The charter landed at Denver International Airport late on Dec. 26, a few hours after the Denver Nuggets lost their second straight game. Jamal Murray scored nine points and missed 15 of 19 shots in the 111-103 loss at San Antonio, and he wasn’t going to bed with that feeling.
So instead of heading home Murray went straight to Pepsi Center and up to the Nuggets practice court to shoot. Time of day and how long he stayed there were no concern. He was there until he shot the frustration out of him.
“I was upset,” he says a few weeks later. “I always try to demand greatness from myself. It doesn’t matter what time. My dad and I used to go out at two in the morning, 11 at night. He’d wake me up and say, ‘Let’s go for a walk and shoot.’ We’d talk. Time does not matter when it comes to gym time.”
It has never mattered. The only thing that has mattered to Murray, other than family, is playing basketball. He hates to sit—hates it with a passion—so he plays through fatigue, pain and even injuries until the Denver coaching staff says he can’t.
“They have to hold me back,” he says.
Murray’s love affair with basketball can be viewed as an obsession, but he doesn’t care what others think. Working at his craft is what he loves to do, and he loves to play it even more. It’s why he plays through pain and it’s what has made him one of the best young players on the most exciting NBA team not located in the Bay Area. Nikola Jokic may be the star of the team but Murray is the engine.
Murray also plays with an edge that can anger opponents. Early in the 2017-18 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were upset when Murray dribbled around Lonzo Ball in the waning moments of a comfortable Denver win.
Murray acknowledged after the game he took things too far, but when the teams met three months later Murray hit two free throws to ice the game, turned and said something to Lakers’ bench, drawing coach Luke Walton’s ire.
Walton said Murray was being disrespectful with his trash talking. Murray shrugged off the controversy.
“I went out there and played with the fire that everybody loves to watch me play with and I can’t control what the other team’s going to feel,” Murray said at the time. “I’m going to go out there and hoop.”
In November, Boston guard Kyrie Irving threw the ball in the Pepsi Center crowd after Murray launched a shot at the buzzer to try to reach 50 points in a win over the Celtics.
These moments are a glimpse into Murray’s persona but they don’t define him. His competitiveness and quest for perfection are what drives him. It is why, 90 minutes after a practice ended in mid-January, he was still on the court, playing a three-way game of one-on-one with teammate Brandon Goodwin and player development coach Stephen Graham.
It was a day after the Golden State Warriors beat the Nuggets by 31 on their homecourt, after Steph Curry went off and Murray had 21 points at halftime and none after intermission.
“I woke up kind of upset with the game, and it still kind of stayed with me,” he says. “My body’s a little tired and I’m frustrated letting Steph do what he did, frustrated that I didn’t take enough shots in the second half. Whatever I was mad about this morning I came to practice with the mindset to enjoy doing what I do, like I do every single day and it always helps.”
Murray talks like a seasoned vet so it’s sometimes tough to remember that his 22nd birthday is Feb. 23. He doesn’t apologize for his drive nor does he force it on others. He works, and if someone wants to join him, all the better.
“It’s a hard-work mentality, always wanting to be the best,” says guard Malik Beasley, one of Murray’s best friends on the Nuggets. “It means a lot of leadership. He leads by example.”
To some the constant work might seem extreme. Not to Murray. He learned dedication and hard work from his father, Roger, a track and field athlete in his day. The younger Murray was an eager student growing up in Kitchener, Ontario. Roger took his son to the gym when he was a toddler and Murray would watch his dad run up and down the court and then emulate the action.
“It was just me practicing on the sidelines, dribbling, watching him,” says Murray.
Soon, he was working out with his dad. Even though he grew up in a hockey-crazed country, he never wanted to play that sport. He played floor hockey in school—“I was always the goalie,” he says—but skated on ice just once. Basketball was it.
“Hockey and soccer weren’t my thing,” Murray says.
He played football and ran track but those were only a path to improve his basketball skills. Track helped him with speed and playing quarterback in flag football sharpened his vision and improved his footwork. Every spare minute was taken up with basketball. Recess, school breaks, before and after school—he was either practicing with a team or by himself on a court.
“I was shooting on my own or with my dad at 7 or 8 o’clock to 11 o’clock until I had to go home and eat,” Murray says. “So it was wake up, homework, school, basketball, eat and sleep. It was repeat for me. I grew up very disciplined and doing what I had to do.”
The discipline took him to the University of Kentucky for a season. Denver took him with the seventh overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft and he started his career missing 17 shots. He did the only thing he knew to get out of the slump—he worked. Eventually the shots started to fall. By early in his second season he supplanted Emmanuel Mudiay as the point guard of the future.
Murray’s resiliency isn’t surprising. His toughness has defined him since childhood. He played every game as a rookie despite having two sports hernias that required surgery after the season.
Most players would sit. Murray isn’t most players.
“Great players have that,” says Denver coach Michael Malone. “It’s what separates great players from very good players—high pain tolerance, mental toughness and the ability to play through what most guys wouldn’t be able to play through.”
He missed one game last season and played in every game this season until he hurt his left ankle against Phoenix on Jan. 25 and ended up in a walking boot. It surprised some because he had played through ankle injuries before. In a rematch against San Antonio on Dec. 28 he rolled his right ankle so severely he could barely walk. He stayed in the game and the next night scored 46 points in Phoenix on a painful ankle.
Pain is a mindset to him, and he wills his way through it. It’s a skill he learned from his father.
“He did Kung Fu growing up, he did all that stuff—put your hand in hot water, push-ups on the ice, push-ups in the snow, running hills, running around the block every morning 10 times,” says Murray. “It wasn’t even running around the block, it wasn’t the amount of times you’re doing it, it’s getting up every single time at a young age and doing it. It becomes discipline, it becomes dedication, becomes something seriously and doing it well. I take that with me.”
Murray also learned meditation from his father, a skill he uses before games. He also uses mediation techniques during the game.
“Meditation is about breathing, it’s about clarity, taking your time and not rushing through your thinking,” says Murray. “A lot of people feel, ‘I’ve got to figure this out right now.’ No, take your time. I’m shooting free throws—that’s another spot I found my own break. I take my time, get through my rhythm and make sure I hit the shot. That’s why I have a good percentage.”
Meditation also helps with pain tolerance and gives him the ability to stay fresh during games.
“People ask me how I play through injuries, how I don’t get tired,” he says. “Timeouts are a long time—for me at least. A minute, I’m good. There’s foul, there’s technicals, there’s out of bounds, there’s so much time to find rest for me. I could play the whole game if I really wanted to. That’s why I’m always telling [Malone], ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ He’s always worrying about my minutes, worried about my injuries, which is understandable. I’ve been doing this so long.”
So long that when it comes time to unwind from a game or practice Murray does what he loves.
“Basketball,” he says. “Going to the gym and shooting.”