collison and Myles Turner, which leaves Murray unattended rolling to the rim, while Thaddeus Young is late on the rotation, allowing Murray to loft a floater off the backboard and tally a possession as a roll man.

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In just two seasons with Jokic, Murray, and Harris at the helm, the Nuggets have emerged as a premier offensive unit, blazing nets behind their melodic trio. It’s unusual to see a 7-foot, plodding center be the engine of a team in the pace-and-space era, but it excels because Murray and Harris weaponize their skills to devastating effect off-the-ball.

Murray has been dubbed “Maple Curry” in recent years. And to some extent, it’s fitting as Stephen Curry is (in)arguably the league’s most dominant off-ball player. Perhaps in due time, Murray will be the heir to that throne.

*Statistics are from Bball Index’s Player Grades, Synergy’s playtype database, and openness shooting data*

*Huzaifa Patel assisted with data collection and Akshay Ram created the graphic for this article*

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